• Golden Globe Awards

Pat Morita, the Sensei of Movies and TV

There’s a personality trait that two-time Golden Globe nominee Pat Morita shares with most of his beloved characters, from The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi to South Korean Army Captain Sam Pak in the TV series M*A*S*H*.  “I was a happy child,” Morita told HFPA member Jack Tewksbury, in March of 2020. “No matter that the USA put us (Japanese Americans) in prison camps when World War II came. Bear in mind that I was only 11 years old, I was so happy to be walking, I didn’t care where I walked. I didn’t care about the environment I was walking in at that time of my life.” 

Born in Isleton, California, in June 1932, the son of Japanese immigrant parents from the Kyushu Island, Noriyuki Morita had to face serious challenges from the get-go: a dangerous case of spinal tuberculosis when he was two years old, followed by many years of surgeries and treatments, and years of struggling to find his identity in what he has described as “a Japanese family running a Chinese restaurant in a black neighborhood with a clientele of blacks, Filipinos and everybody else.” He also spent time, with his family, in the Gila River concentration camp, in Arizona, where Japanese Americans were interned during the War.
When he was 24, after his father had died in a hit-and-run accident, Morita was called upon to take control of the family. Between running the restaurant and working for state agencies and aerospace companies, Morita discovered a new talent – the ability to use laughter as a solution to complicated situations. “I’ve never been an angry guy. We all have moments, but somehow I’ve always managed to find a way to walk away from  it.”
From cracking jokes for the regular customers of the family’s restaurant to appearing in local stand-up comedy shows, Morita built a new path, mostly with the support of a friend – Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce’s mother – who in time became his manager.
In 1967, using the stage name of Pat Morita, he moved from running the restaurant to the entertainment business.
The first 10 years established Morita as his own brand of comic actor in a variety of movies and TV shows, starting with small parts Thoroughly Modern Millie and The Shakiest Gun in The WestSanford and SonRon Howard’s Richie and friends, in the TV series Happy Days.

The 1980s brought him real fame at last. Directed by John G. Avildsen and produced by Jerry Weintraub, The Karate Kid was one of the big hits of 1984. Ralph Macchio starred as the Karate Kid, of course. But Morita’s performance as Master Miyagi made him known around the world as a sensei, a warrior capable of facing violence while dismantling its core.
Over the next years, The Karate Kid became a franchise, extending to its current incarnation, the TV series, Cobra Kai. Up until his death in 2005, Morita remained an icon of courage and balance as Miyagi; but behind him, was the frail boy from the small city in California who grew up to become an inspiration to Asian actors all over America.