Greetings again from the darkness. Mr. Miyagi not only taught Daniel-san how to stand up for himself in THE KARATE KID (1984), but his “wax on, wax off” entered our lexicon as his philosophy educated us on how seemingly unrelated pieces of life can fit together. Pat Morita embraced the iconic role of Mr. Miyagi, and also appeared in the three sequels. Filmmaker Kevin Derek is here to tell us the rest of the man’s story.
Using a straightforward and traditional biographical profile structure, Mr. Derek takes us through the life of Pat Morita. We see photographs of him as a young boy who spent many childhood years immobilized – held captive in a body cast after extensive spinal surgery. Once healed, he joined his family in one of the internment camps during WWII.
At age 30, Mr. Morita’s professional goal as a stand-up comedian was to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show sporting one of the more politically incorrect nicknames, “The Hip Nip”. Though he never played ‘Sullivan’, his career turned out just fine thanks to support from Red Foxx. Laura Marr, Lenny Bruce’s mother, became Morita’s agent, and not only did his stand-up career take off, but he also secured his early acting gigs.
It was his “Happy Days” role as Arnold that took him mainstream. Many of the leads from the cast provide memories of working with Morita. Ron Howard doesn’t appear, but Marion Ross, Anson Williams, Danny Most, and Henry Winkler all do. They speak fondly of Morita and call him a “sweet guy.” Although Morita’s first shot at leading his own series (“Mr. T and Tina”) didn’t succeed, he was securing regular acting gigs. Of course, it was being cast as Mr. Miyagi in THE KARATE KID that made him a star.
Fellow ‘KK’ cast members Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, and Martin Kove all tell stories about working with Morita, and more importantly rave about what a generous and kind soul he was … referring to him as a “lovely man.” So you might be wondering, where’s the story? Well it’s Morita’s personal demons that may surprise. He died in 2005 at age 73, but he spent most of his life as an alcoholic – often working while inebriated. His wife Evelyn is interviewed here, but his daughters did not participate.
Much is made of his being born and raised in America, but spending his career bouncing from Japanese to Chinese roles, and masking the inner turmoil. We see clips from his wedding at Elvis Presley’s Las Vegas mansion, and his personal assistant also provides insight into working with him. One of the lowest points of his career is retold by Henry Winkler and Evelyn as they remember his struggles with alcoholism during a televised “Happy Days” reunion. It’s painful to hear.
Kevin Derek also directed THE REAL MIYAGI (2015), which was a profile of Fumio Demura, often recognized as the greatest karate master of a generation. Demura was also Morita’s stunt double in THE KARATE KID. Here, Derek simply allows Morita’s story to unfold – the ups and downs. Only a few actors get to create such an iconic character as Miyagi, and Morita actually played him in four films. His star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is shown, and the current day successful spinoff “Kobra Kai” is discussed, yet we are left with a feeling of sadness for a man who accomplished so much, while never achieving his own inner-peace.