A letter from a perennial villain is discovered. A tragedy transpires.
Who said LinkedIn was useless? Me — I did! — up until a few weeks ago when I found an unread months-old message from Jennifer Chan Yih, a data scientist who discovered an old letter inside an antique typewriter displayed at the Grape Leaf Inn in Northern California.
I’m reaching out because I found a typewriter at the inn I am staying at, and with it, there appears to be a letter written by Frank Lackteen. I saw online that you’re a distant relative of his.
Indeed, Frank (born Mohammed Hassan Yachteen) was my first known relative to migrate from Lebanon to the Americas, in 1905. He laboured as a child in terrible factory conditions until his menacing and ethnically ambiguous face was discovered by a silent film director. Working alongside the biggest names on the silver screen, Frank initially made a name for himself as “the most villainous of all screen villains” until the sound era and 1930s version of “P.C. culture” sidelined his stardom. But his ambition and industriousness stayed in tact, as did his willingness to exploit racist stereotypes, especially of his own Arab ancestry. You can read my story about him in The Ringer titled “‘Billionaires, Bombers, and Bellydancers’: How the First Arab American Movie Star Foretold a Century of Muslim Misrepresentation.”
Despite his fame and ubiquity, though, Frank was rarely quoted by writers who attempted to profile him. From dozens of old clippings, I found two instances of Frank speaking in his own words. What’s more, Frank himself was not a reliable narrator. He was as much inclined to embellish his story as they were to presume it, resulting in a record of euphemisms and falsities that obscured the hardships of his life.
That is, until Jennifer shared his letter with me. Addressed to George Chandler, president of the Screen Actors Guild, it was written some time in the mid-1960s and confirms what I’d gleaned from archived production records and oral histories. After escaping extreme hardship in Lebanon, enduring criminal child labour, and discovering fame and fortune as an actor, Frank Lackteen tragically spent his final years sick, destitute, and embittered with the Hollywood system.
The long and short of it is, Frank, who played more than 300 roles over a fifty-year career, was about to lose his Guild membership because of unpaid dues. He was still recovering from severe illnesses that rendered him unemployed for nearly four years and unable to pay his hospital bills. “It is a moral obligation for you to help me when I need help the most,” he wrote. “If I can’t work, how do you expect me to be able to pay Guild dues or the necessities of life?”
Here is the full letter, which I’ve edited for clarity. (View the original below.)
Dear Mr. Chandler:
As a result of my having been in the motion picture business as an actor for over forty years, and practically a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, my reward is only four days work within the last three and one half years
As a result of my having been in the motion picture business as a well known and established actor for over forty years, and being a Senior member of the Screen Actors Guild, my reward is only four days work within the last three and one half years!
Thanx to the Motion Picture Relief Fund I have been able to barely exist.
I was in the Motion Picture County Hospital, recently, undergoing five different operations. For their help I will be eternally grateful. However, I am now able to work and need the chance to pay back the hospital as well as my other obligations that comes with just fighting to live even a bare existence.
I am not getting a pension from the Producers Pension Plan, and was told that I am not eligible for the Health and Welfare Plan. What am I supposed to do? I have spent my entire life and earning years within one industry…. the Motion Picture Business as an actor. A̶n̶d̶ ̶n̶o̶w̶ ̶i̶t̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶a̶ ̶m̶o̶r̶a̶l̶ ̶o̶b̶l̶i̶g̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶y̶o̶u̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶h̶e̶l̶p̶ ̶m̶e̶ ̶w̶h̶e̶n̶ ̶I̶ ̶n̶e̶e̶d̶ ̶h̶e̶l̶p̶. And now, I feel that it is a moral obligation for you to help me when I need help the most. My thoughts on y̶o̶u̶r̶ ̶m̶o̶r̶a̶l̶ ̶o̶b̶l̶i̶g̶a̶t̶i̶o̶n̶s̶ this matter follows:
There are many big time actors that I know of who can well pay the Screen Actors Guild dues but they don’t have to…. they (have) a Life Time Membership. Why should these newcomers, making big money, have a Life Time Membership when old timers like myself, who cannot afford it, without work, have to pay the regular dues which means taking the bread from our mouths which we haven’t even paid for. If we can’t pay for the bread, how do you expect me to pay for the $45.00 dues the Guild say that I owe them? This is not fair! I should have a Life Time Membership because of my long standing record in the Motion Picture Business and because of the many years I have faithfully paid my dues to the Guild.
Now that I am out of work and unable to pay my dues, I will not be able to work if I am expelled from the Guild. If I can’t work, how do you expect me to be able to pay Guild dues or the necessities of life? This is why I am asking you to give me a Life Membership in the Screen Actors Guild… a chance for a break to make a living.
I hope to hear from your on this most important matter in the very near future.
Frank died in 1968, struggling to pay rent on his one-bedroom apartment with the odd walk-on, and unaware that his villainous beginnings foretold the next fifty years of Muslim and Middle Eastern misrepresentation.
Because of what he represented, few in civil-rights-era America paid tribute or even noticed his passing. He did not become the subject of books, à la Anna May Wong, receive a posthumous Walk of Fame star, like Stepin Fetchit, or garner any of the retrospectives that followed his immigrant contemporaries’ deaths. His four-sentence obit in The Hollywood Reporter made no mention of his ancestry, race-bending qualities, or race at all. But it was sure about one thing: He was a great villain.
Thank you Jennifer Chan Yih for sharing this letter. If you have any records of Frank Lackteen or are a relative, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.