'Sayonara' actress made Oscar history


Miyoshi Umeki, the first Asian to win an Oscar, has died at a nursing home in Licking, Mo. She was 78.

Umeki, who died Aug. 28, won the Academy Award for best supporting actress after playing opposite Red Buttons in "Sayonara," the 1957 screen version of the James Michener novel about a U.S. soldier who falls in love amid the chaos at the end of World War II.

Fated to be parted when he is ordered to return to the U.S., the pair commits suicide.

"This is a major loss to the Japanese movie industry," said Yuko Nakano, a spokeswoman for the Motion Pictures Producers Assn. of Japan.

Born in the northern city of Otaru in 1929, Umeki began her performing career by singing jazz numbers at military camps during the occupation. After spells on radio and TV in Japan, she moved to the U.S. in 1955, when she quickly caught the attention of "Sayonara" director Joshua Logan.

After she became the first Asian performer to lift an Oscar, Umeki went on to a successful career in television, cinema and on the stage.

In 1958, she played the lead as the Chinese mail-order bride in Rodgers and Hammerstein's stage production of "Flower Drum Song," which earned her a Tony nomination. She repeated the role in the movie version three years later.

Her other big-screen credits included "A Girl Named Tamiko" and "The Horizontal Lieutenant." She also played housekeeper Mrs. Livingston throughout the three-year run of the ABC series "The Courtship of Eddie's Father."

Umeki retired from the screen in the 1970s and moved to Missouri with her husband and son.