Miyoshi Umeki
Credit: Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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Growing up on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, Miyoshi Umeki was obsessed with American pop music and dreamed of making it to the United States after World War II. She practiced singing with a bucket over her head to avoid annoying her parents, taped piano-key patterns to the dining-room table to rehearse, and sang with a GI band for 90 cents a night in her teens.

It worked. She moved to New York in 1955, and within a few years, she had made her American dreams come true. In 1957, she starred opposite Marlon Brando and Red Buttons in Sayonara, playing Katsumi, the submissive, doomed wife of Buttons’ American airman. Her heartbreaking performance won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first Asian actor of either gender to win, and still the only Asian actress to earn an Academy Award. She accepted her Oscar in a kimono, and her speech was gentle and tentative. “I wish somebody would help me right now,” she said, seeming to struggle with the language barrier. She then thanked “all American people” and bowed to the audience.

Credit: Everett Collection

It was not, in other words, the kind of speech we would expect today from someone who has just crashed through Hollywood’s bamboo ceiling, and in ways large and small, Umeki’s career would be shaped by that passive, reverent image of her. The few parts available to Asian actresses in the years after World War II often were stereotypes — Japanese women, in particular, were seen as coy and doll-like — and Umeki learned to lean into that cliché to keep getting jobs.

After her Oscar win, Umeki starred in the Broadway musical Flower Drum Song, for which she nabbed a Tony nomination in 1959. (She later scored a Golden Globe nod in 1962 for the film adaptation.) She portrayed a shy, lovelorn Chinese immigrant promised to a nightclub owner in San Francisco’s Chinatown. And for Gen-Xers, she remains best known for her supporting role on the sitcom The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, where she played the kind, demure housekeeper Mrs. Livingston. In most scenes, her role is to serve Eddie (Brandon Cruz) and his father (Bill Bixby).

It can be a little cringe-inducing now to watch this Oscar-winner in a role that does little more than reinforce a Western fantasy of Asian women, but like most minority actors of her era, Umeki — who died in 2007 at 78 of complications from cancer — faced what must have been an agonizing choice between being visible, in roles that were beneath her, or being unseen altogether. She chose the former, remaining an enigma in the public imagination, but her true feelings about Hollywood may have been more complex. “I asked her, ‘Why did you agree to do the pidgin English?’” her son, Michael Hood, says now. “Her answer was very simple: ‘I didn’t like doing it, but when someone pays you to do a job, you do the job, and you do your best.’”

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Still, she found ways to express how she really felt. Cruz, who starred as Eddie on Courtship until he was 10, remembers Umeki’s commitment despite her thankless part. “From growing up around Miyoshi for four years, I didn’t sense a lot of joy, but I felt her strength and her determination,” he says, adding that instead of complaining, Umeki used her standing to open doors for fellow Asian actors — including Pat Morita and George Takei, who both guest-starred on the series — and to improve on-set life. Once, after noticing how Bixby relocated his dressing room closer to the stages, she made her own request. “Miyoshi just looked around, saw what was happening, and said to the producers, ‘I want a trailer, and I want it parked outside,’ and she got it,” Cruz says, noting that Umeki began helping to negotiate them for everyone else. “Miyoshi got what she wanted by just being smart and quiet.”

Quiet, sure, but never meek. Hood says she chose to retire from acting after Courtship was canceled in 1972. “I know it sounds weird nowadays, but she wanted to be a housewife and a mother,” Hood says. “When I asked her why years later, she said she had achieved everything she wanted to achieve. Her dream was to come here and entertain.”

That dream, though, seems to have come at a cost to her spirit. Shortly after her husband, Randall Hood, passed away in 1976, Umeki etched out her name on her Oscar and then threw the trophy away. To this day, her son isn’t sure why she disposed of it, though he says the circumstances of her life at the time — as a newly single mother raising a teenager — probably didn’t help. (“When my father passed away, Mom took it real hard,” he remembers.) But even though it seemed to have been an act of rage, her explanation to him at the time appeared to avoid any expression of strong emotion. “She told me, ‘I know who I am, and I know what I did,’ ” Hood says. “It was a point of hers, to teach me a lesson that the material things are not who she was.”

Miyoshi Umeki;Conrad Yama
Credit: Ralph Morse/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

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