Miyoshi Umeki; Recorded American Pop Standards, Won Oscar for 'Sayonara'

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 6, 2007

Miyoshi Umeki, 78, a Japanese-born singer and actress who became the first Asian performer to win an Academy Award -- for "Sayonara" (1957) -- and who played a housekeeper on the TV series "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," died Aug. 28 at the Licking Park Manor nursing home in Licking, Mo. She had cancer.

"Sayonara," based on a best-selling James A. Michener novel, was about forbidden romance between U.S. servicemen and Japanese women during the Korean War. Ms. Umeki's naive character marries an Air Force sergeant, played by Red Buttons, and the relationship leads to his persecution and their double suicide. Ms. Umeki and Buttons won Oscars for their supporting roles.

For much of the 20th century, movies or plays featuring Asian characters used actors without accounting for distinctions among ethnic groups. Ms. Umeki's desire to appear in good roles overrode concerns about playing the Chinese mail-order "picture bride" Mei Li during the Broadway run of "Flower Drum Song" (1958).

The Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical, in part about assimilation to American life, ran for two years onstage and brought Ms. Umeki a Tony Award nomination for best actress in a musical. "The warmth of her art works a kind of tranquil magic, and the whole theater relaxes," Time magazine wrote in a cover story about her and female co-star Pat Suzuki.

Ms. Umeki repeated the role of Mei Li in the 1961 film version of "Flower Drum Song" and appeared in a handful of mediocre East-meets-West romances, comedies and dramas -- "Cry for Happy" with Glenn Ford, "The Horizontal Lieutenant" with Jim Hutton and "A Girl Named Tamiko" with Laurence Harvey.

She gladly retired in 1972 after a three-year stint playing Mrs. Livingston on ABC's "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." The sitcom, starring Bill Bixby, was based on an earlier Glenn Ford film about an urbane widower being set up on dates by his son.

Ms. Umeki was born May 8, 1929, in Otaru, on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, where her father owned an iron factory.

She was the youngest of nine children and described her key early influences as traditional Kabuki theater and American pop music she heard on the radio. She said her parents loathed American music, so she practiced singing with a bucket over her head or while under her bedcovers.

At the end of World War II, the teenage Ms. Umeki began singing with American G.I. bands at service clubs in Otaru for 90 cents a night. She studied Dinah Shore, Peggy Lee and Doris Day over the radio and became a presence on Japanese radio and television.

Taking the more commercial name of Nancy Umeki, she recorded American pop standards for RCA Japan before arriving in the United States in 1955 and signing with Mercury Records. A recurring engagement on Arthur Godfrey's TV show brought her to the attention of Joshua Logan, director of "Sayonara."

Her marriage to TV executive Frederick W. Opie ended in divorce. Her second husband, documentary producer-director Randall F. Hood, whom she married in 1968, died in 1976.

Survivors include a son from her second marriage, Michael Hood of Licking; a sister; and two grandchildren.

Ms. Umeki completely withdrew from public life after "The Courtship of Eddie's Father" ended. She co-owned and operated a business renting editing equipment to film studios and university film programs before moving to Missouri from North Hollywood, Calif., about five years ago. The only time she performed was about four months ago, when she taught her granddaughter a Japanese song.

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