A Tribute to Pat Morita: From "Happy Days" to "The Karate Kid"

Herbie J Pilato

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[The Classic TV Preservation Society]

[Author’s Note: This article is based on entertainment postings and accredited media reports, attributed to CBSNews.com, The Associated Press, and HollywoodReporter.com.]

Thespian Noriyuki Pat Morita, who died in 2005, was best-known as Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid feature film franchise from 1984 to 1994hich featured a young pre-Oscar-winning Hillary Swank), and as Arnold on TV's 1970s classic, Happy Days, has passed away at 73-years-of-age.

According to what Evelyn Morita, his wife of 12 years, once told The Associated Press, her husband had "dedicated his entire life to acting and comedy."

In turn, his fans were dedicated to him.

For a time, Happy Days watchers wondered what Arnold, proprietor Arnold's Restaurant looked like. The series debuted in January of 1974, but viewers did not meet Arnold, in effect, Morita until the fall of 1975. Up until then, we merely "heard" Arnold from the kitchen. But it was never assumed that he was of Asian descent.

The character only became so due to Morita's casting. He wowed the producers (one of which was Garry Marshall, brother of Penny) at his audition and boom: Arnold was Asian. And thought Morita played it somewhat stereotypically, fans loved him, and so did the network; so much so, that ABC ultimately granted Morita his own series.

Unfortunately, that new show, 1976's Mr. T & Tina, lasted only one season. Then, a few years later, the first Karate Kid motion picture debuted in 1984. Morita was now a movie star - and created one of the best-known film sequences in the medium's history:

The "fence-painting"/"Brush up-Brush down" scene in which Morita's Miyagi character instructed Young Daniel, played by Ralph Macchio in the area of a particular karate move.

Morita's role in the 1984 film defined his career. As Keisuke Miyagi, the mentor to Macchio's "Daniel-san," he taught karate while trying to catch flies with chopsticks and offered such advice as "wax on, wax off" to help Daniel improve his karate hand movements while doing his chores.

A generation of young fans mimicked Morita's famous "crane kick" technique from the finale of the movie, which surprised many by grossing $91 million and establishing a popular franchise.

"It was both my honor and privilege to have worked with him and create a bit of cinema magic together," Macchio once said. "My life is all the richer for having known him. I will miss his genuine friendship."

"Forever my Sensei," Macchio added, referring to Morita's role in The Karate Kid.

The role earned Morita an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor, but he lost to Haing S. Ngor, who appeared in The Killing Fields.

Morita said in a 1986 interview with The Associated Press he was billed as Noriyuki (Pat) Morita in the film because producer Jerry Weintraub wanted him to sound more ethnic. He said he used the billing because it was "the only name my parents gave me."

For years, Morita played small and sometimes demeaning roles in such films as Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and TV series such as The Odd Couple and Green Acres, all of which led to Happy Days, and then, The Karate Kid movies.

Morita was a prolific performer beyond Karate," and appeared in movies like Honeymoon in Vegas, (1992), Spy Hard (1996), and more. He also provided the voice for a character in the Disney movie Mulan (1998).

Morita's "wise" acting techniques paved his path to success on Earth, leaving behind his reputation in Hollywood as one of the nicest actors in the business.

Peace to you, Mr. Miyagi.

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS: A TREASURE HOUSE OF DECEMBER MEMORIES REVEALED, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA
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