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Jack Soo: Barney Miller's Sardonic Sage

Published: 1/11/2014
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Jack Soo in 1974 (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)

Today, 35 years after his death, we remember comedian and actor Jack Soo for his performance as the laconic Detective Sgt. Nick Yemana on Barney Miller. Few realize, however, that Soo got his start as an entertainer under some of the worst circumstances possible: performing for friends and family in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. At the Topaz War Relocation Center in Utah, Soo sang and danced for his fellow internees, keeping their spirits high and becoming a favorite in the camp. After the war was over, he kept performing as a standup in Midwestern nightclubs. While he didn't find fame on the smoky club circuit, Soo did find friendship with a fellow performer, Danny Arnold, who later created Barney Miller.

As Yemana, Soo brought relaxed and off-kilter charm to the fictional 12th Precinct for five seasons. Yemana embodied the calm, skewed comical sense that would later make stars of such comics as Mitch Hedburg and Steven Wright, making absurd observations about the world with the deadpan grace of Joey Bishop and Jack Benny. In real life, Soo was an outspoken critic of Asian-American stereotypes in film and television and refused to play roles he saw as demeaning. He wryly addressed those stereotypes with his deadpan delivery in this classic Barney Miller clip.

 

 

Sadly, Soo was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 1978. The cancer spread quickly, and he died Jan. 11, 1979. As a tribute to their friend and colleague, the cast of Barney Miller recorded a special episode in which they stepped out of character and shared unscripted stories about their memories of working with Soo. At the end of the show, they raised their coffee mugs in tribute to Soo, a nod to his character's famously awful coffee. His absence continued to be felt among the tight-knit cast and crew, as seen in a touching exchange from this sixth-season episode, "The Judge."

 

 

Following his death, the show's producers donated Soo's coffee mug to the Smithsonian Institution, where it resides alongside police badges and other artifacts from the series. Soo himself can still be found at the 12th Precinct, joking his way through reruns for years to come.

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