Actor and singer James Shigeta has died at the age of 84. A Honolulu-born, third-generation American of Japanese ancestry, Shigeta had a long, busy career that was partly shaped by Hollywood’s uncertain approach toward Asian performers and themes. After his first, frustrated attempts to break into Hollywood, he spent some time under contract to Toho Studios in Tokyo and had a successful performing and recording career in Japan—even though when he first arrived in the country, he didn’t speak Japanese. He went on to have numerous roles in U.S. movies and TV shows, with his biggest success being the male lead in the 1961 film version of Rogers and Hammerstein’s Chinese-immigrant musical, Flower Drum Song.
Shigeta embarked on a professional singing career after winning first place on the TV version of Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, the American Idol of its day. In 1959, after his time in Japan, he retuned to the U.S., where he appeared on The Dinah Shore Show and co-starred with Shirley MacLaine in a Las Vegas stage production called Holiday In Japan, That same year, he made his American film debut as the lead in Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono, a police drama that featured a then-daring interracial love triangle.
It led to high-profile roles in Walk Like a Dragon (1960), Cry For Happy (1961), and Bridge To The Sun (1961), in which he gave a sympathetic performance as a Japanese diplomat who was married to an American (Carroll Baker), and who had the bad luck to be stationed in Washington, D.C. during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For a brief period, Hollywood took a chance on grooming Shigeta as a romantic leading man, and he was as prominent as any actor of Asian heritage had been in American movies up to that time.
Starting in the early ’60s and on into the ’90s, Shigeta became a familiar face on TV, appearing on such series as Naked City, Burke’s Law, Perry Mason, I Spy, Ben Casey, Hawaii Five-0, Mission: Impossible, Kung Fu, and The Rockford Files, Simon & Simon, and Murder, She Wrote, and Medical Center, where he had a recurring role.
He also played Elvis Presley’s wingman in Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966), and appeared in the ill-fated 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon, the Japan-set action film The Yakuza (1975), the World War II naval-battle film Midway (1976), and Takeshi Kitano’s Brother (2000). In 1998, he provided the voice of General Li in the Disney animated feature Mulan. This late-career period also yielded a role in one of his most widely seen projects, when he played Die Hard’s doomed Nakatomi executive Joseph Takagi, who refuses to cooperate with the terrorists holding him hostage.
Shigeta also appeared in the 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen, talking about his career and the depiction of Asians in American movies.