Friday, August 1

RIP James Shigeta

I always quite liked him... good actor, great voice, easy-going manner, classy. He was the only male Asian-American actor to play romantic leads in decades. It was considered quite daring at the time, that in a couple of his films, the objects of his affection were Caucasian women. So he was a bit of a trendsetter but, of course, his being Asian also limited his opportunities and his being at the top of his game had a short shelf life.

James Shigeta was born in Hawaii, of Japanese ancestry, in 1929. He always considered himself a farm boy at heart. His love of home and family was paramount to him and he never lost his ties with either.

He has said that being an actor never entered his head as a kid. He entered New York University to study creative writing. He had long had a love of singing and decided to pursue that after he entered The Ted Mack Amateur Hour and won first prize. He then happily sang in supper clubs across the U.S. until he entered the Marines and did a two-year stint in Korea. He was discharged in Japan and for a few years became a singing star there, becoming known as the Frank Sinatra of Japan, all the while having to learn the Japanese language. He also began appearing in a few Japanese movies which ignited in him a love of acting. When he returned to the U.S., he became the star of Shirley MacLaine and (her then-husband) Steve Parker's Las Vegas musical extravaganza, Holiday in Japan.

Hollywood had been paying some attention. Some wanted to break the long resistance to Asian actors playing Asians. Shigeta's good looks and appealing manner seemed to make him a shoo-in as a breakout star. He was signed to star in director Sam Fuller's gritty noir detective film, The Crimson Kimono (1959). It was a taut little thriller about two detectives on a murder case, both of whom fall for the star witness. Co-starring with Victoria Shaw and Glenn Corbett, Shigeta is the one who wins her. These were some changing times.

In 1960 Shigeta appeared in Walk Like a Dragon, directed and co-written by author James Clavell... an unusual western. Suffice it to say that any western featuring Asians at all would be an unusual western. Co-starring with Nobu McCarthy and Jack Lord (ugh!), it concerned a Chinese woman in San Francisco who is part of a slave auction. She is bought and freed but becomes involved with her savior, all the while being stalked by an admirer (Shigeta).

The next year, 1961, was Shigeta's to claim as his own. He made three films, two of which are his best. First up was a silly comedy with Glenn Ford and Donald O'Connor, Cry for Happy, about a U.S. Navy photographic team that uses a geisha house as its headquarters.

As Carroll Baker's husband in "Bridge to the Sun"

Then came the best role he ever had, my favorite of his work, and his as well, Bridge to the Sun. Costarring with Carroll Baker, they played a bi-racial married couple during WWII. Based on Gwen Terasaki's true story, it concerned an American woman living in Japan and married to a Japanese diplomat. When war breaks out, both are scrutinized, marginalized and stalked. Both actors were quite touching in their roles and the true-life aspect certainly gave the film a dramatic impact during troubling times.

Next up was Shigeta's most famous film, Flower Drum Song. Ross Hunter produced the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical (one of their least successful and not a great favorite of mine) about arranged marriages between Chinese-Americans and those newly from China. Shigeta not only got to return to his musical roots, but he was one of the few in the cast to do his own singing. As a young adult living with his strict father and more modern mother, he falls in love with a showgirl (perky Nancy Kwan) while a girl from the old country (serene Miyoshi Umeki) falls for him. It was big and noisy and somewhat monotonous but Shigeta and Kwan were a delightful duo.

Shigeta with Nancy Kwan

So there we are... after six films, the promise faded. That's Hollywood's promise we're speaking of. I doubt that they promised him roles but they gave him some hope. Likely there were not a lot of scripts available requiring an Asian actor, but there were one helluva lot of parts around where race was of no consequence. And I mean lead roles, too. Shigeta never gave less than his best and his best was impressive. He was a good actor. But from now on he would do a lot of television guest shots and while he continued to make films all his life, never again would it be a starring role.

He was visible in such films as 1966's Paradise, Hawaiian Style (as an Elvis buddy, something which occurred offscreen for a spell, too). In 1973's Lost Horizon, a blowsy Ross Hunter musical flop, Shigeta headlined one production number. He returned to Japan for a role in Sydney Pollack's The Yakuza (1974) starring Robert Mitchum. In 1988 he had a small but memorable role in Die Hard in which Alan Rickman shot him in the head when Shigeta refused to give him the security code to a skyscraper's bank vault. He continued working up to 2009 but mainly in television.

He never married nor was there ever a hint of romance attached to any of his interviews or articles about him. He maintained a strict veil of secrecy about his personal life so, of course, gay rumors swirled about him for years.

In recent years he'd suffered from some strokes and had been in and out of care facilities but he died in his sleep last week in his Los Angeles home.

Sayonara, Shigeta-san.

NEXT POSTING: The Directors

1 comment:

  1. I loved him as an actor and wanted to see him in more movies. He was extremely talented and is missed.