Miyoshi Umeki

Actress who with her role in 'Sayonara' became the first Asian performer to win an Oscar


Miyoshi Umeki, actress: born Otaru, Japan 8 May 1929; married 1958 Frederick W. Opie (marriage dissolved 1967), 1968 Randall Hood (died 1976; one son); died Licking, Missouri 28 August 2007.

Miyoshi Umeki, a demure, appealing actress with a wistful smile and the ability to convey unfettered innocence, was the first Asian performer to win an Oscar. In her first Hollywood film, Sayonara (1957), an adaptation of James A. Michener's novel about American servicemen in occupied Japan in the early Fifties, she gave an extraordinarily moving performance as Katsumi, a Japanese woman who falls in love with and marries an American airman. When he is ordered back to the United States, but told that he may not take his wife with him, the couple commit suicide.

Umeki won the Oscar as best supporting actress for her performance, and Red Buttons, who played her husband, won the supporting actor award. In 1959 she triumphed on Broadway as a star of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song, for which she received a Tony nomination.

Born in Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan, in 1929, Miyoshi (meaning "beautiful life") Umeki was one of nine children. She became a radio and nightclub singer in her teens, recorded for RCA Japan (billed as Nancy Umeki), and after the Second World War she became known to American occupation forces in Japan, where she was the first singer to record American songs. Later she stated that she used to feel disturbed that she was paid: "Old family have strange custom. Girl shouldn't work. I felt bad because now I'm getting paid, really working."

In 1955 a talent scout advised her to move to New York City, where she sang in nightclubs, appeared on Tennessee Ernie Ford's television show, and acquired a recording contract with Mercury Records. The television personality Arthur Godfrey, known as a shrewd talent-spotter, gave her a regular slot on his morning variety show, Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, and she was seen on the programme by the director Joshua Logan, who was preparing Sayonara and realised that she would be ideal to play the tragic Katsumi. Umeki's only prior movie experience had been in Japan, where she played a Siamese cat in a fairy tale.

Umeki's Oscar win was something of a surprise – the tipped favourites were Elsa Lanchester in Witness for the Prosecution and Carolyn Jones for The Bachelor Party – and Umeki told the audience: "I wish someone would help me right now. I didn't expect, and have nothing in my mind." Though she was the first Asian to win the award, another Asian was nominated the same year – Sessue Hayakawa for his supporting performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

The stage musical Flower Drum Song started life as a novel by C.Y. Lee about the conflicts between first- and second-generation Chinese living in San Francisco, and its dramatic possibilities appealed to the songwriting team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Richard Rodgers recalled, "Josh Logan had told me about a Japanese girl named Miyoshi Umeki who had a slight but adequate voice, and she turned out to be just right for the shy heroine."

In Flower Drum Song, directed by Gene Kelly, she was perfectly cast as the naive mail-order bride who arrives in San Francisco with her father and promptly falls in love. With this realisation, she introduced one of the finest of the musical's songs, "I Am Going to Like It Here". Umeki was nominated for a Tony for her performance, and she repeated the role in the film version, produced by Ross Hunter in 1961. "It was the first time a mainstream Hollywood film had an all-Asian cast," said her co-star Nancy Kwan. "The Asian community was very excited about that." In this moderately faithful transcription, Umeki sang the three numbers she had introduced on Broadway: "I Am Going to Like It Here", lovingly filmed with Umeki mostly in mid-close-up as she walks in the garden, "A Hundred Million Miracles", and the amusing duet she shares with Jack Soo, "Don't Marry Me".

With roles for Asians still limited, Umeki appeared in only three more movies. She was a geisha girl in Cry For Happy (1961), a comedy in which four Navy men are unknowingly billeted at a geisha house, then she had roles in The Horizontal Lieutenant and A Girl Named Tamiko (both 1962). She was more prolific on television, doing guest spots in several shows including Dr Kildare, Rawhide, The Donna Reed Show and The Virginian. From 1969 to 1972 she had a recurring role as Mrs Livingston, philosophical if sometimes confused housekeeper, in the situation comedy The Courtship of Eddie's Father, starring Bill Bixby, who described her as "the best actress I've ever worked with". When the show's run ended, Umeki retired.

Her last television appearance was in a salute to Oscar Hammerstein in 1972, and in recent years she refused to give interviews. (She was a notable absentee from the documentary on Flower Drum Song that was made to accompany the recently released DVD.)

Tom Vallance

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
News
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas