Her career in Hollywood was not a long one — just about 20 film credits largely in the 1950s.
She did a ton of tv in sympathetic supporting roles, and even managed a Golden Globe nomination for her work. She was also a smooth pop vocalist in her native Japan (born in the northern island of Hokkaido in 1929) and even sang in the U.S. on Arthur Godfrey’s variety program (remember him?).
Ok, why the headline? The fact is that Miyoshi Umeki is the first Asian actress to win an Oscar. And thus far the only one to do.
It was for her performance as Red Button’s love interest in 1957’s Sayonara, a big budget examination (based on a James Michener novel) of prejudice in the Far East starring Marlon Brando as as a semi-bigoted fighter pilot in the Korean War who gets stationed in Japan and embroiled in romantic affairs — both Buttons’ and his own. (At one point, Brando’s character employs a racial slur in reference to Umeki’s.)
Things sort themselves out in the end, and the Buttons and Umeki characterizations earned them supporting actor/actress Oscars in 1958.
Curiously, given Sayonara’s subject matter, Mexico City-born actor Ricardo Montalban turns up playing a Japanese kabuki performer. This may be the oddest casting choice outside of Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of buck-toothed ‘Mr. Yunioshi’ in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Anyway, less than a dozen Asians have been nominated for Oscars to date. Umeki is only actress to win — so far.