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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

James Shigeta had the looks, the talent and the voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL")

JAMES SHIGETA: (Singing) You are beautiful, small and shy.

SIMON: The costar of the 1961 movie musical "Flower Drum Song" died this week in Beverly Hills at the age of 85. He broke barriers on screen as one of Hollywood's first Asian-American actors to play lead characters. Hansi Lo Wang of NPR's Code Switch team has this remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL")

SHIGETA: (Singing) You are the girl whose laugh I heard.

L.S. KIM: It's melodious. It's deep. There's something quite sensuous about it.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: L.S. Kim teaches film at the University of California, Santa Cruz. And she says James Shigeta embodied an unusual sight on the big screen, a self-assured Asian-American man.

KIM: In many portrayals of Asian-American men, in particular, there is no sense of confidence. And with James Shigeta, his screen presence was as deep and seductive as the voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BRIDGE TO THE SUN")

SHIGETA: (As Hidenari Terasaki) A lady should not be alone at a reception.

CAROL BAKER: (As Gwen Terasaki) Hello, Mr. Takasuki.

SHIGETA: (As Hidenari Terasaki) Terasaki - first name, Hidenari.

WANG: In 1961's "Bridge To The Sun," Shigeta plays a dashing, Japanese diplomat, who meets cute, and later marries, a young white woman from Tennessee. Only two years before, he'd made his film debut in "The Crimson Kimono."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CRIMSON KIMONO")

CHRISTINE SHAW: (As Christine Downs) Do you believe there are people who would never fall in love, if they never heard of love?

SHIGETA: (As Det. Joe Kojaku) You can't fight a natural feeling.

WANG: He played a Japanese-American homicide detective caught in a love triangle between his Caucasian police partner and a key witness in their case. For a 1959 black-and-white film, there was a bit of a surprise ending, as Shigeta once explained.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHIGETA: Well, he wound up with a girl. (Laughing).

WANG: Yes, this is a beautiful, American girl in the arms of a Japanese boy - the movie poster declared. In 1960, Shigeta won a Golden Globe award for Most Promising Newcomer.

JEFF ADACHI: He clearly had the talent, but the roles weren't there. And that's the tragedy here.

WANG: For his 2006 documentary, "The Slanted Screen," Jeff Adachi interviewed James Shigeta, who recalled an exchange early in his career with an MGM producer.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE SLANTED SCREEN")

SHIGETA: He turned to me and he said - you know, he said if you were white, you'd be a hell of a big star.

NANCY KWAN: It's a very difficult business, even if you're not Asian. And he was a pioneer. He led the way.

WANG: Nancy Kwan says Shigeta, her costar in "Flower Drum Song," leaves behind a career that lasted half a century. He had smaller, supporting parts in "Die Hard" and in TV series, like "Hawaii Five-0." But in his earliest movies, he often got top billing and the girl. And for an Asian-American actor, that's a benchmark still remarkable today. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

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