Noriyuki “Pat” Morita broke many barriers on his way to becoming an American pop culture icon. He will forever be remembered as the wise, kind, and ass-kicking mentor, Mr. Miyagi, in The Karate Kid and its three sequels. But Morita’s life story and decades-long career was much more than this legendary role. More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story pulls back the curtain to reveal a complex, supremely talented, and troubled man. He fought racism and Hollywood stereotypes with charm and humor, but was unable to conquer his addiction to alcohol.
More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story is told through archival interviews, remembrances from numerous co-stars, industry colleagues, and his third wife of eleven years, Evelyn Guerrero; who was with him at the time of his death in 2005. Noriyuki “Pat” Morita was born near San Francisco on June 28, 1932 to Japanese parents. He was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis as a toddler and spent years of his childhood totally immobilized in a hospital. He was removed from medical care when Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps during World War II. The film explores this horrific incarceration and the profound effect it had on Morita. A successful surgery corrected his spine, but a childhood spent in hospitals and an American concentration camp left lasting psychological scars.
The documentary then focuses on Pat Morita’s rise to stardom as a comedian in the sixties and seventies. Morita spoke almost no Japanese. He mocked Japanese stereotypes in his comedy routine. Morita quickly booked guess spots on comedy television shows like Laugh In, before gaining traction in episodic TV and small film roles. He was forced to play ugly, racist Asian caricatures, but couldn’t turn down the chance to work.
Pat Morita became a household name by playing Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi on the hit TV show, Happy Days. The film has interviews with the cast like Henry Winkler, Marion Ross, and Anson Williams. Morita also befriended the comedian Redd Foxx, landing guest starring roles on Sanford and Son, Laverne and Shirley, and Welcome Back Kotter. He’s lovingly remembered by the now deceased producer/director/writer Garry Marshall.
More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story goes behind the scenes to explain his casting in The Karate Kid. These interviews, unseen footage, and his recollection of the process, including his Oscar nomination, are the highlights of the film. Morita’s co-stars, Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Martin Kove, and screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen speak glowingly of their friend. The early screen tests with Macchio and Morita, as Daniel and Mr. Miyagi, are electrifying. The doc’s director, Kevin Derek, also gives Morita’s stunt double, Fumio Demura, who did the actual fighting in all of The Karate Kid films, equal time. Demura had a great relationship with Morita and was honored to have been a part of the franchise.
More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story frankly discusses the racism that Asian American actors faced in Hollywood and society in general. The interview with veteran character actor James Hong is especially enlightening. He talks about Hollywood’s “Yellow Facing” of Asian roles. Mickey Rooney, Audrey Hepburn, and John Wayne were cast as Asians in leading roles, while he and Morita were forced to play buffoons. Pat Morita had to refer to himself as “The Hip Nip” to casting agents.
The film takes a dark and tragic turn by directly confronting Pat Morita’s alcoholism. Evelyn Guerrero speaks honestly about his battle with the disease. Morita “drank every day since he was twelve.” He’d been a functional alcoholic his entire life, and went to great lengths to conceal his drinking. This was no secret on set in Hollywood, but Morita always handled his acting in a professional manner. Guerrero shows pictures and videos of Morita passed out drunk. He used alcohol as a coping mechanism for a lifetime of depression. Pat Morita was cheerful on the surface, but suffered deeply on the inside. The final act is difficult to watch at times. Morita drank himself to death over financial hardship and faded stardom.
Pat Morita’s daughters refused to be interviewed for the film. In an interview with Tom Snyder, Morita lamented himself as a husband, but was a “good dad.” Director Kevin Derek addresses that his children did not participate in the documentary. He deserves credit for presenting a well-rounded portrayal of Pat Morita. The film celebrates his life and groundbreaking achievements, but doesn’t over glorify him. He was loved, well-respected, and talented, but certainly flawed as well.
Pat Morita never shied away from his success as Mr. Miyagi. He embraced everything the role did for his career and Japanese American culture. Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, and Martin Kove believe he would have been thrilled with Cobra Kai. Generations have grown up with Mr. Miyagi as a symbol of strength, friendship, and teaching. Nearly four decades after The Karate Kid, and sixteen years after his death, Pat Morita still resonates with audiences all over the world. More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story is a production of Love Project Films. It will be available for digital download (Google Play, iTunes, Amazon Prime Video) on January 5th.