Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Golden Globe Winner James Shigeta, Veteran of Film and TV, Dies at 85; Excerpts of 2007 A/P/A Institute Q & A with Sukhdev Sandhu

James Shigeta at the APA Institute screening and Q & A of The Crimson Kimono on December 6, 2007 at the Cantor Film Center in New York. Photo by Lia Chang

James Shigeta at the APA Institute screening and Q & A of The Crimson Kimono on December 6, 2007 at the Cantor Film Center in New York. Photo by Lia Chang

Updated 7/30/14 1:33 A.M.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, James Shigeta, a top Asian-American actor of the early 1960s who starred in the screen adaptation of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song, died Monday in Los Angeles, publicist Jeffrey Leavitt announced. He was 85. Click here to read the full article in the Hollywood Reporter.
latimes.com: James Shigeta dies at 85; starred in ‘Flower Drum Song’ and ‘Die Hard’

In 2007, I met the legendary Hollywood star and singer at the Cantor Film Center in New York, when the A/P/A Institute kicked off The First Thursdays Film Series with a James Shigeta Film Festival. Shigeta was a beacon for Asian males to cross into lead actor roles in the Hollywood studio. Two of the three films presented in the program discussed taboo issues of interracial relationships at a time when Asian leads were few to non-existent on the silver screen.
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A Q & A with Shigeta and Sukhdev Sandhu, Assistant Professor of English and Asian/Pacific/American Studies at NYU and the chief film critic for the London Daily Telegraph followed the viewing of Samuel Fuller’s 1959 noir THE CRIMSON KIMONO, which featured the actor as detective Joe Kojaku in a rare mixed-race on-screen kiss between an Asian male actor (Shigeta) and lead Caucasian actress (Victoria Shaw).

I returned the next night for a double bill featuring BRIDGE TO THE SUN, which tells of the struggles of a Caucasian Gwen Terasaki (Carroll Baker), married to Japanese diplomat Hidenari Terasaki (Shigeta) during WWII. Released in 1961, BRIDGE TO THE SUN is also the actor’s favorite film. The final film in the festival was the 1960’s Western WALK LIKE A DRAGON, starring Shigeta as Cheng Lu opposite Jack Lord and actress Nobu McCarthy.

James Shigeta

Jame Shigeta

Sukhdev Sandhu Introduction: Welcome him back to NYU where he majored in English.

In a culture saturated with caricatures and stereotypes, he’s somebody who has really carried himself. He’s played roles that are multi-dimensional and very human. And played with a tremendous amount of dignity. He was the first Asian American actor who went through the studio system and worked at MGM, Universal and Columbia. He’s Hawaiian born, was in the Marines during the Korean war, trained in opera and also is a Golden Globe recipient for the best newcomer for The Crimson Kimono. He has performed singing in various venues. One which is interesting and notable opposite Shirley MacLaine in Holiday in Japan. He’s also fluent in French, Italian and Japanese. And he’s really a gentleman, a modest man, a man with a great booming laugh.

Tonight is a really rare opportunity in the sense that this is a 35 mm print for those of you who are film buffs. It’s been very hard to get a hold of his films. We at A/P/A have been very concerned about this whole question of documentation, having the material to work with to be able to write the history. To be able to show the work. Of course there’s a fight to get more of his stuff. There’s also this tragedy in which there are great performances and actors, especially someone who is rare like James, who’s part of American film history. It’s actually very hard to get a hold of these films, so have we have an archival problem that we’re facing.

A lot of our students that are taking our courses are concerned about the representation of Asian Americans in film and in media. There’s a particular problem that I think a lot of us are aware of in terms of the lack or representation of Asian American males. Let alone outside of the usual Kung Fu, martial arts kind of performance we know that people like Jet Li or even Bruce Lee never get to kiss the girl. This is one major issue. Go to the James Shigeta tribute on youtube, you’ll see an amazing amount of kissing in these excerpts, kissing everywhere. And it’s not just Asian women, it’s also White women. It seems crazy for me to be saying this now, but on the other hand, we know how there’s such a dearth of this kind of more fuller range of representation.

Sukhdev Sandhu: What are your memories watching that film after all these years?
James Shigeta: I always get very queasy watching the film. I get queasy watching myself in anything especially the very first effort. It was nerve wracking to watch because I think I’ve learned so much since. You see all the terrible errors you make and stuff. Over all it was great fun. The director was very kind.

Sukhdev Sandhu: It also reminded me, there’s this shadow archive of films even for the hunter and collectors amongst us in the audience, almost impossible to find even in the deepest recesses of Ebay. Parts of it reminded me, at least initially of another work of noir from the period, Sweet Smell of Success, who’s cinematographer was the great James Wong Howe, whose work is also being rediscovered fresh at the moment.

You’ve been in the Marines, you’d been a platoon leader, you had come from Hawaii to NYU. How did you get into film acting as well? Who were the actors that you admired, that you looked up to when you were growing up?
James Shigeta: When I was growing up? A lot of people. I never thought I was going to become an actor. My major in college was in English, I wanted to either be a writer or a teacher. I might still have gone that course but it was very accidental.

Sukhdev Sandhu: Can you talk us through the journey you made in the Early 50’s to appearing in this film? You were a singer. How did you come to the attention of Sam Fuller, for example?
James Shigeta: I was a singer. I performed in nightclubs. And after the Marine Corps I resumed my college experiences. It was very accidental. Someone saw me singing and asked if I wanted to do a film. And I did. I always intended to just be a singer. Initially, my major was changed. I sang in nightclubs exclusively for one and did radio and television somehow, I don’t know how it happened, getting into film.

Carroll Baker and James Shigeta in Bridge to the Sun. Photo courtesy of TCM

Carroll Baker and James Shigeta in Bridge to the Sun. Photo courtesy of TCM

Sukhdev Sandhu: What kind of songs? Were you a crooner? Were you an early folkie?
James Shigeta: I actually studied opera until I realized after a couple of years or so that I was a baritone. Baritones always played fathers and villains and older men, while tenors got all the wonderful parts and beautiful songs. So I switched over to musical comedy, not exactly a crooner, but pop singing.

Sukhdev Sandhu: One of the things that you notice is that even if one shuts one’s eyes when watching your films, the richness and velvetiness of your voice really shines through. You entered Hollywood at a time when the studio system was on its last legs. And its hard these days, when studios are often seen as inhibiting or strangling the talent or the independence of actors. There was a time when studios were seen as helping actors’ careers and helping them to develop and gestate their talents. What was your experience?
James Shigeta: My experience at the old studios was wonderful. As a young actor, I learned so much and I derived so much from the studios. They provided everything. They taught you singing if you wanted, dancing classes, how to walk, how to dress, they took care of your fan mail, everything. They really spoiled you. My treat as a fan of film was to see all these wonderful big stars walking the streets of the studios. It was an adventure every day.

Sukhdev Sandhu: It sounds almost like a kind of grooming school. Or a finishing school for the performer. You were at MGM initially, is that right?
James Shigeta: I was at MGM initially. And then I went on to Columbia and Universal. The biggest stars I saw were at MGM. I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful all the experiences were seeing people like Ava Gardner, Clark Gable.

Sukhdev Sandhu: Did you have a group of actors or performers that you were drawn to? Did you think of yourself as kind of a rare apprentice?
James Shigeta: I was drawn to everyone who had experience, which I didn’t have at the time. I was there to learn, which I did. Metro never used me in any films, though I did do a film for Metro, but that was MGM East (MGM NY) for Bridge to the Sun, which is my favorite film of all time. I think basically because it’s based on a true story.

Sukhdev Sandhu: You certainly had the body, the way of carrying yourself and a certain kind of toughness as well which in parallel life would have led you to take up method acting, yet you never really did. Why?
James Shigeta: After the first film which I had no acting experience at all, I did take up acting, but I studied more with people that were on the stage. I think they taught more technique then method acting, which I think was more a practical way to act because you didn’t have to take hours or minutes to get into the mood to do a scene. You relied on technique to do it almost instantly.
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Sukhdev Sandhu: It’s an interesting context in which to show your films. Many of the earlier ones have a marriage of East vs. West, many of have very momentous scenes of interracial dating or of kissing. They were seen by some people as representing a sea change in relations and the prominence of Asian performers in Hollywood as well. Did you ever feel, or were you aware at the time that people saw you as kind a cultural ambassador?
James Shigeta: Well that’s very flattering. No, I didn’t know. I wish in some small way I influenced some people in the right direction. My favorite project, something which I am truly proud of is the James Shigeta scholarship at the University of Hawaii for people involved in Asian Pacific Studies. I think of all the things I’ve done in my life that I’m truly proud of.

When I was going through school, I was helped with scholarships by different people, different groups. I think without, I could not have endured all those expenses. I thought when I did amass a little bit of money, I decided to pay back a little bit. So they asked with the amount of money I gave, whether to give it all at one time and give scholarships to several people, or invest the money and give people a scholarship in perpetuity. In other words, with the interest from the monies they could give a scholarship every year forever. It’s some small thing I gave back and I’m really grateful to the people who provided that for me. I hope I can in a small way, help some other people to accrue some of that experience and education, which is terribly expensive.

Sukhdev Sandhu: The history of the film Bridge to the Sun, is based on a true story of a marriage between a Japanese diplomat and a girl from Johnson City, Tennessee who meet in Washington DC. It is a true story and a beautiful love story. It’s a war drama as well. It was promoted as heavily as it might have been at the time. It was directed by Etienne Périer.
James Shigeta: Yes, Etienne Périer is a French director. It was released through MGM NY.

Sukhdev Sandhu: In terms of the rhythms of the film, the lighting and the landscapes it uses, it has a very different feeling from some of the other films that you’ve made.
James Shigeta: It has a very European feel, French feel. But I think it also comes about because it is a true story. And you can’t deviate from it. There’s no hokum or Hollywood involved in it at all. It’s told exactly as it happened, and as it was written by his widow. I think it was one of the best films I’ve done. It is my favorite.

Sukhdev Sandhu: It’s a bit of a lost classic really. Another film that’s very much admired by the few who’ve see it is Walk Like a Dragon. Do you have such warm feelings towards that film?
James Shigeta: The writer/director was James Clavell, who wrote Shogun later and was quite a real gentleman. I didn’t realize that during the war, he was a prisoner of war of the Japanese, but during filming he indicated nothing but love and good will toward me. It really helped me through it. I didn’t realize until later what he had personally gone through. It’s amazing that he held no bitterness toward anyone of that race and I admired him very much.

Sukhdev Sandhu: The main film that is available on DVD to view made in 1961 in Flower Drum Song. That was a huge hit as well, adaptation of a book onto stage, onto film and its startling to watch even these days because of the wealth of talent from Asian American actors, many of whom had never appeared celluloid before. What are your memories of that? You really got an opportunity to use your singing skills.
James Shigeta: Well, let’s put it this way, how often would you think Rodgers & Hammerstein would write a film for a musical based on an Asian family? I though it a very dignified reflection of a Chinese family in San Francisco. And of course, the music written by them, beautiful. I had great fun shooting it.

Sukhdev Sandhu: In the films that you played in, a number of them you represented Asian or Asian American characters. Did directors look to you for advice about elements of the characters or how the characters might speak in any given situation?
James Shigeta: In terms of a Japanese character? Well that depends, if it were a Japanese American character, yes perhaps. A lot of the Japanese for instance, I used in Crimson Kimono, I had to learn before the scene, of course, before I spoke it. Being born in Hawaii, we never really learned how to speak Japanese. My parents spoke it when they didn’t want the kids to know what they’re talking about. By the way, I actually played the piano in the film.

Victoria Shaw and James Shigeta in The Crimson Kimono (UCLA Film and Television Archive)

Victoria Shaw and James Shigeta in The Crimson Kimono (UCLA Film and Television Archive)

Sukhdev Sandhu: You mentioned that the studios looked after actors almost as a kind of manager in some ways, it helped with publicity as well. What kind of responses did you get from the people who were watching your films? Did you receive many letters from audiences around the world?
James Shigeta: Yes, many letters. Most of the time they wanted, of course pictures and stuff. If they were Asian American – how to get ahead in the industry. It’s with any industry, you have to work diligently, get experience. For instance, if you wanted to be an actor, you do anything you can in little theaters, large theaters. Any kind of experience you can get before an audience. Let that transfer to, if you get lucky enough to get an agent, and into film. It’s not always that easy. I’m simplifying everything for the sake of the length of this. But I think true talent always really comes though no matter what.

James Shigeta at the APA Institute screening and Q & A of The Crimson Kimono on December 6, 2007 at the Cantor Film Center in New York. Photo by Lia Chang

James Shigeta at the APA Institute screening and Q & A of The Crimson Kimono on December 6, 2007 at the Cantor Film Center in New York. Photo by Lia Chang

Sukhdev Sandhu: One of your most enthusiastic fans is Quentin Tarantino. Can you talk a little bit about the discussions that you’ve had?
James Shigeta: I think film students would know who Quentin Tarantino is. When he’s in front of audience, he’s a wild and crazy kind of guy. Wonderful, I love him. But he’s actually a very dignified intellectual individual. When we went to an awards, some Asian function, after he spoke on stage he came to our table. I was with my agent. He said how much he admired my work and that he wanted to do a retrospective, buy a theater and do a retrospective, kind of thing. I’m very flattered. I would love to work with Quentin sometime.

Sukhdev Sandhu: Does anybody recognize you from Die Hard?
James Shigeta: They recognize my brains very vividly. (big laugh) I’ve had comments from people. That was the very first Die Hard. A lot of younger people say that was their favorite film. One person came up to me about a month ago and shocked the heck out of me. I was in a store or something. He had seen the film 15 times. Obviously he had the DVD. I said as shot as I was in the film, I think my brains left a vivid impression.

Sukhdev Sandhu: Is there a particular character or role you would like to play?
James Shigeta: Yes, there are. We have a couple of series-pilots on the shelf. I guess they don’t think it is good enough for it be released.  We have other projects. I’m very disappointed in the parts they write for Asian Americans now. I tried like heck all of my life to accept only parts that raise the image of Asian Americans. And I refuse to do any different. But recently for some reason or other, I think it’s regressed to some kind of old stereotypes of Asian Americans. My agent and I are very, very disappointed with all of this. We don’t know how to rectify this situation, other than get to the writers.

I think perhaps what they say about the Asian American being the silent minority is true. I think for the writers and the studios, it’s a bipolar situation. Everything is Black and White. Every White cop has a Black partner. In real life it isn’t so. I’ve tried to make that known and some of them say yes, and still they choose to ignore it. It’s unfortunate because I have all my life tried to do only parts that were honest, no matter if they were a crook or a good guy. If it were written in an honest way, somehow raise the image of the Asian Americans, Japanese Americans particularly. Not only as a produce man, he’s a doctor, he’s a lawyer, he’s a cop, he’s everything, and he’s part of the American picture.

Sukhdev Sandhu: You spoke Japanese so well, but there were no subtitles, did that get lost by the majority of the audience?
James Shigeta: There was no criticism. I think the scenes and the actions spoke for whatever was missing in English. What was said in Japanese was really reiterated later in English. I know most people got the message anyway as to what we were saying. I did not extemporaneously speak Japanese that well. I did seek advice and got help. There was someone on set who would correct my Japanese if I made an error. Sam Fuller was very avidly adamant about the fact that the Japanese be correct. He admired Japanese customs, the people. Great man. I liked the fellow. I was very fortunate to work with him in my first film. As was Glenn. We were under contract to Columbia Studios at the time. Victoria Shaw, who played the lovely girl, was the only one who had a previous film. She had made The Eddie Duchin Story, as one of Eddie’s wives. Neither Glenn nor I had ever done a film before.

One point to add to what was said. At that point many Japanese were Sansei. And Americans always think any Japanese American is a Nisei, which is incorrect. That’s second generation, I’m third. I’m Sansei, so the ones that follow me are Yonsei and on.

Click below to see a wonderful video tribute which screened at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in 2006.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Aug. 9, at 11 a.m. at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, 540 S. Commonwealth Ave., Los Angeles. The family requests semi-casual or aloha attire, and no koden. Arrangements are being made by Fukui Mortuary.

Other articles on James Shigeta:
The New York Times: James Shigeta, 85, Leading Man in ‘Flower Drum Song,’ Dies
latimes.com: James Shigeta dies at 85; starred in ‘Flower Drum Song’ and ‘Die Hard’
Hollywood Reporter: James Shigeta, Top Asian-American Actor of Early ’60s and ‘Die Hard’ Co-Star, Dies at 81
Variety.com: James Shigeta, Star of ‘Flower Drum Song’ and ‘Die Hard’ Co-Star, Dies at 81
Deadline.com: R.I.P. James Shigeta
Broadwayworld.com: James Shigeta, Star of FLOWER DRUM SONG Film, Passes Away
eonline.com: James Shigeta Dead at 81: Character Actor and Singer Had Memorable Roles in Die Hard and Flower Drum Song

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Crafting a Career Click here for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.

Lia Chang Photo by GK

Lia Chang Photo by GK

Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist.

Lia made her jazz vocalist debut in Rome Neal’s Banana Puddin’ Jazz “LADY” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York. All text, graphics, articles & photographs: © 2000-2014 Lia Chang Multimedia. All rights reserved. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Lia Chang. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content. For permission, please contact Lia at liachangpr@gmail.com

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