Born May 8, 1929, in Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan; died of complications from cancer, August 28, 2007, in Licking, MO. Actress. Miyoshi Umeki’s tragic role in the 1957 film Sayonara earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first Asian performer ever to win an Oscar. Her career included stints on Broadway and on the hit ABC sitcom The Courtship of Eddie’s Father from 1969 to 1972, but Umeki left show business for good when she became a wife and mother.
Born in 1929, Umeki came from an affluent family in Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan, where her father owned an iron factory. She was the youngest of nine chil- dren, and was rarely missed by the bustling household when she snuck off to catch performances at the local Kabuki theatre. A talented musician on several instruments, she played the harmonica, mandolin, and piano. “I just loved any sound that you could do it with instrument,” as she told an interviewer for Time in the 1950s. She also taught herself American pop songs from imported records and, when U.S. forces occupied Japan in the aftermath of World War II, from Armed Forces Radio broadcasts.
Umeki’s performing career began when her brother invited three U.S. sailors to the family home, and they began returning to spend evenings playing music together. The Americans encouraged her to sing with them, which led to a gig with a U.S. Army jazz band, and from there she was signed by RCA Japan. Her album of cover songs was recorded under the name Nancy Umeki, and she is thought to be the first Japanese singer ever to record American music. During this period of the early 1950s, Umeki spent three years either recording, giving concerts, or promoting her records.
A talent scout convinced Umeki to try her luck in the United States, and she arrived in New York City in 1955. Signed to Mercury Records, she appeared on a number of television variety programs, including Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, and that episode was seen by film director Joshua Logan, who offered her a role in his upcoming project. Sayonara was the title of a bestselling novel by James A. Michener about American military personnel in Japan. Umeki was cast as Katsumi, who falls in love with a U.S. Air Force sergeant named Joe Kelly, who was played by Red Buttons. The newlyweds encounter racism from both sides, with U.S. military officials uneasy with such unions and Japanese families vehemently opposed to their daughters’ romances with foreigners. Marlon Brando also starred in the film as another Air Force member who falls in love with a Japanese woman. When Buttons’ character receives orders to return to the United States and is told he is not permitted to bring his bride him, the couple come to a devastating decision. “In the film’s most heartrending moment Brando discovers Buttons and Umeki’s bodies en-twined on a bed, after they have gone through with a suicide pact,” noted Umeki’s Times of London obituary.
Umeki won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars in March of 1958 for Sayo-nara, and appeared visibly shocked when she took the stage to accept it. “I wish somebody would help me right now,” she told the audience, according to USA Today. “I didn’t expect and have nothing in my mind.” Later that year she appeared on Broadway in The Flower Drum Song, the hit Broadway musical from Rodgers and Hammerstein. She originated the role of Mei Li, a mail-order bride, and reprised the role for the 1961 film version.
In the early 1960s Umeki had roles in the films Cry for Happy, The Horizontal Lieutenant, and A Girl Named Tamiko. From 1958 to 1967 she was married to television director Frederick “Wynn” Opie, and after they divorced she wed documentary producer and director Randall Hood. Her final role was as the housekeeper Mrs. Livingston on the sitcom The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, which ran on ABC from 1969 to 1972. Bill Bixby played the title character, a widower with a young son (Brandon Cruz) who takes an active role in trying to find his father a new wife.
For a time, Umeki and Hood ran a film equipment rental business in the Los Angeles area, but he died in 1976. A quarter-century later, she moved from her longtime North Hollywood neighborhood to Missouri, where her son, Michael, lived with his family. She died of cancer in a nursing home in the city of Licking on August 28, 2007, at the age of 78. Survivors include her son, two grandchildren, and numerous relatives in Japan. “She was quite proud of her accomplishments,” Michael Hood said, according to Umeki’s Los Angeles Times obituary by Dennis McLellan. “She loved performing, loved what she did, but she simply wanted to retire . She was done with show business. She wanted to get out and just lead a nice, quiet family life.” Sources: Los Angeles Times, September 6, 2007, p. B8; New York Times, September 6, 2007, p. C16; Time, December 22, 1958; Times (London), September 20, 2007, p. 66; USA Today, September 5, 2007.