James Shigeta, Star of ‘Flower Drum Song’ and ‘Die Hard’ Co-Star, Dies at 81

James Shigeta, Star of 'Flower Drum

James Shigeta, one of the first prominent Asian-American actors, who co-starred in “Die Hard” and starred in “Flower Drum Song,” died Monday at 81.

Though largely a TV actor who guest-starred on dozens of shows, he appeared memorably in hit 1988 action film “Die Hard,” in which he played executive Joseph Takagi, who refuses to give up the security code to the skyscraper’s bank vault when a group of German terrorists seizes the building. He was shot in the head by the group’s leader, Hans Gruber, played by Alan Rickman.

In the big-budget WWII film “Midway” (1976), which told the story of the key battle from both American and Japanese points of view, Shigeta was featured prominently in the role of Vice Admiral Nagumo, whose despair at Japan’s loss in the battle is moving.

The actor had most recently appeared in the 2009 film “The People I’ve Slept With,” directed by Quentin Lee.

Shigeta was born in Honolulu and studied acting at NYU, then joined the Marines, where he entertained troops during the Korean War. He became a singing star in Japan despite not knowing any Japanese, and won first place on “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour,” the “American Idol” of its day. He made his film debut in Sam Fuller’s “The Crimson Kimono” in 1959, and won the Golden Globe for most promising newcomer in 1960, sharing it with George Hamilton, Troy Donahue and Barry Coe.

His singing and dancing talent served him well when he landed the starring role of Wang Ta in Ross Hunter’s “Flower Drum Song,” a feature adaptation of the hit Broadway musical.

On TV, he appeared in staples including “Hawaii Five-O,” “Perry Mason,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Ironside,” “Kung Fu,” “Streets of San Francisco,” “The Love Boat” and “Beverly Hills, 90210.”

He also appeared in films such as Elvis Presley musical “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” and 1973’s “Lost Horizon.”


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  1. Christopher Cardenas says:

    My dearest mother Adele truly loved herself some Mr. James Shigeta. My older sister and I used to joke that, back in the 60’s, if mom refused our request for candy money, all we would have to say is that a James Shigeta movie was coming on and we would have mom’s full attention. “When?! What channel?!” she’d demand and, when it seemed like we could not remember, mom would literally give us triple the amount asked—just to see her screen idol. Years later in the 70’s, while I was a teenager in the military
    and stationed at Lowry AFB in Denver, I went into this great hole-in-the-wall record store and was surprised to find one of Shigeta’s rare albums, “We Speak The Same Language” (1962 Choreo Records), which I brought home to mom and put it on the new audiophile stereo system I bought her. I was point blank not prepared for what I was going to hear. OMG, what a SINGING VOICE Shigeta had—so rich, so clear, so vibrant, it was literally impossible to believe that Shigeta could sing like THAT. Shigeta broke so many barriers, paving the way worldwide for future Asians on stage and screen. Shigeta’s appeal and magnetism simply could not be denied. Shigeta was something way more than just an Asian-American actor and singer. Mom knew this. Mom loved James Shigeta…and I grew to love him, too. My sincerest love and condolences go out to Shigeta’s family and loved ones. Mr. James Shigeta lives…Christopher Cardenas/Andromeda International Records

  2. Jacob Jones says:

    Hans Gruber killed that guy in 1988..

  3. Gil Mc Quillen says:

    He was a Mentor and my “SPECIAL FRIEND”. I will always treasure are trips,holiday dinners and Laguna with. Aunt Mae and Uncle Roy Watanabe. He was generous and had a heart of Gold. Rest in Peace my Friend. Always Gil

  4. Jim says:

    It was actually “Ted Macks Original Amateur Hour”. I remember it was a Sunday afternoon ritual at our house. IIRC the “Original” was there because of the copycat local shows, and to show its lineage to the radio show. Unlike “American Idol” et al, there was never a guarantee of a contract-and it was totally by audience vote-via postcard btw.

  5. Jocelyn McCoy says:

    I really enjoyed watching him in every performance. He was a delight. So sad to learn of his passing.

  6. JOE S HILL says:

    What a Sad loss! this Asian-American actor was among the finest,and he will be seriously missed! he
    was among the guest stars of the “Nightmare” episode of ABC-TV ‘s “THE OUTER LIMITS” in 1963,
    where he played,opposite Martin Sheen and Ed Nelson,as Astronaunt POWs with an Alien race-the
    segment was masterfully directed by John Erman,and played out like a well made sci-fi drama! Shigeta
    later guest starred on the two-part episode,”The Inheritors” with Robert Duvall in 1964. again.a seriously
    great loss,and James Shigeta will forever be remembered,,Rest in Peace!

    • Ken Browd says:

      Thanks for your remembrance. Although a groundbreaker as an Asian-American actor, I think he would have had a much greater career and he should have but for the fact that he WAS Asian-American. And although he paved the way for actors like George Takei and later Lucy Liu and
      Ken Jeong today, we still see way too few Asian-Americans on our screens.

  7. saundra dalgleish says:

    i just recently watched one of the movies i watched when i was very young and remember crying. it was A BRIDGE TO THE SUN . what a wonderful insight to another culture I knew nothing about. i just thought he was wonderful. And I had a crush for ever more on this wonderful actor. i hope he didn”t suffer and had a happy life. my repects to his family. I am sorry for your loss. I’m sure many of Mr. Shigeta’s fans will be heart saddened. Thanks for all the wonderful memories dear sir. May you now go to your eternal rest. I do not know your belief for that part of life. know you left many of us so in love with you as teenagers, at a time in our history where that was not acceptable. I dont care you were so amazingly beautiful. I did so love your voice and sparkle in your eyes. You made your mark. yes Flower Drum Song was so much fun and my granddaughter now knows your work and thinks you are wonderful too. I will mss you and remember you fondly. Thanks for your service Marine.

  8. Debra says:

    I remember him, he was the first Asian American actor who I had a cruse on. I loved his acting, sad to hear about his passing.

  9. PETER says:

    James was memorable in FLOWER DRUM SONG, an enjoyable movie musical that took place in San Francisco Chinatown and the City itself and was filmed there.

  10. Talisha Harrison says:

    Reblogged this on Children of the Atom and commented:
    Rest in Peace.

  11. Faith Elliott says:

    Patty, I am so sorry to hear this. Mr Shigeta was a unique and charming performer. I can’t believe this is the first article I found…our Moms were dear friends. My mom was Faith Nicholson, and she always remembered MJ with such love. They used to write amazing letters to each other! My mom loved James Shigeta. In some roundabout way, this may mean we were supposed to coonect after all these years.

    • saundra dalgleish says:

      had to say maybe it was a nice way to bring your moms together as he left us. what a nice way to remember Mr. Shigeta bringing them together at such a sad time. not really a final goodbye, but maybe will be seeing you another time another place.

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