Miyoshi Umeki, the Oscar Winning Actress, Remains Unique After 60 Years

…The memory of all that. 

No, no, they can’t take that away from me… 

—George and Ira Gershwin, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” (1937)

In Hollywood leading male and leading female roles were historically written, assigned, and awarded based on criteria that were, to say the least, prejudicial and stereotypical. Although to a lesser degree, this is still the practice, despite legislative and social changes in American society. Actors and actresses who did not meet these criteria (attractive youthful Caucasian appearance) were hereby relegated to less desirable stereotypical and/or supporting roles.

As a minority, Asians were no exception to this prejudicial practice by Hollywood heads. With realistic or leading roles mostly closed off to them, stereotypical roles were the only ones typically available. For Asian women these were the usual tropes—dragon lady, geisha/bride, lotus Blossom/Madame Butterfly—which they were too often forced to take.

A petite, small-framed, Japanese actress with a heart-shaped face had to contend with this difficult Hollywood reality throughout her years in show business (1950–1972). Who was this actress? Her name was Miyoshi Umeki (Her first name, “Miyoshi,” means “beautiful life” in Japanese).

Born on May 8, 1929, in Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan, Miyoshi was the youngest of nine children raised within the Umeki family. Though her father, the owner of an iron factory, and mother did not approve of her keen interest in a musical entertainment career, Miyoshi eventually learned to play the piano, mandolin, and harmonica, as well as how to sing.

After reaching adulthood she became a nightclub singer, touring Japan with her own traveling jazz band from 1950 to 1954 and performing under the stage name of “Nancy Umeki”. Miyoshi made her next career, and intercontinental, move in 1955, when she spent a year as a regular solo performer on Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, an American variety show. It was during this time that she met Josh Logan, who would become the director of Sayonara. Miyoshi also became a naturalized citizen of the USA in 1955, so she could reside in America and allow her talents to flourish fully.

Album cover of Miyoshi from 1959
album cover of Miyoshi (1959) © The Island Def Jam Music Group

However, despite her best efforts, Miyoshi never fully realized her ambition. Despite already being a recording artist who had released several singles with RCA Victor Japan (now a subsidiary of Sony Entertainment) and an actress in two musical films—Seishun Jazu Musume (1953) and Jazz Concert (1953)—Miyoshi still had to conform to the Procrustean mold demanded by Hollywood. For the most part, Miyoshi had to settle for playing small, supporting roles in her film and TV appearances.

Despite these suffocating restrictions, Miyoshi Umeki’s talent shone through in three crucial acting roles. First and foremost as Katsumi in Sayonara (1957), then as Mei Li in The Flower Drum Song (1961), and finally as Mrs. Livingston in the TV Series The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1969–1972).

As Katsumi, the doomed bride in Sayonara, Miyoshi acted with such great tenderness (and also sang the theme song of the movie) that the Hollywood Academy members bestowed upon her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1958. As of this writing, she still is the only Asian actress to have ever won an Academy award. For the same role, she was also nominated for the 1958 Golden Globe award for best supporting actress. Consequently, and for the first time, Miyoshi cracked open the Hollywood door that had before been completely shut.

Miyoshi first played her next role, that of Mei Li the stowaway picture bride in The Flower Drum Song, in a Broadway production that started in 1958 and ran for 600 shows until 1960. By this time Miyoshi had also released two albums with Mercury Records. In 1961 she reprised the role of Mei Li in the film version of The Flower Drum Song—a Hollywood film that utilized a virtually Asian cast. In both the Broadway musical and film versions, Miyoshi appeared starred in a leading role that involved acting, singing, and dancing. For this leading role, Miyoshi was Tony-nominated (1959) and Golden Globe-nominated (1962) for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. This was the second crack in the Hollywood door.

Playbill cover for Flower Drum Song in 1958
Playbill cover for Flower Drum Song in 1958

After these two career highlights, Miyoshi appeared in three more mediocre East-meets-West comedies—Cry for Happy (1961), The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962), A Girl Named Tamiko (1962). Her only notable accomplishment was that she sang the theme song for Cry for Happy. After these three films Miyoshi found no more American film roles, so she turned to the small screen and appeared on a number of variety specials (e.g., The Andy Williams Special) and TV shows (e.g., Mister Ed).

In 1965 a strange and inexplicable event occurred in Miyoshi’s career: she finally appeared again in a film production with the working title The Touching and the Not Touching (BFI Identifier # 617755) under production by Lippert Productions. Lippert was a film production company noted for its B movies and after 1962 would release its films to Britain. While it is clear that this film production with a working title had an assembled cast, a hired director/producer, and had already entered into reported film shooting on 5/23/65, it is not clear how far the production ever progressed despite two attempts by BFI National Archive personnel to locate more definitive information.

Subsequent e-mail correspondence with Kit Parker, a film historian, collector, and distributor, proved equally fruitless. Kit Parker indicated that the only person whom he knew that had worked with Lippert Productions during the 1960s, a Maury Dexter, had died earlier in 2017. At present what happened with The Touching and the Not Touching is still unclear. Yet one thing is clear: Miyoshi did not win any awards or any nominations.

After this stalled film, Miyoshi put her entertainment career on hold to raise her son Michael Opie—the son of Frederick Win Opie, a TV executive. Over the next four years, Miyoshi remained out of the limelight while she raised her son. In this time her first marriage also ended in divorce, in 1967. Miyoshi remarried in 1968 to Randall F. Hood, a Hollywood director. Note that Mr. Hood was the reported director/producer for The Touching and the Not Touching. Subsequent to this remarriage, her son also assumed his stepfather’s surname and became Michael Randall Hood.

In 1969 Myoshi finally returned to acting. After acting and appearing in an episode of The Queen and I, Miyoshi landed the major TV role that would make her a household name to many Americans. In The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1969–1972) Miyoshi played Mrs. Livingston, the kindly and sagely housekeeper to widower Tom Corbett (played by Bill Bixby) and his scheming son Eddie Corbett (played by Brandon Cruz).

From 1969-1972, Miyoshi appeared in 66 out of the total 73 episodes of this popular TV show. Yes, she opened the Hollywood door far enough that an Asian actress could be seen as not just a guest star, but also a regular star. At this time Miyoshi also received her last Golden Globe nomination, in 1971 (In 2004 Miyoshi would also receive a nomination by TV Lands Award for “Favorite Made for TV Maid”).

The Courtship of Eddie's Father. (from left) Bill Bixby, Brandon Cruz, and Miyoshi Umeki
publicity photo The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. (from left) Bill Bixby, Brandon Cruz, and Miyoshi Umeki

After The Courtship of Eddie’s Father ended in 1972, Miyoshi retired completely from Hollywood acting. Her last public appearance, in that same year, was for an Oscar Hammerstein II special where she sang the song “I’m Going to Like it Here.”

Miyoshi never publicly commented on why she retired from Hollywood, nor did she offer an explanation, yet this one particular unknown would not be the only unexplained happening in her private, post-Hollywood life—a life that would continue for an additional thirty years.

Altogether Miyoshi worked for twenty-four years in non-Hollywood jobs: from 1972 to 1976 she was the co-owner (along with her second husband, Randall Hood) of a company (whose name is not given) that rented out film editing equipment to studios and universities. After Randall Hood’s death (cause not given) on August 18, 1976, Miyoshi sold this company and ran a dance studio (no name given) for twenty years in Sherman Oaks California. Not once did she ever attempt a comeback during all those years.

1996 arrived and Miyoshi remained consistent and private. After her retirement, she moved from the mainland U.S.A. to Hawaii. Few knew her whereabouts; indeed few knew whether she was alive or dead while she lived there for six years.

In 2002, still single, Miyoshi moved from Hawaii back to the mainland, to the small city of Licking, Missouri, to be close to her son and two grandchildren. Now, in the twilight of her beautiful life, she continued her private retirement, turning down interviews and living another five years before her eventual sunset.

On August 28, 2007, Miyoshi, at age 78, finally succumbed to cancer in Licking Manor Nursing Home. After her funeral at Fox Funeral Home, she was buried on September 1, 2007, in Boone Creek Cemetery, sharing her grave with her second husband, who had preceded her in death.

Since then the cultural impact of Miyoshi Umeki’s entertainment career has been considerable. Foremost, Miyoshi’s Oscar still stands tall as an achievement and serves as an inspiration for upcoming Asian actresses. Second, Miyoshi’s trendsetting accomplishments that opened the doors of the entertainment industry have made it possible to create and produce works such as the movie, The Joy Luck Club (1993) and the TV series Fresh Off the Boat (2015–), which have used Asian American actors and are focused on Asian American experiences.

Yes, this cultural impact is impressive, but one still wonders how much more Miyoshi might have accomplished if Hollywood reality had been different and Miyoshi had remained active longer than she did. Alas! This entertained possibility can never be, as there are no additional works from Miyoshi. Still, however, we are grateful for the wondrous, warm memories that she has left us.

Sayonara, Miyoshi!

(Written by Ronald G. Mazzella. Ronald is an ex-psychology researcher and now works as a supervisor for a New York State government agency–M.T.A. New York City Subway. He has published three nonfiction pieces and hopes that he will write a novel someday.)

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