Pat Morita

Pat Morita Headshot

Actor • Comedian

Birth Date: June 28, 1932

Death Date: November 24, 2005

Birth Place: Isleton, California

Best remembered for his portrayal of martial arts sage Mr. Miyagi in the enduring "Karate Kid" films, actor and comedian Pat Morita persevered through a childhood filled with adversity to ultimately realize his dream of becoming a successful performer. At the age of 30, Morita began to pursue stand-up comedy in earnest, and within a short number of years was performing his act at clubs around the country and on various television variety shows.

He made his film debut in the musical comedy "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (1967), and later appeared on dozens of television shows, such as "Sanford & Son" (NBC, 1971-77). Morita's big break came when professional acquaintance Garry Marshall cast him in the role of malt shop owner Matsuo "Arnold" Takahashi on the long-running sitcom "Happy Days" (ABC, 1973-1984). The role of Arnold was a supporting one, but Morita stole nearly every scene he appeared in, and was soon lured away to star in his own sitcom after just one season on the popular show.

He later landed the role of a lifetime as Mr. Miyagi in the hit film "The Karate Kid" (1984). As the patient sensei to a bullied teen (Ralph Macchio), Morita was instrumental in launching a hugely successful film franchise, and in doing so would earn himself an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and secure a place for himself in the pantheon of screen icons. Morita continued to work steadily in film and on television for the remainder of his life, bringing a welcome sense of familiarity and fun to each and every role.

Born Noriyuki Morita in Isleton, CA on June 28, 1932 to Japanese immigrants Tamaru and Momoye Morita, "Pat" - the "Americanized" moniker he later adopted - spent much of his youth in area hospitals. Having contracted spinal tuberculosis at the age of two, he became deathly ill and was bedridden until the age of 11.

By the time Morita learned to walk again, World War II had begun, and he was sent to join his family at the Gila River internment camp for Japanese-Americans in Arizona for the duration of the conflict. Post-war, Morita's parents ran a Chinese restaurant in the Sacramento, CA area, and enlisted the recent high school graduate to help run the struggling business. It was there that the teenager began entertaining customers as a sort of informal emcee.

After marrying at an early age, Morita worked for a time as an operator and supervisor for the Aerojet General Corporation, with great success. Morita, however, was not satisfied, and after much soul searching - and at the tender age of 30 - he decided to fully pursue his show business aspirations, studiously observing countless comedians at Bay Area venues.

Gradually, Morita worked up the nerve to perform his own stand-up at various local clubs and bars, often billing himself as "The Hip Nip" - in the decidedly pre-politically correct era. Within a few short years the doggedly determined Morita garnered national exposure on the televised variety show "The Hollywood Palace" (ABC, 1964-1970). From that came more appearances on TV, as well as nightclubs around the country and steady work on the Playboy Club circuit.

Soon casting agents were noticing Morita's comedy appearances, and it wasn't long before he landed his first, albeit stereotypical, film role as "Oriental #2" in the Julie Andrews/Mary Tyler Moore musical "Thoroughly Modern Millie" (1967). From there he began to pick up television commercial work, quickly followed by bit parts on several shows such as "Love, American Style" (ABC, 1969-1974).

In addition to work on other series, Morita landed a recurring role alongside friend and fellow comedian Redd Foxx on the urban comedy "Sanford & Son" (NBC, 1971-77) - as the unfortunately named Ah-Chu - and twice played Capt. Sam Pak on the long-running series "M.A.S.H." (CBS, 1972-1983). Then fate smiled upon Morita when he received a call from writer-producer Garry Marshall, with whom he had previously worked on a failed television pilot.

Marshall had a part he thought perfect for Morita, the role of the owner of a local diner that was the centerpiece for his comedy series, "Happy Days" (ABC, 1973-1984). A slice of American nostalgia set in 1950s Milwaukee, WI, the comedy focused on good guy Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and the hijinks of his traditional family and good friends like the Fonz (Henry Winkler). Morita joined the cast at the beginning of its third season in 1975 as Matsuo "Arnold" Takahashi, the proprietor of Arnold's Diner, the local hangout. Highly reactive and hyperactive, the heavily accented burger cook consistently earned big laughs from the show's studio audience with his exasperated admonitions to Richie and his kooky friends.

It was a good period for Morita, who also made an appearance in the WWII blockbuster "Midway" (1976), the star-studded recounting of the sea battle which nearly destroyed a weakened U.S. Navy shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. In the film, Morita played Rear Admiral Kusaka opposite Japanese cinema legend Toshiro Mifune. That same year, his personal history and professional career converged when Morita starred in the made-for-TV movie "Farewell to Manzanar" (NBC, 1976), the story of the experiences of Japanese-Americans in the internment camps during WWII.

Things were going so well, that at the end of the 1975-76 season of "Happy Days," Morita was lured away from the successful show to star in one of his very own, "Mr. T and Tina" (ABC, 1976-77). As the first network show to star a Japanese-American, it was an achievement almost as historic as it was short-lived; the show was canceled within a month of its premiere. Morita attempted to rebound with a much smaller role in the "Happy Days" tie-in "Blansky's Beauties" (ABC, 1976-77), another Marshall-produced sitcom, starring comedic-actress Nancy Walker. The show, however, suffered a similar fate as "Mr. T" and was quickly given the ax. Moving forward, Morita had another minor big screen role in the Irwin Allen disaster spectacular, "When Time Ran Out" (1980), in addition to many other small turns in film and on television.

Two years later, Morita would make a welcome return to Milwaukee, when he rejoined the "Happy Days" crew for the 1982-83 season, once again playing "Arnold" Takahashi.

For more than a year, Morita's career had been floundering, but when he was cast as Mr. Miyagi, the wise and peace-loving martial arts master who can catch flies with chopsticks in "The Karate Kid" (1984), it marked the biggest turning point of his professional life. In the role of the unassuming mentor who helps bullied new kid in town Daniel Larusso (Ralph Macchio) find his inner-strength through martial arts, Morita's carefully calibrated performance was critically acclaimed and the film's wide audience appeal translated into a new vaunted status for the comedian as a serious actor. Intermixed with various other projects, Morita went on to reprise the Miyagi role in "The Karate Kid Part II" (1986) before putting in two years as the title character on the police drama "Ohara" (ABC, 1986-88).

He was paired with Macchio once again for the second sequel in the uplifting franchise, "The Karate Kid Part III" (1989), before being oddly-coupled with comic Jay Leno in the ill-conceived buddy comedy "Collision Course" (1990). Director Gus Van Sant also cast him as a medicine man in the ill-fated Uma Thurman picture "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" (1994). In an effort to keep a good thing going, the now too-old-to-pass-for-a-kid Macchio was replaced by the then unknown young actress Hilary Swank as a troubled teenage girl in "The Next Karate Kid" (1994).

As the franchise's one constant, Morita - who by now had achieved pop-culture icon status in the role - once again portrayed the honorable Mr. Miyagi, ever ready to impart his special brand of wisdom.

Over the next decade, Morita appeared frequently in both film and on television in a variety of roles. He played the protective grandfather of the sleuthing teenage title character in "The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo" (Nickelodeon, 1995-2000), and had a cameo opposite funnyman Leslie Nielsen in the slapstick James Bond spoof, "Spy Hard" (1996).

Giving voice work a try, Morita lent his vocal talents to the Disney-animated adventure "Mulan" (1998) as the Emperor of China. He also took on a recurring role in the sitcom "The Hughleys" (UPN, 1998-2002) as Mr. Park during the show's 2000-01 season. Morita appeared as himself in the indie filmmaking parody "The Last Shot" (2004), starring Matthew Broderick and Alec Baldwin. Continuing to work right up until the end, Morita passed away at his home in Las Vegas, NV in November 2005 of natural causes.

Just prior to his passing, the actor had done more vocal work as the character Master Udon in an episode of the wacky children's cartoon "SpongeBob SquarePants" (Nickelodeon, 1999- ). The episode, which aired in the spring of 2006, was affectionately dedicated to Morita.

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