Frank Lackteen was just shy of 18 when a film director discovered him in a crowd. Visiting from north Massachusetts, where he’d worked menial factory jobs since childhood, Lackteen went to see whether his eldest brother, Mike, had found a better life in Canada’s booming manufacturing center. After learning of a moving picture being shot on location nearby Mike’s apartment, he followed the hearsay to a horde of mesmerized spectators. Though the movie was one of several that Frank Crane shot in 1915, it was one of the first ever made in Montreal and the first time Lackteen glimpsed movie magic.
His face could’ve been lost among them were it not for its striking features: “basilisk,” “wolfish,” “hungry,” and “cadaverous-looking” are some of the morbid ways the early Hollywood press would fawn over him. Decades later, film historian Kalton C. Lahue summarized Lackteen’s appeal in Bound and Gagged: The Story of the Silent Serials: “His face was his fortune, for the hollow cheeks, swarthy complexion, and unique structure of his facial bones heightened the villainy which he was able to project so well that children looked over their shoulders on the way home from the theater, just to make certain he was not following them.”
Lackteen’s conspicuous yet ambiguous foreignness made him one of the most in-demand screen actors of the silent era. Of the nonwhite actors working in early Hollywood, few were as versatile, or industrious, as Lackteen. He portrayed—most often negatively—Mexicans, Chinese, Pacific Islanders, Arabs, South Asians, Africans, and hundreds of Native Americans. Lackteen approached his craft with the pliability of a low-paid immigrant. Indeed, he often was. With allegedly 500 roles, though not always credits, spanning five decades, Lackteen may have never turned down a job, even appearing as an extra in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. Though he fancied himself a “character actor,” foreign heavies—those florid bad guys who crystalized good and evil—were his specialty.
Audiences loved to hate Lackteen and reporters loved to fetishize his otherness. They speculated his origins as Persian, Turkish, Italian, and Spanish. In fact, he was the world’s first Arab movie star.
Lackteen presaged Oscar nominees Omar Sharif, Rami Malek, and, yes, Salma Hayek (ask your Lebanese friend). A century before Malek became the first Arab actor to win an Academy Award, Lackteen was praised as “one of the best heavy men the screen possesses.” But, more like Sharif, Lackteen was heavily typecast and, eventually, disregarded.
Since Lackteen’s and American cinema’s simultaneous beginnings, Middle Eastern and North African screen actors have had to wrestle with their consciences as they read for some of the ugliest tropes in show business. During Hollywood’s first 50 years, the available parts were lascivious sheikhs and bedouins for men, handmaidens and belly dancers for women. In the second half, bumbling billionaires, battered wives, Islamic fundamentalists, and—what’s practically become a rite of passage—terrorists. Sometimes called MENA or MENASA, when including South Asians, who often audition for the same roles, these actors are the ancillary labor behind some of the decade’s most memorable titles, from 24 and Bodyguard to The Hurt Locker and American Sniper.
Only now, in Hollywood’s second century, are actors openly rebuffing scripts that stoke Islamophobia or perpetuate stereotypes that’ve pained their communities. “If the writing is harmful to our group, I’ll pass. I can’t read for that,” says Azita Ghanizada, an Afghan American actress who founded MENA Arts Advocacy Coalition in 2015. “A lot of us are pushing for more positive depictions now,” says Superior Donuts’ Maz Jobrani, who quit auditioning for terrorist roles soon after 9/11. “The word ‘no’ is a great word in Hollywood because people respect it.”
Their defiance is a departure from predecessors who relied on these tropes for steady employment, or, if they looked white enough, Anglicized their names to escape careers “doomed to minor roles” and “sour Arabs,” as F. Murray Abraham admitted to The Boston Globe. Many of today’s Middle Eastern and South Asian actors aren’t just embracing their foreign names, they’re pushing for their characters’ names and story lines to reflect their heritage. And there’s an appetite for nuanced story lines about brown and Muslim Americans. The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani’s indie love story about a Muslim-ish Pakistani man and white woman, was 2017’s highest-grossing rom-com. Meanwhile on the small screen, there’s a Muslim female superhero in Legends of Tomorrow, a hijabi performing surgery on Grey’s Anatomy, and another making art on The Bold Type—an audacious lesbian who chooses when and whether to wear her headscarf. Mindy Kaling, Hasan Minhaj, and other comedians once consigned to “sidekick” now lead hit shows, while Punjabi entertainer Lilly Singh prepares to fill Carson Daly’s late-night chair. And then there’s Aladdin.
Opening this Memorial Day weekend, Disney’s live-action musical is the first tentpole film with predominantly MENASA leads. Save for Will Smith as Genie, the cast of relative unknowns include actors of Tunisian, Egyptian, Indian, and Iranian heritage. But the effort came neither easily nor without critique, as Disney and director Guy Ritchie still struggled to find an Aladdin and Jasmine after 2,000 musical screen tests.
Regardless of whether Mena Massoud and Naomi Scott give great performances as Agrabah’s new prince and princess, the value of Disney’s diligence will be determined at the box office. Two of last year’s top grossers, Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther, challenged mainstream perceptions of a blockbuster cast, and Aladdin’s opening-weekend numbers could prove they were not flukes—that majority Americans will flock to movies about minorities. And not just any minorities but Arabs, who’ve been called “the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood” by Jack Shaheen, a leading scholar on Hollywood stereotyping.
Frank Lackteen performed in no fewer than 20 of the nearly 1,000 unflattering films cataloged in Shaheen’s seminal book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. Whether as villain or nameless bedouin, the actor’s repertoire traced Islamophobia in the first half of Hollywood’s history, and helped shape some of the ugliest onscreen tropes only now unraveling.
Lackteen didn’t Anglicize his name to make it in pictures; he changed it to make it in America. Despite living in the United States since age 7, Lackteen embraced and even embellished his Middle Eastern roots. He claimed to be a trained Oriental-rug maker, groomed to follow in his family’s footsteps before catching the acting bug. Truthfully, though, Lackteen came from a humble farming clan in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. I know this because he’s my ancestor. I’ve collected dozens of his personal records from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archives, the National Archives, and the lone record keeper in my family’s hometown. Comparing these with the persona in his press clippings, it’s clear Lackteen was equally proud and insecure about his roots.
Mohammed Hassan Yachteen was born August 29, 1897, in Kab Elias, the figurative and geographic belly of modern Lebanon. Then part of the Ottoman Empire’s Greater Syria region, the village of mud huts, orchards, and fields sat on the Beirut-Damascus road, inside a semiautonomous Christian province. Religiously mixed with Orthodox Christians in the hills and Sunnis in the valley, Mohammed lived across from the mosque but attended a Presbyterian school near his maternal grandparents. Christian governance opened the town to American missionaries, who failed to win converts but succeeded in spreading liberal values through their schools. Most of all, they implanted an idealized image of “Amreeka” as a refuge from hardship.
Family lore has it that Frank’s father was killed in a feud between Ottoman loyalists and Arab nationalists, but it’s largely mythology wrung from a grain of truth. In 1900, his eldest brothers were sent to America before reaching the age of mandatory service in the ailing Ottoman Empire. His father, Hassan, followed a few years later with Mohammed; they adopted the names Sam and Frank Lackteen on arrival, and joined Mahmoud and Abdulla—now Mike and Tom—in Lawrence, Massachusetts, where hundreds of then-called Syrians had been recruited by an American pastor to his hometown’s booming textile factories. (For reasons unknown to me, Frank’s mother, who was from my side of the family, never left Syria. Whether they stayed in touch is unclear to me, but I’m confident Frank never saw her again.)
At 15, Mike had the responsibility of caring for 10-year-old Tom and setting up home for the family. The family’s reunion was delayed by a detour through Caribbean and Latin American ports, as was common for immigrants like Hassan, then 52 and unable to read or speak English, who was likely turned away by Ellis Island inspectors. Whatever the reason, Lackteen, years later, spun the inconvenience to a reporter as evidence of his worldliness, adding stopovers in Spain and Puerto Rico to his cultural mystique.
He also inflated his education, casually mentioning he’d completed it in Lawrence. In reality, Lackteen hadn’t attended school since at least the fifth grade, if not those brief years in Lebanon. Soon as he could pass for 14, the minimum working age in Massachusetts, he worked in the mills. A 1910 census reported 12-year-old Lackteen as 20, and noted he hadn’t missed a week of work in a cotton mill for more than a year. His brothers labored in barber shops and celluloid factories, and his father, the alleged Oriental rug importer, was unemployed.
Frank’s first decade in America was neither the utopia he was promised nor the one he perpetuated. He spent most of his first decade in the heart of Lawrence’s “Syrian colony,” a slum within sight of the textile mills it served. More than 2,000 Lebanese, including my great-grandpa, packed in poorly ventilated, dark, and diseased tenements. At work, some hung lunch bags from the ceilings so rats wouldn’t eat them. That Lackteen escaped the spread of respiratory infections at work and home is a small miracle. The average age of death among Lawrence’s Lebanese was 25.
The family tried to leave Lawrence’s ghetto more than once, settling in Arab quarters where they might overcome the limits of their race and language. Syrian immigrants were officially designated “white race” status, making them eligible for naturalization. Eldest brother Mike’s thrice-rejected petitions for citizenship show what that looked like in practice. “Loyalty not satisfactory,” read the third rejection. Perhaps expecting the same treatment, Frank never bothered. But on a visit to Montreal, where Mike lived for a year, Lackteen discovered the one industry that considered his otherness a gift: show business.
The movie title and character of Frank Lackteen’s debut is lost to history, but he probably played a native in one of Frank Crane’s historical pictures, produced for a short-lived Canadian studio notorious for mistreating its actors. Substandard meals, salaries, late checks, and lawsuits led to scandalous headlines, but Lackteen remembered the experience fondly to the Detroit Free Press. “Crane saw the young man and immediately recognized Lackteen as a distinct type,” reads a 1927 article. “Crane offered him $1.50 to work in the picture, and, as it was all fun and part of the vacation, he accepted. He took to picture acting like a duckling to water.”
Rather than move to the film industry’s center in New York, though, Lackteen followed his brothers and father to Detroit, where an exodus of immigrants were promised living wages. Still, at every chance, Frank went to New York, walked onto sets, and asked for work.
His timing couldn’t have been better. Pictures like The Birth of a Nation had been feeding off reactionary nativism and segregationists; the First World War roused a series of “preparedness” pictures intended to warn Americans of their foreign adversaries. The director of one such title, The Yellow Menace, cast Lackteen as a Chinese heavy aiding the murder of a U.S. senator who was championing an anti-Asian-immigration bill, similar to one that was circulating through Congress at the time of production. Hailed for its insight into the “cunning, scheming character of the plotting Oriental,” The Yellow Menace boosted support for the real-life ban on nonwhite travelers, which effectively cut a quarter million Asian immigrants off from their homelands, until 1943, three years after Lackteen’s mother died. In return, he got three weeks of film work and a good deal of encouragement.
Lackteen traveled between cities, acting alongside the biggest names on the silver screen, amid laboring at Dodge Motors. But in 1920, he’d accumulated enough work to follow the biz to Los Angeles and quickly struck a deal that put a name to his increasingly familiar face. French studio Pathé’s new American venture signed him to three productions with the “serial queen” Ruth Roland. His performances as Pablo (Mexican bandit), Crouching More (renegade Indian), and Vance (money-grubber—a rare nonethnic but most evil role) solidified his reputation as “the most villainous of all screen villains.” Lackteen spent the next decade portraying bad hombres and other ethnic miscreants, like a witch doctor, an opium smuggler, and a “half-breed” so vile “you wish some bullet would lay him low.”
Along with his beak nose, gaunt cheeks, and piercing eyes, Lackteen’s ethnic ambiguity adapted to any foreign menace, but “Indian” was his handicraft. Though not a “pretendian” to the degree of Iron Eyes Cody, the Sicilian American impostor of “Keep America Beautiful” fame, or Johnny Depp for that matter, Lackteen appropriated Native American culture. He even requested a hogan built by Navajo extras on the set of The Last Frontier, one of his first features. “Lackteen is a student of Indian lore and is familiar with many of the quaint customs of the Navajoes,” reads a Pennsylvania paper. “He spent considerable time among them, gleaming much from their everyday life that proved valuable to him in portraying the role of Pawnee Killer.”
His most memorable parts were chiefs, renegades, “half-breeds,” and chief of a tribe of renegade half-breeds—the Hawk in Hawk of the Hills. Watching Hawk of the Hills, directed by B-Western pioneer Spencer Gordon Bennet and one of the rare silents preserved in the Academy Film Archive, it’s clear Lackteen understood the power of subtlety when overacting was the norm. He mastered the gaze and poise of a baddie who intimidates with chilling self-possession. As Lahue wrote in Bound and Gagged, “His pantomime was subdued and quite restrained, giving an audience the feeling that he wasn’t really acting at all but that the evil which seemed to exude from his pores was indeed very natural.”
There was much Lackteen could conceal from 1920s audiences—his guttural, stilted English, his lack of education, the fact that, behind the scenes, complex scripts rendered him “nervous and confused”—but his threatening face was not one of them. So he leaned into his sinister persona, grateful for the security it afforded his family. They followed him to L.A. and he continued living two separate lives—movie star on set, immigrant son at home. Frank helped care for his father until his death, in 1927.
The next year, Lackteen, newly married and at the peak of his fame, finally applied for American citizenship. He proudly declared his occupation as “picture actor” and forever renounced “the present sovereignty in Syria and the Lebanon.” His brother Tom applied the next day, and Mike, maybe dejected by past failures, five months later.
The eldest brother’s fourth attempt was finally approved. Frank’s and Tom’s were not.
Before concubines, caravans, and other Arabian clichés appeared in scripts, they dominated French and English fiction about the Orient—a lawless, erotic, and mystical land at once alluring and treacherous. Samuel Johnson, Gustave Flaubert, and other writers of the romantic age accentuated differences between East and West, but owed much of their imagination to the East. They cherry-picked concepts from One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights, an Arabic book of folk tales collected from many centuries and civilizations. But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that a loose, lewd, and later discredited English translation of the tales spurred an Arabian pop culture moment, inspiring the Shriners, erotic paintings, and desert romance novels.
The craze peaked in 1921 with The Sheik, a best seller turned blockbuster film panned by all but women moviegoers seduced by the star. Rudolph Valentino’s performance as a hypersexual Arab chief, who implicitly rapes and explicitly romances his English captor, popularized the lecher trope, imitated as recently as 2012’s The Dictator, and cemented Valentino as Hollywood’s “forbidden lover.” Perhaps anticipating backlash from anti-miscegenation critics, the film’s twist ending revealed the sheikh to be a European in disguise all along, lending some believability to the robed Italian American actor.
Not only did the movie popularize the word “sheikh” (which, for a time, described a man on the prowl, and still describes a condom), it initiated a visual glossary of permanent antiquity carried forward in Indiana Jones and The Mummy. Even before producers could stage a sequel, The Sheik inspired several copycats, including the 10-part serial The Fortieth Door, Lackteen’s first Arab role. “The public has ‘gone nuts’ over stories of the Orient,” read an advertisement. “Here’s a peach of a story, laid in Egypt. A young American rescues a beautiful young girl from a harem.” Lackteen, naturally, was her captor, the hideous Hamid, but the top villain was the harem “vamp,” played by Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American star. Audiences were mostly over Arabia by the chapter play’s final installment. Hamid remained Lackteen’s sole Middle Eastern part during the silent era.
Though a passing fad, the movies bonded the image of the barbaric desert in American imaginations. When a reporter tried to separate Valentino from the “savage” Arabs, the actor, who had an affinity for Moorish history in his birthplace, responded justly: “People are not savages because they have dark skins. … The Arabs are dignified and keen-brained.” Japanese-born Sessue Hayakawa, another typecast forbidden lover, expressed similar concerns about “Yellow Peril” caricatures: “They are false and give people a wrong idea of us. I wish to make a characterization which shall reveal us as we really are.”
If Lackteen felt similarly conflicted he kept it to himself. “The greatest ambition of Frank Lackteen is to live the life of the tax free road; to earn much; to distribute more; to make mankind happy,” read a column in Oregon’s Capital Journal. “And he plays the part of a deep-dyed villain! You never c’n tell. At the Liberty.”
On screen, Lackteen’s closeups elicited hisses and boos, but off screen he was the consummate gentleman: polished, polite, quick to please and mirror his surroundings. Lackteen told Lahue that he’d elected not to pursue any leading-man parts after taking early stock of himself. “This was a clever move,” wrote the Bound and Gagged author, “as he was not the ‘type’ and although leading men come and go, the character actor stays around and works consistently.”
The transition to sound was fast and cruel, shocking silent movie stars who’d underestimated the appeal and toil of talkies. The aging voice of Mary Pickford, the first A-lister who dared to transition to sound, in 1929, betrayed the teenage ingenue persona she’d perfected over 20 years. She retired after five films, becoming a successful producer. Others weren’t so lucky. Ruth Roland retired after one, and died soon after.
But for Lackteen, Hayakawa, and other immigrants whose repertoires relied on fearing or fetishizing foreigners, overcoming thick accents was only the beginning. Newly adopted moral guidelines sought to rid movies of racism among other things. The National Feelings clause, which stated that “the history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of all nations shall be represented fairly,” effectively gave Lackteen’s livelihood over to white actors playing white Americans. The one-two punch knocked the silver screen’s minorities to the margins. Lackteen took another hit from his divorce. He moved into his brother Mike’s house in 1930, the same year the Production Code was enacted, as he found his feet in the new landscape.
Ethnic heavies didn’t disappear overnight, as it was a learning curve for both screenwriters and the Motion Picture Production Code (now the MPAA) policing their work. To the producers of The Law of the Tong, in which Lackteen, sporting a Fu Manchu, lusts after a sweet American caught up in a Chinese smuggling ring, the administration made a single request: “Eliminate the [emphasized] words … ‘You were too good to work in my dance hall but you’re not too good to live with a bunch of chinks.’” Chinese sensitivities were taken more seriously after another Yellow Peril picture sparked a riot in Shanghai’s Grand Theatre; Universal promised the administration it would “write in a Chinese hero for every Chinese heavy.”
Within four years of the Code’s enactment, academics noted that foreign villains, even the naturalized, were all but extinct, thanks to the administration’s new director. Nicknamed the “John the Baptist of the Code Administration” for his adherence to guidelines and institutional memory, Joseph I. Breen’s reports on a single feature screenplay ran several pages. The bullet points mainly concerned the morality clauses of the Code, quibbling about sexual innuendo, gruesome killings, blasphemy, drugs, and alcohol. But Breen had a special sensitivity toward minorities represented by civil rights groups, ethnic lobbies, and especially foreign consulates gaining influence in Hollywood.
He disapproved of any character or line that could provoke protests, boycotts, even trade embargoes, discouraging studios from casting visible minorities as antiheroes. Since they wouldn’t bank on them as heroes for another two decades, it pretty much guaranteed subordinate and minor parts for actors of color. This devastated Stepin Fetchit, who was caught between studios mistreating him and the NAACP condemning his minstrel acts. It also had the unintended consequence of sterilizing racism by banning intentionally disturbing anti-Semitic slurs and disguising the Ku Klux Klan with black robes and white victims, so as not to offend Southern sensitivities.
Screenwriters not ready to forfeit their biases looked for work-arounds, like serving spaghetti and meatballs to a Chicago gangster who absolutely, no way, definitely was not Sicilian, or the iffy plot twist in Radio Patrol, the last picture to cast Lackteen as top evildoer. He played Mr. Tahata, an Iranian dignitary on a trade mission concerning a flexible steel patent that “our country’s existence depends on.” He goes about obtaining it by putting scientists under a spell with his piercing stare and unleashing a hypnotized American assassin that, for some reason, the Persian villain keeps in an Egyptian tomb. Only after he’s killed is Mr. Tahata revealed to be Werner the Great, who’d merely assumed the dignitary’s identity to have an in. Such a confusing denouement would probably prove unnecessary were Iran not an independent state with cordial U.S. relations in 1937.
Breen didn’t scrutinize MENA portrayals to the same degree as others. At the back of his responses, a report card itemized ethnicities and nationalities that appeared in the script, each with an X marking that characters as “sympathetic,” “unsympathetic,” or both. Theoretically, approved scripts should balance represented nationalities. But the report card on Assignment in Brittany, a 1943 international spy thriller, for which Lackteen’s Arab chief role was uncredited, shows X’s down the sympathetic column for all but Germans and Arabs.
Another report for The Desert Hawk, a serialized throwback to the Arabian Nights craze, does show balance across the fully Arab character list (played by an all-white cast, save for Lackteen as henchman to the caliph’s evil twin). But the extensive notes reveal Breen was more concerned about treatment of animals than Arab culture, and had a particular preoccupation with the female anatomy.
Point after point picks apart the belly dancers and concubines: “Intimate portions of their bodies [must be] properly covered”; “In order to be acceptable, the routine showing the dancing girls ‘doing their stuff’ must not contain any bumps or grinds”; “This scene in which the old lecher imagines himself surrounded by ‘ravishing slave girls’ must not be done with an overly suggestive flavor, and the reaction of the old lecher ‘drooling and passing out’ should be eliminated.”
Thanks to Breen’s apathy, Lackteen occasionally returned to form in low-budget serials like Radio Patrol and Desert Hawk, though his guttural accent and wooden English kept him from landing substantial roles in features. There were plenty of small parts available for dark-skinned talent on a wave of B-movie mummy flicks and colonial adventure films. Lackteen deliberately typecast himself. He donned fezzes, turbans, and head robes for casting agents, and sprinkled Arabic throughout his shrinking lines regardless of whether he played an Arab camel driver, Turkish soldier, or Pashtun peasant.
Lackteen rebuilt his career on Orientalist parts—some good, some bad, most uncredited—remarried, and became a father. His only child was baptized Presbyterian. Whether Lackteen himself converted, or practiced any faith at all, is unclear, but his resolve to be an American never wavered.
In 1936, Lackteen petitioned for naturalization again. This time he gave “character actor” as his occupation. It’s the only document wherein he signed with his birth name, Mohammed Hassan, appearing above a line in which he wrote the name he’d like to officially change it to: Frank Samuel Lackteen. The United States, swept by war-time sensitivity, approved his citizenship application five years later.
The Middle East’s second pop culture moment was distinct from the first. Despite recycling many of the tropes of the early century’s magical desert pictures, the midcentury adventure films offered more sophisticated stories and characters. “There weren’t as many naive people wandering through the desert, waiting to be rescued,” says Mohammed Rouda, Arabic media’s preeminent film critic. There were affairs between French soldiers and Western women, but not Western women and emirs and sheikhs. The same complexity of the white characters was hardly extended to them. Renegades, Lackteen’s first post-sound Arab part, is a classic example of this. “Arabs stayed in the background,” Rouda says. “Their imagination didn’t raise up to much more than attacking, retreating, losing a lot of men, and leaving them in the desert, much like Native American Westerns, in which the tribe left their wounded and dead, like they don’t care about them.”
The tradition of creating mythical kingdoms—Ahad, Abistan, Agrabah—accounts for some of the lenience on racist Arab stereotypes, but Thomas Doherty, author of several books on early Hollywood, mostly chalks it up to a lack of lobbying power outside and within America. With the exception of Iran and the gulf emirates, the Middle East and North Africa was fully colonized; Arab Americans, meanwhile, didn’t have pressure groups advocating for fair representation, much like Native Americans, who only saw fairer treatment after forming an antidefamation group in 1944. Existing Muslim and Arab groups focused on Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and the budding Islamist movement shaking up their mosques, but were ambivalent toward the arts. “There’s something with the Arab mentality,” says Rouda. “When they immigrate they want to take care of business and grow. Material life is more important than creative life, except for the few who are crazy enough to be film actors or directors or critics, or whatever. As a result of that, they never really cared how Hollywood presented them.”
It’s not that Hollywood’s Walk of Fame is devoid of Middle Eastern ancestry. Ask any Lebanese or Syrian patriot and they’ll recite a conspiratorial-sounding list of celebrities with Levantine roots: Catherine Keener, Vince Vaughn, Jerry Seinfeld, Shakira, Steve Jobs, and so on—all of it true. But for any second-generation Americans growing up with two immigrant parents, an emphasis on security over creativity, financial pursuits over the artistic, is nearly universal.
“My parents are supportive now, but when I was younger it was difficult for them,” says The Bold Type’s Nikohl Boosheri, the Iranian Canadian daughter of Muslim immigrants who escaped the Iran-Iraq War. “They want to feel that their kids will be OK.” Sophia Ali of Grey’s Anatomy was raised similarly by her Pakistani father. “My dad really had a very clear idea of what he wanted my life to be,” says Ali, who, as Dr. Dahlia Qadri, somewhat fulfilled his wishes for her to become a doctor.
When Ramy Youssef set out from Jersey to L.A. after booking a regular part in a family sitcom, his mom was elated. “‘This is amazing,’” he recalls her saying. “‘You’re going to meet so many actors, and then you could become a lawyer for actors.’ This was, for her, networking, like the most intense internship ever, where I’m essentially an inside guy, infiltrating how Hollywood works.”
Seeing so many South Asian and Middle Eastern actors with flourishing careers would’ve been unimaginable to Frank Lackteen. He remained one of the only thespians from the regions until the ’40s, when colonialist adventure films and postwar sensitivities made space for Sabu and other duskier leading men with more palatable accents. But it took Hollywood nearly 50 years after Lackteen’s debut to anoint another Arab movie star.
Omar Sharif was already Egypt’s top actor when he was cast alongside Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. His dazzling English-language debut earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and catapulted him to the top of Hollywood’s star system overnight. “He had a beautiful face and very convincing looks,” says Rouda. “But they didn’t know what to do with him. They started giving him the roles of French or Germans or Russians. They never understood how to use him in a Cary Grant or James Stewart kind of movie. He wasn’t normalized.”
Possibly because Sharif debuted as a foreigner, he was seldom imagined as American. He retreated into smaller pictures and returned to Egypt, surviving off French- and Arabic-language films until he died. “It’s a sad story in more than one way,” says Rouda. Not another Arab actor captured the same response from audiences until Rami Malek. “And we don’t know the future of Rami Malek,” he adds.
How Lackteen managed what’s possibly the longest career of any MENASA actor was, in part, by applying his immigrant ambition to his work and treating his craft as a means of security. A 1952 on-set interview with a gossip columnist revealed the lengths to which he went to stay employed: “Frank Lackteen. Ever hear of him getting a screen credit? Neither did we. For 36 years, however, Lackteen, a gaunt, hollow-cheeked, cadaverous-looking individual, has literally starved for his art. He works to eat and he diets to keep working.”
Lackteen bragged to the writer that he could retire if he wanted, having earned enough from over 500 parts, including as Mary Pickford’s Hindu servant in the classic Less Than Dust (a performance either cut from the film or that never existed). He attributed his fortune to his emaciated face. “The irony of it all is that I’m a good cook, specializing in rich pastries,” he said. “If I eat my cooking, my hollows fill up and I look like a thousand other out-of-work actors.”
Lackteen earned $400 a week on King of the Khyber Rifles, far lower than many of his peers on the budget sheet. The credits left out his name even though Lackteen appeared in the marketing materials and saved the hero, a British Army captain, in the opening scene. He also received one of the few praising words in a Los Angeles Times review that called the big-budget picture a near “intolerable bore.”
King of the Khyber Rifles wasn’t the box office success Twentieth Century Fox hoped for, but the National Film Registry considers it the catalyst for the revisionist imperialism that dominated films about Arab and South Asia regions until the mid-’60s.
Lackteen didn’t live to see the period that followed. He died in 1968, mere months before the Production Code was abandoned, struggling to pay rent on his one-bedroom apartment with the odd walk-on, and unaware that his villainous beginnings foretold the next 50 years of Muslim and Middle Eastern misrepresentation.
Michele Tasoff grew up keenly aware of cultural stereotypes during the 1970s and ’80s. Her father, Jack Shaheen, the son of Lebanese immigrants, was a mass communications professor at Southern Illinois University and an authority on anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiments in the news. After seeing a disturbing stereotype during Saturday-morning cartoons once when she was 5, she became his research assistant. Any time she saw “bad Arabs” on the tube, she’d immediately inform him. “He would hurry downstairs and pop in a VHS,” recalls Tasoff, now a CNN producer.
The house filled with 3,000 recorded shows and movies, plus countless pop culture artifacts. Shaheen’s wife, a Palestinian American, worked alongside him, meticulously labeling the tapes and assisting with his fastidious notes. It evolved to include racist depictions of blacks, Jews, and other minorities, which he collected from eBay and antique shops. But for Middle Eastern tropes, he just walked to Blockbuster.
Shaheen was especially disturbed by the portrayals of Palestinians, the worst being Black Sunday, a 1977 thriller about a fictional plot by Palestinian terrorists to massacre 80,000 Super Bowl spectators. “No movie shows Israeli soldiers and settlers uprooting olive orchards,” he’d later write in Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. “No movie shows Palestinian families struggling to survive under occupation, living in refugee camps, striving to have their own country and passports stating ‘Palestine.’ Disturbingly, only two scenarios present Palestinian families.” To Shaheen, their dehumanization in film was as much a cautionary tale as The Eternal Jew.
Without a mandate, Shaheen did the work Joseph Breen ignored. Take, for example, their notes on the French Foreign Legion adventure film Under Two Flags:
Breen: “There should be nothing in the picture offensive to the French people as a whole or to France’s military forces specifically.”
Shaheen: “The desert is labeled, ‘land of eternal mystery, primitive, barbaric.’”
Breen: “several derogatory references to Jews.”
Shaheen: “Seeing an unkempt Arab leer at Lady Venetia … [legionnaire] warns the lady, ‘Just a moment, better give me your jewelry.’ Quips another legionnaire, ‘Turn your back for one minute and they’ll swindle you.’”
Breen: “avoid any suggestion that her character and life have been loose or sinful.”
Shaheen: “Westerners don tuxedos and gowns, ugly Arabs peer in from outside.”
Lackteen was one of those ugly Arabs, but Under Two Flags wasn’t on Shaheen’s exhaustive “worst list.” Renegades, however, was—and it contained five of the epithets on a longer list that he kept. He had another of mythical “Arab-lands” and another of tropes, like Egyptians, Shiekhs, Maidens, Villains. He paid closest attention to the last as they mutated into generic forms of terrorists.
Shaheen traced the first depiction of Middle Eastern and Muslim extremists to 1951, and recorded its growth, at first gradually alongside Israeli-Palestinian wars. It picked up pace after the OPEC crisis and became a frivolous plot device after the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979—an easy way to get Doc and Marty to the past, fleeing fanatical Libyans in the first minutes of Back to the Future, or to get another roundhouse kick out of Chuck Norris. It wasn’t that the American hostages gave Hollywood free rein on Middle Eastern and Muslim characters; they’d had that since the beginning of cinema, long after boozy Irish, shyster Jews, and diseased Chinese began to fade from the screen. Rather, the crisis showed how much money there was to be made scaring the bejesus out of people with Islamic fundamentalists.
“They became pop culture opportunities for capitalism to make money,” says Mahyad Tousi of BoomGen Studios, which develops programming with Middle Eastern, North African, and South and Central Asian themes. Tousi cites ABC’s nightly coverage of hostages, premiering four days in and slickly packaged as The Iran Crisis—America Held Hostage. “A month later, they were beating Johnny Carson in the ratings.”
Shaheen had loved cinema since the first matinees he saw at his Pennsylvania hometown’s theater, where his mother worked as a cashier and he, later, as an usher. He studied acting and directing, but came out an academic. It wounded him to see the vilification of his people in a medium he loved go unchecked his entire life. Ultimately, he only wanted to see them portrayed “no better, no worse, than anyone else.”
For decades, publishers and newspapers turned down Shaheen’s op-eds, articles, and manuscripts. Some 80 rejections preceded the release of his first book, The TV Arab, in 1984. The work was lonely, depressing, and taxing, says Tasoff, and it sucked the joy out of something dear to him.
His message was finally heard by a wide audience in 1992, after the year’s top-grossing film. Disney’s Aladdin is the first time I remember my family going out to see a movie together. Along with our Palestinian friends, one of the few minorities in our small Canadian town, we entered the theater excited to see a cartoon about us. I remember leaving still jazzed, pleased to have picked up on words and other subtle nods to our heritage. And then someone, my teenage sister, I think, brought up a line from the musical’s opening song: I come from a land from a far-away place … Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.
“We don’t do that,” I remember her saying with an uncomfortable laugh.
Months later we bought the home video and my sister started pointing out other things that bothered her, like the conflation of Indian imagery and the exaggerated Semitic features, to the point of grotesque, on almost everyone but the lighter-skinned, smaller-nosed, thinner-lipped prince and princess. Yet we were still kind of proud to be seen.
As for the offending song lyric, it was gone.
Jack Shaheen walked out of Aladdin infuriated by the characters’ repulsive features, dim-witted and cruel behavior, and, most of all, that line. Even he was shocked to hear it in a children’s movie. His initial calls to Disney went ignored. “The irony in all of this,” Disney’s distribution head later said, “is that this is the first movie in years where both the hero and heroine are Arabic [sic], and both are obviously terrific role models, not just for Arabs but for everybody.” But pressure mounted as Shaheen, backed by a relatively new American Arab lobby, published op-eds and protested the cartoon on international lecterns. After a New York Times editorial took up their cause, Disney finally agreed to change the lyric in the home video.
“He did make a difference with Aladdin,” says Tasoff. The 1990s saw the mainstream press harshly scrutinizing films like Rules of Engagement, often by referencing her father’s scholarship, and the creation of the Jack G. & Bernice M. Shaheen Endowed Media Scholarship Fund to get more Arabs working in U.S. journalism and showbiz. Warner Bros. even hired him to consult on Three Kings.
The pacifist Gulf War film made Shaheen’s very short “best list” in Reel Bad Arabs, a tome cataloging 1,000 films between 1896 and 2000, of which about 6 percent portrayed Arabs and Muslims positively or neutrally. Though things improved, portrayals remain overwhelmingly othered and vilified. According to a 2017 analysis of 242 TV shows, more than three-quarters of Middle Eastern or North African characters are terrorists, tyrants, and other threatening types, and two-thirds have foreign accents.
Reel Bad Arabs inspired a study of onscreen representation—and its reliance on “billionaires, bombers, and bellydancers,” as Shaheen wrote—that barely existed before the millennium. But three months after it was first published, in July 2001, it looked like Shaheen’s life’s work could be reversed. Within months of the 9/11 attacks, television writers worked homegrown Islamic terrorists into their plots, a trope Shaheen didn’t recognize. “That was a gut punch,” says Tasoff.
Maz Jobrani was done playing terrorists when his agent called him about 24. The show was notoriously secretive about plot lines and wouldn’t disclose whether the audition was for a terrorist, but he’d received enough Chuck Norris roundhouse kicks (exactly one) to already know. Jobrani said no. But after learning the character has a change of heart at the sight of children playing by the target, the actor-comic decided to give it a try. A redeemable Muslim terrorist was not a side he’d seen represented before, but ultimately, the role was still a terrorist. “After that, I said no more of those,” said Jobrani, who’d later title his memoir I’m Not a Terrorist, But I’ve Played One on TV.
The 9/11 attacks inspired a resurgence of plot lines that fanned fears of homegrown radicals and child terrorists “balanced” by Muslim patriots and victims. “The ‘Good’ Muslim vs. ‘Bad’ Muslim binary emerged,” reads Haqq & Hollywood: Illuminating 100 years of Muslim Tropes and How to Transform Them, a report by the Rockefeller-backed Pop Culture Collaborative. “‘Good’ Muslims are often secular assimilationists, defenders of U.S. imperialism, or submissive Muslim women in need of being ‘saved.’ … The ‘Bad’ Muslim signifies a ‘traitor.’” Muslim characters must either be American patriots or critics, but could seldom be both.
Jobrani doesn’t regret starting his career with these tropes, and it’s only because he’s built a successful comedy career as the “Persian Eddie Murphy” that he can say no. For others, it can stall careers. Still, a growing number of mostly millennial actors are willing to accept that. If nothing at all, media’s response to 9/11 shaped the sensitivities of a generation of artists bombarded by negative imagery.
Take Sophia Ali. She was 5 when the attacks happened and was urged by her protective parents to not admit she was half-Pakistani. The child actor regularly lied to producers, telling them she was whatever she thought they wanted to hear, which Ali says further contributed to denying her roots. That changed after her character in the pilot of FX’s Tyrant was rewritten as a terrorist and recast. “Any audition that I had that was painting [Muslims] in a negative way then I would turn it down immediately,” says Ali, who was raised in a Muslim community but isn’t practicing herself. “I want to be a light for people.”
As a result of her pickiness, Ali says, her work stagnated for four years. She was beginning to second-guess her career choices when Grey’s Anatomy cast her as the first regular hijabi on prime-time network television. Though she expected that the driven and compassionate doctor would be an inspiration to young brown and Muslim girls, Ali never anticipated what it would do for her. “It made me proud of being Pakistani.”
The power to influence self-perception isn’t lost on Nikohl Boosheri. She’s received messages from queer Muslims around the world who say that Adena El Amin, her character on The Bold Type, has helped them come out to their families and feel less ashamed. But, she says, portraying Muslim characters and simply being a Middle Eastern actor comes with baggage that white talent seldom carries. “When I’m doing a job, I have to constantly speak up to make sure that it does feel authentic and doesn’t feel one-dimensional,” she says. Additionally, there’s pressure from the represented community to portray them a certain way.
“I want to make something that makes us human,” says Ramy Youssef, the 28-year-old creator and star of the Hulu comedy Ramy. “A lot of people want a commercial, this idyllic version of how we should be perceived and portrayed, and that’s the opposite of human.” Youssef is conflicted about the ambassadorial pressures, on one hand embracing Ramy’s ability to change misconceptions about Muslims, on the other worried it can stifle creativity. He kept his parents at a distance while he sorted out his stand-up material and his show, but still lost sleep over how they and Muslims will react to its “lack of PSA quality.”
Since premiering in April, Ramy received almost universal acclaim for its depiction of an average Muslim Arab American family, warts and all. Second-generation Americans like the eponymous character typically want to erase their parents’ culture, but Ramy’s tension derives from wanting to connect and live up to it, a struggle relatable to many Muslims who came of age post-9/11. “We have a different relationship with how we hold on to who we are,” says Youssef.
“It’s an awakening of the consumer market,” says Tousi of BoomGen. “Millennials are the most multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual generation in history. And they care about diversity and representation and authenticity.”
For some showrunners, Donald Trump’s presidency has had the opposite effect of 9/11. Soon after his electoral victory, Quantico dropped Islamic terrorism from the center of its plot line, and other shows unrelated to terrorism added Muslim characters, including Ali’s on Grey’s Anatomy. But it also led to networks canceling projects that could have made a positive impact. BoomGen lost three projects in the months after the 2016 election. AMC dropped its drama, with Jennifer Connelly attached to the role of a Jewish mother trying to bring her daughter back from the Islamic State, and ABC pulled the plug on an Iranian American family sitcom. BoomGen’s cofounder, Reza Aslan, hoped it would do for Muslims what Will & Grace did for gays and lesbians, but ABC has instead focused on “red state entertainment” like Roseanne, says Mahyad Tousi, who calls the progress made on racist misrepresentations “painfully slow.”
BoomGen has had more luck as a consultancy on Middle Eastern story lines. A decade ago, it was hired by Disney for Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, which among many things was skewered for whitewashing its characters. “We gave a ton of notes,” says Tousi. “None of them, literally zero, were accepted.” The opposite happened a decade later when Disney rehired the studio to consult on Aladdin. (Jack Shaheen was also invited to consult, but he was diagnosed with aggressive cancer and died in 2017.) Tousi, who has two young children who’ve seen few movies depicting families that resemble their own, is enormously proud of BoomGen’s contributions, and he defended Disney’s prolonged casting process for an Aladdin and Jasmine. He says he’s never seen more time and resources spent on finding a representative cast.
Not everyone believes that. Some film professionals doubted the sincerity of Disney’s claimed 2,000-plus international auditions, suspecting the numbers were inflated and leaked to protect the studio from any backlash to whitewashing the cast. Some viewed director Guy Ritchie’s choice of Arab princess, Naomi Scott, who is half-white and half-Indian, as a repeat of the animation’s misrepresentation. But actors I spoke to saw both sides of the argument, and some even worried that absolutist identity politics would narrow their already limited opportunities.
What would this mean for Frank Lackteen’s career? Perhaps more than anyone else he benefited from Hollywood’s ambivalence toward nonwhite talent. He built his career on misrepresenting foreigners and derived his fame from playing Native Americans, whose identities are still misappropriated by sports, fashion, and politics. When his luck dried up, it was B-Western Natives that supported him to the end.
In his final years, Lackteen was in such a poor state that a producer had to drive him to the Columbia Ranch. According to Alex Gordon’s published account, Lackteen was shivering in bed when he arrived at his small Hollywood apartment. “I’m really ill, I’m in such a bad way. I don’t even have my rent,” Lackteen told him. Figuring it was stage fright, Gordon persuaded him into the car with $125 check, and assured Lackteen that he wouldn’t have to say a line, appear on camera, or do anything beyond signing in.
In 1965, Spencer Gordon Bennet, who’d directed Lackteen’s career performance in Hawk on the Hills, directed him in his last film, The Bounty Killer. It’d been exactly 50 years since his screen debut. He has never received credit for that role, but for this he was credited “Man in Audience.” Lackteen’s career ended how it began, as a distinct but voiceless face in a crowd. Neither would’ve been possible were he not so willing to exploit our ugliest prejudices.
Because of what Lackteen represented, few in civil-rights-era America paid tribute or even noticed his passing three years later. He did not become the subject of books and biopics, à la Rudolph Valentino, 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.
Omar Mouallem is an Alberta-based journalist and author of the forthcoming book, Praying to the West, a travel memoir about Muslims in the Americas.