Pat Morita, the Japanese-American actor who is best known to audiences as Arnold from
Happy Days and as Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid film series, died Thursday, November 24, in his home in Las Vegas. He was 73.
Pat Morita was born Noriyuki Morita on June 28, 1932, in Northern California to migrant farm workers. As an infant he developed spinal tuberculosis and spent nine years in hospitals, sometimes in a full-body cast. Doctors told the family that he would not recover, but at age 11 he learned to walk again after undergoing surgery. While Noriyuki was still recovering from the operation, he and his family were sent to a Japanese internment camp in Arizona for the remainder of World War II. While in the camp he adopted his stage name, Pat, from a priest he met.
After the war ended, the Morita family opened a chop suey restaurant in Sacramento, California, where Pat developed and honed his innate skill in stand-up comedy. After college he worked for an aerospace company, Areojet-General, eventually becoming the head of their computer operations division. However, he was unhappy with his life's course, so at age 30, with a wife and children, he quit his job and moved to Los Angeles to devote himself full time to stand-up. Soon after, he joined the legendary improv troupe The Groundlings, which has served as a launching pad for the careers of many famous comedians.
After appearing in supporting roles on shows such as The Odd Couple, Sanford & Son, MASH, Love, American Style, and Hawaii Five-O, Morita landed the part of Arnold on the hit series Happy Days. He went on to star in two series of his own: Mr. T and Tina, in which he played a crime-solving inventor, and Ohara, in which he palyed a crime-solving spiritualist.
In 1984, Morita costarred as an aging karate sensei in a small film that many expected would come and go, quickly and unnoticed. The Karate Kid, from Rocky director John G. Avildsen, told the story of a gawky teenage boy, Daniel LaRusso (played by Ralph Macchio), who is picked on by high school bullies after he moves to a new town. He is befriended by an old Japanese man, Mr. Miyagi (Morita), who proceeds to teach the boy the secrets of karate. As Daniel learns the secrets of karate, he also learns the secrets of self-confidence.
The Karate Kid became a blockbuster hit and featured a memorable 1980s catchphrase when Miyagi, instructing Daniel in the finer points of auto detailing, tells him to "wax on, wax off" his car. Morita earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for his role, and the film went on to gross almost $100 million and spawned three sequels. The last film, titled The Next Karate Kid, released in 1994, starred a young Hilary Swank in the Ralph Macchio role.
Morita continued acting up until his death, starring as Grandpa Woo in the Nickelodean series The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo, and appearing in the films Spy Hard, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and voicing the Emperor of China in Disney's Mulan. He will be seen in the upcoming film Princess, in which he plays the aging protector of a girl targeted for assassination by evil forces.
Morita is survived by his second wife and three daughters from his previous marriage.