CHICAGO (AFP) — Miyoshi Umeki, the first Asian to win an Academy Award for her role in the 1957 romantic drama Sayonora, has died of cancer, her son said Thursday. She was 78.
Umeki began her career as a nightclub singer in Japan and recorded several hit albums with RCA under the moniker Nancy Umeki.
She moved to the United States in the mid 1950's where she landed a spot on the musical variety show "Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts."
Umeki was soon hired to play a supporting role in the Marlon Brando film Sayonora, a story of American servicemen who fall in love with Japanese women while on leave from the Korean war.
Umeki played a doomed bride who falls in love with a soldier played by Red Buttons despite the Army's ban on interracial marriage. When his character is forced to return to the US without her, they both commit suicide.
But despite her Oscar, she was unable to find many film roles and turned to Broadway where she played a mail order bride who falls in love with a different man in the Rodgers and Hammersmith musical "Flower Drum Song."
The role won Umeki a Tony nomination and a cover story in Time magazine. She was later chosen to play Mei Li when the musical hit the big screen in 1961.
Umeki would perform in just three more films, "A Girl Named Tamiko," "The Horizontal Lieutenant" and "Cry for Happy."
She played a number of small television roles before landing the part of a beloved housekeeper on the series "The Courtship of Eddie's Father."
When the show was cancelled after its third season, Umeki retired and started up an editing machine business with her husband, Randall Hood, in Los Angeles.
She never performed again, although she did sing to her grandchildren after she moved to a small town in Missouri a few years ago, said son Michael Hood.
Born May 8, 1929 in Otaru, Japan, Umeki died August 28 in Licking, Missouri.
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