Actress Miyoshi Umeki, who won an Oscar for her performance as the doomed wife of an American serviceman in “Sayonara” and later starred in the Broadway musical “Flower Drum Song,” has died of cancer. She was 78.
The Japanese-born actress, the first Asian performer to win an Oscar, died Aug. 28 at Licking nursing home, said Michael Hood, her son.
In “Sayonara,” the 1957 film version of James A. Michener’s best-selling novel, she teamed with Red Buttons in a tragic subplot about a U.S. serviceman and local woman who fall in love in post-World War II Japan. They commit suicide rather than part when he is supposed to return to America.
Both won Oscars for their supporting roles, surprising fans to whom Umeki was unknown and Buttons was a television comedian.
“I wish somebody would help me right now,” the stunned actress told the Oscar audience. “I didn’t expect and have nothing in my mind.” According to an account in The New York Times, she then thanked “you, and you and you and all American people.”
She later played Mei Li, a timid mail-order bride brought to San Francisco from China, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1958 show “Flower Drum Song.” She was nominated for a Tony for best actress in a musical and repeated her role in the 1961 film version.
Umeki also portrayed Mrs. Livingston, the housekeeper, in the ABC series, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” (1969-1972), which starred Bill Bixby and Brandon Cruz. In a 1969 Washington Post interview, Bixby called her “the best actress I’ve ever worked with.”
Among her other movies were “Cry for Happy” (1961), “The Horizontal Lieutenant” (1962) and “A Girl Named Tamiko” (1962).
Umeki was born May 8, 1929, in Otaru, Japan. She sang on Japanese radio and television and in the mid-1950s, then left for the United States.
Appearances on Arthur Godfrey’s TV program brought her to the attention of Joshua Logan, who was to direct “Sayonara.” While that film made Umeki the first Asian actor or actress to win an Oscar, she wasn’t the only one nominated that year. Japanese-born Sessue Hayakawa received a best supporting Oscar nomination for “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
Umeki retired from show business in the early 1970s and moved to Licking, a small town in the Missouri Ozarks, in the 1990s to be closer to her family, her son said. Her second husband, Randall F. Hood, died in 1976.
Besides her son, Umeki is survived by two grandchildren.