Yachteen, who changed his name to Frank Lackteen, appeared in several films and had a long artistic career. Fifty years after his death, what do we know about the first actor deliberately cast as the on screen villain?
From a bandit to a thief
Born in 1895 in Kab Elias, Yachteen emigrated to the United States with other family members who were looking to improve their economic situation and start a new life. Like the majority of immigrants coming from that region of Lebanon, the Yachteens settled down in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Mohammad was the youngest of three brothers and held various jobs before becoming an actor. Opportunity knocked on his door while he was visiting one of his brothers who was living in Montreal. At 17, Yachteen made his first appearance in a film by Frank Crane. He enjoyed the experience and decided to pursue acting when he returned to the United States, first starting out in New York and then moving to California.
Yachteen quickly figured out that his skin color, facial features, gestures and accent would help him in the profession. Throughout his career, he learned to make use of them to take on different roles: a bandit, a renegade, a thief, a Native American, a Mexican or a Chinese. He was cast to play characters of many different ethnicities, but most frequently as a Native American.
Going by Frank Lackteen, his career flourished during the silent film era in Hollywood, from 1911 to 1927. He remained active for five decades, until 1968. One of his most notable roles came in “Hawk of the Hills”, one of the few silent films to be saved by the Academy Film Archive. Lackteen played a Native American in the movie. He also acted in other films, such as “The Pony Express” in 1925 and “The Three Musketeers” in 1935. Omar Mouallem, a researcher and writer whose book “Praying to the West” is expected to be published next year by Simon & Schuster in Canada, knows Franck Lackteen well and considers him as one of his "ancestors".
Lackteen's career lasted for five decades, from 1917 until 1968. He interpreted a total of 500 roles.
An unacknowledged man
The most intriguing part of Lackteen’s career is that he never got the recognition he deserved in Hollywood or in the Arab-American community. Mouallem told L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ) that there are several reasons for this lack of acknowledgement.
"I think that Arabs were not aware of his true identity. The actor was not part of the Arab-American circle nor the Syrian-Lebanese Association. Mohammad, who was born Muslim, had chosen to convert to the Presbyterian religion, and then he became ‘Americanized’. He was married twice, and in both cases to women outside of his community,” Mouallem said. And yet, he also went unnoticed in his adopted country. "The Americans never put forward any biography about him. They never paid him any tribute or homage," he added.
Things started to change after Mouallem began to research the actor's past. Lawrence, Massachusetts, the city where Lackteen started his life as an American, will now dedicate a day to honor his memory. His films will be screened, and his artistic life will be examined. Would Mohammad Yachteen have appreciated this renewed interest? "No doubt,” Mouallem said. “But I think that he has always been in survival mode. Like any emigrant, he always felt indebted to his new country."
The nastiest on screen villain––who had a big heart in real life––would have probably appreciated his belated success.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 7th of October)