If you grew up in the 1980s, you have a special place in your heart for Pat Morita. Not only did you know him as Mr. Miyagi, the kind-hearted yet wise karate master of The Karate Kid but also as Arnold, the wacky proprietor of Arnold’s on Happy Days. But as this new documentary reveals (or rather reminds), Pat Morita was more than Miyagi.
A few months ago, someone who had recently joined my TV and Movie Discussion Group asked if anyone else had watched Cobra Kai, now streaming on Netflix, because she was literally obsessed. I had been avoiding the show because who wanted a cheesy made-for-tv sequel for some cheesy 80s movies? But she insisted that I try it.
Well, I became a little obsessed too (and even did an entire podcast episode devoted to it) because it represented exactly who those caricatures from the 80s would have become if they were fully fleshed out characters.
Daniel became a successful car dealer who “kicked” the competition. Meanwhile, Johnny was a floundering loser trying to regain some of the glory of his high school days. The only thing missing was Mr. Miyagi.
Pat Morita, who played Miyagi in the original Karate Kid movies, passed away in 2005 at the age of 73. But his legacy lives on in the show. Daniel has a bit of a shrine devoted to his former mentor and even visits his grave. During the show, I remember commenting that I hope his estate was getting something for the prominence they were giving his character.
After watching the documentary, More Than Miyagi, I understood that the reverence the cast felt towards Pat Morita was very similar to what the characters felt towards Mr. Miyagi.
We learn that Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita was born in Calfiornia in 1932 to his Japanese immigrant parents. He spent much of his youth separated from his family due to medical issues only to be reunited with them at a Japanese internment camp during World War II.
Although he had ambitions of a better life, his family’s financial situation kept him from attending college and he worked at the family restaurant even after his father was tragically killed.
Along the way, he married twice and fathered three daughters all while attempting to escape the obligation of his life. Through a chance meeting with Lenny Bruce’s mother, he made his mark in the stand up scene being known as “The Hip Nip.”
Comedy was the escape that he needed and it became part of his personal and professional persona as he made his way to the small screen on Sanford and Son and then Happy Days. He was a breakout star and continued to appear in comedic roles.
That’s almost what cost him the most important and dramatic role of his career, as Nariyoshi Miyagi, the maintenance man who we came to know and love as Mr. Miyagi.
His comedic background almost cost him the role but he eventually was cast and went on to earn a Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
That’s most of the story that audiences probably already know. The rest is where we learn who Pat Morita really was. We learn about his frustration at being cast as an Asian stereotype. We learn about his difficult visit back to the concentration camp where he lived with his parents. In short, we learn about the many demons that haunted him throughout his life.
His third wife, Evelyn Guerrero, spends much of the documentary, along with famous friends and colleagues, sharing what made Pat Morita unique, funny, and kind in a town that can be challenging. But she also shared his long struggle with alcoholism.
It’s a very personal account and almost feels intrusive at times but it’s a story told with Morita’s blessing in hopes that others could learn from the choices he made.
Celebrities are often remembered for who they appear to be on screen. More Than Miyagi is a touching reminder that every person is a human being with triumphs and struggles. And it’s also a reminder that we can leave a legacy that long outlasts us.
‘More Than Miyagi’ is available on February 5th on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, DVD and Blu-ray.