Sab Shimono Adds Wrinkles to a Prolific Resume

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Sab Shimono, a veteran actor with East West Players for more than three decades, is adding a new wrinkle to his repertoire. He stars in East West’s premiere of Wrinkles, by Paul Kikuchi, opening Feb. 16 at the David Henry Hwang Theatre.

Sab Shimono

Born and reared in Sacramento, Shimono first tasted public acclaim through a political forum, when he won the election for student body president of Sacramento High School. He recalls, “I won because I used to give funny speeches. In fact my principal told me, “˜You’re a funny guy. You should go on to do something with that gift.’ While I heeded his words, I never pursued a political career after that, because I was burnt out campaigning. It seemed a distraction to me.”

Nevertheless he prized that educator’s advice as well as the encouraging counsel from earlier teachers. “Who really proved influential to me,” he says, “was a man named Howard Scott. I had him from grammar school to ninth grade. We lived in an Asian community, sort of a Japanese ghetto. Mr. Scott used to tell us, “˜You’ve got to break out of your shell.’ His phrase stayed with me. Teachers are so important because whether you realize it or not at the time, what they say sticks in your mind.”

How he chose to heed Scott’s advice included going to college. He enrolled at UC Berkeley in a pre-med curriculum because, as he explains, “I had read a novel called Not as a Stranger during that time, which was about a doctor. I don’t remember the book that well anymore and I couldn’t tell you now who wrote it. [Morton Thompson in 1954.] But I romanticized the character of the doctor in it to such an extent I fancied myself doing that. Organic chemistry soon discouraged me from that path. I switched my major to marketing.”

Also in an effort to raise his grade point average, he enrolled in an acting class taught by Henrietta Harris. She became still another positive voice in his educational journey by pointing him in a direction away from both marketing or medicine, although he was not fully cognizant of the lifelong course on which he was about to embark.

He remembers his earlier childhood as being a period when “I watched a lot of westerns””Roy Rogers and all that. I wanted to be a cowboy. After college I said, “˜I want to become an actor.’ So I headed off to study in New York where I began to get a solid foundation in the craft under Stella Adler. I studied with her for two years.

“Stella encouraged us not to seek acting work while we studied with her. She told us to work as a waiter or drive a cab or whatever, because while we were training we were still raw. She thought you shouldn’t start working too soon or you will develop bad habits. I could see what she was talking about, because of the actors I saw on film a lot of their work was poorly done. Of course many of those roles were written stereotypically. I was not so eager to get a job in acting anyway. I was more eager to learn.

“I didn’t think of acting then as a profession. I thought of it as just something I wanted to do. I never considered the hardships or the ups and downs of the business or whether I’d even make any money at it or not. I didn’t head into it fearlessly so much as stupidly, I guess. I didn’t really start thinking of it as a profession until I started making money at it. It was just this thing I liked to do.”

HAPPY COINCIDENCE

Grandpa Harry (Sab Shimono, right) is fed up with Jason’s (Ki Hong Lee, left) nosy questions. Â All production photography by Michael Lamont

Perhaps because he did like it so much, certain aspects of it came rather easy to him; indeed, they seemed to fall into his lap on occasion. He tells of the happy coincidence leading him toward Equity membership. “I had my first headshots taken, and the prints were waiting at the copiers for me to pick up. Someone came in, looked at it lying there and said, “˜Who’s that?’ The next thing I knew. I got a call and had an agent without seeking one.”

This agent sent him to audition for Flower Drum Song at Melody Fair Theatre in North Tonawanda, New York where he booked the role of Wang Ta. He says, “I sang this song called “˜You Are Beautiful’ which had a high G which made my voice crack. The arranger wouldn’t lower it for me. The review said “˜Sab’s acting is wonderful but when he opened his mouth to sing, he lost it.’ I sort of laughed about it, but it spurred me to study voice with Steve Ross.”

Ross proved yet another teacher with great influence on Shimono, so much so that two years later he booked the role of Ito with Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur in Broadway’s original Mame, which ran for 1,508 performances. He almost didn’t book it because he disagreed with his other great mentor. “I had worked on the song “˜Get Me to the Church on Time’ from My Fair Lady in Stella Adler’s musical comedy class, so I had that one in my back pocket and planned to audition with it. Stella wanted me to do it with a Japanese accent while wearing Kabuki make-up. I said no.

“I rebelled because I wanted to do Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, not be trapped in ethnicity. I thought that was why I was studying in the first place, to expand the range of what I could do. Stella liked feisty people. If you weakened yourself with criticism, she went after you even more. If you fought back, she respected you for that, so I fought back against this idea. She patiently explained to me, “˜You’re trying to deny your Asian identity, which is your marketability for the stage.’ So I relented and did it her way. She was right.”

Mame ran from 1966 to 1970 and proved to be the first of a half dozen Broadway bookings for Shimono. The others included Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen in 1970, Ride the Winds in 1974, the original Pacific Overtures in 1976, the revival of Mame in 1983 and the revival of Pacific Overtures in 2004. Broadway theatres he worked in were the Winter Garden, the Broadway, the Majestic, the Bijou, the George Gershwin and Studio 54.

So when is he up for his next Broadway challenge? He replies, “Whenever they want me. I’d like to do a play instead of a musical for once, but I will do anything on Broadway. One I passed on was the revival of The King and I because I had another project in the works at the time, a film project. I couldn’t do both so I opted for the one already underway. I wish in retrospect I’d done the revival. Whenever or wherever theater is offered to me, I’m willing to jump at it. I’ve done a lot of regional theater. I did many shows at La MaMa [in New York]. I remember I once did two shows in an evening. I went onstage at La MaMa at a regular eight o’clock curtain time, finished that part and rushed to another theater on 8th Street to go on at 9:30.”

He also racked up an impressive catalog of titles before the camera, although he remains modest about the achievement. When reminded of his 95 film and TV credits on IMDB, he quips, “That many? So where is my swimming pool? I have a Jacuzzi but no swimming pool.”

A TWIN BROTHER

Grandpa Harry (Sab Shimono, right) and Teena (Elizabeth Ho, left) perform their own dirty dance number

Shimono’s twin brother Jiro became a doctor and serves as director of the Delaware Psychiatric Center. When questioned if his brother ever offers any psychological analysis to assist him in character development, he answers, “We don’t have those kinds of discussions on a regular basis, although on occasion I have asked him what would psychologically cause a character to react in a certain way. But you know any family member who sees you on screen never makes the kind of comment you’d expect or might want. They tell me something like, “˜You should comb your hair differently.’ Or “˜You shouldn’t wear your shirt tucked in because it makes your butt look too flat.’ Things of that nature.

“I’ll tell you an interesting story about Jiro and me though. When I first began to go out and started booking jobs, I had an interview with Chun King Chow Mein for a print job. I had a conflict and couldn’t make it so I sent Jiro in my place. He got a callback. So now I was free and I went to the callback. They hired Jiro for it, not me.”

Shimono enjoys a hearty laugh at the memory before reflecting, “Jiro is more outward in his personality. I’m more inward. He could sell things. I couldn’t.”

Again his modesty kicks in. Putting aside the fact that any actor is in the constant business of selling himself every time he successfully auditions for a new role, there’s the recognition given Shimono in 1974 from advertising professionals around the world in the form of their annual CLIO Award. Named after the Greek muse of history — or, as they announce in their own press releases, “the proclaimer, glorifier and celebrator of history, great deeds and accomplishments” — the 14-inch statuette was awarded June 14, 1974 to Shimono as CLIO’s best actor in a commercial for Benihana Restaurants.

RETURNS TO THE STAGE

In spite of TV, film and commercial credits and awards, Shimono keeps gravitating toward the stage with methodical regularity. “I average two plays a year,” he proclaims, “because I have to have a place to keep working and honing my craft. Acting is a physical activity. You have to keep the muscles and the voice working if you want them to keep functioning for you.”

In a natural convergence Shimono and East West Players crossed paths to form a mutually beneficial alliance in 1977’s And the Soul Shall Dance by Wakako Yamauchi. Originally published as a short story, it was recognized as a promising fit for the stage by then East West Players artistic director Makoto Iwamatsu (better known to American audiences as Mako). Under his encouragement Yamauchi adapted her story as a play.

Mako then harked back to his own Broadway debut as an actor in Pacific Overtures, a year earlier, to lure  fellow cast member Shimono to this project. Mako’s belief in Yamauchi’s story paid off. The adaptation won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for best new play of the season and was taped by PBS for broadcast the following year.

Shimono has continued appearing in East West productions for the last 33 years and now approaches the lead role in Wrinkles with much excitement, as it represents a new opportunity. He elaborates, “The script caught me right away. It’s a comedy about a 73-year-old Japanese American porn star. I never thought I’d be offered something like this. I thought whether it’s written good or bad, it’s too interesting to pass up. It’s also rather timely. I understand they show elder porn in Japan to older nursing home residents to make them feel they’re still alive and their sexuality is still acceptable. It seems to work because apparently a lot of hanky-panky goes on in retirement homes.”

ason (Ki Hong Lee, left) comforts his mother Nancy (Amy Hill, right) after they find out Grandpa’s dirty secret

As for his future Shimono maintains, “Oh, I’ll keep working. I get restless easily. Boredom sets in after a certain point if I go a few months without a project, although I’m a little too lazy to pursue projects. I take it as it comes and wait till something comes to me. I’ve never gone the publicist or management route in Hollywood. Maybe that would’ve accomplished more for my career, although it’s probably too late to figure that one out now. Usually when it comes to a film or TV role I’m right for, I get a call. Maybe a manager could have opened some non-Asian doors for me. I don’t know. It’s like I tried telling Stella in the last century; I want to be there because I’m a good actor, not because I’m Asian. Still I’m happy. I’ve had a long career and a good one.”

A good, long career that doesn’t seem close to winding down yet, as Sab Shimono irons out even more new wrinkles in his east/west career.

Wrinkles, presented by East West Players, opens Feb. 16; plays Wed.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 pm; through March 13. Tickets: $25-$35. Pay-what-you-can performance Thur., 2/17 at 8 pm, $5 minimum. Previews: $20 on 2/10-2/13. David Henry Hwang Theater, Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles; 213.625.7000 or eastwestplayers.org.

Gary Ballard

Gary Ballard