Vintage Hunk: James Shigeta
Very few Asian or Asian-American actors have been given leads in American movies, and 50 years ago it was even rarer. But in 1961 James Shigeta starred in two popular Hollywood films, the classic musical Flower Drum Song and the absorbing drama Bridge to the Sun.
James Shigeta was born in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1933 to Japanese American parents. At the time Hawaii was not yet a state but an American territory. Shigeta studied drama at New York University and enlisted in the Marines during the Korean War. After serving for 2 1/2 years, Shigeta began a singing career, winning first prize on the then-popular Ted Mack Original Amateur Hour. From there Shigeta went to Japan and found fame as a singer and actor. Reviewing one of his stage musicals, The Sydney Morning Herald raved about Shigeta stating he had "matinee idol good looks and a soothing baritone voice."
Shigeta first appeared in American films as a detective in Crimson Kimono, an excellent detective story that was groundbreaking for actually having an Asian actor playing an Asian character. There was also a sexy interracial romance, which was very controversial at the time. Remember that World War II was still in the recent past, making Shigeta an improbable American movie star.
The breakthrough year for Shigeta was 1961 when he starred with Nancy Kwan in the wonderful musical film of Rodgers and Hammerstein's last stage hit, Flower Drum Song. While this film had a largely Asian cast, it was later criticized for having non-Chinese actors cast in the leading roles. Still, the movie was nominated for five Academy Awards and is a charming studio musical that is not only well sung and acted, but propelled sexy Shigeta to stardom. He became the only sexy Asian male to top line an American film.
The actor's other 1961 film gave him the best role of his career was Bridge to the Sun, the true story of a Japanese diplomat who marries an American girl (played by gorgeous Carroll Baker, pictured here) and then returns to Japan for the duration of the war with his bride. The harrowing hardships that they both endure makes this film one of the very best of '60s cinema.
James Shigeta worked steadily for the next 40 years in both films (including the camp classic musical Lost Horizon) and numerous television shows (from Ironside to the original Beverly Hills 90210). He never married and was never seriously linked romantically with any starlet. In 2006 the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival celebrated his career with this film tribute, which features clips of his most famous films. As you'll see, Shigeta was a true vintage hunk.