By Fred Muenz
In 1919, when Earl Derr Biggers decided to write a detective novel, he had no idea that he would be creating a memorable and beloved character. By the time he finally started writing, four years later, he had been inspired by the exploits of Chang Apana and Lee Fook, two Chinese-American detectives of the Honolulu police department. The result was the creation of Charlie Chan, a smart and amiable character who was a major departure from the sinister and wicked “Yellow Peril” stereotype of Asian characters at the time. More than 57 movies and movie serials, as well as radio and television series and comics have featured the Charlie Chan character. Featured here are three actors who combined to portray Chan in 44 of those films.
After Pathe and Universal Pictures made several unsuccessful Charlie Chan films featuring Asian actors, Fox Film Corporation acquired the film rights to the Chan character and hired Warner Oland to portray the detective. Born in October, 1879, in a small village in Sweden, Johan Verner Olund’s family emigrated to the U.S. when he was 13 years old. After mastering English, young Johan began translating Swedish plays. Eventually deciding to pursue a career in the theater, he began working as a set designer before finally venturing into acting in 1906. After several years on the stage, including appearances on Broadway, under his stage name, Warner Oland, he made his silent film debut in PILGRIMS PROGRESS (1912). Although unproven, Oland claimed that his appearance and ability to play Asian and villainous roles was the result of having some Mongolian ancestry. In 1929, he portrayed the lead character in THE MYSTERIOUS DR. FU MANCHU, which was wildly successful and made him a star. Three more appearances as the evil Dr. Fu Manchu followed, before he was hired in 1931 to appear as Charlie Chan in the first of his 16 Chan films. In 1935, he was joined by Keye Luke, playing number one son, Lee Chan. Warner Oland died in 1938, during the filming of CHARLIE CHAN AT THE RINGSIDE. To save money, the studio edited what had already been filmed, shot additional scenes with Peter Lorre, and created MR. MOTO’S GAMBLE (1938), which oddly included Charlie Chan’s number one son Lee as a character.
Following Oland’s death, the studio began searching for a new Charlie Chan. After auditioning 33 other would-be Chans for the job, they finally settled on 64 year-old Sidney Toler. Called Sidney from an early age, Hooper G. Toler Jr. was born in Missouri in April, 1874. He showed an early interest in the theater and was on stage in a production of Tom Sawyer at the age of seven. He left college in 1892 to become a professional actor with a touring company. By the turn of the century, he had two stock companies of his own, writing, producing and directing stage productions. Some of his plays were so successful that they were performed by many stock companies other than his own. Three of his plays reached Broadway and, in 1921, Paramount Pictures released two films based on Toler plays. After decades writing, directing and acting on Broadway, working with some of the biggest stars of the day, Toler made his film debut in 1929, and moved to Hollywood in 1931, taking supporting roles in more than 40 films, before his first appearance as Charlie Chan. Between 1938 and 1946, Toler starred in a total of 22 Charlie Chan films for two different studios. In 1942, after the U.S. entered World War II, Twentieth Century-Fox decided to end the series after Toler had completed 11 Chan films for the studio. Undeterred, Toler bought the rights to the Chan character from the widow of its creator, found financing, and convinced Monogram Studios to continue the series. By 1946, he had been diagnosed with cancer, and was so ill that he could hardly walk during the last two of his 11 Chan films for Monogram Studios. Monogram’s Chan films were profitable and successful and usually contained surprise culprits and murder devices as well as having appearances by popular supporting actors.
In 1948, Monogram Studios hired 44 year-old Roland Winters to complete the last six Charlie Chan films. Born in Boston in November, 1904, Roland Winternitz, was the son of a world famous violinist, composer and music professor. While in his middle teens, young Roland took a summer job on a cargo ship and sailed to South America and the West Indies. Upon his return to Boston, he developed an interest in the stage and began working with several local theater groups. In 1924, he made his Broadway debut in The Firebrand, a play produced by a friend of his brother. Possessed of a pleasant baritone speaking voice, he was hired in 1931 by a Boston radio station to become the play-by-play announcer for both the Boston Braves and Boston Red Sox. He continued to do occasional work in radio until 1947. In 1941, he made his movie debut in a small, uncredited role in CITIZEN KANE. Another uncredited role followed in 13 RUE MADELEINE (1946), before he was hired for the role of Charlie Chan. Although he was older than the actor playing his father, Keye Luke reappeared as number one son, Lee, for the last two Chan films. After the Chan series ended, Roland Winters continued to appear in films, on TV and radio until his retirement in 1978.
Each of the actors brought a different perspective to the Chan character. Warner Oland portrayed Chan as gentle and self-effacing. Sidney Toler’s Chan was observant and frequently irritated, while Roland Winters played Chan as impatient, focused and, at times, sarcastic.
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