The history of Asian-American representation on prime time television is one that, sadly, falls into three distinct categories.
While many Asian-American actors have been able to play Asian-American characters over the course of TV history (Category #1), they have often been, until recently, regulated to supporting roles. Consider: Oscar-winning actress Miyoshi Umeki on “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” (1969-1972), Bruce Lee as Kato on “The Green Hornet” (1966-1967) and George Takei on the original “Star Trek” (1966-1969).
Then there’s Category #2. Over the years, when scripts have called for Asian-American characters in leading roles on TV, Hollywood has often hired non-Asian actors, equipped them with elaborate eye make-up and often even more exaggerated accents, and cast them as these characters. This follows a long-enduring big screen practice that has seen everyone from Katherine Hepburn to Helen Hayes to Mickey Rooney playing Asian characters (not to mention every actor who ever took on the role of legendary fictional detective Charlie Chan). On TV, this sort of artificial representation can be found in such series as “The Adventures of Fu Manchu” (1956) starring Glen Gordon in the lead, “The New Adventures of Charlie Chan” with J. Carroll Naish (1957-1958) and the original “Kung Fu” (1972-1975) starring David Carradine.
In regard to Category #2, that the TV industry fell so fully into this old practice is especially disheartening since, at least at the very beginning, TV did make a bolder statement in terms of Asian-American actors. In 1951, the now defunct DuMont network cast the legendary Anna May Wong in the half-hour weekly series “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.” In the show, Wong (the show’s only recurring cast member) played an intrepid gallery owner whose far-ranging travels around the world often got her ensnared in crime and political intrigue. Ten episodes of the series were produced, with such titles as: “Burning Sands,” “The Man with a Thousand Eyes” and “The Face of Evil.” Tragically, however, none of these programs seem to have survived to the present day. Even copies of the show’s original scripts have been lost to time.
As noted, though, what Wong began was not followed through–at least not for a long time.
Then there is Category #3, a difficult, challenging category that first began to emerge, in terms of television representation, in the mid-1970s, via a CBS primetime series.
In 1975 (interestingly “Kung Fu”’s final season), CBS decided to launch its weekly program “Khan!” (The exclamation point, by the way, was not optional in the writing of its title.) “Khan!” told the story of an Asian-American private detective (male, middle-aged) who was based out of—you guessed it—San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The mid-1970s was a time of wide-spread variation on the TV detective drama. Suddenly, to break out of the cops-and-robbers pack, TV dicks had to be more than just a hat and a trench coat. Maybe call it a “gimmick” but: “Ironside” was in a wheelchair, “Kodiak” lived in Alaska, “McCloud” was a cowboy transplant, “Amy Prentiss” was a woman, “Barnaby Jones” was old, and “Longstreet” was blind. For better or worse, TV’s second Asian-American detective was swept in on this trend.
“Khan!” debuted on Friday, February 7, 1975. Its leading role was played by Khigh Dhiegh.
Khigh Dhiegh’s (pronounced “Kye Dee”) real name was Keith Dickerson and he was born in Spring Lake, NJ. Though many biographies of him list his nationality as Anglo-Egyptian Sudanese, the actor did claim to be at least partially Chinese, on his mother’s side. That bit of blood was, apparently, enough for him to carve out a long career playing, almost without fail, Asian characters. A review of his filmography shows characters with such monikers as “Kang,” “Yenlo” and “Chou-Lai.” While Dhiegh appeared in his fair share of B movies and in quick TV guest spots, he also performed in some very well-regarded films, including such classics as “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) and John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds” (1966). He made his greatest impression, however, on CBS’ long-running hit crime show “Hawaii Five-O” playing the evil mastermind Wo Fat. It was his popularity in that role which inspired CBS to give him his own series.
Along with his acting, Dhiegh was also a devoted student of Taoism, having begun his study of it in 1935. In 1971, he founded the Taoist Sanctuary in Los Angeles, now known as the Taoist Institute. Additionally, in 1972, he published a book about the I Ching.
It was in keeping with this philosophy, or so Dhiegh said, that he made a most-unusual request to the CBS network regarding his soon-to-debut series: he did not want to be credited. The actor told a TV columnist in 1975, “To be made the focal point of attention is something that disturbs me greatly. After all, we must remember that it is not me, the individual, who is important… The goal is not to make any one person a star but to create something that is good for all.” Dhiegh’s wish was honored by CBS and “Khan!” remains, to date, the only major series whose star is not listed in its opening or closing.
In his weekly solving of crimes, PI Khan, a widower, was assisted by his two children–his daughter Anna (played by Irene Yah-Ling Sun), who was finishing her Ph.D. in criminology, and his (potential heartthrob) son, Kim (played by Evan Kim). If Khan needed help from the local police force, he could reach out to his contact there, Lt. Gubbins (played by Vic Tayback).
Khan’s crime-solving style, as seen today, was an equal mix of skillful sleuthing and a bit of action (some handled by Khan himself, some turned over to son Kim). And refreshingly, despite the ornate stylings of the family apartment, nothing else in the Khan family or series seemed exaggerated. For example, none of the lead characters have an accent or speak in halting or broken English. Their wardrobes are 1970s American. Though the pacing of some episodes seems a bit leisurely by today’s TV standards, there’s nothing about this series that can’t let it stand on equal footing with other PI dramas of the era.
And there’s a fun promenade of guest stars to behold: Peter Haskell, Joseph Campanella, Patrick Macnee and, in one blink and you miss her moment, former “Star Trek” star Grace Lee Whitney.
Furthermore, the series also supplied numerous roles for various Asian-American actors at a time where roles (stereotypical or not) were not plentiful. Some of the Asian-American actors who appeared on “Khan!” episodes include James Hong and Michael Paul Chan.
Despite Dhiegh’s declaration of his ethnic background being at least partially Asian, even before “Khan!” made its debut, many in the Asian-American community objected to his casting in the lead role of this series. The objection was that, once again, a non-Asian actor was playing an Asian role.
But Dhiegh took umbrage at the criticism. He said in one interview, “I am a human being, a prototype of the man of tomorrow who will be of racial blend. Some think in terms of purities, but how can that apply to me? When I fill out an application and it asks one to mark if he is white, black or yellow—I check all three.”
He added later, “When I was a child I attended a black Episcopal church and a white Episcopal church. The first one wouldn’t allow me to take part in their drama workshop because I was white. I wasn’t allowed to join the drama group at the second church because they said I was black.”
The controversy over Dhiegh’s casting and if he was “Asian enough” was, of course, a harbinger of things to come and would have been an interesting discussion and exploration of so many of the issues that are currently gripping the entertainment industry—and the world—right now.
But, for whatever reason, the show didn’t last long enough on the air for the dialogue to gain momentum. Additionally, critical analysis of the series was primarily focused on its overall quality, which seemed to render its larger racial issues something of a moot point. In terms of the series, reviewers slammed the show for everything from Dhiegh’s lead performance to the show’s allegedly lazy storytelling. These critiques, from today’s vantage point, seem largely unfounded.
In any event, viewers were no more enthralled with the series than the critics, and “Khan!” was cancelled after only four episodes were aired.
Dhiegh continued to act after the end of his series, getting raves for his role in the 1988 NBC mini-series “Noble House.” His last acting role was in 1990 and he passed away, at age 81, in 1991.
Had the series endured, perhaps questions of Dhiegh’s ethnicity and authenticity might have continued and even evolved, but with only four episodes aired, “Khan!,” network TV’s second Asian-American detective series, was quickly forgotten. Two of its installments, however, reside in perpetuity in the vaults of the Library of Congress, existing now as interesting time capsules and, perhaps, the starting point of a discussion that America, in 1975, wasn’t yet ready to have.
Don’t hesitate to contact Ask a Librarian about the availability of “Khan!” or any other television shows in our collections. Before you plan to come in and view any collection items, please get in touch with our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center.