Jul 31, 2014

James Shigeta and His Gay Buddies

Asian male actors have been underrepresented in American media, and when they appear at all, they are typecast as computer nerds and wise purveyors of inscrutable wisdom, never as hetero-romantic leads.  Even when they are action heroes, they never "get the girl."

Except for James Shigeta, who died a few days ago at the age of 85.   When he first started out in Hollywood in the 1950s, he broke through the racial barriers to land hetero-romantic roles.  One was even interracial, which scandalized audiences in the 1960s.

Generally the pursuit of The Girl was mediated by a competitor or buddy, giving Shigeta's movies a number of pleasant gay subtexts.

The Crimson Kimono (1959): Two L.A. detectives (Shigeta, bisexual actor Glenn Corbett) fall in love with the same girl.



Flower Drum Song (1961): Two Chinese-American men, a nightclub owner (Jack Soo) and a college student (Shigeta) fall in love with the same girl.

Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966): Elvis starts a helicopter service in Hawaii, and bonds with Dan Kohana (James Shigeta) and his ten-year old daughter.

Nobody's Perfect (1968): In Japan, an American soldier (Physique Pictorial star Doug McClure) falls in love with a Japanese woman who is betrothed to a traditional man (Shigeta).

Shigeta received fewer starring roles after the Swinging Sixties ended, but he appeared on tv in Medical Center, Mission: Impossible, The Young Lawyers, The Streets of San Francisco, and Hawaii Five-O, playing both idealistic young heroes and villains.

I remember him in Samurai (1979), a silly tv pilot with Joe Penny (then rumored to be gay) as a lawyer who goes undercover as a samurai warrior (which the producers thought was some kind of superhero).  Shigeta played Takeo, his Asian-wisdom-spouting sensei.

In Cage (1989) and Cage 2 (1994), two buddy-bonding man-mountains (Lou Ferrigno, Reb Brown) open a bar, and run afoul of the gang lord Tin Lum Yin (Shigeta) and his illegal "cage matches."

His last role was in The People I've Slept With (2009), about a woman who has had many lovers.  When she finds herself pregnant, she goes on a quest to find the father, accompanied by her gay BFF (Wilson Cruz). Shigeta plays her hip dad.

No wife is mentioned in his wikipedia article.  Maybe he was gay.

See also: What Happened to the Asian Beefcake?