By Terry Watada
I thought I’d start 2016 with some surprising facts, at least surprising to me. Did you know Nobu McCarthy was Canadian? I know, who’s Nobu McCarthy? Perhaps you remember films like the egregious Geisha Boy, the Karate Kid, Part II, and Walk like a Dragon. Or TV shows like Sea Hunt, the Wild Wild West and Barney Miller. She was in all of them and more besides. She also starred in Farewell to Manzanar, perhaps the first film to examine the Japanese American internment experience.
Nobu Atsumi started life in Ottawa, Ontario, November 13, 1934. Her parents, Yuki (nee Kano) and Masaji, were respectively a fashion designer and a diplomatic attaché stationed in Canada. Shortly after her birth, she was transplanted and raised in Japan. She studied ballet and singing and soon became a model, eventually winning the title of Miss Tokyo in a beauty contest. In 1955, she met and married US Army Sgt. David McCarthy and moved to America.
The story goes that while shopping in LA’s Little Tokyo, she was discovered by talent agent Fred Ishimoto. She was soon cast in the Jerry Lewis film The Geisha Boy (1958), though she could barely speak English. Lewis really didn’t care since he was more concerned with broad comedy and stereotyped Japanese instead of accurate portrayals.
She went on to find parts in film and TV like Wake Me When It’s Over with Ernie Kovacs and Dick Shawn, Perry Mason, The Bing Crosby Show and The Islanders. She more or less played the same character – the fawning, “Madam Butterfly” Oriental woman. Of course these were the only roles offered.
She did shine in Walk like a Dragon (1960) with James Shigeta, Jack Lord (of Hawaii Five-O fame) and Mel Tomé as a mysterious gunslinger (!). The film is set in frontier San Francisco in the 1870s. McCarthy plays a Chinese woman about to be sold in the California slave market. Jack Lord as Linc Bartlett intervenes and wins her in the auction with the intention of setting her free. He finds she is too vulnerable on her own and so installs her as his housekeeper. He predictably falls in love with her. Complications arise when James Shigeta’s character, another immigrant named Cheng Lu, becomes jealous. The plot gets rather convoluted with Shigeta and McCarthy ending up together (there’s even a shootout) – I understand there was a second ending shot with Lord and McCarthy together but the footage has never been found. It is significant that James Shigeta plays another role that fights against stereotypes (he was always fighting for his rights in the film) and an interracial romance is portrayed, very controversial for its time.
The film was written and directed by James Clavell of Shogun fame and had Kam Tong and Benson Fong in key supporting roles. It would have been interesting if McCarthy had been in Flower Drum Song with Shigeta and Fong, but it was not to be.
My favourite role for her was as a victim in the delightful sitcom of the 1970s, Barney Miller. It is Christmas time and Dorothy Murakami (McCarthy) sits in the old “One-Two” reporting a mugging to Detective Harris. Sgt. Yemana (Jack Soo) spots her and is immediately attracted to her. He weaves his charming magic and they end up arranging a date. “It’s nice to be amongst your own on a holiday,” he observes.
She agrees. Ms. Murakami leaves and plans to return at the end of Nick’s shift. In the meantime, Wojo, another detective, is determined to let Nick know Murakami is a prostitute. Yemena learns the secret after many quick-witted lines. The Inspector complains that Christmas in New York isn’t the same. “8th Avenue’s lined both sides with porno palaces, massage parlors …” Nick rejoins, “That stuff’s hard to wrap.”
When Ms. Murakami returns, Nick hesitates and she catches on. “Well, if you’d rather not, I understand.” Her face is painted with disappointment and anger.
But in a warm-hearted moment of understanding, Nick Yemana says, “As of this moment, I’m off-duty.” Ms Murakami comes back with “As of this moment I am off-duty too.” And they set off into the strange and wild New York night to enjoy each other’s company.
It is a significant moment since back then there were very few Asian romances (however short) shown on television. Both actors carried it off with sensitivity, humour and grace. For Nobu McCarthy it was a high-water mark.
She divorced in 1970 and became a part of the Asian American theatre scene. She was featured in a key role in Momoko Iko’s Gold Watch, a pioneering play about the Japanese American internment experience. She eventually became the artistic director of the East West Players in Los Angeles and worked in the Asian American community while acting and teaching drama at Cal State and UCLA.
Nobu McCarthy, a Canadian, may have started in The Geisha Boy, a dubious film at best, but she ended her career with much honour and distinction. In 2002, she died of an aortal aneurysm while doing what she loved: making a film in Brazil with Tamlyn Tomita.