James Shigeta, Top Asian-American Actor of Early '60s and 'Die Hard' Co-Star, Dies at 85

James Shigeta
James Shigeta
 Courtesy of Everett Collection

James Shigeta, a top Asian-American actor of the early 1960s who starred in the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song, died Monday in the Los Angeles area, publicist Jeffrey Leavitt announced. Family members said he was 85.

The handsome Hawaiian, who later appeared as the ill-fated chief executive of the Nakatomi corporation in the Bruce Willis action film Die Hard (1988), had a great two-year run in Hollywood starting in the late 1950s.

Shigeta made his feature debut in Sam Fuller’s Los Angeles-set noir The Crimson Kimono (1959), playing a young detective, and followed that by portraying a young Chinese man in the American Old West who battles a freight line operator (Jack Lord) over a woman in James Clavell’s Walk Like a Dragon (1960).

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Shigeta then starred with Glenn Ford and Donald O’Connor as American Navy men billeted in a Tokyo geisha house in director George Marshall’s Cry for Happy (1961). And in Bridge to the Sun, he portrayed a Japanese diplomat who is married to an American (Carroll Baker) at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

In Flower Drum Song (1961), set in San Francisco and directed by Henry Koster, Shigeta plays Wang Ta, who’s dazzled by a showgirl (Nancy Kwan) before he realizes an immigrant from China (Miyoshi Umeki) is really the one for him. A natural baritone, Shigeta did all his singing in the film.

The Golden Globes in 1960 named him (along with Barry Coe, Troy Donahue and George Hamilton) as “most promising male newcomer.”

Shigeta later had recurring roles on the 1969-72 CBS drama Medical Center and appeared on episodes of Ben Casey, Lord’s Hawaii Five-O, Ellery Queen, Little House on the Prairie, Fantasy Island, T.J. Hooker, The Love Boat, Magnum, P.I., Simon & Simon, Jake and the Fatman and Murder, She Wrote.

His film résumé includes Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966) with Elvis Presley, Nobody’s Perfect (1968), Lost Horizon (1973), Midway (1976), Cage (1989) and the animated Mulan (1998).

Born in Honolulu of Japanese ancestry on June 17, 1929 (some biographies list his birth year as 1933), Shigeta moved to New York and studied at New York University, then joined the U.S. Marine Corps and fought during the Korean War.

He relocated to Japan and became a star on radio and television in that country, then returned to the U.S. to sing on The Dinah Shore Show in 1959. Also that year, he starred with Shirley MacLaine in a production of Holiday in Japan in Las Vegas.

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