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Miyoshi Umeki; singer, actress won Oscar, played on TV series

Miyoshi Umeki and Red Buttons hugging after winning best supporting actress and actor for their roles in 'Sayonara.' Miyoshi Umeki and Red Buttons hugging after winning best supporting actress and actor for their roles in "Sayonara." (1958 file/ap)

WASHINGTON - Miyoshi Umeki, a Japanese-born singer and actress who became the first Asian performer to win an Academy Award, for "Sayonara" (1957), distinguished herself onstage in "Flower Drum Song," and played a housekeeper on the TV series "The Courtship of Eddie's Father," died Aug. 28 at Licking Park Manor nursing home in Licking, Mo. She had cancer and was 78.

"Sayonara," based on a best-selling James A. Michener novel, was about forbidden romance between US servicemen and Japanese women during the Korean War. Ms. Umeki's naive character marries an Air Force sergeant, played by Red Buttons, and the relationship leads to his persecution and their double suicide. Ms. Umeki and Buttons won Oscars for their supporting parts.

For much of the 20th century, movies or plays featuring Asian characters used actors without accounting for the distinctions among various ethnic groups. Ms. Umeki's work ethic overrode any concerns about playing the Chinese mail-order "picture bride" Mei Li during the Broadway run of "Flower Drum Song" (1958).

The Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical, in part about assimilation to American life, lasted two years onstage and brought Ms. Umeki a Tony Award nomination for best actress in a musical. "The warmth of her art works a kind of tranquil magic, and the whole theater relaxes," Time magazine wrote in a cover story about her and female co-star Pat Suzuki.

Ms. Umeki repeated the role of Mei Li in the 1961 film version of "Flower Drum Song" and appeared in a handful of mediocre East-meets-West romances, comedies, and dramas - "Cry for Happy" with Glenn Ford, "The Horizontal Lieutenant" with Jim Hutton, and "A Girl Named Tamiko" with Laurence Harvey.

She retired in 1972 after a three-year stint on ABC's "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." The sitcom, starring Bill Bixby, was based on a Glenn Ford film about an urbane widower being set up on dates by his son.

"She was quite proud of her accomplishments; she loved performing, loved what she did, but she simply wanted to retire," her son, Michael Hood, told the Los Angeles Times. "She was done with show business. She wanted to get out and just lead a nice, quiet family life."

Ms. Umeki co-owned and operated a business renting editing equipment to film studios and university film programs before moving to Missouri from North Hollywood, Calif., about five years ago. The only time she performed was about four months ago, when she taught her granddaughter a Japanese song.

Ms. Umeki was born May 8, 1929, in Otaru, on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, where her father owned an iron factory.

She was the youngest of nine children and described her early influences as traditional Kabuki theater and American pop music heard on the radio. She described her parents' loathing of American music, which required her to practice singing with a bucket on her head or under her bedcovers.

At the end of World War II, the teenage Umeki began singing with American GI bands at service clubs around Otaru for 90 cents a night. She studied Dinah Shore, Peggy Lee, and Doris Day over the radio and became a presence on Japanese radio and TV.

Taking the more commercial name of Nancy Umeki, she recorded American pop standards for RCA Japan before arriving in the United States in 1955 and signing with Mercury Records.

Her marriage to television executive Frederick W. Opie ended in divorce. Her second husband, documentary producer-director Randall F. Hood, whom she married in 1968, died in 1976.

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