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The Untimely Death of Jack Soo from Barney Miller

Barney Miller was a popular sitcom that ran on the ABC network from 1975 to 1982. It had many memorable characters but one of the most popular was Sergeant Nick Yemana, played by Jack Soo.

While Sgt. Yemana is the role Soo is best known for, he appeared in plenty of other television shows and movies before his untimely death in early 1979. In this video, we’re going to look at Jack Soo’s life, his career in television and film, and the events that led to his untimely death.

Be sure to watch until the end to see how he kept his sense of humor right up until his final days. And don’t forget to like and subscribe to the Facts Verse channel so you’re sure not to miss any of our upcoming videos.

Jack Soo was born on October 28, 1917, as Goro Suzuki. His parents lived in Oakland, California, but decided they wanted to give birth to their son in Japan. Goro didn’t want to wait that long though, and was born on the ship while it was still en route to Japan.

His father, George Suzuki, was a tailor and his mother, Haruko Shiozawaa Suzuki, a dressmaker. Goro attended Oakland Technical High School and worked as both a farm laborer and contractor. But he really wanted to be an entertainer from an early age, an unusual choice for American-born Japanese.

After high school, Suzuki graduated from UC Berkeley where he studied English. He was already performing in nightclubs in San Francisco by this point, introducing other acts and performing his own stand-up routines.

In 1941, Goro and the rest of his family were interned at the Tanforan Assembly Center in South San Francisco, followed by the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah, with thousands of other Japanese-Americans during World War II.

Suzuki was in his mid-20s at this point and he quickly became a popular “camp” entertainer with his fellow internees. He sang and performed at different events in the camps.

The U.S. government later gave him authorization to leave the internment camp. After leaving, Goro worked in military intelligence in Cleveland, Ohio.

After the end of the war, Suzuki started working as a butcher in Ohio but continued to emcee and perform in nightclubs throughout the Midwest and Eastern States. He frequented venues like the Heidelberg Roof in Jackson, Mississippi, Vine Gardens in Chicago, and the China Doll in New York.

It was during this period that Suzuki took on the stage name of Jack Soo. Soo’s first big break came when he teamed up with Joey Bishop in 1949, playing his straight man for a year and a half at Chez Paris in Chicago.

After his run with Bishop was done, Jack returned to the West Coast, performing at Andy Wong’s Sky Room and Charlie Low’s Forbidden City in San Francisco. Both venues featured all Chinese performers and Soo’s act became quite popular.

Soo was discovered by Gene Kelly at the Forbidden City and in 1958 he was offered the role of nightclub emcee Frankie Wing in the Rogers and Hammerstein production of The Flower Drum Song on Broadway. Soo took the offer and moved to New York City.

After getting rave reviews for his role as Frankie Wing, Soo was elevated to the lead role of Sammy Fong, the nightclub owner and romantic lead, in the 1961 remake. He was also chosen to play that same role in the film version of the musical.

The play and film were the first mainstream musical to feature an all Asian-American cast, making history. Soo performed his own songs and got rave reviews for his performances in both the stage play and the film version.

Soo decided to settle in Hollywood, moving back to the West Coast. Over the next decade, he found work in films like Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed? in 1963, the musical Thoroughly Modern Millie in 1967, The Oscar in 1968, and The Green Berets in 1968. The Green Berets was one of his higher profile roles, starring alongside John Wayne, but he remained popular in spite of a lack of roles for Asian Americans.

Soo also landed a role in the 1964 series Valentine’s Day, as the chauffeur-gambler Rockwell Sin. The series, co-starring Tony Franciosa, aired for only one season.

Jack appeared in many other television shows over the years, including Hawaii Five-O in 1970, The Odd Couple in 1972, Ironside in 1974, MASH in both 1972 and 1975, and Police Woman in 1975.

In spite of all the memorable roles he played over these years, his talent went much further. He had started his career as a singer and continued to sing, earning the nickname the Asian Bing Crosby. He was one of the first non-African American artists signed to Motown records in 1965 and was the first male artist to record the classic song For Once in My Life.

He was also one of the first Asian-American comedians to tour throughout the United States, including the Midwestern circuit, New York, and Las Vegas.

Barney Miller debuted on January 23, 1975, with Jack Soo in the role of Sergeant Nick Yemana, one of the detectives in Captain Barney Miller’s squad. A typical episode of the show had the detectives of the 12th precinct bringing in several complainants or suspects.

Each show revolved around two or three of these situations, with different officers dealing with different crimes. Occasionally, the detectives would be outside the office but it was rare — most of the show took place in the office of the 12th precinct.

Barney Miller has a devoted following among real-life police officers to this day, over 40 years later. They appreciate the show’s emphasis on dialog and realistic, quirky characters. Its low-key portrayal of cops doing their day-to-day work also makes it work.

In a 2005 op-ed for the New York Times, real-life New York police detective Lucas Miller wrote that real cops are not usually fans of cop shows. He wrote that many police officers maintain that Barney Miller was the most realistic police show in the history of TV because the action was mostly off-screen, it took place almost exclusively in the squad room, and the detectives were “a motley bunch of character actors who were in no danger of being picked for the NYPD pin-up calendar.”

He went on to say they worked hard, made jokes, got hurt, and answered to their straight-man commander. All of which happens in real-life squad rooms, only the jokes aren’t nearly as funny.

Soo’s character, Sergeant Nick Yemana, was a philosophical, wisecracking Japanese American detective. He’s closely connected to his Japanese heritage in the show but was a native of Omaha, Nebraska.

He’s known in the show for his off-the-wall sense of humor and wry observations as well as his gambling habits, extremely erratic handling of paperwork, and for making the squad’s coffee.

That coffee is noticeably disliked by everyone who drinks it, a running joke that we’ll get back to again shortly.

After Sergeant Philip K Fish (played by Abe Vigoda) retired, Yemana becomes the ranking detective. In a two-part episode titled Eviction, he becomes the squad’s commanding officer, but ends up getting replaced after just a few hours. His tenure as Captain gets compared to President William Henry Harrison, who only served for one month.

Near the end of the show’s fourth year, Jack Soo was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and ended up missing the last five episodes of the 1977-1978 season. During his medical leave, actress Mari Gorman was brought in to help fill the void. She played Officer Rosslyn Licori for three episodes.

Soo returned to the show at the start of the next season but his cancer had already metastasized and had spread quickly. He was only able to complete nine episodes that year before becoming too ill to continue.

By the time he taped his last episode, The Vandal, that aired on November 9, 1978, his illness was quite visible in his rapid weight loss. He died only two months later, on January 11, 1979, at the age of 61.

Soo had been a smoker for many years before his cancer diagnosis. He passed away at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center, now known as the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.

After Soo’s death, the producers of Barney Miller didn’t want to take advantage of it to create a story in the show. Instead, they ended the fifth season with a tribute episode to Jack.

The remaining cast members — Hal Linden, Max Gail, Steve Landesberg, Ron Glass, Ron Carey, and James Gregory — stepped out of their characters for a half-hour memorial with clips of Soo’s best moments on the show. They also shared personal stories of what it was like to work with him.

As the tribute episode ends, Linden, who played Captain Barney Miller, admitted the show would go on but it would be difficult without Soo’s great comedic input. The show ended with the cast raising their coffee cups in tribute to Soo, a nod to the bad coffee his character was so well-known for.

After Soo’s death, Sergeant Yemana’s coffee mug was donated to the Smithsonian, where it remains a piece of pop culture history.

Jack Soo never lost his sense of humor. His last known words, as he was being wheeled into an operating room, were to Hal Linden, joking “It must have been the coffee” in reference to the running gag on the show.

What’s your favorite memory of Jack Soo? Is it an episode of Barney Miller or one of his many other roles? Let us know in the comments below.

And remember to like and subscribe to the Facts Verse channel so you don’t miss any of our upcoming videos.

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