INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Rediscovering Sammee Tong in ‘Bachelor Father’

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AOKI-GUY-color1By GUY AOKI

Being a night owl, one night, I came across an old black-and-white sitcom called “Bachelor Father” starring John Forsythe as Beverly Hills lawyer Bentley Gregg, who lives with his niece Kelly (Noreen Cocoran; he adopted her after her parents died in a car accident) and live-in houseboy Peter Tong (Sammee Tong).

I’d never heard of the series before and was surprised at how much of the plots involved Tong.

Yes, he had a stereotyped occupation, but he was by no means accommodating to his employer. Tong was feisty and outspoken, often arguing with Bentley, even walking out when he felt he wasn’t paid enough. But the relationship between the three was never antagonistic. In fact, the Greggs told Tong they loved him.

And in one episode, seeing how a Chinese American organization never nominates Peter to any position despite years of loyalty, Bentley talks to Peter’s cousin to ensure he does just that.

I did some research and the sitcom ran between 1957 and 1962, the only series to be run consecutively across all three networks. According to Wikipedia, Forsythe (the future “Dynasty” star and the voice of Charlie in “Charlie’s Angels”) felt the success of the show was due to his chemistry with Tong, whom he felt had great comedic timing, having had experience as a stand-up comic.

The program wasn’t very widely syndicated until October 2011 when one of the rerun networks picked it up, and it’s currently broadcast daily at 1 a.m. PST (back-to-back half-hour episodes) and Sundays at 11 p.m. on Antenna TV (Channel 5.2 for those of us without cable).

The June 11, 1960 cover of TV Guide featured the cast of "Bachelor Father."

The June 11, 1960 cover of TV Guide featured the cast of “Bachelor Father.”

Tong spoke with an accent. I’m not sure if that’s how he sounded in real life as he was born in San Francisco and raised in California and Hawaii, but his cousin, a recurring character, spoke without an accent and came off as a slick, Americanized character. I thought it was great that way back in the ’50s, audiences saw a Chinese American who acted just like anyone else.

Looking at his list of credits, it’s sad to note that between 1934 and 1959 all but one of Tong’s movie roles were uncredited and he was stuck playing mostly ethnic characters including servants, laundrymen, and cooks for the rest of his career. Luckily, a year after the cancellation of “Bachelor,” Tong became a cast member of an ABC sitcom, “Mickey,” named after star Mickey Rooney. But it was up against “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and ratings were poor. Still, ABC was reluctant to cancel it as Tong had quite a following from the previous series.

In his autobiography, Rooney revealed that Tong had a gambling problem and owed money to the mafia. He needed money from the series to fend them off, but he worried it was going to be cancelled. So on Oct. 26, 1964, at the age of 63, he overdosed on barbiturates. Well, that sealed the show’s doom. The last episode aired in January of 1965.

It’s too bad Tong had his personal failings because who knows if he would’ve gone on to create more positive works that helped gain acceptance for Asian Americans into the ’60s and ’70s. We certainly needed all the help we could get back then.

Better Late Than Never Department: I was looking forward to seeing one of NBC’s midseason replacement series for the 2013-2014 season as it featured Ken Leung (Miles Straum of “Lost”) as a doctor — “Night Shift.”

Well, like many such shows, it was pushed into the summer, demonstrating a lack of confidence on the part of the network. However, it’s done surprisingly well during a time when not a lot of people watch network programming, averaging 1.4 in the 18-49 demographic. Its short eight-episode run concludes next week Tuesday, but it’s been renewed for a second season with even more episodes —14.

It’s about doctors who work the night shift at a San Antonio, Texas, hospital. In one episode, the wife of Topher (Leung) gets into a car accident, and he has to rush to her side to deliver their baby. Thankfully there’s a second Asian American doctor, Krista (Jeananne Goossen, who’s hapa).

But clichés abound. The main character, T.C. (Eoin — pronounced Owen — Macken), is a ragged war veteran who loves defying administrators (he punched out two and still didn’t get fired?!) but his former lover (Jill Flint) is still attracted to him, so T.C. kisses her and she doesn’t resist, which creates problems between her and her current boyfriend. If that’s not enough, T.C. often gets it on with the hospital psychiatrist in broom closets. In other words, the jerk gets whatever — and whomever — he wants.

And after you’ve seen a few hospital shows, it just feels cheap: Whenever writers want to create drama, just have a patient who was doing well suddenly go into cardiac arrest (and on this series, there’s always a flood of patients coming in, not just individuals, but people who attended an event where apparently everyone was hurt). In fact, in last week’s episode, an injured soldier hits up on Krista, who gives in to his offer to go out. Hmm, too good to be true, I thought. Sure enough, by the end of the episode, an undetected condition flares up, and he dies.

Although predictable, it’s watchable (have you seen Jill Flint?!) and boasts two Asians, two blacks and two Latinos among its cast of nine. But I could guess early on that its star was a foreigner trying to hide his accent, which his really distracting. Sure enough, Macken’s from Ireland.

This week’s episode ended after a tense hostage situation where Topher gets shot in the stomach. Will he survive? The season finale airs next Thursday at 10:01 p.m.

The cast of NBC's "Night Shift."

The cast of NBC’s “Night Shift.”

Channel Surfing Department: Another finale — the shortened 12-episode season of “24” — airs Monday night at 9 p.m. on Fox. Tzi Ma returns as a former Chinese official — now gone rogue — and he’s after Audrey (Kim Raver), the old flame of Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland), whom he tortured years ago. Every time she appears in this violent series, I always fear it’ll be her last appearance. Leave her alone, Tzi!

Into the Mailbag Department: Writes Ken Okazaki: “My impression is our community should more promote ‘Sullivan and Son.’ I am a 60-year-old Sansei and I think the episodes are hilarious. Thank you again.” Agreed. The TBS series runs Tuesday nights and just began its third season. It stars Steve Byrne — who’s Irish/Korean — in a “Cheers”-like setting.

From Roger Ishihara: “Thank you for the insightful article regarding the lack of Asian actors in television. I would like to add my displeasure that there is a lack of Asian presence in the annual Memorial Day production put on by PBS hosted by Joe Mantegna and Gary Sinese. I have watched the event for several years and [have]yet to see an Asian vet be recognized. Very few ever are seen as a color guard. Maybe there are no Asians serving in the military. PBS should be more vigilant with racial parity.” Great points.

Beverly Toyama says: “I am a regular reader of your column, and, in particular, have enjoyed your writings on The Association’s Larry Ramos. Although you haven’t mentioned her, I’d like to remind you that Honolulu’s own Yvonne Elliman, of Japanese/Chinese/Irish heritage [note: Elliman says she’s not Chinese], has done quite well in both the stage, singing, and acting arenas. She is one of my favorite singers.

“I really wish Rafu Shimpo would give you more print space.”

Elliman, who enjoyed five Top 40 hits in th,e ’70s including the No. 1 hit “If I Can’t Have You” from “Saturday Night Fever,” was one of the few successful Asian American singers. It’s a shame she dropped out of recording in the early ’80s to raise her family.

Thanks for the support, Beverly, and as for your last statement — as George Yoshinaga might say — “heh heh.”

’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

 

 

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