Sumi Haru dies at 75; SAG official sought better roles for Asian Americans

Sumi Haru, who has died at 75, paved the way for Asian American actors to get better TV, film roles

Sumi Haru dreamed of becoming an actress, but found her true calling when she joined a 1970 picket line at the Music Center in Los Angeles, protesting the musical "Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen," which was set in Japan but had white actors playing Asian roles.

To her Philippines-born parents, dismayed that she had participated in a public protest, Haru said, "How else can we let people know that here's discrimination in the theater?" she wrote in "Iron Lotus" her 2012 autobiography. "You'll see, someday I'll make a living acting."

That never quite happened. But through her activism, including years as a board member and officeholder with the Screen Actors Guild, Haru helped pave the way for Asian American actors to get more representation on film and television.

Haru died Thursday at All Saints HealthCare in North Hollywood. She was 75.

She had been struggling with emphysema, said her daughter, Vanda Vieaux.

Haru did get small parts in a few television shows in the 1960s and 1970s, and appeared in the 1969 disaster flick "Krakatoa: East of Java."

But not long after her first protest, Haru got involved with several actors' rights organizations and committees, some of which she help found. In 1981, as president of the Assn. of Asian/Pacific American Artists, she spoke out against the movie "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen" starring Peter Ustinov as the fictional Chinese detective.

"It isn't only dated and racist," Haru told the Los Angeles Times, "it's insulting to our sense of logic and fair play. White actors, with their eyes taped, can portray us on the screen, but we as Asian-Pacifics are not permitted to portray them."

Her activism sometimes got in the way of the progress she might have made in her acting career. Haru refused to audition for parts she believed smacked of stereotyping, said her friend Jack Ong.

"She would not play the maid or the dragon lady," said Ong, who is also an actor. "She put her foot down."

She was born Mildred Sevilla on Aug. 25, 1939, in Orange, N.J. Her family moved to Arvada, Colo., where she graduated from high school. She studied music at the University of Colorado but left before getting a degree.

On a California vacation in 1963, she met members of the cast and crew of the film, "Soldier in the Rain," which set her on the path of a show business career.

Haru, who changed her name on the advice of an acting coach, joined SAG in 1968 and joined the guild's board in the mid-1970s. Among the groups she co-founded was SAG's Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee and she helped negotiate SAG's contractual "American Scene" clause that called for a more realistic representation of minorities.

In 1995 she became the interim president of SAG when Barry Gordon resigned to run for Congress, and she was elected as a first vice president of the guild.

Haru hosted and produced shows at KTLA-TV Channel 5, including "70s Woman," and worked several years for the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs department, helping to put on events such as an annual mariachi festival.

She spoke at times over the years of getting back to a serious pursuit of acting. But progress on the minority actors' front was slow, and she continued to make that the focus of her life.

"Twenty years later, we're still struggling for realistic representation," said Haru in the 1990s. "But we've made progress. I would have given up long ago if we hadn't made any progress."

In addition to her daughter, who lives in North Hollywood, Haru is survived by daughter Connie Boles of San Jose; and a sister, Rosie Alexander, who lives in Florida. Haru's three marriages ended in divorce.

Twitter @davidcolker

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