When Pat Morita first auditioned for what would be the role of his career—The Karate Kid’s Yoda-like martial-arts mentor Mr. Miyagi in 1983—producer Jerry Weintraub rejected him, fearing he was too well-known as diner owner Arnold from TV’s Happy Days. But Morita wouldn’t give up. He grew a beard, adopted his uncle’s Japanese accent and did a screen test. “When Jerry saw it, he said, ‘That’s what I want—a goddamn actor,’ not realizing it was Pat,” recalls Morita’s wife, Evelyn.
Sadly, there was one goal Morita never could attain: sobriety. “He said, ‘I tried. I can’t do it. I’m an addict,'” says Evelyn, who was with him at a Las Vegas hospital Thanksgiving morning when he died at 73 of complications from alcoholism.
His battle with the bottle was one of the few that managed to daunt Morita, who broke out in the ’60s as the first mainstream stand-up comic of Japanese-American descent. “He had a comic hipness,” says Happy Days star-turned-film-director Ron Howard. “He was a cool guy, and he had a lot of wisdom. He’d seen a lot of life, and it wasn’t always pretty. Yet he never [talked about] it with any anger or bitterness.”
Born Noriyuki Morita, the son of immigrant farmworkers in California, Morita was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis at age 2, after his legs became paralyzed. For the next nine years, he said, “I was in a cast from my shoulders to my knees.” Experimental surgery in 1942 restored his ability to walk, but instead of going home from the Catholic-run sanatorium where he recuperated (and where one of the priests named him Patrick), he was sent with his family to an Arizona internment camp for Japanese Americans during WWII. “I went from being an ailing child to a public enemy,” Morita said.
After the war, Morita, who had three daughters (Erin Rodda, now 50, Aly Morita, 35, and Tia Morita, 30) by his first two wives, went to work at his parents’ Sacramento restaurant. “He honed his comedy skills [bantering] with the customers,” says Happy Days costar Anson Williams. “He felt good putting smiles on people’s faces.” One acquaintance, talent agent Sally Marr, the mother of Lenny Bruce, encouraged him to become a stand-up. Morita would slyly send up racial stereotypes. “He’d come out and say, ‘Jeez, these lights are so bright, they make my eyes squint,'” recalls Evelyn. “He was trying to show the absurdity of such slurs and the bigoted people who need to use them,” says his friend George Takei (Star Trek’s Mr. Sulu).
After guest shots on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and sitcoms like M*A*S*H and Sanford and Son (where he befriended star Redd Foxx), Morita became a regular on Happy Days. The Karate Kid (for which both he and costar Ralph Macchio had to take a six-week cram course in karate) earned Morita an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. But it was just one of more than 70 films in which he appeared, including Thoroughly Modern Millie (his 1967 screen debut), Honeymoon in Vegas and Spy Hard. Not even his drinking slowed his work pace. Last year third wife Evelyn, who married Morita in 1994, put him in rehab, but “he relapsed big time,” she says. “[The doctors] warned him if he continued to drink, he would die.”
After being hospitalized on Halloween, Morita developed a severe bladder and urinary tract infection. The night before his death, “he said, ‘Evi, you have to let me go. I gotta go home now. I gotta be with Redd Foxx and all those funny guys up there in the sky,'” says Evelyn. “He had a huge heart, and he was the love of my life, and he will forever be missed.”
Mike Lipton Howard Breuer in Los Angeles