Miyoshi Umeki (May 8th 1929-August 28th 2007) was a Japanese-American actress, who has the distinction of being the first actor of East Asian descent to win an Academy Award.
Born in Otaru, she got her start in show business as part of a GI jazz band with the US army - traveling and performing all around Japan. She was especially proficient in singing American style pop songs, and became quite popular on the radio and at nightclubs. Her popularity led to a move to America in 1955 - and she made her screen debut on the musical Variety Show Arthur Godfrey and His Friends. Her fame was about to skyrocket however.
The Marlon Brando vehicle Sayonara cast Miyoshi in a supporting role as Katsumi - a Japanese woman who marries an American Ace Pilot, and features persecution for it. The film was a hit, and Miyoshi won the Best Supporting Actress award at the 1957 Oscars. As of 2019, she is the only East Asian performer to win an Oscar. She was then cast as the lead in Rogers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song and reprised her role in the film adaptation - which became the first Hollywood film to have an all-Asian cast.note
Following film and television appearances throughout the 1960s, she achieved another notable role in The Courtship of Eddie's Father as Mrs Livington - the Japanese housekeeper. However, she announced a retirement from acting at the end of the 1960s, and spent the rest of her life running an editing business with her husband. She died of cancer in 2007.
- Sayonara (1957) - Katsumi
- Flower Drum Song (1961) - Mei Li
- The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962) - Akiko
- The Teahouse of the August Moon (1962 Made-for-TV Movie remake of the 1956 theatrical version) - Lotus Blossom
- A Girl Named Tamiko (1962) - Eiko
- Rawhide (1963) - Nami (episode "Incident of the Geisha")
- Mister Edd (1964) - Ako Tenaka (episode "Ed in the Peace Corps")
- The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1969-1972) - Mrs Livingston
Tropes associated with her work:
- Billing Displacement:
- Flower Drum Song bills Nancy Kwan first (who was suddenly experiencing worldwide fame thanks to The World of Suzie Wong) and Miyoshi is billed third - despite Mei Li being a more prominent character than Linda Low.
- In Sayonara she is billed sixth, even though her character is more of a presence than James Garner's Bailey or Martha Scott's Mrs Webster - who get third and fourth billing.
- The Cast Show Off: Flower Drum Song allows her to show off her singing.
- Casting Gag: In the remake of Teahouse of the August Moon, she plays Lotus Blossom. She had starred with Marlon Brando in Sayonara, who had appeared in the film version just one year previously.
- Creator Backlash: Her son later confessed that she wasn't happy having to speak pidgin English in The Courtship of Eddie's Father but did so because she needed the work.
- "Do It Yourself" Theme Tune: She sang the theme to Sayonara. She also sang the theme for the film Cry for Happy.
- Fake Nationality: Flower Drum Song and The Teahouse of the August Moon see her playing Chinese characters.
- Funny Character, Boring Actor: Inverted. Often cast as demure, quiet characters - she was known for being very witty and funny out of character.
- Reality Subtext: Mei Li becomes fascinated with American culture when she moves there in Flower Drum Song, paralleling how Miyoshi herself enjoyed American music in her childhood.
- Reclusive Artist: After her retirement she rarely gave interviews.
- Stage Names: She first started out using Nancy Umeki, before using her own name in America.
- Star-Making Role: Sayonara for sure!
- Typecasting: Often as a Yamato Nadeshiko.