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

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
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

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker