Noriyuki 'Pat' Morita, 73; Played 'Karate Kid' Teacher

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 26, 2005

Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, 73, whose portrayal of the wise and sly master teacher in "The Karate Kid" earned him an Oscar nomination, died Nov. 24 at his home in Las Vegas.

There were conflicting reports about the cause of death. His daughter Aly Morita said he died of heart failure at a Las Vegas hospital. His longtime manager, Arnold Soloway, said the actor died of kidney failure at a hospital while awaiting a transplant.

As Kesuke Miyagi, the mentor to Ralph Macchio's "Daniel-san" in the 1984 movie, Mr. Morita taught karate and such skills as how to catch flies with chopsticks. He lost the Academy Award for best supporting actor to Haing S. Ngor, who appeared in "The Killing Fields." But he won more roles, including three "Karate Kid" sequels, the last one in 1994 with actress Hilary Swank.

An experienced stand-up comic and comic actor, Mr. Morita had previously been best known for his recurring role in the 1970s and 1980s as the excitable malt shop owner Arnold on the popular television series "Happy Days." He also was a regular on "Sanford and Son" as Lamont's buddy Ah Chew. He was the first Japanese American to star in a television series with the leading role in "Mr. T and Tina," which aired in 1976.

He had worked frequently in movies since the 1980s and provided the voice for a character in the Disney movie "Mulan" in 1998. He had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Mr. Morita's success in Hollywood was a long way from his start as the son of migrant fruit pickers in the fields and groves of Northern California. He contracted spinal tuberculosis at the age of 2, and when he was finally able to walk unassisted, he and his family were forced into the World War II-era internment camp at Manzanar, Calif.

"One day I was an invalid," he recalled in a 1989 interview with the Associated Press. "The next day I was public enemy No. 1 being escorted to an internment camp by an FBI agent wearing a piece."

After being released, the family opened a restaurant in Sacramento, serving Chinese cuisine because of lingering anti-Japanese prejudice. "You get the picture?" he once said to the Los Angeles Times. "A Japanese family running a Chinese restaurant in a black neighborhood with a clientele of blacks, Filipinos and everybody else who didn't fit in any of the other neighborhoods."

He eventually became a data processor with the state Department of Motor Vehicles, then secured a graveyard-shift job at Aerojet-General Corp. At age 30, he made the make-or-break decision to go into comedy full time.

His first appearances were in small clubs, until he was asked to fill in for entertainer Don Ho at a 2,000-seat hall in Hawaii. Mr. Morita unexpectedly found himself facing a huge crowd of World War II veterans, many of them disabled. They were there to observe the 25th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"If you're a comic, these are the moments when you have to prove you've really got it," he told the San Jose Mercury News in 1998. "So, I began by telling them I wanted to apologize, on behalf of my people, for screwing up their harbor."

The vets roared. He went on to build a two-decade career in nightclubs, but not until he began making movies was he was able to develop a believable Japanese accent. He won the audition for the sensei in "The Karate Kid" even though he had no martial arts experience and the producers wanted a Japanese rather than a Japanese American actor. He agreed to use his given name, Noriyuki, rather than his stage name of Pat, for the credits, to make him sound more ethnic.

He is survived by his wife, Evelyn, and three daughters from a previous marriage.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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