Reiko Sato


Name Reiko Sato
Born December 19 1931
Died May 28 1981
Birth Location Los Angeles
Generational Identifier

Nisei

A talented dancer and actress, Reiko Sato (1931–81) gained visibility as a performer on Broadway and in Hollywood and had some success fighting racial typecasting. Sato's career progressed alongside her life with screen star Marlon Brando, first as a romantic partner and then as a longtime friend and companion.

Reiko Sato was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of a Japanese immigrant farm operator, Tonezo Sato, and his wife Chieko, an educated Japanese woman twenty-two years his junior. Sato later recalled that she took up dancing at the age of four. During World War II the Sato family was sent for confinement at Turlock, before being moved to the Gila River camp.

After the war's end, the Sato family returned to Los Angeles, where Mrs. Sato managed an apartment building. Reiko finished high school and enrolled in college. Her first break came when she won the (uncredited) role of "Suki" in the movie, Mother Didn't Tell Me (1950). That same year, she also appeared in a thriller, Woman on the Run. Soon she turned to concentrate on dance, and was accepted into the Jack Cole Dancers. (A founder of modern jazz dance, Jack Cole taught Gwen Verdon and influenced Bob Fosse.) In 1953, Cole was hired as choreographer for the Broadway musical Kismet, an adaptation of an old Arabian nights play that featured songs adapted from the music of Alexander Borodin. Cole selected Sato as one of the three "Ababu princesses," a trio of prospective brides for the Caliph, who performed a bravura staccato dance to the song, "Not Since Ninevah." Sato remained on Broadway with the show for almost two years. In 1955 she repeated her role in the MGM film version, where she was featured opposite Vic Damone. Sato would later reprise her role in several revivals, including a West Coast tour in 1962 and a production at New York's Lincoln Center in 1965. Meanwhile, in 1956 she was given a chance to show off her acting talent when she was featured in the National tour of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Teahouse of the August Moon.

Sometime during the early 1950s, Sato met Marlon Brando. In June 1954 Dorothy Kilgallen publicized the relationship between the two with an item in her column. While the romance ultimately cooled, the two remained close friends and companions for the rest of Sato's life.

In early 1959, Sato returned to Broadway in the musical Destry, starring Andy Griffith as an unlikely gunslinger. Sato performed Ming Li, one of a multiethnic chorus of prostitutes. In 1960, she moved to Hollywood. There she was cast in Hell to Eternity, the film biography of war hero Guy Gabaldon, a Mexican American raised by a Japanese American family. The film is of some historical importance as the first Hollywood picture to portray the wartime confinement of Japanese Americans. Sato's role was as a Nisei bar hostess from Hawai'i, and consisted primarily of a wild striptease dance (apparently somewhat cut amid fears of censorship). The following year, she was cast in the movie of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song. Sato portrayed Helen Chao, a seamstress who has an unrequited crush on James Shigeta's Wan Ta, and who sings the ballad "Love, Look Away." Sato's singing voice was dubbed by Marilyn Horne. However, she executed a powerful dance routine, some of which involved flying through the air on wires.

In 1963, Sato played a small role as the wife of an Asian revolutionary leader in the film The Ugly American, starring Brando. In 1966, she was invited by Jack Cole to join the cast of Chu Chem, an unsuccessful "Chinese-Jewish" musical. In later years, she divided her time between Los Angeles and Marlon Brando's private South Sea island of Tetiaroa. Reiko Sato died on May 28, 1981. Her body was reportedly discovered by Brando, who went to her house after failing for several days to reach her by telephone. Half her ashes were sent for placement in a Buddhist temple; the other half were shipped for burial in Tetiaroa.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

Robinson, Greg. "Reiko Sato." Nichi Bei Weekly, Feb. 22, 2010.