Actor James Shigeta died Monday in Beverly Hills. He was 85. Shigeta studied drama at New York University (NYU) and later served in the United States Marine Corps during the Korean War. He served for two and a half years and rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant. After the war ended, he was hired by Toho Studios in Tokyo. He enjoyed success in television, radio, on stage and movies and was widely known as “The Frank Sinatra of Japan.”
One of Shigeta’s most notable roles was in “Flower Drum Song,” a 1961 musical written by Richard Rogers. “Flower Drum Song” addressed clashing cultural differences between Chinese and Americans in San Francisco. He played Wang ta, a character caught between two potential love interests, a reserved lady in Mei Le and nightclub performer Linda Low. He proved to be an accomplished singer as he was the lead role in “Holiday in Japan” (1959) in Las Vegas and “The King and I” (1969), alongside co-stars Melva Niles and Pam Cavan.
Actor James Hong, a frequent co-star of Shigeta’s, said, “He was so handsome, so debonair, but there was the stigma in Hollywood about Asian leading men.”
Shigeta’s first acting role in the U.S. came in 1959 in the film “The Crimson Komono.” Directed by Samuel Fuller, the film received critical acclaim for its advanced expression of race relations in the late 1950’s. Shigeta co-starred with Glen Ford in “Cry for Happy,” a romantic comedy, in 1961. Four years later, he starred in “Paradise, Hawaiian Style,” with Elvis Presley.
Shigeta guest-starred in several TV shows, including “Perry Mason,” “Ironside,” and “Alcoa Premiere.” Additionally, he played a voice-over role in 2005’s “Avatar: The Last Air Bender” as the Old Wanderer.
Shigeta shared the 1960 Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Male Newcomer with George Hamilton, Troy Donahue and Barry Coe. He received a Visionary Award in 2005 from East West Players, an Asian-American theater organization.
Image Credit: UCLA Film and Television Archive
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