INTO THE NEXT STAGE: James Shigeta: Always Familiar, But We Hardly Knew Ye

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johnstonBy GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Depending on your age and interests, James Shigeta (June 17, 1929-July 28, 2014)was best known for: countless TV roles from the 1960s to the 1990s; 1959’s L.A.-set film noir “The Crimson Kimono”; a star turn in 1961’s “Flower Drum Song”; his key supporting role in 1988’s action thriller “Die Hard”; or his role in 2009’s indie pic “The People I’ve Slept With.”

Because of the length and breadth of his career, it seemed as though James Shigeta had always been around. News of this dignified actor’s death, which came to me via the ubiquitous medium of email, was duly noted in the Hollywood trades and in the mainstream press.

(A minor brouhaha arose because KABC Channel 7, when reporting Shigeta’s death, used a photo not of Shigeta but of, reportedly, playwright Henry David Hwang. Channel 7 probably used the photo — that is actually Hwang — that comes up when one Google’s “James Shigeta.” Hopefully, this will be fixed by the time you read this. Incidentally, Hwang is still alive. Regardless of which party is responsible for the mistake, that is a shameful lapse.)

Shigeta came to fame years after the first male Asian American crossover star, Sessue Hayakawa. Unlike Hayakawa, though, Shigeta wasn’t born in Japan; he was born in Hawaii (when it was still a territory), and he spoke perfectly fine English, albeit with a lilt of those born and raised in those islands during a particular time.

James Shigeta and Nancy Kwan in a scene from "Flower Drum Song."

James Shigeta and Nancy Kwan in a scene from “Flower Drum Song.”

After coming to the attention of Hollywood (winning on “The Ted Mack Amateur Hour”), Shigeta was cast in his movies as a leading man. In “Crimson Kimono” and “Bridge to the Sun,” he played the love interest and husband, respectively, to (everybody gasp in unison now) white women. Strange and sad how something from more than 50 years ago is still ahead of the curve today. In “Flower Drum Song,” Shigeta got to display his singing and dancing abilities.

Unfortunately, those movie roles in which Shigeta got to play the lead didn’t continue. However, he would have quite an astonishing run in television, landing roles in some of the most popular shows of many different eras, as a check on IMdB.com can testify.

To me, Shigeta was the most distinguished of a trio of successful Japanese American actors — all gone now — that also included Jack Soo, aka Goro Suzuki, and Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who eachhad stereotype-breaking crossover success. (George Takei and Clyde Kusatsu would be the next generation of JA actors to find success in Hollywood.)

Soo, Shigeta’s too-cool-for-school co-star in “Flower Drum Song” as Sammy Fong, had his biggest success in the beloved 1970s TV sitcom “Barney Miller.” Morita, meantime, appeared in 1976’s “Midway” with Shigeta and would actually top him, career-wise, as the iconic Mr. Miyagi in 1984’s “The Karate Kid,” for which he would receive an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

Both Morita and Soo, however, each had one egregious career stain in “Thoroughly Modern Millie” playing, literally, Oriental No. 1 and Oriental No. 2, racially stereotyped roles as Chinese laundry men. Shigeta never, to my knowledge, took a role like that, and I doubt he would have.

One insight as to why Shigeta may have stood apart from Soo and Morita came via a phone conversation I had with Jeff Adachi, public defender of the City and County of San Francisco and director of the documentary “The Slanted Screen.” Adachi pointed out that Shigeta’s rise to stardom was via the studio system and he was thus groomed to be a star. The very idea of playing “Oriental No. 1” would never have occurred to him.

James Shigeta and Victoria Shaw in a scene from "The Crimson Kimono."

James Shigeta and Victoria Shaw in a scene from “The Crimson Kimono.”

My supposition is that Soo and Morita, however, came up as comedic types, and probably didn’t realize until after it was done how demeaning their roles in “Millie” were.

Shigeta appeared in Adachi’s documentary “The Slanted Screen” and if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth seeking out. (FYI, if you have a Netflix streaming account, you can see it that way.)

Adachi gets Shigeta, with whom he would become friends, to reveal a bit about himself in the documentary, and why his stardom in Hollywood stalled out.

Shigeta said that he was at a rehearsal that was being watched by Joe Pasternak, an MGM producer who was a force behind many of that studio’s musicals. Shigeta said, “I was in a class somewhere and Joe was there, watching the class, and he turned to me and he said, ‘If you were white, you’d be a hell of a big star.’ ” Shigeta smiles after telling that story, but it’s a bit of a wistful smile.

Other than that, though, the general public didn’t get to know much about James Shigeta. He appeared regularly on the small screen and occasionally on the big screen. He voice is heard in some cartoons. But other than that, very little of what made him who he was is known. Maybe it was because he was part of an era gone by in which movie stars kept some mystery about themselves. Maybe that’s a good thing, in this age when talentless nobodies desperate for digital validation become celebrities by selling themselves out on the Internet, or when we can tell our Facebook “friends” and Twitter “followers” what we ate (with a photo, natch), where we ate it, how much it cost, how many hours we slept (and with whom), what a crummy day we’re having, etc.

While he played all sorts of roles in front of the camera, away from the camera, James Shigeta didn’t play that. “He really broke through the ceiling,” said Adachi. “There was really no one else doing what he was doing. It really put him in a class of his own.”

Adachi summed up Shigeta’s impact this way: “The thing that I respected about James is that he always played his roles well. No matter what kind of movie he was in, he would play a very strong, forceful character, not somebody who was fearful or meek, very masculine characters. Even today, when you watch his performance in ‘The Crimson Kimono,’ it’s a very rare thing for an Asian American.”

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2014 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

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