Celebrity Then And Now
Publication: . Posted by Lexi Schwartz
Celebrity Then And Now
Posted by Lexi Schwartz
Happy Days, The Karate Kid
Currently Known For:
1975 - 2005
June 28, 1932
Happy Days, The Karate Kid
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During the 1970s and 1980s, some of the most memorable roles in film and television belonged to Pat Morita. He was able to break barriers during his career in a time when Asians weren’t commonly used as lead actors, establishing a strong legacy in acting. Though it’s been well over a decade since he passed away, Morita’s roles are still fondly remembered today, with many reciting some of his most famous lines.
Morita’s parents came from Japan at a young age and ended up in California, where Morita was born on June 28, 1932 in Isleton. Morita struggled with health problems as a child that kept him in a hospital for an extended period of time, and there was fear that he wouldn’t even be able to walk. Thankfully, Morita was able to recover but was an internment during World War II like many Japanese Americans had been.
Following the end of the war, Morita’s family headed up to northern California where he got his start in entertainment. While working in his family’s restaurant, Morita was known for being extremely funny, and this translated into a stand-up comedy career. Though he needed time to find his footing, he was still able to find an agent and began a career in acting during his early 30s.
In 1964, Morita made his film debut in the Japanese language film “Jidosha dorobo” which was followed by his English debut in 1967’s “Thoroughly Modern Millie” that starred the likes of Julie Andrews, Mary Tyler Moore and Carol Channing. During the rest of the 1960s and into the early 1970s, Morita had several supporting roles in movies and on shows such as “Columbo”.
Then in 1973, Morita finally had his breakthrough as he had a role on “M*A*S*H” as Captain Sam Park. For Morita, it was a big change of pace. “(It) was really my first serious role within the spectrum of a so-called comedy show,” he said. “It was straight-ahead acting. It wasn’t goofy stuff...You had to be a real person.”
Morita then joined his friend Redd Foxx on the series “Sanford and Son” for three years in the mid 70s. Right around this time, Morita got a long-running role on the hit show “Happy Days” playing the local restaurant’s owner Arnold Takahashi. It was a role that Morita held in a recurring spot for nearly a decade, becoming one of his most iconic roles.
During that same time, Morita had appeared in shows such as “Welcome Back, Kotter” and movies such as “Full Moon High”, “Jimmy the Kid” and “Midway”. The true role that many came to know Morita for afterward, though, came in 1984’s “The Karate Kid”. Morita played the mentor role of Mr. Miyagi, with memorable lines such as “Wax on, wax off.” The film was a massive hit, earning more than $90 million at the box office despite a budget of only $8 million. Morita reprised the role for both sequels that came out in 1986 and 1989, respectively.
It was a role that Morita really wanted, but almost didn’t land. Producer Jerry Weintraub didn’t like the idea of Morita playing Mr. Miyagi, with Morita saying “He wouldn’t even consider me for a reading. Every time my name came up in the casting process, he was adamant; ‘I don’t want a comic. I don’t want a comedian for this role. This is a heavyweight part. I want an actor.’”
Director John Avildsen came to bat for Morita, though. Avildsen set up a reading for Morita, and he came in five times to read, for the part, which was more than the average for an actor. Finally, Morita was able to convince the producer that he was right for Mr. Miyagi. “To Jerry’s credit, he gets on the horn and says, ‘Pat, I almost made the worst mistake of my life. I just want to be the first to congratulate you. You got the part of Miyagi,’” Morita said.
Morita spent the rest of the 1980s in movies like “Babes in Toyland” and then starred as the title character in ABC’s “Ohara” for two seasons. Morita remained extremely busy in the 1990s, having dozens of roles. He had a starring role in “The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo” with guest appearances in shows like “Family Matters” and ‘Married...with Children”, as well as movies including “Bloodsport” and “Mulan”.
More roles followed for Morita into the early 2000s with “The Karate Dog”, “Shadow Fury” and more. He’s had plenty of posthumous roles that have been released, too, including “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Only the Brave”. Morita was 73 years old in late 2005 and was living in Las Vegas, Nevada. It would sadly be his final year as he had passed away on November 24 due to kidney failure. Morita was buried in the city, and lived a long life that included an impressive resume and a lot of friends along the way. This included his “Karate Kid” co-star Ralph Macchio.
“What I did feel when we were making the movie is that Pat Morita and I had a natural organic ease in our acting styles,” he said. “Those scenes just really - I don’t know how to describe it. If there was anything evident on that set, it was evident that relationship was very natural and real.”
“It was both my honor and privilege to have worked with him and create a bit of cinema magic,” Macchio added. “My life is all the richer for having known him. I will miss his genuine friendship. Forever my Sensei.”