James Shigeta: Actor and singer who became Hollywood’s first Oriental romantic leading man since the silent era


The Japanese-American actor and singer James Shigeta starred in two major films of 1961, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song, in which he sang the hit ballad, “You Are Beautiful”, and the drama Bridge to the Sun, in which he played a Japanese diplomat married to an American (Carroll Baker).

The latter was the US’s official entry in the Venice Film Festival, and Shigeta was hailed as the first Oriental romantic leading man since Sessue Hayakawa in the silent era. His big-screen stardom, though, was not sustained, but he continued to have an active career on TV and stage, and became a notable character actor. His memorable roles include supplying the voice for General Li in Disney’s animated feature, Mulan (1998), and a telling few minutes in Die Hard (1988), in which he played the executive who refuses to give a bank security code to a vicious terrorist (Alan Rickman). “You’re just going to have to kill me,” he says, prompting Rickman to shoot him in the head.

Known as a “Sansei”, a third-generation American of Japanese ancestry, Shigeta was born in Honolulu in 1929, one of six children of a plumber. He attended New York University to major in creative writing, but switched to his first love, music, winning a popular talent show before enlisting as a Marine in the Korean War, rising to the rank of Staff Sergeant.

After the war he headed the cast of a musical revue in Japan, achieving immense popularity. His record of “Love Letters in the Sand” (a hit for Pat Boone in the US and UK) sold more than 2m copies, at the time the best-selling record in Japanese history. He had to find a tutor to teach him the Japanese language, and headlined both television and stage musicals. Returning to the US to star in television spectaculars with Dinah Shore and Shirley MacLaine, he headlined a revue, Holiday in Japan, in Las Vegas produced by MacLaine’s husband Steve Parker.

He made his US screen debut in Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959) as one of two cops who fall for a key witness. He then played featured roles in Walk Like a Dragon (1960), as a Chinese man in the turn-of-the-century West who resents the treatment of his race, and Cry for Happy (1961), a farce dealing with culture clash as Navy men invade a Japanese brothel.

He sang on screen for the first time when given the romantic lead in Flower Drum Song as Wang Ta, who is in love with showgirl Nancy Kwan, unaware that he is loved by two others, a shy Chinese immigrant (Myoshi Umeki) and an older woman (Reiko Sato). A dramatic dream ballet depicting the confused passions, choreographed by Hermes Pan, featured Shigeta in close-ups while a masked double handled the more ambitious dance movements.

In 1962 Shigeta signed to a record label co-founded by Fred Astaire, Choreo, and made an album, We Speak The Same Language, featuring mainly show tunes, such as Rodgers and Hart’s “This Funny World” and Strouse and Adams’ “I’ve Just Seen Her”. It revealed an appealing baritone, but his acceptance the same year of a guest spot in TV’s Naked City indicated that screen roles were not being offered.

It was five years before his next film, supporting Elvis Presley in Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966), subsequent films including Lost Horizon (1973), The Yakuza (1975), and Midway (1976) as Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. In 1969 he returned to the stage as star of a highly successful touring version of The King and I.

He appeared in over 100 television series and films, including Dr Kildare, The Outer Limits, Perry Mason, Hawaii Five-O, Kung Fu, Streets of San Francisco, The Rockford Files, The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote. His last television role was in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Throughout his career, he refused to be questioned about his private life.

James Shigeta, actor and singer: born Honolulu 17 June 1929; died Los Angeles 28 July 2014.

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