Noriyuki ”Pat” Morita, who died of kidney failure in Las Vegas on Nov. 24, wasn’t only wise on screen. Long before his Oscar-nominated role as a spiritual sensei/surrogate father in 1984’s The Karate Kid, the man who started his career as ”the Hip Nip” stand-up comic experienced some real dramas: As a child in northern California, he suffered from spinal tuberculosis; then, after recovering, he was a prisoner at a World War II internment camp in Arizona.
”There was no bitterness there,” says Ron Howard, his costar on the 1970s sitcom Happy Days, in which Morita played Arnold, the original owner of the burger joint. ”There was just this positive spirit, this sense of humanity about him that was rich.” There was also a performer who, when he forgot his lines, would fill the space with wordless froom-froom sounds. As fellow Happy Days star Henry Winkler recalls, ”He said more in just noise than a lot of people say in paragraphs.”
In 1976, Morita left Happy Days to become the first Japanese American to star in his own TV series, ABC’s short-lived sitcom Mr. T and Tina, but it was The Karate Kid that sealed his renown. John G. Avildsen, who directed the film and its first two sequels, says he recognized Morita’s depth the moment the actor read for the role of Mr. Miyagi. ”His size and demeanor were so vulnerable and unlike some kind of superhero,” Avildsen says, ”that it was very refreshing that it came out of that package.” No doubt fans will be waxing on about Morita’s performance for generations to come.