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Teru Shimada - a Japanese American Pioneer in Hollywood - Part 1

Teru Shimada (center) in Oil for the Lamps of China. (Photo: Gift of K. Patrick and Lily A. Okura, Japanese American National Museum [96.321.36])

One of the great leading men of motion picture history was Sessue Hayakawa, whose magnetic good looks and style captivated audiences around the world. Hayakawa and his wife Tsuru Aoki were top stars in Hollywood during the silent film era. However, with the coming of sound film, their careers declined. Hayakawa left Hollywood for a generation, made movies in France and Japan, then returned to the United States after World War II to play character parts, most notably his Oscar-nominated performance in the 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai. Aoki, who retired from screen acting in the mid-1920s, did not make her comeback until the 1960 drama Hell to Eternity, released shortly before her death. Her luminous performance in that film allows us a glimpse of her formidable talent.

Although no other Japanese American performers were able to match the Hayakawas’ success and popularity during the Golden Age of Hollywood, there were a number of Issei and Nisei performers who graced the screen during this period. Aong them were Tetsu Komai, Bob Okazaki, Otto Yamaoka, Pearl Suetomi (AKA Lotus Long), Toshia Mori, Sojin Kamiyama and Miki Morita. One of the most accomplished and durable of the Holllywood Nikkei was Teru Shimada, who appeared in some one hundred Hollywood films. While in his early years he mostly played bits or did extra work, in the postwar years he was hired for feature roles in various big-budget motion pictures such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri, plus playing character parts in other films and tv shows. He achieved particular renown for his supporting role in the 1967 James Bond thriller You Only Live Twice.

He was born in Mito, Japan as Akira Shimada (the year was variously reported as 1905 and 1906). Acording to his own later account, Shimada was intrigued from early childhood by the tales of the entertainers who would visit the home of his artist grandfather. The little boy went regularly to the movies, and idolized cowboy star Tom Mix. One day he saw an American film featuring Sessue Hayakawa. The experience persuaded him that he could also come to America and become a film actor. He arrived in San Francisco in March 1924, knowing no English, on a student visa.

While Shimada ultimately attended two years of college, his determination to become an actor never changed, and he remained in the United States after leaving college (during which time he was technically an illegal alien). He later joked that his first job in “show business” was as a janitor in a San Francisco’s Granada Theater, which helped pay for acting lessons. In the following years, he moved to Los Angeles, where he supported himself as a hotel clerk and then a pressman for a Japanese American newspaper. His first role was as a valet in a Los Angeles production of Hale Hamilton’s play Dear Me in 1929. In 1930-31, Shimada studied acting in the studio of Katherine Hamill. In December 1930, he starred in a student production of “The Flower of Eddo”, a one-act play about Japan. In June 1931, he headlined a class show in Los Angeles’s Jinnistan Grotto theater, performing scenes from Melchior Lengyel’s play The Typhoon. Both times, Shimada’s photo was the only one featured in The Los Angeles Times—a tribute not only to his starring role but to his remarkable good looks.

During this period, as Hollywood shifted to sound films, Shimada took English and speech classes, while supporting himself through odd jobs as a butler, gardener, clerk, and dishwasher. He first broke into films with a brief role in The Nightclub Lady (1932), Shortly afterward, he auditioned for Cecil B. DeMille (whose 1915 potboiler The Cheat had launched Sessue Hayakawa’s career). Shimada later recalled that in his first interview with the great director, DeMille stated that he was looking for a “young, strong husky man who can climb a rope” for his Pacific Island epic, Four Frightened People, and he invited Shimada to climb a rope hanging in his office. After demonstrating his athletic prowess, Shinada was hired to play a ”sakai” native guide, one who clambered up the tall palms to get food and scan the horizon. He sailed to Hawaii with the cast and crew for several weeks of filming.

After his work with DeMille, Shimada was hired for numerous extra roles and bit parts, mainly uncredited, as houseboys and valets. He was cast as a Jiu Jitsu Man in the 1934 potboiler Charlie Chan’s Courage. In Midnight Club, made shortly after, he was a member of a gang of jewel thieves, and he then played a gangster henchman in Public Hero No. 1. He appeared briefly the Claudette Colbert-Louise Beavers version of the film Imitation of Life and (as a Chinese) in Mae West’s film, Klondike Annie. Shimada yearned for better roles. As he later stated, “It is easier to make a living as extras and bit players, but there is no future in it.”

Shimada’s first featured role was in a comic bit as a Yokohama teahouse proprietor in the 1935 Pat O’Brien film, Oil for the Lamps of China. He also played the small but showy role of Buna, a villanous servant, in the 1936 film Revolt of the Zombies. That same year,

he played his first serious part, in the independently produced film White Legion. The film dramatizes the adventures of a group of heroic doctors who travel to Panama during the building of the Panama Canal in search of a cure for yellow fever. Shimada’s character Dr. Nogi (clearly based on the celebrated Japanese-born bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi) has special powers to resist pain and treat illness. Shimada’s last prewar role of importance was in the 1939 thriller Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, in which his character was a decoy who impersonated the eponymous Japanese spy (played, ironically, by a non-Japanese, Austrian actor Peter Lorre).

Shimada was taken by surprise by Executive Order 9066 and the mass removal of Japanese Americans. He dreamed of relocating to New York and establishing himself in the Manhattan theater world, but was unable to get away from the West Coast in time before resettlement was “frozen” in late March. Instead, in May 1942 he was removed to the Poston WRA camp.

Still only in his mid-thirties and fluent in English, Shimada was a rare figure among the Issei in camp. Because of his fame as an actor, he was named production manager of a Nisei drama group, the Poston Drama Guild. The Guild performed in messhalls, putting on skits and comic sketches of camp life, including “Coming to Boilton” and “The Blockhead’s Nightmare”. In fall 1942, the Guild announced a forthcoming original 3-act comedy, “Postonese,” depicting life in camp, to be written and directed by Shimada and his fellow actor Wilfred Horiuchi. Shimada took over an entire barrack and designed a stage for the dramatic department. An article in the Poston News-Chronicle stated that the stage had “a synchronized platform, footlight, spotlights, ceiling and natural wood furniture.” Shimada noted, “We don’t know anything about building a stage—it isn’t in our line. But we are forced to do it because this is Poston.” The group was also forced to construct its own chairs for the theater. However, materials were scarce and the work on the theater was slow. Worse yet, during the hiatus of the construction, the Guild’s original actors went into other jobs or began leaving camp, and Shimada was forced to re-cast his show--he thought of recruiting high school students.

By early 1943, the little theater was nearly completed. However, one day a fire broke out in a neighboring messhall, and swept through the barrrack and consumed the stage and seats. The entire theater, the product of months of labor, was destroyed almost instantly.

Stunned and distraught by the loss, Shimada nonetheless resolved to carry on. Armed with a certificate from the American Red Cross that authorized him to give classes in swimming and lifeguard training, he joined Captain Tetsuo Sakamoto to champion a “build a pool” project. Such a swimming pool, Shimada announced, would “cool off the griddled brains of the old-timers” and would offer all the children in the camp a chance to learn how to swim. Shimada helped recruit a group of volunteers to dig a pool and put up shade around it. (The workers also built a large diving platform—so large, in fact, that it would ultimately be converted for use as a makeshift outdoor stage for skits by the drama group as well).

The new pool turned out to be wildly popular. Over the next months, Shimada supervised nineteen lifeguards who held swimming classes and cared for thousands of young Nisei swimmers. They even held a series of water carnivals with races, diving competitions, and talent shows. At the request of John W. Powell, chief of Poston’s community management division, Shimada was appointed Unit I Community Activities Coordinator. “Mr. Shimada’s proven leadership of the younger men, and his sympathetic understanding of the needs and interests fo the older people, will be of great value to the enjoyment and harmony of the residents of Unit I,” Powell told the Poston News-Chronicle. In February 1945, Shimada’s residence block elected him as a block leader, and he resigned his other positions.

While he felt pride in his community activities, Shimada loathed the heat and hardships of Poston and yearned to return to acting. The timing did not seem propitious. Ironically, during the war Hollywood had produced numerous films with villanous Japanese, but all were played by Chinese or Korean or white actors. Even after the end of World War II and the return of Japanese Americans to the West Coast, the other Nikkei actors who had worked in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s (apart from Sessue Hayakawa) would disappear from view. Shimada must have wondered whether his career had come to an end, but in fact he would have a professional renaissance after the war.

Read Part 2 >>


© 2019 Greg Robinson

actor camp film Poston Teru Shimada theater World War II