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'Flower Drum Song' Actor, a Groundbreaking Leading Man Four Decades Ago, Sings a Slightly Different Tune

It’s often noted that James Shigeta is the only Asian American actor to be groomed as a romantic lead in Hollywood’s studio system. At a time when interracial relationships were rare, Shigeta romanced leading ladies, who also happened to be Caucasian, in the groundbreaking films “The Crimson Kimono” (1959) and “Bridge to the Sun” (1961).

His most celebrated role later came in the splashy 1961 movie musical “Flower Drum Song,” where he performed opposite Nancy Kwan in a film that paved the way for the next generation of Asian Americans in media.

Now 45 years later, Shigeta has teamed up with Kwan once again to perform “Love Letters,” a play by A.R. Gurney that touches on themes of friendship, romance and the role of memory.
Shigeta spoke to the Nichi Bei Times last week in his suite at San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko. As he leaned back into his chair to make thoughtful responses, Shigeta had a commanding yet relaxed presence, discussing everything from Elvis’s mangos to the contemporary image of Asian Americans in film.

Nichi Bei Times: Do you think your Hawai`i upbringing has influenced you as a performing artist?

James Shigeta: I like to think so. People in Hawai`i are innately warm and friendly. I like to think that that carries over into my work. I never thought of it till you brought it up.

NBT: You started off as a song-and-dance man…

JS: I wouldn’t say “dance” so much. (laughter)

NBT: That was with the “Ted Mack Amateur Hour.” I was wondering what your thoughts are on today’s amateur talent shows, like “American Idol.”

JS: You know something? I haven’t watched a lot of that. Not deliberately. I don’t watch a lot of television…I think any venue that gives amateurs a chance to perform and perhaps be selected to be a professional is great.

NBT: So do you still sing?

JS: Do I still sing? Or can I? Until a couple of years ago I used to tour. I did a stage version of “Flower Drum Song.” I did a stage version of “The King and I” after Yul Brynner passed away.

NBT: Do you prefer stage performing to film work?

JS: I like them equally. I think they both require different things from actors, and they offer different things. A stage performer gets more immediate reaction, obviously, cause you’re looking for a group as opposed to a camera. By the same token, if you’re doing a long-running play you get to experiment with some that work, some that don’t…There’s a certain excitement, too, doing it in front of a live group instead of a cold camera. The other thing you have to consider is that film is lasting, as opposed to a performance one night that isn’t.

NBT: How did you prepare for your role in “Love Letters”?

JS: I think my preparation was being mature (laughter) because you have to be for the role. These are two people that have been sweethearts since they were kids, and all through the years they’ve kept in touch. They married different people, but they still think about each other. It’s a beautiful, beautiful story.

NBT: You majored in English at NYU…

JS: Not only NYU, but also University of Hawai`i, where I studied, and University of Southern California. And I still haven’t graduated. I don’t have my Bachelor’s. I have about half a semester (left) because I went into the Marine Corps.

NBT: Have you thought about working on your memoirs?

JS: I’ve been asked that…but everyone’s writing a memoir now.

NBT: Have you been offered any roles that you rejected because you thought they negatively depicted Asians?

JS: Yes, which I turned down, obviously. Mostly because I thought that I and others like me advanced the image of Asians to the point where it was real and legitimate. But all of these stories have regressed into stereotypes. At one point it was strictly martial arts. Then it became Asian gangs. I don’t know, I think the language has deteriorated. Like most gang films you see are pretty rough, and as I said earlier, film is lasting. And there are certain things I don’t want to last forever…We tried so darn hard to advance the image of the Japanese American, and it has regressed ? for some reason, I don’t know why recently ? to the point where it would be of embarrassment to the people who saw it, to the people who filmed it. In that case I won’t get involved.

NBT: What was your awareness or experience with interracial relationships around the time you made “Crimson Kimono” in 1959?

JS: OK, first of all don’t forget I’m from Hawai`i. And in my family alone, extended family…there were eight different races involved. And in Hawai`i interracial marriages are nothing (unusual). So I grew up familiar with it. I didn’t think much of it. I think others made more of it than I did.

NBT: Do you think “Crimson Kimono” is a film that could be made today?

JS: Yeah, of course. Actually, Sam Fuller, who wrote and directed the film, patterned (my role) after a real detective.

NBT: What was it like working with Sam Fuller? He’s become sort of a cult icon.

JS: In Europe he’s been known for years and years. He and people like Hitchcock. Europeans revere directors ? more than they do actors, anyways ? because they’re real film buffs. And Sam was one of them. In his later years when he retired, he went to France. And I think he died there. I’m not sure. (pause) It was great fun working with him. I think that was my first film. I was with Columbia. I had watched different films that were made on the lot. They always began the scenes with “action.” You know, the director saying, “action.” Not Sam. He’d show up with his pistol (and fire it). And I’d say, “What the heck was that?” And the assistant director would be laughing, and he’d say, “That’s his way of saying ‘action.’”

NBT: Would he do that every time?

JS: Yeah. After a while you knew what he was about, so he didn’t phase you.

NBT: Did anyone ever get injured? It sounds pretty dangerous to be shooting guns on a set.

JS: (He was) shooting blanks.

NBT: How did you receive that role for “Crimson Kimono”?

JS: I was with Columbia. I was one of their stock players. So it was Glenn (Corbett), who played my partner, and Victoria Shaw. I think of the three of us, Victoria was the most experienced…We were all at Columbia. And she says, “Sam likes to use young people,” who I guess are easy to direct. And at first I was really kind of hesitant because I didn’t know what this madman was about. But I came to have great respect for this man. He was tremendously tolerant of interracial actions, of anything that was controversial.

NBT: What were your thoughts when you read the script for the first time?

JS: Well, you have no choice of whether you’re going to read it and do it or not when you’re under contract. Here’s your script and you start on this day. First of all, when you’re asked if you want to do it, I say of course. Before I even read the script. Because when you’re under contract you’re guaranteed so many films a year, but you never know when that’s going to happen. I was young and stupid. I didn’t know who Sam Fuller was until I saw him doing it, and I asked around.

NBT: Given the social climate against miscegenation at that time, what kind of response did you get after you did that movie? Did you get any hostile reactions…

JS: Because I got the girl?

NBT: Yeah.

JS: Who happened to be hakujin (Caucasian)?

NBT: Right.

JS: Nothing.

NBT: What about with “Bridge to the Sun”?

JS: That they couldn’t fight because it’s a true story. That was a true story based on a novel written by his widow, Gwen Terasaki. Actually, it’s probably my favorite film.

NBT: Why is it your favorite?

JS: It’s a true story. It’s a story about a pacifist who was considered a traitor in his own country because they were at war with America, and he was fighting no war. He was a pacifist, so even though he went back home to Japan he was persecuted by his own people, and chased over his own country. So they considered him to be a traitor.

NBT: “Bridge to the Sun” and “Crimson Kimono” both screened at the SF International Asian American Film Festival, but I haven’t seen “Bridge” available on VHS or DVD. Have there been any efforts to reissue it?

JS: I hope so. Someone else was asking about that. It was shown on television, so they must have some print somewhere…I’d like a copy.

NBT: You don’t have one?

JS: I have one, but so many people have borrowed it…It’s a little worn. As I said, it’s a true story. You can’t fight it. Again, it was a very positive portrayal of a Japanese.

NBT: Your trivia on the Internet Movie Database says that you’re fluent in Japanese, French and Italian. Is that true?

JS: I was fluent in Japanese. That’s kind of deteriorated because there’s no place to use it after I got out of Japan. For a while it was fine…Italian has gone the same way as my Japanese…I can still speak French, but conversationally every country’s language involves slang…When I first went there I spoke a very literate French that I learned in school. For four years I studied French. They kind of laughed and put up with it because it was very literate, very formal…I think if I heard it again it would come right back. Hawaiian pidgin would. I have to hear it though.

NBT: So do you think that language background has informed your acting?

JS: Not my acting so much, but maybe my singing.

NBT: In what way?

JS: Well, first of all, I studied opera. You have to learn a foreign language. You sing in Italian, in French, some in German.

NBT: Did you ever come across any groupies or fans with an Asian fetish?

JS: Not lately. I used to…I guess my least favorable encounter was with a gal from Canada, who I later found out was from Canada. She used to park outside my house in a pink ? I think it was a Nash, some kind of small car. And I used to wonder what the heck that was doing there every day. Anyway, later on I found it was a fan who camped out.

NBT: What was it like working with Elvis in “Paradise, Hawaiian Style”?

JS: Very fun. Elvis and I became friends…I did feel sorry for him because we both had suites at a hotel in Waikiki, but this guy never left. He had his cronies with him, an entourage of about five guys. And I was always asking him if he’d like to go out to dinner. He didn’t dare because he would be mobbed anywhere he went. So this poor guy had to watch television, and the thing that I remember very vividly was that he would ask me if I would get mangos. And I’d said yeah, all my relatives have huge trees. So every day I’d come back with a bunch of mangos, and I’d throw them up to his terrace. He’d catch ‘em one by one. He loved mangos. We became friends and I visited him in Vegas. He was married to Priscilla.

NBT: What advice would you offer to young Asian American actors?

JS: There is no pat formula for success in acting…If you want to try for anything like that you follow your heart, give it all you can with passion. And the rest is really luck, being prepared for the time when something comes your way.

* This article was originally published in the Nichi Bei Times for the week of July 6, 2006.

© 2006 Nichi Bei Times

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