There’s a scene in 1984’s The Karate Kid that bears repetition—and gets it—in the just-released sequel. Miyagi, the wise old master who teaches martial arts to a cocky American student played by Ralph Macchio, tries catching flies with a pair of chopsticks. The scene is a study in discipline and patience—virtues that also apply to Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who plays Miyagi. Now 54, Morita has spent years snatching at fame and contentment. Starting from his childhood battle against disease, his confinement later in an internment camp for Japanese and then his struggle to make it as a Japanese-American stand-up comic, Morita’s life is charged with more drama than anything he’s ever done onscreen. Before The Karate Kid came along, Morita felt he’d exhausted any chance of making it big in Hollywood. “Things were bleak,” he says.
So bleak that he seriously considered giving up show business. His situation improved when he won the role of Arnold the chef on TV’s Happy Days in 1972. But the topper was The Karate Kid, a surprise $100 million blockbuster, which earned him an estimated $300,000 and an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. Part II, reuniting Morita with the Long Island actor who is 30 years his junior, should prove that the first success was no fluke. Part III, though not yet cast, is scheduled for filming in September.
Oddly enough, the filmmakers had not considered Morita a candidate to play the karate master in the first movie. “They didn’t want a comic. They wanted someone with actor credentials, like Toshiro Mifune,” Morita explains. Still, Morita’s agent urged his client to read for director John (Rocky) Avildsen at a cattle call audition. “I just tried to perform my butt off,” says Morita, adding, “I knew this character. Miyagi is an amalgam of all the ‘issei’ [first generation Japanese in America, known for patience, honor and inner strength] that I grew up with.” Recalls Karate Kid producer Jerry Weintraub, “I didn’t want him. I’ve known Pat for 20 years and used to book him into the Catskill hotels when I was a kid. But his audition made me cry.” Even after Morita snagged the part, he remained skeptical about his prospects. “I thought the film would be a summer in-and-outer, like Porky’s or Police Academy,” he says.
To prepare them for their roles, martial arts expert Pat Johnson put Macchio and Morita through a five-week cram course in karate. For Morita, who’s been known to start the day with a cigarette, a cup of coffee and a shot of Grand Marnier, getting in shape for the sequel proved even more difficult. “Things are always tougher the second time around,” he says.
Morita is used to adversity. The son of fruit pickers, he was born in Isleton, Calif., along the Sacramento River. His parents, who have since died, had arrived in California from Japan in the early part of the century. They met in the U.S., married and raised two children. When Morita was 2 years old he contracted spinal tuberculosis, then a usually fatal disease. Sent to a sanitarium, he was confined to bed for the next nine years. “I was in a cast from my shoulders to my knees,” he says. In 1941 an experimental operation enabled him to walk with the help of a brace. It was in the sanitarium that young Noriyuki was given the nickname Pat by, he says, a priest, “the good Father Cornelius O’Connor.”
Morita was released from the sanitarium during World War II and was sent to join his parents and older brother in an internment camp in the Arizona desert. They lived in camps for four years. “I went from being an ailing child to a public enemy,” Morita says bitterly. “I became a ‘Jap’ overnight. They were enormously difficult years for our people. Suicides, people walking into the deserts never to be seen again. Or hanging themselves. It was horrible. Horrible.”
When the war ended, the Moritas were released and eventually settled in Fairfield, 40 miles from Sacramento. After attending public high school, Noriyuki went to work with his father, running the family’s Chinese restaurant in Sacramento. In time he got married and had a daughter, now 31. He rarely sees his child and bristles now when his first family is mentioned. “I forget her [his first wife’s] name,” he says sharply, though the marriage lasted 14 years. Explains second wife Yuki, a community organizer for the Little Tokyo redevelopment in L.A., whom he wed in 1970: “He thinks of that marriage as another life.”
After Morita’s parents lost their restaurant, he worked in the computer department at Aerojet-General Corporation near Sacramento, rising quickly from shift supervisor to department head. But he was restless and decided to try show business. At length, he convinced the owner of a Japanese nightclub in San Francisco that he should be the weekend emcee. “I played the club for 17 months,” he says. “I took my jokes from Reader’s Digest and personalized them.”
Although the nightclub owner wanted to make him a partner, Morita decided in 1964 to try his luck in L.A. with the help of agent Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce’s mother. His marriage did not survive the new career. A few days after his divorce, he married Yuki, who was born in Manzanar, an internment camp in California. “When we met [through friends], I was a hippie, complete with dashiki and green glasses,” says Pat.
After playing clubs in L.A., Morita had become a popular Las Vegas opening act for the likes of Vic Damone and Connie Francis. He also started doing commercials and getting bit roles in movies and such TV shows as Love, American Style. But after eight years, the jobs became fewer. Frustrated, in 1972 he moved Yuki and daughter Aly, now 15 (daughter Tia, now 11, was born two years later), to Hawaii, where Asians in show business are more readily employed and where he got work as a disc jockey. Ten months later he was offered the Happy Days role, and once again the Moritas moved back to L.A.
In 1975 Morita was offered his own sitcom, Mr. T. and Tina, but the series didn’t last the season. Further misfortunes followed. In February 1980 a storm wrecked his house in Tarzana. He had no insurance, and the four-bedroom ranch-style house had to be completely rebuilt. Shortly after that, Yuki’s mother, the family matriarch, died of cancer. Early the next year daughter Tia, then 6, was diagnosed as having nephrotic syndrome, a kidney disorder. The pressures all but crushed his marriage. Morita left his wife and moved to Hawaii, remaining there for the next two years. In 1982, when Happy Days offered him his old role for a season, he returned to L.A. The job didn’t materialize but Morita reconciled with his wife. “Pat had needed time alone,” says Yuki, “but we’ve come through all that’s happened tough and strong.”
The Karate Kid, Noriyuki says, was a success because “it was such a welcome relief to people, the ones who have seen the Rambo-Cobra kind of movies, where they use hard-core physical things—like machine guns—to obliterate their obstacles in life. Along comes Miyagi, who fights with compassion and understanding and knowledge. Those are the things that most people have to fight with.” With an understatement worthy of Miyagi, Morita adds, “I did a certain amount of that myself.”