Popular TV Talk Show Panelist Reiko Douglas Dies at 77
Reiko Douglas, the diminutive Japanese-born entertainer who arrived in the United States not able to speak or understand any English yet managed to become one of the most sought-after and popular panel guests on the late-night TV show circuit of the 1960's and 70's, has died on September 9 at West Hills Hospital in Los Angeles. She was 77, had been a long-time smoker and the cause was cancer. Married for nearly 30 years to writer and humorist Jack Douglas, she was known to the public simply as "Reiko" (which she herself usually pronounced "Layko"), and was a regular for nearly two decades on the shows of Jack Paar, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, David Frost and Johnny Carson.
Reiko married the older author and humorist Jack Douglas in 1960, without realizing what she had done and was to become the muse for all of his future work. Douglas was a close friend and writer for Jack Paar, who at that time hosted the "Tonight Show" on NBC and was the undisputed king of late-night TV. Paar held an exclusivity on many of the guests who he kept as his own private rotating stable. He became intrigued by Douglas' exotic young Japanese wife and they soon joined the likes of Oscar Levant, Elsa Maxwell, actors Hermione Gingold, Hans Conried, Peggy Cass and chanteuse Genevieve among Paar's permanent regulars. Those who dared cross the threshold by appearing on a rival show were seldom asked back, and even though he only paid his guests union scale, he conducted a long-standing public feud with the higher-paying Ed Sullivan, who tried to lure many of them away.
Reiko first appeared on the Paar show in early 1961 when her new husband brought her out from backstage, dressed in a full traditional Japanese kimono costume, complete with headdress, obi sash and zori sandals. She spoke no English and her husband would interpret for her the best he could, but the mischievous Paar would deliberately try to confuse her for the sake of making the audience laugh. "Jack Douglas and his wife Reiko," as they were often billed, became a permanent part of the rotating Paar family, appearing with him nearly a hundred times until he abruptly quit the show during a live broadcast. He later turned up on a weekly Primetime program, "The Jack Paar Show," on which they also appeared in 1964. They were now free to go elsewhere and found themselves in quick demand on literally every other popular program of the time including those hosted by Merv Griffin (who became another strong supporter of the team), Mike Douglas, David Frost and eventually hit the pinnacle of Late Night, Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," on which they continued to appear well into the 1970's. Carson took an immediate liking to them and had them on often. A highlight of Reiko's appearances was "The Presidents Song," written by her husband, in which she triumphantly sang the name of every U.S. President from George Washington up to the present.
By now, Reiko had learned English and was quite intelligent, but was still struggling with a thick Japanese accent. The humor soon reversed itself and it was now Reiko who understood everything Being said, while the hosts and other guests had to try and figure out what she was saying to them. The uniqueness of her personality still worked and continued to charm American audiences who had taken Reiko under their wing like a foster child that they wanted to nurture.
One classic episode, released by Jack Paar in his DVD box set of favorite TV moments, involved Reiko and French singer Genevieve in a heated discussion, frantically trying to make the other understand what they were attempting to say in fractured English with their thick accents. Paar would try to translate for them, and it just made the chaos funnier. Reiko continued to have a lifelong friendship with Paar, even after she had begun guesting on other programs, and was featured on his "Jack Paar Tonight" special in 1973 and a PBS "American Masters" retrospective in 1997.
She was born Reiko Hashimoto on Sept. 2, 1936 to a Buddhist priest who was Forbidden to marry, but had fallen in love with a young geisha girl-in-training and they began a family. They had earlier fled Hiroshima before the start of the war, and Reiko's birth took place inside a 350-year old temple in Kanazawa. A first-born daughter had died at the age of two and her father always believed that Reiko was her reincarnation.
At the age of 15, Reiko was sent away to study acrobatic dancing, similar to today's Cirque du Soleil, where she spent five years in intensive training and became the best of her profession. She initially formed a group with two other dancers, The Tokyo Can-Can Girls and became popular on Japanese television. After deciding to go solo, her very first performance was for Gen. Douglas MacArthur at a U.S. Officers Club during the Korean War in 1952. She later added singing to her act, playing clubs and theaters throughout Japan and was offered a recording contract by RCA Victor. She also began a romantic relationship with Japanese baseball great Sadaharu Oh, but chose instead to come to the United States, hoping that success in this country would make her an even bigger star when she returned to Japan.
In 1955, she arrived on the same plane as singers Myoshi Umeki and Peggy Hayama, who all shared the same agent. (Umeki would Go On to star in Broadway's "Flower Drum Song" and win an Oscar for "Sayonara".) She worked throughout Hawaii before it became a state and at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, eventually getting booked into the Slate Brothers Club on La Cienega Blvd. in Los Angeles, where she opened for a popular young humorist and radio/TV writer named Jack Douglas. Circumstances at the tiny club necessitated them sharing a small dressing room, and Douglas became smitten with her, but it was not reciprocal. Reiko thought of him strictly as a father figure because of the differences in their ages. She turned to him for help, however, because she thought her present agent was stealing from her and her Visa was about to expire. Douglas, on the other hand, knew that Marlon Brando was going to be coming to the club in a few days and he didn't want Brando making a play for her. He offered to help her stay in this country and brought her down to City Hall on Oct. 24, 1960 accompanied by the club's owner Henry Slate and his lawyer Jack Gold. Reiko, who still spoke no English, was told to say "I Do" when prompted. She never knew she was getting married!
When the wedding was announced as a major news story in the L.A. Times, friends called to congratulate her and she couldn't believe what she had done. She wrote her father, who had warned her not to get involved with an American, but when he learned that Douglas was a writer, he instead advised her to "Respect him. He's a good man." She in return sent her father two of Douglas' outrageous comedy books, "My Brother Was an Only Child" and "Naked Trust a Naked Bus Driver".
The couple settled in Douglas' Manhattan apartment, and began performing successfully at such popular clubs as the Bon Soir in Greenwich Village and the Hungry I in San Francisco. She eventually became pregnant with their first son Robert and decided to love Jack through their child. By now they were also quite successful with their new TV careers and Reiko had become his literary muse, with Douglas's books beginning to focus on the humorous aspects of his home life, including the autobiographical "A Funny Thing Happened to Me On My Way to the Grave" and the comical homage to his new baby son, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Hashimoto".
When Robert was of school age, they bought a house in New Canaan, CT and began a new series of multiple moves and adventures that would continue to provide Douglas with the fodder for more books. His love of animals turned into an unusual menagerie that at one point included an Alaskan Malamute, a tiny Pomeranian, a wild caged mountain lion and a timber wolf, leading to his bestselling book "The Neighbors Are Scaring My Wolf."
Douglas also craved wilderness, and in 1968 the family moved to the remote Lost Lake peninsula off Sunbury, Ontario, which could only be accessed by small plane or skis. Their second son Timothy was born on the back of a snowmobile and led to another book, "Shut Up and Eat Your Snowshoes," published in 1970. It was followed by "What Do You Hear From Walden Pond?" (1971) and "The Jewish/Japanese Sex and Cookbook, and How to Raise Wolves" (1972).
They then spent a year at a lodge in the remote Rangeley, Maine, where Douglas wrote "Benedict Arnold Slept Here" (1975). They finally settled into a home in New Milford, CT, where they remained for 17 years, except for a brief sojourn to Brazil for a year, which led to the book "Going Nuts in Brazil" (1977). His final book, "Rubber Duck," was published in 1979 and he later wrote material for Pres. George H. W. Bush. By then the family had all moved to Los Angeles in 1987, where Douglas died of pneumonia two years later at the age of 80.
Reiko continued to have a solo career, including an engagement with former New Milford neighbor Eartha Kitt at the Hollywood Roosevelt Cinegrill and a headline run in the Mardi Gras Follies in Honolulu in 1998. She also appeared in a Jack Paar retrospective for PBS and wrote her own memoir, "Fallen Butterfly," which is still to be published. She also continued to oversee her husband's many books and scripts and last year even managed to broker a deal for a French-language translation of "Never Trust a Naked Bus Driver," which was published by Wombat Books in 2012 as "Ne Vous Fiez Jamais Aun Chauffaur de Bus Nu".
Reiko is survived by six brothers and sisters in Japan, as well as her sons Robert (a successful screen composer) and Timothy (who works as a production technician at Universal Studios).