By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
James Shigeta, who played the romantic lead in Hollywood films in the late 1950s and early ’60s, passed away on Monday afternoon in Los Angeles, according to his publicist, Jeffrey Leavitt.
Leavitt said the actor died peacefully in his sleep. The cause of death was not given.
Shigeta’s birth year is given as 1933 in online biographies, which would make him 81, but according to his family, he was 85.
A native of Honolulu and one of six siblings, Shigeta studied acting at New York University and joined the Marines during the Korean War. He got his big break as a singer by winning first prize on Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour,” a popular TV talent show, and was an entertainer at supper clubs across the country under the stage name Guy Brion.
Although Shigeta, a Sansei, spoke almost no Japanese at the time, his career took off in Japan, where he signed with Toho Studios and became a stage, radio and television star. After appearing in the Nichigeki Theatre’s “Cherry Blossom Show” in 1958, he returned to the U.S. and appeared on “The Dinah Shore Show” and in Shirley MacLaine’s “Holiday in Japan” in Las Vegas.
It was in 1959 that his 50-year career in movies, and his brief status as a matinee idol, began. In 1960, he received a Golden Globe for “most promising male newcomer” along with Barry Coe, Troy Donahue and George Hamilton.
“In the late ’50s and early ’60s, it seemed as if James Shigeta was single-handedly responsible for portraying Asian American men as attractive not only to the opposite sex but white women, which was quite revolutionary,” said Guy Aoki of Media Action Network for Asian Americans. “The poster for 1959’s ‘Crimson Kimono’ even featured him kissing co-star Victoria Shaw, addressing the controversial match-up head-on by proclaiming: ‘Yes, this is a beautiful American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy!’
“Shigeta and Glenn Corbett played L.A. cops and friends who fall in love with Shaw, who ends up choosing Shigeta over Corbett — an Asian man over a white guy. That was pretty amazing as Asian men were usually used as comic relief and/or seen as asexual.
“In 1961’s ‘Bridge to the Sun,’ Shigeta portrayed a Japanese diplomat married to Carroll Baker. And if that wasn’t enough, in ‘Flower Drum Song,’ he was the object of affection from three Chinese women.
“It’s a shame that most of this isn’t readily accessible as most of these titles haven’t been available on DVD. It’s also a shame the actor couldn’t sustain these kind of high-profile movie roles, but I certainly appreciated the parts he played as they challenged the stereotyped notions of Asian men at the time — many of which, sadly, still persist to this day.
“I remember watching a 1976 episode of ‘SWAT’ where star Steve Forrest teamed up with Shigeta, a Chinatown detective. Shigeta got a lot of screen time and showed himself to be just as tough and clever as any white cop, and I was hoping he’d become a recurring character. He filled me with a sense of pride as it was so rare to see a Japanese American man in a positive and confident role.”
Samuel Fuller’s “The Crimson Kimono,” which is often featured in Asian American and noir film festivals, was shot in and around Little Tokyo. It includes a scene in which Shigeta’s character, Joe Kojaku, begins to wonder if his Caucasian partner — a friend since they served together in Korea — is bigoted toward Japanese Americans.
In “Bridge to the Sun,” Shigeta played real-life diplomat Hidenari Terasaki, who worked at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. Based on Gwen Terasaki’s autobiography, the movie shows the hardships suffered by the couple and their daughter when they were sent to Japan after the outbreak of World War II. Shigeta told The Nichi Bei Times that this film was “probably my favorite.”
In James Clavell’s “Walk Like a Dragon” (1960), Shigeta played Cheng Lu, a Chinese immigrant in the old west who resents the oppression of his people and vies with cowboy Linc Bartlett (Jack Lord) for the affections of Kim Sung (Nobu McCarthy).
“Flower Drum Song,” based on the Broadway musical, allowed Shigeta to show off his singing talents on the big screen with such numbers as “You Are Beautiful.” Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the story revolves around eligible bachelor Wang Ta (Shigeta), newly arrived immigrant Mei Li (Miyoshi Umeki), showgirl Linda Low (Nancy Kwan), and club owner Sammy Fong (Jack Soo), and the question of who is going to marry whom. Seamstress Helen Chao (Reiko Sato) is also in love with Ta and fantasizes about him in a dream sequence.
After a screening of “Flower Drum Song” in 2002 during the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, Shigeta told the audience, “We were honored and glad to be part of the first Asian American musical … It was a privilege … It was a wonderful, wonderful cast.”
He also said that he enjoyed the new stage version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, which has the same songs but a different story written by playwright David Henry Hwang.
In “Cry for Happy,” a comedy in which four U.S. sailors take over a geisha house in occupied Japan, Shigeta co-starred with Glenn Ford and Donald O’Connor. Umeki and Miiko Taka also starred. In one scene, it’s revealed that Shigeta’s character, who was supposed to be an interpreter, doesn’t speak Japanese.
Shigeta played Elvis Presley’s friend and business partner in “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” (1966).
Among Shigeta’s TV credits in the ’60s were “Dr. Kildare,” “Perry Mason,” “The Outer Limits,” “Ben Casey,” “I Spy,” “It Takes a Thief,” and “Hawaii Five-0.” In the ’70s, he appeared in such shows as “Mission: Impossible,” “Ironside,” “Kung Fu,” “The Rockford Files,” “Fantasy Island,” “The Streets of San Francisco,” and, in a recurring role, “Medical Center.”
On the big screen, Shigeta was one of the few cast members (along with Sally Kellerman and Bobby Van) to do their own singing in Ross Hunter’s “Lost Horizon” (1973), a remake of the 1937 movie about Shangri-La. Shigeta also co-starred with Robert Mitchum and Ken Takakura in “The Yakuza” (1974) and played Vice Adm. Nagumo in “Midway” (1976), which featured Toshiro Mifune as Adm. Yamamoto.
Shigeta continued to work mostly in TV, appearing in such ’80s shows as “The Love Boat,” “T.J. Hooker,” “Magnum, P.I.,” and “Simon & Simon” and the made-for-TV movie “Enola Gay.” But he may be best remembered for playing Joseph Takagi, head of the fictional Nakatomi Corp., in the Bruce Willis action movie “Die Hard” (1988). Shigeta’s character stands up to the terrorists who have taken over his building and is killed.
In addition to guest-starring in such ’90s shows as “Murder, She Wrote,” “Babylon 5,” “Cybill,” and “Beverly Hills 90210,” Shigeta did voice work for the Disney movie “Mulan” (1998) and the animated series “The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest.”
In 2000, Shigeta had a role in the yakuza crime drama “Brother,” starring, written and directed by Takeshi Kitano and set in Los Angeles. His most recent TV appearances were on “Threat Matrix” in 2004 and the animated show “Avatar: The Last Airbender” in 2005.
Shigeta was among the actors interviewed in “The Slanted Screen: Asian Men in Film and Television,” a 2006 documentary by Jeff Adachi, who is also head of the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
“James Shigeta was one of the most handsome, talented, classy and dignified actors of his era,” Adachi said. “He had a great voice and was an incredible singer. James, you will be missed but will live on in the wonderful legacy you have left the world.”
East West Players in Los Angeles said in a Facebook post, “We are saddened to hear about the passing of James Shigeta, who was a pioneering Asian American film and television actor in the early days of Hollywood. East West Players will remember him fondly for his ‘One Night Only’ special performance of ‘Love Letters’ by A.R. Gurney with ‘Flower Drum Song’ co-star Nancy Kwan in 2004.”
Shigeta was a recipient of the Visionary Award, along with actors Alec Mapa and Rodney Kageyama, Los Angeles City Councilmember Jan Perry, and composer Nathan Wang, at EWP’s annual gala in 2005. The award is for individuals who have raised the visibility of Asian Pacific Americans in their work and who have made a valuable impact on the APA community.
That same year, Shigeta was inducted into the Japanese American Hall of Fame by the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California along with fellow actors Pat Morita, Mako and George Takei and singer Pat Suzuki for opening doors for Asian Americans in the entertainment industry. The following year, the JCCCNC presented a performance of “Love Letters” by Shigeta and Kwan in San Francisco.
The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (now known as CAAMFest) saluted Shigeta in 2006 with a retrospective of his movies. Festival director Chi-Hui Yang called Shigeta “an actor truly ahead of his time, commanding complex and nuanced roles during a time when Asian American leading men were unheard of.” This video tribute was shown at the SFIAAFF.
The actor’s final film role was in Quentin Lee’s comedy “The People I’ve Slept With” (2009), in which Angela (Karin Anna Cheung) learns she is pregnant and tries to find out who the father is. Shigeta plays Angela’s free-spirited dad, who experiments with peyote and is in a relationship with a much younger woman.
Koji Steven Sakai, the film’s writer and co-producer, said, “It was an honor to work with such a great man and actor. It was a dream come true. He taught me what it meant to be a true professional. And he will be missed.”
Shigeta is survived by siblings Howard Shigeta and Barbara Sato (and husband Wayne) of Hawaii, Clarence Shigeta (and wife Eleanor) of Gardena, and Wilfred Joe Shigeta of Hawaii as well as many nieces and nephews.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Aug. 9, at 11 a.m. at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, 540 S. Commonwealth Ave., Los Angeles. The family requests semi-casua or aloha attire, and no koden. Arrangements are being made by Fukui Mortuary.