A shy country boy from Hawaii won a talent contest for his singing and catapulted to international fame as a leading man.
by Henry Ong
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ames Shigeta rarely does interviews. When approached for one, he suggested a preliminary meeting "so we can get to know one another" before consenting to talk. Reclusive, private, shy -- that's how most of his friends describe the elusive star -- or "actor" as he prefers. ("The word "star" is vastly overused," he says.)
Yet Shigeta holds the distinction of being the only Asian American actor groomed as a romantic lead. He was the last of the studio star system.
Born in Hawaii, the Nisei son of a Honolulu contractor, Shigeta was educated at New York University and served in the U.S. Marines. He first came into the limelight when he won a national talent contest, The Ted Mack Amateur Hour. It led to a singing career in night clubs in Las Vegas. There he was discovered for a role in Walk Like a Dragon by Ross Hunter for Rodgers & Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song.
Cast as Wang Ta, the ultramodern eldest son of a conservative patriarch (played by Benson Fong) in FDS, Shigeta gained instant international stardom for his boyish good looks and screen presence. Shigeta was paired with Nancy Kwan, herself a rising star after her sizzling performance in The World of Suzie Wong opposite William Holden.
Then came A Bridge to the Sun opposite Carroll Baker with a role that many consider to be his finest performance. Shigeta was again a romantic lead. It was a daring match because it paired an Asian man and a Caucasian woman. The story, set in Japan during World War II, was based on fact.
Together with an earlier but less known work, The Crimson Kimono, in which Shigeta won the fair lady (played by Victoria Shaw) over his white costar Glenn Corbett, these films won for Shigeta a romantic image that is yet to be paralleled by an Asian American actor.
But it is an image that Shigeta prefers to discuss only in relation to his roles. He avoids personal questions of love and marriage. He also declines comment on advocacy issues, saying that personal differences shouldn't be aired in public. He prefers raising consciousness on a one-on-one basis. Throughout the interview, Shigeta pondered his responses carefully before answering.
Friends speak glowingly of him as a warm and generous individual, a very gracious person in public. But they all agree he's extremely private and shy. "It's one thing to be in the public eye as an actor," a close friend says. "It's another to bring his personal life to the fore."
"Once you get to know him, he's very nice," says another. "But you'll have to break through that wall."
Others who know Shigeta less well consider him "aloof" and "guarded." Shigeta himself prefers the label "shy country boy from Hawaii".
Shigeta continues to be wooed for guest starring roles on nearly every major television show, his latest being on Simon and Simon and Murder She Wrote. These days Shigeta is also actively seeking projects for himself.
Q: How did you get started in show business?
A: I would say it was a quirk of fate. I was an English major in college. I wanted to teach and to write. I had always sung as a sideline and to make a long story short, I was appearing in Vegas and some producers saw me and that led to a couple of films.
Q: Did you have any burning desire to be an actor in your youth?
A: Never. The thought never occurred to me. I started my professional life as a singer. The avenues to an acting career are more open and appealing to the youths of today. It wasn't typical for us, when I was a kid, to aspire to a show business career, especially living in Hawaii as I was. It just never crossed my mind that someday I would be on the big screen, in theater or on television. No, I didn't aspire to it at all.
Q: Didn't you take part in contest that led to your singing career?
A: That's how it started. It was the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, very big in those days, particularly on the East Coast where it originated. I won not just the weekly contest but I won the big annual scholarship prize. I didn't realize it at the time -- that shows had helped many, many people's careers -- Frank Sinatra, Ann-Margaret, Pat Boone, the list is endless. I didn't realize I was going to be in such company.
Q: Was it a radio show?
A: It started out that way. When I was involved in it, it was a television show. It was a very big thing for a Hawaiian country boy to suddenly be in New York. But then when you're young, naive and have no preconceived notion about anything, you have a natural bravado about everything and you're not aware of the magnitude of the whole thing.