Find him in the shadows.
Frank Lackteen’s story began a century ago when the young Lawrence mill worker from Lebanon broke into the fledgling film industry by chance — a director noticed his face as a type.
Thereafter, from the silent era to the sound era, audiences in darkened theaters witnessed his lurking presence, ever poised to slice the life from unsuspecting souls, according to online movie sites and a recently published article on Arab stereotypes in film.
Watchers of old movies have seen Lackteen’s face. But few people know he spent his formative years in the Immigrant City — Lawrence.
Lackteen made his visage memorable by cultivating a chilling on-screen persona. He achieved stardom in the 1930s, propelled by pluck and an industry that played to stereotypes when casting villains.
The gaunt and dark-skinned Lackteen acted in hundreds of films over his 50 years in movies. His unlikely career started in about 1915. He transitioned to talkies, technicolor and television, working into the 1960s.
He appeared in dramas including “Less than Dust” with silent star Mary Pickford, “Jungle Girl,” “King of the Khyber Rifles” and “The Ten Commandments.” He also appeared in serialized productions including Three Stooges comedies.
Even in the Stooges he played the heavy. In “Malice in the Palace,” he plays Haffa Daffa, an Arab assassin who wears an eye patch.
His movie acting entered its last stage with roles in Westerns including “Blazing the Overland Trail” and B-movies such as “Bounty Killer” and “Requiem for a Gunfighter.”
Lackteen died of respiratory illness July 8, 1968, at the Motion Picture and Television Home and Hospital, Woodland Hills, California, according to his biography at b-westerns.com.
A beginning in Lawrence’s mills
Now, with his local connections coming to light, Lawrence history folks and residents with roots in his old neighborhood, The Plains, think about him with a mixture of pride and pity.
Lawrence Public Library archivist Louise Sandberg hadn’t heard of Lackteen until a Canadian journalist, Omar Mouallem — a distant relative of Lackteen’s — got in touch with her seeking information about the actor.
Mouallem told her that Lackteen emigrated to Lawrence in 1905 (then named Mohammed Hassan Lackteen) with his father, Hassan. They joined family and others who had come from the same mountainous region in Lebanon (then a part of Syria).
Frank Lackteen went to work in the Lawrence textile mills as a child (at age 11 or younger), likely fudging his age to skirt school attendance rules.
To qualify for a work permit, applicants had to prove they were at least 14. Officials, however, routinely turned a blind eye to falsified documentation, according to contemporary newspaper articles.
The father and son lived at 354 Elm St., a Lebanese enclave of Lawrence, with Frank’s brothers Michael and Thomas (their birth names were Mahmoud and Abdulla). They had come to Lawrence five years earlier.
Sandberg found in her records a citizenship application filed in a Lawrence court in 1903 by Michael Yakteen (variant spelling of Lackteen) who had come to the U.S. sponsored by Elm Street neighbor George Hajjar.
Michael worked in the mills. His brother Thomas was a laborer.
Typecast as a villain
Frank was the youngest of the three Lackteen brothers and, at some point in his mill tenure, worked as a cotton cutter, before the acting opportunity arose.
“It is a fascinating story, how someone gets a step up in the world and sees things they wouldn’t have seen because of his face,” Sandberg said.
Mouallem, of Edmonton, Canada, who wrote about Lackteen in his May online article “Billionaires, Bombers, and Bellydancers: How the First Arab American Movie Star Foretold a Century of Muslim Misrepresentation,” said Lackteen got his start in film when he was 17 while visiting his brother Michael who was then living in Montreal in 1915.
It’s a story that Lackteen told in interviews. He was watching a movie being filmed in Montreal and the director, Frank Crane, saw him and offered him $1.50 a day to appear as an extra in the movie. Crane saw in Lackteen’s apearance a type.
Lackteen enjoyed the experience and sought more of the same on sets elsewhere including those in New York City before following the industry to Hollywood.
The roles he would land included African, Asian, Mexican, Middle Eastern and Native American people.
Movie publicity photos show him with a knife between his teeth, a witch doctor grasping a sharp object or a tribal chief in a headdress.
The movie website filesofjerryblake.com describes Lackteen as an actor who was often typecast as a villain, though he played other roles. In either case, villain or otherwise, Lackteen made the roles memorable.
He sometimes improvised dialogue, tossing in Arabic words into his lines. To his roles, he brought the honed skills of an actor who had worked his craft.
“Gaunt and grim, with a beak-like nose and piercing eyes that made him look like a bird of prey, Frank Lackteen could convey crafty menace with a mere glare or a single dramatic gesture,” reads the filesofjerryblake website.
Lackteen had a face that scared children and had movie-goers looking over their shoulders in fright when they exited the theater, according to movie reviewers.
A family on the move
Mouallem says Lackteen’s career was buoyed by ugly caricatures that fed on base fears and prejudices against Arabs and “foreigners.”
But Lackteen recognized opportunity in exploiting the caricatures, enhancing his career and providing for his family.
He was married twice, first to a woman named Sarah (her maiden name is unknown). After their divorce, he married Muriel Elizabeth Dove in 1932. She was 23 and they had a daughter, Muriel. They lived in Los Angeles, remaining together until his death.
Lackteen was granted U.S. citizenship in 1941.
An early biographical sketch of Lackteen’s life, compiled in 1930s, is posted on the b-westerns.com site. It says he was born in Kab Elias (near Beirut) where he attended a Protestant school, and after moving to America lived in Lawrence for five years.
Elm Street, in The Plains neighborhood, was home to crowded tenements with apartments filled with Lebanese families. People who lived there typically worked in the nearby mills, or as laborers or at grocery stores, according to city directories from the early 1900s.
A city directory from 1903 at the Lawrence History Center lists Abdala Lakteen (a Lackteen spelling variant) living at 356 Elm St., shown on a Lawrence atlas as a large building.
The Lackteens later moved briefly to Springfield for work, in about 1910, before returning to Lawrence the following year to another Elm Street address, according to Census records.
The Lackteens were a family on the move, going wherever jobs and fellow Lebanese were located — a familiar pattern for immigrants seeking economic security and a social network in a new land.
Later the Lackteens, including Frank, moved to Detroit to work in automobile manufacturing after Henry Ford’s $5 a day wage went into effect.
Trading meatball for tabouli
Meanwhile, back in Lawrence, it was not untypical to have 40 to 50 people living in a large tenement at any given time in the early 1900s, said Amita Kiley, head of collections at the history center.
The center’s urban renewal collection includes photographs of the Plains neighborhood before the buildings were torn down. The photos show landmarks from the 1960s including Fournier’s hand-cut donuts and Nick Maloof’s restaurant.
The Plains enjoyed a strong sense of community.
Anthony DiFruscia, who grew up in the neighborhood, on White Street, and now owns apartments on Elm Street, recalls the neighborhood as friendly.
His family, of Italian descent, and Lebanese families would exchange food, meatballs for tabouli.
He recalled the establishments The Pyramid and The Sack Club, which sometimes had bellydancers.
DiFruscia, and others interviewed in this article, had not heard of Frank Lackteen or his family.
Starting in the 1890s some 3,000 Lebanese came to Lawrence, according to a study on Lebanese factory workers in Lawrence.
The study, done by North Carolina State University, with the Lawrence History Center and the Lawrence Public Library, shows that immigrants’ lives were hard.
The average age of death for Lebanese between 1895 and 1912 was 25 years old, and a large percentage of mill workers died from pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other respiratory infections.
Perhaps the harshness motivated Lackteen to pursue acting ambitions.
Ambition and a pride in his craft
Lawrence resident June Kfoury McNeil, whose father Kaspar Kfoury grew up in The Plains, and whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Lebanon, was until recently unfamiliar with Frank Lackteen and his local connection.
She did an online search of his name and found it among a list of famous Lebanese-American actors including Salma Hayek, Danny Thomas and Tony Shalhoub.
“I empathize with him,” said McNeil, an actress now in a Boston production of “Steel Magnolias.”
It might be easy, in retrospect, to criticize Lackteen for accepting roles that perpetuated stereotypes, she said. But, that is hindsight.
It’s likely, McNeil said, that Lackteen wanted to work and he saw playing the roles of villains as a way to keep working in movies.
Lackteen showed great discipline maintaining his gaunt look and hollow cheeks. According to interviews, he enjoyed baking but denied himself the treats knowing his bony appearance was his meal ticket to Hollywood roles.
Mouallem, who had family several generations back who lived in the Lawrence Plains and worked in the mills, said Lackteen’s story is complicated.
The stereotypical villainous roles he played are not something to look up to.
But he had ambition and took pride in his craft, and at a time when there were not many Arab-American actors, he may have served as a role model.
The director of collections at The Lawrence History Center is surprised at how Lackteen went unrecognized as a celebrity with Lawrence connections.
The city celebrates its movie stars Thelma Todd (“The Ice Cream Blond”) and singer Robert Goulet and maestro Leonard Bernstein. But Frank Lackteen has been largely unnoticed, Kiley said.
“It makes you think who else is out there that hasn’t been discovered or celebrated,” she said.
Terry Date may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.