On this day, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita was born in Isleton, CA. Noriyuki was a Japanese-American actor and comedian.
Morita’s father Tamaru, born in 1897, immigrated to California from Kumamoto Prefecture on the Japanese island of Kyushu in 1915. Tamaru’s wife, Momoe, born in 1903, immigrated to California in 1913.
Morita was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis at age two and spent nine years in a hospital, immobilized in a body cast for seven years. An experimental surgery allowed him to beat the odds and walk again but just a few years later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 led to another traumatic moment in Morita’s life.
When Morita was able to leave the hospital in California at age 11, he was taken by the FBI to join his parents at an internment camp with other Japanese Americans in Arizona.
WORKING TOWARD HOLLYWOOD
After World War II ended, Morita moved back to the Bay Area and he graduated from Armijo High School in Fairfield, California, in 1949. For a time after the war, the family operated Ariake Chop Suey, a restaurant in Sacramento, California, jokingly described by Morita years later as “a Japanese family running a Chinese restaurant in a black neighborhood with a clientele of blacks, Filipinos and everybody else who didn’t fit in any of the other neighborhoods”. Morita would entertain customers with jokes and serve as master of ceremonies for group dinners. After Morita’s father was killed in 1956 in a hit-and-run accident while walking home from an all-night movie, Morita and his mother kept the restaurant going for another three or four years. Needing a regular job to support his wife and a newly born child, Morita became a data processor in the early 1960s with the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies, graduating to a graveyard shift job at Aerojet General. In due time, he was a department head at another aerospace firm, Lockheed, handling the liaison between the engineers and the programmers who were mapping out lunar eclipses for Polaris and Titan missile projects.
A COMEDIAN IS BORN
However, Morita suffered from occupational burnout and decided to quit his job and try show business. He began working as a stand-up comedian at small clubs in Sacramento and San Francisco, and took the stage name “Pat Morita”, in part due to the presence of comedians including Pat Henry and Pat Cooper, and in part due to memories of the priest he had befriended as a boy. Morita struggled for many years in comedy, until fellow performer—ventriloquist Hank Garcia—told him to try his luck in Los Angeles. Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce’s mother, acted as his agent and manager after he moved to Los Angeles, and booked him in the San Fernando Valley and at the Horn nightclub in Santa Monica. Morita sometimes worked as the opening act for singers Vic Damone and Connie Stevens and for his mentor, the comedian Redd Foxx.
Morita’s first movie roles were as a henchman in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and a similar role in The Shakiest Gun In The West (1968), starring Don Knotts. Morita had other notable recurring television roles on Sanford and Son (1974–1976) as Ah Chew, a good-natured friend of Lamont Sanford, and as a South Korean Army Captain Sam Pak on the sitcom MAS*H (1973, 1974). He was also cast as Rear Admiral Ryunosuke Kusaka in the war film Midway (1976).
Morita had a recurring role on Happy Days as Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi (the owner of Arnold’s Drive-In) during season three (1975–76).
Morita gained particular fame playing wise karate teacher Mr. Miyagi, who taught young “Daniel-san” (Ralph Macchio) the art of Goju-ryu karate in The Karate Kid (1984). He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and a corresponding Golden Globe Award, reprising his role in three sequels: The Karate Kid Part II (1986), The Karate Kid Part III (1989) and The Next Karate Kid (1994), the last of which starred Hilary Swank instead of Macchio.
Though he was never a student of karate, he learned all that was required for the films.
Morita was also the star of two television series. In 1976, he starred as inventor Taro Takahashi in his own show, Mr. T and Tina, the first Asian-American sitcom on network TV. The sitcom was placed on Saturday nights by ABC and was quickly canceled after a month in the fall of 1976. He also starred in the ABC detective show Ohara (1987–1988); it was cancelled after two seasons due to poor ratings.
Morita went on to play Tommy Tanaka in the Kirk Douglas-starring television movie Amos, receiving his first Primetime Emmy Award nomination and second Golden Globe Award nomination for the role.
He wrote and starred in the World War II romance film Captive Hearts (1987). Morita hosted the educational home video series Britannica’s Tales Around the World (1990–1991).
PUSHING BACK ON HOLLYWOOD
Although he had been using the name Pat for years, producer Jerry Weintraub suggested that he be billed with his given name to sound “more ethnic.” Morita put this advice into practice and was recognized as Noriyuki “Pat” Morita at the 57th Academy Awards ceremony. Weintraub initially did not want to cast Morita for the part of Mr. Miyagi, wanting a dramatic actor for the part and labeling Morita a comedic actor. Morita eventually tested five times before Weintraub himself offered him the role!
He was known for his roles as Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi on Happy Days, Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid film series, Captain Sam Pak on the sitcom MAS*H, Ah Chew in Sanford and Son, Mike Woo in The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, and The Emperor of China in Mulan and Mulan II. He was the series lead actor in the television program Mr. T and Tina and in Ohara, a police-themed drama. The two shows made history for being among the few TV shows with an Asian American series lead.
Morita was nominated for the 1984 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, which would be the first of a media franchise in which Morita was the central player.
UNFORGIVING HOLLYWOOD AND ALCOHOLISM
More Than Miyagi shows the stark and tragic reality of Morita’s alcoholism, a significant factor that led to his death in November 2005.
During 30th anniversary reunion of the Happy Days show, Morita’s drinking prevented him from participating in all the events with the cast.
Morita’s daughters have publicly spoken about their father, Aly Morita has commented that,
At the time of his passing in 2005 at age 73, my father was a forgotten star… He lived in Las Vegas, separated from his third wife, unable to land any jobs because he was too old and still riding on the coattails of his Karate Kid heyday. His fans remembered him; the Asian American community remembered him. But he was of no value to Hollywood. After enjoying the bounty of success for a good 10 years after the first Karate Kid film, he was just another washed-up movie star.
REMEMBERING A LEGEND
Whether or not you were a fan of Happy Days or Karate Kid, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita will always be remembered for making a huge impact in Hollywood as a person of color, specifically a Japanese American who was a survivor of, one of the worst times in our history, the Japanese Internment Camps. We almost did not get to experience who was Mr. Morita.
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