Saturday, September 8, 2007

Miyoshi Umeki R.I.P.

To film buffs Miyoshi Umeki was probably best known as the first Asian to ever win an Oscar. To the majority of people she might well have been best known for her role as Mrs. Livingston on The Courtship of Eddie's Father. She died in Licking, Missouri at the age of 78 after a long battle with cancer.

Umeki was born on May 8, 1929 in Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan. She entered show business as a nightclub singer in Japan using the name Nancy Umeki. She recorded for RCA Victor and also made several musical shorts. Eventually she was noticed by a talent scout who convinced her to move to the United States. In the United States she became a regular on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts and recorded songs on the Mercury Records label. In 1957 she appeared in her best known film role, as a naive Japanese woman who marries an American Air Force sergeant (played by Red Buttons). For the part she won the 1957 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, becoming the first actor of Asian descent ever to do so.

From December 1, 1958 to May 7, 1960 she appeared as Mei Li in the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The Flower Drum Song. She would reprise the part for the 1961 movie based on the musical (like the movie Memoirs of the Geisha, both the play and the movie The Flower Drum Song disregarded ethnicity in casting). Umeki would appear in a few films throughout the Sixties: Cry For Happy, The Horizontal Lieutenant, and A Girl Named Tamiko.

For the most part, however, her career was spent on television. She guest starred on The Donna Reed Show, Rawhide, Mr. Ed, The Virginian, and Burke's Law. She may be best known as housekeeper Mrs. Livingston on the late Sixties/early Seventies TV series The Courtship of Eddie's Father.

Following The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Umeki retired from acting. She ran a business which rented film editing equipment to studios until retiring around five years ago. She moved to Licking to be near her son.

Although her acting roles rarely gave her a chance to prove it, Miyoshi Umeki was an actress of real talent. She certainly deserved her Oscar for Sayonara. She was also a gifted singer, with a gift for American pop standards. Even now she may have been the best known actress of Japanese descent to have performed in the United States. I must say that I am a bit saddened by her passing.

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