Omar Mouallem, a Canadian journalist and author, wrote for the first time about Lackteen last May in an article called “Billionaires, Bombers, and Bellydancers: How the First Arab American Movie Star Foretold a Century of Muslim Misrepresentation.”
Months later, talking to Inside Arabia about Frank Lackteen or Mohammed Yackteen’s long journey to the United States, Mouallem doesn’t try to hide his emotions. The actor’s story still affects him deeply. In a passionate voice, he explains that Lackteen faced a lot of challenges that reminded him of what emigrants have to go through when they want to make it in the United States. He adds that the actor dealt with discrimination essentially because he was passionate about his work.
“It is true that Lackteen benefited from Hollywood’s ambivalence toward nonwhite talent and that he built his career on misrepresenting foreigners. But if he did it, it wasn’t because he was greedy, but rather just trying to make a living and help support his family.” The actor was often poorly compensated, especially when compared to other white leading actors, and Mouallem believes he never turned down work. At the end of his life, Frank Lackteen was destitute. He died in California in 1968, struggling to pay the rent on a modest apartment he shared with his wife.
For those who have never heard of Frank Lackteen, two facts stand out about him:
First, he had a very long career that started in 1915. 50 years later, he was still in the industry and he claimed that he had played in more than 750 roles. The audience applauded him in movies like “The Pony Express” in 1925, “Hawk of the Hills” 1927, “King of the Khyber Rifles” 1953. He also could be seen in “The Three Musketeers” 1935, “Anthony Adverse” 1936, “Union Pacific” 1939, “The Sea Hawk” 1940. He was sometimes the Mexican, the Chinese, the African, the Arab, and most often the Native American. Regardless of who he was trying to portray, his performance was always remarkable.
Lackteen had a remarkable personality and an exceptional ability to play the villain. Being thought of as one of the ugliest actors on earth amused him.
Secondly, watching Lackteen on the screen cannot leave the viewer indifferent. He had a remarkable personality and an exceptional ability to play the villain. Being thought of as one of the ugliest actors on earth amused him.
Frank Lackteen understood from the beginning of his career at the age of seventeen that his physical features could be unforgettable. He realized then that playing the evil character would serve him.
His acting career started when he was visiting one of his brothers in Montreal, Canada. There, he met the director Frank Crane who was filming a movie. When Crane saw Lackteen in a crowd, he immediately offered him an appearance.
After this first experience, he started searching for other acting opportunities. For more than fifty years, he pursued his dream. From the silent pictures to the talkies, from New-York to Los Angeles, Lackteen was a star always ready to leave the places he loved only to excel in what he was doing.
One place that remained important in Lackteen’s life is Lawrence, Massachusetts. That’s where at the age of seven, the Syrian-Lebanese emigrant Mohammed started his life working in the textile factories with other Syrian emigrants. His family decided to register him as Frank. Years later after his naturalization, he legally changed his full name to Frank Lackteen.
“It wasn’t because he was ashamed of his Arab heritage that he changed his name, or because he wanted to make it in pictures; he did it to make it in America. Like many Arab-Americans, Lackteen was equally proud and insecure about his roots.”
“It wasn’t because he was ashamed of his Arab heritage that he changed his name, or because he wanted to make it in pictures; he did it to make it in America.” As Mouallem explains, “like many Arab-Americans, Lackteen was equally proud and insecure about his roots.”
When reporters asked the actor about his background, he didn’t always tell the truth. “Some aspects of his culture he bragged about proudly, like being able to speak and write Arabic, and sometimes he even embellished his ancestry to appear more exotic and worldly than he actually was,” Mouallem told Inside Arabia. “Instead of admitting to his humble Bekaa Valley farming roots, he liked to tell reporters that he came from a family of Beirut or Damascus rug-makers.”
Whether because Lackteen invented other origins or because reporters made their own assumptions, he was also misreported as Persian, Russian, Turkish, and Spanish. Even today, the website findagrave.com describes him as “the son of Russian immigrants.”
During his later years, Lackteen remained unknown not only to Americans but also to the Arab community. “Because of what Lackteen represented, few in civil-rights-era America paid tribute or even noticed his passing three years later,” relates Mouallem in his article. “He did not become the subject of books and biopics, . . . receive a posthumous Walk of Fame star, . . . or garner any of the retrospectives that followed his immigrant contemporaries’ deaths.” He adds that the only thing mentioned in his short obituary was that he was a “great villain.”
To understand how Mohammed Yackteen from the Bekaa Valley became Frank Lackteen, the villainous Hollywood actor, Mouallem did a lot of research. He collected dozens of personal records from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archives and the National Archives. But before that, he had had a long conversation with his parents, originally Lebanese, for a book he had been writing on the lost history of Muslims in the Americas. “We were talking about our family village Kab Elias, and my father mentioned this once famous actor from our town named ‘Lackteen.’ And my mother chimed in to say it sounded like Yackteen, a family we’re closely related to from the same village.”
Mouallem’s mother guessed right. Mouallem then did a genealogical search and found out that the actor’s mother’s maiden name was Akroosh, the same as his great-grandmother’s. Realizing he was related to both sides of the actor’s family, Mouallem contacted all the mutual relatives he could find but none had heard of him. The only people who seemed to have noted his existence were fans of old western movies and the Lebanese film critic Mohammed Rouda, who had visited Kab Elias a decade earlier in hopes of finding people who knew him. Rouda also did not find anyone with prior knowledge of Frank Lackteen. The only proof both Rouda and Mouallem found of him in Kab Elias were birth records.
Now, years after Mouallem started his research on Lackteen, things are finally changing. People are increasingly curious to know about him. “It hasn’t just renewed appreciation for this forgotten actor, but for the few but equally important racialized actors working in Hollywood’s first chapter,” says Mouallem.
The actor will be featured in an upcoming exhibition celebrating the cultural contributions of early Arab-Americans.
The actor will be featured in an upcoming exhibition celebrating the cultural contributions of early Arab-Americans. Other museum curators have contacted Mouallem for Lackteen-related items for their collections in Lawrence Massachusetts.
As for Mouallem, nothing would bring him more joy than to see Frank Lackteen finally get the Hollywood Walk of Fame star that he deserved.