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Asia Pacific Arts salutes the late, great veteran Asian-American actor Pat Morita.
On November 24th, 2005, the world bade farewell to Japanese-American actor Pat Morita. Morita was a pioneer for Asian-Americans in the entertainment industry as one of the early visible Asian faces on television and in theaters. The 73-year-old actor, most known for his role as Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid film franchise, died of natural causes in his home in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Noriyuki “Pat” Morita was born during the Great Depression in Isleton, California, on the outskirts of Sacramento, to agricultural worker parents. While growing up, Morita faced dual hardships in the form of illness, and later, the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry during World War II. At the age of two, Morita developed spinal tuberculosis that left him floating from hospital to hospital in Northern California for several years. After his recovery, Morita was transferred directly from hospital to internment camp in Arizona as the United States was in the height of the Second World War. Upon release from the camps, Morita graduated high school and began working a day job with an aerospace company based out of Fairfield, California. After working his way up to the head of the computer operations and starting a family, Morita decided that he wanted to pursue comedy and acting. He quit his job, a decision that would lead to the end of his first marriage, and moved to Los Angeles in search of his big break.
In the early days of his time in Hollywood, Morita joined an improvisational comedy troupe, and performed standup in the club circuit billed as the “hip nip.” His first film role was a minor part in the 1967 film, Thoroughly Modern Millie, where he played a stereotypical henchman. Additionally, a recurring role in the sitcom M*A*S*H, and later, the role of Matsuo "Arnold" Takahashi, owner of Arnold's, on Happy Days, helped further advance his career. While his start was in comedy, his most memorable role was more dramatic as the mild-mannered sensei, Mr. Miyagi, in the Karate Kid franchise. The series focused on a teenager, Daniel LaRusso, who faced alienation and found acceptance through Mr. Miyagi’s guidance and the discipline learned through Miyagi’s teachings of Karate. The role was ground breaking for Asian-Americans because Asian faces were still less than visible in national media and it was the first major role where an Asian-American was cast as a father figure. Not accustomed to playing more dramatic roles, Morita noted in interviews that he used memories of his father as inspiration for Mr. Miyagi.
The role earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, though Morita would lose out to Haing S. Ngor in The Killing Fields. Morita would reprise his role in the later installments of the franchise, continuing to help “Daniel-san” develop, and later a troubled teenage girl played by then-up-and-comer Hilary Swank. In addition to his role as Mr. Miyagi, Morita was also in several other films and television shows throughout the mid-1990s and early 2000s, including the voice of the emperor of Disney’s animated Mulan, a role in the espionage parody Spy Hard, among many others. Because of his visibility as one of the few Asian faces on national media, some in the Asian-American community were mixed on reception to his fame. While he was getting airtime, many of the roles he played were stereotypical and heavily accented despite Morita’s fluency in the English language. Regardless of these roles, Morita still remains a pioneer for Asian-Americans in media as one of the few Asian faces in television and film, having achieved visibility during an era of almost none.
Date Posted: 12/8/2005