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August 10, 1921
Sacramento, California, U.S.
|Died||May 21, 1981
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Yuki Shimoda (August 10, 1921 – May 21, 1981) was an American actor best known for his starring role as Ko Wakatsuki in the NBC movie of the week, Farewell to Manzanar in 1976. He also co-starred in a 1960s television series, Johnny Midnight (39 episodes), with Edmond O'Brien. He was a star of the silver screen, early television and the stage. His Broadway theater stage credits include Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell, nominated for eight Tony Awards and winner of three Tonys, and Pacific Overtures, a Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical directed by Harold Prince nominated for ten Tony Awards.
His father was Chojiro Shimoda, who emigrated from the town of Shimoda in Kumamoto prefecture on the island of Kyūshū in Japan. Chojiro left Japan in his early teens, because he did not want to be a sweet potato farmer on the family farm and was tired of eating sweet potatoes every day. Shimoda's mother was Kikuyo (Nakamura) Shimoda, also from Kumamoto prefecture. Kikuyo, which means chrysanthemum, was born to an influential, wealthy, noble samurai family; her father was a doctor. She left Japan to have freedom as a modern, American woman and to marry for love rather than marry by arrangement (omiai).
Shimoda was the oldest of three children. His younger brothers were Noboru "Dave" Shimoda, who lived to the age of 82, and James Shimoda, who died as a child of a bacterial infection before the age of antibiotics. Shimoda always had an interest in dancing and acting. As a child he insisted on being called Fred, because he wanted to be like Fred Astaire. In Sacramento, he worked in the family businesses, which included a restaurant, pool hall and boarding house. His parents' restaurant employed a Filipino cook and friend named Felix, who was killed in World War II by the Japanese. This hardened his intense feelings of being an American. His parents were hard working and affluent even during the Great Depression; Shimoda's father owned a Cadillac limousine that he bought from the Japanese government in a time when many people still owned horses. As a child, Shimoda enjoyed being taken on aimless rides with the family in that big car. Shimoda worked hard in his adolescence to help his parents, but he made time to dance and act. His intense drive and determination helped him overcome what he lacked in natural ability. Once, in a sewing class in high school, he clumsily sewed his finger with a sewing machine. He studied ballet, as well as kendo and judo which helped him become more graceful. Shimoda did ballroom dancing with several women dance partners.
Shimoda attended Sacramento High School. Studying an American curriculum by day, Shimoda filled his evenings and Saturdays attending Japanese language school. Yuki and Noboru were also Boy Scouts. Shimoda's studies at Sacramento Junior College (now known as Sacramento City College) were interrupted when, along with over 100,000 other Japanese American Issei, Nisei, Kibei Nisei and Sansei his family was relocated to a Japanese American internment camp after the entry of the United States into World War II per Executive Order 9066. His parents (Issei, or first generation immigrants to America from Japan) were incarcerated without a trial and for no just cause. He spent the duration of World War II in the Tule Lake War Relocation Center in northern California. Shimoda made the best of the incarceration by entertaining his fellow internees with his acting, dancing and singing abilities. Once he dressed like Carmen Miranda complete with fruit on his head to dance and sing to the delight of the camp audience. Seeing his parents lose all their hard-earned possessions and being incarcerated in a concentration camp was particularly hard for a Nisei like Shimoda, because he had been raised as an American.
Shimoda and Noboru tried to volunteer for the United States Army after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The recruiting officer laughed them out of the office by calling them the enemy. Shimoda was eventually classified 4F or ineligible for the draft due to a congenital heart murmur. As a child his parents were told that he would not live to adulthood due to his bad heart.
His brother, Noboru, went on to volunteer and serve with the regular United States Army at the end of World War II during the occupation of Japan after his release from the relocation center. He later fought in the Korean War earning the rank of Master Sergeant. Noboru served with the United States Army Military Intelligence, the Office of Strategic Services for the Allied Interpretation and Translation Service of the United States Army (ATIS); the United States Army Signal Corps; and the Military Police. Noboru was honorably discharged in 1952 and brought his Japanese war bride, Chieko Furusawa, of Yokohama, back to Chicago, Illinois to become a naturalized American citizen. Noboru picked Chicago, because Shimoda and his parents lived there for a while after being released from Tule Lake.
Shimoda left the concentration camp alone and was one of the first to leave. Evacuees were not allowed to go back to the West Coast at first and Shimoda was informed by officials at Tule Lake that Chicago was receptive to Japanese American resettlers, because Irish American politicians there—being victims of discrimination themselves—understood the predicament of the evacuees. Shimoda lived in Chicago for several years and graduated with a degree in accounting from Northwestern University. He worked at the University of Chicago and taught a Japanese language class.
He studied improvisational acting with the Compass Players, who sprung from the University of Chicago, a precursor of the Second City. He spent many hours at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, then known as the Chicago Buddhist Church, with his friend, the Reverend Gyomay Kubose, discussing life and his purpose on this earth. He felt his purpose was to hone his acting skills on a daily basis so that his next performance would be the best he could deliver. As Shimoda learned in the Boy Scouts, he wanted to always "Be Prepared." He felt that by giving his all to what he believed in—changing the world for the better through his acting—he was not just spinning his wheels on earth. Many Asian American actors as Beulah Quo, the co-founder of East West Players, with Mako Iwamatsu considered him to be an actor's actor, which she stated in the documentary movie "Yuki Shimoda: Asian American Actor". Shimoda never married and did not have any children; the family name is carried on through Noboru's only son, Thomas Edward Shimoda, a practicing dentist and clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois, former Assistant State's Attorney of Cook County, Illinois, and a graduate of The Players Workshop of The Second City.
Shimoda's movie credits from the 1960s and 1970s range from B movies as Seven Women from Hell with Caesar Romero and Yvonne Craig (Batgirl) to A movies as Midway with Charlton Heston, Eddie Albert, Henry Fonda, James Colburn, Glenn Ford, Toshirō Mifune, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson, Robert Wagner, James Shigeta and Noriyuki "Pat" Morita. He also was in the martial arts movie The Octagon with Chuck Norris. In the Disney movie The Last Flight of Noah's Ark with Elliott Gould and Rick Schroder, Shimoda's character was one of two Japanese soldiers on a deserted Pacific island decades after the end of World War II, who do not know the war is over. Walt Disney Pictures allowed more character development of the Japanese soldiers to not only entertain the audience, but to show how the Japanese soldiers and the Americans could work together to get off the island. Shimoda enjoyed meaty roles like this that entertained and educated the audience.
Shimoda's favorite movie, Farewell to Manzanar was later bought by Walt Disney Pictures to televise on the Disney Channel. Farewell to Manzanar was a National Broadcasting Company, NBC, television movie that stars an all Japanese American cast and presents the story of the relocation of Japanese Americans into American style concentration camps. Both Farewell to Manzanar and The Last Flight of Noah's Ark are similar, because they present Japanese and Japanese Americans as real people that audiences get to know. Shimoda acted in MacArthur with Gregory Peck and in The Horizontal Lieutenant with Jim Hutton, Paula Prentiss, Jim Backus and Miyoshi Umeki.
Shimoda had numerous television credits. The miniseries A Town Like Alice was broadcast internationally and in the United States on the Public Broadcasting System's (PBS) Masterpiece Theater. A Town Like Alice was the first non-British production to air in the United States on Masterpiece Theater. In the television miniseries, The Immigrants Shimoda played the part of Chinese American immigrant Feng Wo. He guest starred on popular television shows of the 1960s and 1970s as Adventures in Paradise, The Big Valley, Hawaiian Eye, The Andy Griffith Show, McHale's Navy, Mr. Ed, Peter Gunn, Love American Style, Wonder Woman, Hawaii Five-O, Sanford and Son, M.A.S.H. and Quincy, M.E. On Quincy, M.E., Shimoda starred as Dr. Hiro, a forensic medical examiner in the episode, "Has Anybody Here Seen Quincy?" that did not include star Jack Klugman. Shimoda was considered for a spin-off of Quincy, M.E., where he would be a coroner like Thomas Noguchi, M.D. the Los Angeles County coroner to many newsworthy deaths.
Shimoda filled in time between engagements with television commercial work, such as the Chrysler ad of the 1970s where Mr. T (Toyota) and Mr. D (Datsun – Nissan) admire a Dodge Colt and say, "Very nice, Mr. D." "I thought it was one of yours, Mr. T."
There were movie roles that got away. Shimoda got the lead role as Inuk in The Savage Innocents but was replaced by the Mexican American actor, Anthony Quinn. At the time, Shimoda was told that the reason he was fired as the leading man was because he was not realistic in the part of an Eskimo and that the part must be played by an Eskimo; discrimination that he fought against during his career was more likely the reason. It was too great a financial risk to have a Japanese American male actor take the lead role in the 1961 movie. World War II was too fresh in many people's minds and many people still did not differentiate between the former Japanese enemy and patriotic American citizens of Japanese ancestry. The United States of America was not yet ready for another Sessue Hayakawa, a Hollywood leading man from 1914 into the 1920s and the 1930s. Shimoda, like Hayakawa later in his career, took roles as the Japanese enemy.
Shimoda preferred to act as the honorable Japanese soldier or sailor like Dr. Matsumo, the good Japanese military physician, in Seven Women from Hell. Dr. Matsumo helped seven American women escape from a Japanese prison camp but was shot and killed by Japanese soldiers. The movie tried to show that there were good Japanese, too. According to the plot, Dr. Matsumo studied in the United States and says that he has family in a camp for Japanese in Utah. Richard Loo, a Chinese American, was also in Seven Women from Hell playing the stereotypical Japanese villain role he excelled in during the 1940s. This movie was released in 1961 and shows the humane side of the former enemy. Shimoda played schlock Japanese villain roles, too, but was happy to be choosier later in his career and avoid stereotypical roles for roles that portrayed Japanese and Asian people with human frailties and strengths.
Shimoda's Broadway career started when he moved to New York from Chicago to get more roles as an actor and dancer on stage. At first he worked as a waiter during the day and as a dancer at night. He found it difficult to find continual work as a dancer. He did find a job coaching Caucasian actors to act as more realistic "Orientals" in the 1950s. Ultimately he was hired as one of the first Asian American actors on Broadway. From 1953 to 1956, Shimoda acted in the Teahouse of the August Moon. Shimoda got his big break when he landed the part of Ito in the Broadway hit Auntie Mame. From 1956 to 1958 he starred opposite Rosalind Russell. After the play finished on Broadway, he moved to Los Angeles to do the 1958 Hollywood movie version to recreate his starring role.
His income from his acting career plus the knowledge he gained from the accounting degree he earned from Northwestern University allowed him to live a comfortable lifestyle. Some joked that Shimoda, being Japanese, probably had a Caucasian gardener, when many in southern California had a Japanese gardener; in actuality he enjoyed working in his own garden. Others say that he was short-tempered, because of his frustration at not becoming a household name. He finally felt he made it when his name was on a TV Guide crossword puzzle. In fact, he was an out-going, kind person with many friends in "the business" and many not in the Hollywood crowd. He was also a dog lover, who enjoyed driving his favorite dog, a collie named Saigon, in his convertible 1962 British Sunbeam Alpine with his Steve McQueen sunglasses around the Hollywood Hills. He devoted his free time to help young actors in the East West Players, a Los Angeles-based Asian American theatre group and, in turn, East West Players helped him to hone his own skills.
He died in Los Angeles of colon cancer that metastasized to his liver on May 21, 1981. He quit smoking cigarettes and social drinking of alcohol in his later years. Yuki Shimoda's ashes were originally in the Little Tokyo district of Los Angeles at the Nishihongwanji Buddhist Temple. They have since been moved to Sacramento, California so, he could rest with his family in their hometown.
A 30-minute documentary film of his life was made and released in 1985 by Visual Communications (VC) of Los Angeles: Yuki Shimoda: Asian American Actor. It includes clips of an interview with him before his passing.
Broadway stage credits
- Teahouse of the August Moon, Martin Beck Theatre, (1953–1956), as Mr. Keora, choreographer
- Auntie Mame, Broadhurst Theatre, (1956–1958), as Ito
- Pacific Overtures, Winter Garden Theatre, (1975–1976), as Abe, First Councillor
- Auntie Mame (1958) as Ito
- Career (1959) as Yosho
- Don't Give Up the Ship (1959) as Japanese Colonel (uncredited)
- Seven Women from Hell (1961) as Dr. Matsumo 
- A Majority of One (1961) as Mr. Asano's Secretary
- The Horizontal Lieutenant (1962) as Kobayashi
- Once a Thief (1965) as John Ling, Chinese Funeral Director
- Girls Are for Loving (1973) as Ambassador Hahn
- Midway (1976) as Japanese Naval officer on Hiryu
- MacArthur (1976) as Prime Minister Shidahara
- The Last Flight of Noah's Ark (1980) as Hiro
- The Octagon (1980) as Katsumo, Seikura's aide
- Hito Hata: Raise the Banner (1980)
- Yuki Shimoda: Asian American Actor (1985) as himself
TV movies and mini-series
- The Impatient Heart (TV movie) (1971)
- Farewell to Manzanar (TV movie) (1976) as Ko Wakatsuki
- The Immigrants (TV movie) (1978) as Feng Wo
- And the Soul Shall Dance (TV movie) (1978) as Oka
- A Death in Canaan (TV movie) (1978) as Dr Samura
- A Town Like Alice (TV mini-series) (1981) as Sgt Mifune
- Adventures in Paradise
- Alcoa Premiere
- Baa Baa Black Sheep
- Follow the Sun
- Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.
- Hallmark Hall of Fame
- Hawaiian Eye
- Here We Go Again
- I Spy
- It Takes a Thief
- Johnny Midnight in role of Japanese manservant Uki (1959–1960)
- Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders
- Kate Loves a Mystery
- Kung Fu
- Love American Style
- McHale's Navy 
- Mister Ed 
- Mrs. Colombo
- Peter Gunn
- Police Woman
- Quincy, M.E.
- Salvage 1
- Sanford and Son
- The Andy Griffith Show
- The Big Valley 
- The Blue Angels
- The Case of the Dangerous Robin
- The Magician
- The Tab Hunter Show
- Wonder Woman (TV series)
- Yuki Shimoda at the Internet Movie Database Retrieved on 2008-02-05
- "Yuki Shimoda". Find a Grave. Retrieved 2008-02-05.
- Yuki imitating Carmen Miranda's "Mama Yo Quiero" while incarcerated in 1942 http://content.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft2t1nb12j/
- Go for Broke - Home of Heroes http://www.homeofheroes.com/wallofhonor/nisei/index.html