Which Asian Actors Have Won Academy Awards?

Ben Kingsley
Oscar Winner Ben Kingsley. SB Click/Flickr.com

Ang Lee is regarded as one of the best directors of the 21st century. He’s won Academy Awards for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2001, “Brokeback Mountain” in 2006, and “Life of Pi” in 2013. But as a three-time Oscar winner, Lee is an anomaly, given that Asians and Asian Americans remain woefully underrepresented in Hollywood. The dearth of Asian movie stars in particular means that no actor of Asian descent has brought home an Academy Award since 1985. Which actor has that distinction, and who are the other three Asian actors to take home Oscars? Find out with this list.

Yul Brynner (1957)

Yul Brynner won the Academy Award for best actor for the “King and I” in 1957 for portraying King Mongkut of Siam. The Russian-born Brynner was of European and Mongolian descent, according to Biography.com. He moved to the U.S. in 1941. He won the Oscar after portraying King Mongkut on Broadway, beginning in 1951. In addition to the “King and I,” Brynner starred in films such as “The Ten Commandments,” “Anastasia,” “The Brothers Karamazov” and “The Magnificent Seven.”

Brynner died of lung cancer in 1985. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6162 Hollywood Blvd.

Miyoshi Umeki (1957)

The same year Brynner won the Academy Award for the “King and I,” Miyoshi Umeki took home the best supporting actress Oscar for portraying a Japanese woman in love with a U.S. serviceman in the film “Sayonara.” Her character commits suicide after she and the serviceman wed and he’s prevented from returning to the U.S. with her. The serviceman, played by Red Buttons, take his life as well. Buttons, like Umeki, won an Oscar for his performance.

The New York Times credits Umeki with being the first Asian to win an Academy Award. Given Brynner’s reported ancestry, this is under dispute, but Umeki was certainly the first woman of Asian descent to take home an Oscar.

Born on May 8, 1929, in Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan, Umeki moved to New York City in 1955 after making a name for herself as a singer in her homeland. Regular acting gigs on TV shows led to her role in “Sayonara.” In addition to that film, Umeki in 1958 starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song” on Broadway. Her performance earned her a Tony nomination. She also appeared in the film version of the play. Umeki acted in other films as well, such as “Cry for Happy” (1961), “The Horizontal Lieutenant” (1962) and “A Girl Named Tamiko” (1963).

On the small screen, she starred in the TV show, “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” which aired until 1972 after a three-year run. When that show ended, Umeki left show business to concentrate on being a wife and mother. She died in 2007 at age 78 from complications of cancer.

Ben Kingsley (1983)

Character actor Ben Kingsley will always be linked to his Academy-Award winning portrayal of nonviolence advocate Mahatma Gandhi in the film “Gandhi.” He received the best actor Oscar for that performance in 1983, making him the second actor of Asian descent to win in that category.

Born in 1943 in England to a European mother and an Indian father, Kingsley has been nominated for a slew of awards after his groundbreaking performance in Gandhi. He’s received Oscar nominations for “House of Sand and Fog” (2003), “Sexy Beast” (2001) and “Bugsy” (1991). He continues to act today.

Haing S. Ngor (1985)

Haing S. Ngor, a Cambodian refugee who found fame in the United States, won the Academy Award in 1985 for portraying a journalist in “The Killing Fields,” which chronicles the deadly regime of the Khmer Rouge. Winning the Oscar gave Ngor, a physician in Cambodia, a platform to discuss the atrocities committed by the regime, which resulted in the deaths of his family members.

“I have a house. I have everything, but I have no family,” said Ngor, born on March 22,1940, in Cambodia. "How rich you are, but you can't buy a happy family.”

Although Ngor grieved the loss of his relatives, he did channel his wealth into helping the Cambodian people. He helped fund two clinics and a school in the Southeast Asian nation.

Cambodian Americans say that starring in “The Killing Fields” and speaking out against the Khmer Rouge earned Ngor enemies. Conspiracy theories continue to mount about his shooting death in 1996 in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. While police say that Asian gang members gunned down Ngor while robbing him, some Cambodian Americans remain convinced that the actor’s killing was an assassination in retaliation for his activism.