James Shigeta, actor who starred in 'Flower Drum Song' and 'Die Hard,' dies at 85
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Actor James Shigeta played the leading male role in the lavish movie musical "Flower Drum Song" in 1961. The year before, he won a Golden Globe as most promising newcomer.
But after "Flower Drum Song" he never again played the leading man in a major film.
"He was so handsome, debonair," said actor James Hong, who appeared in several films and TV shows with Shigeta. "But there was the stigma in Hollywood about Asian leading men."
Shigeta died Monday at an assisted-living facility in Beverly Hills, California. He was 85 and had been in declining health since suffering a stroke about two years ago, said his sister-in-law, Ellie Shigeta.
In "Flower Drum Song," the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about clashing traditional Chinese and American cultures in San Francisco, Shigeta had several numbers to sing, including the lyrical "You Are Beautiful."
In a 2004 interview he dismissed the movie as "a delightful little piece, very frothy." He played Wang Ta, a character confused about whether he loves demure Mei Le or the brassy nightclub performer Linda "I Enjoy Being a Girl" Low.
In the interview, Shigeta described his character as "naive, almost stupid." But he was hopeful the film would lead to meatier roles not only for himself, but other Asian-American actors. "For a while after 'Flower Drum Song,' things got better for Asians in Hollywood," he said in 2006. "Finally, they started portraying the Asian-American as something other than the poor man in a menial job, as a doctor or attorney."
But much of the stereotyping and limited acting opportunities continued. USC film professor Akira Lippit said even now, many roles offered to Asian-American actors were designated as Asian characters. With some exceptions, he said, "They are not yet perceived as just playing generic parts that could be played by a non-Asian."
Shigeta felt that in some ways, the situation had worsened. "It seems to have regressed lately to the more stereotypical gangsters and thugs," he said in the 2006 interview. "I've been offered scripts recently that were just awful."
Shigeta was born in Honolulu to parents of Japanese heritage, according to his sister-in-law. He graduated from high school in Hawaii, where he sang in a choir, and later joined the Marines. His singing earned him his first national fame -- he was a grand prize winner in early television's best-known talent show, "The Original Amateur Hour." That led to his performing in Japan (though he spoke almost none of the language) and in Las Vegas in a revue called "Holiday in Japan." From there, he got into the movies.
Into the 1990s, he appeared in numerous TV series and a handful of movies. One of Shigeta's best known later roles was a small but pivotal part in the first "Die Hard" movie (1988), in which he played corporate executive Joseph Takagi. He's shot by terrorists in the head when he refuses to give them the codes to a vault.