Friday, May 24, 2024

Nobu McCarthy: Iconic Japanese American Actress

Nobu McCarthy is not exactly a household name, but chances are good that most people have seen her in a movie or an episode of a television show. Today she may be best known as Yukie, the romantic interest of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid Part II (1986), but throughout her career she appeared in several movies and in several television show episodes.

Nobu McCarthy was born Nobu Atsumi on November 13 1934 in Ottawa, Ontario. At the time her father, Masaji Atsumi, was a private secretary to the Japanese ambassador to Canada. She was brought to Japan while still an infant. She later trained in ballet and sing with various groups, both live and on radio. She won the title of Miss Tokyo, a beauty pageant leading up to the Miss Japan competition.

Nobu McCarthy made her film debut under her given name, Nobu Atsumi, in the Japanese film, Wrestling Champion: Nihon no tora in 1954. It was in 1955 that she married Sgt. David McCarthy of the United States Army. It was in Little Tokyo in Los Angeles that talent agent Fred Ishimoto discovered her. She was sent to an audition at Paramount, and landed a part in the Jerry Lewis movie The Geisha Boy (1958). That same year she made her television debut in a bit part in an episode of the TV series Meet McGraw.

In the late Fifties and early Sixties, Nobu McCarthy would become very much in demand. Following her part in The Geisha Boy, she appeared in such films as Wake Me When It's Over (1960) and Love with the Proper Stanger (1963). She was a frequent guest star on television, appearing on such shows as The Red Skelton Show, Sea Hunt, Laramie, Wagon Train, Perry Mason, Mister Ed, The Wild Wild West, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Batman.

Nobu McCarthy's acting career slowed in the late Fifties, but following her divorce in 1970 she joined the East West Players, the first Asian American theatre company in 1971. She played a number of roles on stage with the company. It was in 1989 that she replaced the East West Players' founder Mako, and she served as the company's artistic director until 1993.

Nobu McCarthy continued to appear in movies on television throughout the Seventies. She guest starred on such shows as Anna and the King, Kung Fu, The Magician, Barney Miller, Hawaii Five-O, and Quincy, ME.. In the Happy Days episode "Arnold's Wedding," she played the bride of Arnold (Pat Morita), the owner of Arnold's Drive-In. She continued to appear on the RV shows in the Eighties, including such shows as The Love Boat; Magnum, P.I.; and China Beach. She appeared in the movie The Karate Kid Part II. She won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead for the movie The Wash (1988).

Following the Eighties, Nobu McCarthy's career slowed. She appeared in the movies The Painted Desert (1993) and Last Chance (1999), and the TV series Any Day Now. In the Nineties she taught theatre at the California State University, Los Angeles and UCLA.  She was working on the movie Gaiijin--Ama-me Como Sou (2005) when she fell ill on the set. She died from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 67.

Nobu McCarthy certainly broke new ground for Japanese American actors. As the Artistic Director of the East West Players she was instrumental in saving the company, which was reportedly near collapse at the time. George Takei, forever known as Sulu on Star Trek, said of Nobu McCartny, "She brought a calming influence to the group, broadened the outreach, and brought a sense of balance and stability." |

Sadly, Nobu McCarthy often found herself playing in movies that trafficked in stereotypes, including The Geisha Boy and even The Karate Kid Part II. Many of her early roles conformed to the "Lotus Blossom" stereotype. Even as she found herself often playing such roles, Nobu McCarthy worked to move Hollywood beyond East Asian stereotypes. In the television documentary Slaying the Dragon (1988), which dealt with the history of East Asian American actresses in Hollywood, she said that she once turned down an audition because the directors told her they were looking for a "Dragon Lady" type. In Five Gates to Hell, a movie featuring more than its fair share of East Asian stereotypes, Nobu McCarthy played a Japanese nurse. She appeared in both the play The Wash and the movie based upon it, she played a wife who files for divorce from her husband and then sought a new romance.  In Painted Desert she played a Japanese American running an old Southwest cafe who must deal with mobsters.

As an actress Nobu McCarthy had considerable talent, and she gave many remarkable performances beyond The Wash. In the Barney Miller episode "Christmas Story," she played Dorothy Murakami, a victim of a purse snatching to whom Yemana (Jack Soo) is attracted, not realizing she is a prostitute. In 1976 she played the lead role of Jeanne Wakatsuki in the groundbreaking 1976 television movie Farewell to Manzanar, which centred on the internment of Japanese Americans in prison camps during World War II. Her performances in the aforementioned Painted Desert was remarkable.

Nobu McCarthy may not be a household name, but she broke new ground for East Asian American actors. She paved the way for many Japanese American actors today.

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