Nobu McCarthy, 67; Actress on Stage and Film
Nobu McCarthy, who first attracted attention as a Hollywood starlet and later became an accomplished stage actress and artistic director of the pioneering Los Angeles-based theater company East West Players, died Saturday at 67.
She was in Londrina, Brazil, shooting “Gaijin II,” a movie about several generations of Japanese immigrants in Brazil, where her late parents had emigrated.
Tamlyn Tomita, an American actress also in the cast, said McCarthy had returned to work Saturday, after a period of convalescence following a hospitalization for pneumonia that occurred shortly after her arrival in Brazil on March 9. She was stricken on the set Saturday with what doctors diagnosed as an aneurysm in her aorta, Tomita said. Production of the movie was suspended.
Born as Nobu Atsumi in Ottawa, Canada, where her father Masagi Atsumi was a private secretary to the Japanese ambassador, McCarthy was brought to Japan as a baby. She trained at the Pavlova School of Ballet in Kamakura, Japan, from 1947 to 1953, sang with choral groups on stage and radio, and became a successful model. She was named Miss Tokyo in the competition leading up to the Miss Universe pageant.
In 1955, she married U.S. Army Sgt. David McCarthy, a match her parents opposed. The newlyweds moved to Los Angeles. “When I first came here,” McCarthy told The Times in a 1960 interview, “I just knew greetings and ‘I love you.’ I thought I knew everything and then I found I didn’t, and I was scared to go out. But adjustment wasn’t very hard for me. It’s amazing the way people helped me.”
Spotted by an agent in Little Tokyo, she was sent to an audition at Paramount Pictures and got a role in the Jerry Lewis comedy “The Geisha Boy” in 1958. Among the other titles from her busiest period in Hollywood, in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, were “The Hunters,” “Wake Me When It’s Over,” “Walk Like a Dragon” and “Love With the Proper Stranger.”
Her TV series credits included “Perry Mason,” “Wagon Train” and “Mister Ed.”
George Takei, who later became famous for the role in Sulu in “Star Trek,” said his first paying job as an actor was in a “Playhouse 90" TV production in which he played McCarthy’s fiance and suspected killer. “At that time, she was not really a trained actress,” Takei said. “But she had extraordinary beauty and charm. And she was a very conscientious student who studied hard and transformed herself into a fine actress.”
“She was very unassuming,” recalled Mako, the actor and director whom McCarthy later would succeed as artistic director of East West Players. “The girl-next-door type, as opposed to a brash young star.”
Mako and others founded East West, the country’s first Asian American theater company, in 1965. McCarthy was not actively involved with it then.
However, after withdrawing from acting in the late ‘60s, followed by a divorce in 1970, McCarthy returned to her career via East West, joining the company in 1971 and playing a number of roles on its small stage, then on Santa Monica Boulevard.
“We all liked her,” Mako said. “She became a very steady actress, although she had arthritis that sometimes made her move in a way that looked older than she was.”
During her later career, her screen appearances diminished in number but grew in substance. She was in the landmark TV movie “Farewell to Manzanar” in 1976, in the commercial hit “Karate Kid II” in 1986, “Pacific Heights” in 1990 and “The Painted Desert” in 1993, as well as a variety of TV series guest appearances.
In 1989, East West Players went through a turbulent period, with Mako resigning under pressure from the board. McCarthy was selected as his replacement and served as artistic director until 1993. During her tenure, the group’s board and fund-raising were expanded, and she made an effort to open up the theater’s programming and behind-the-scenes activities to non-Asians and, within the Asian American community, to non-Japanese Americans.
“She brought her calming influence to the group, broadened the outreach, and brought a sense of balance and stability,” Takei said.
Her successor, Tim Dang, still the group’s artistic director, credited McCarthy with providing opportunities to him and to many other young Asian American artists. McCarthy and her second husband, the late William Cuthbert, received a lifetime achievement award from East West in 1996.
McCarthy also acted at other theaters in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. She played one of the two leading roles in Philip Kan Gotanda’s “The Wash” at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. and in a film version that was shown on public television.
“She was so natural,” Gotanda recalled. “When I directed her, I just sort of let her be. She could run a large gamut of emotions. If you wanted darkness, she could go there. She also could seem to be the most innocent person on the face of the Earth.”
McCarthy is survived by two children from her first marriage, Marlon of Monrovia and Serena of Northern California; and three brothers.