On this day in comedy on November 24, 2005 Comedian, Actor, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita died of kidney failure in Las Vegas.
Born on June 28, 1932 in Isleton, California, Morita has the distinction of starring in the first American network sitcom focusing on an Asian lead character (Mr. T and Tina). The year was 1976 and the network was ABC. The show didn’t last, but that wasn’t on Morita. He’d proven himself back in 1975 with a featured role as Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi on the hit sitcom, Happy Days, starring Ron Howard and Henry Winkler. Prior to that he was Ah Chew, Lamont Sanford’s friend on the NBC blockbuster sitcom, Sanford and Son in 1974. He played that role until 1976.
However, before all that Morita got his start telling jokes for customers at his family’s restaurant after World War II. This was following years wrapped up in body casts and undergoing one spinal operation after another. When he was finally released from the hospital at age 11 he was whisked to an internment camp to join his family. Not much to laugh at, but Morita, now known as Pat, kept it pushing. He worked as a data entry clerk for the state until he went into stand-up in the early ‘60s. They called him The Hip Nip. He played night clubs and was a member of the improv troupe, The Groundlings.
Morita’s work in front of the camera began in 1967 with a part in the Julie Andrews comedy, Thoroughly Modern Millie. From there he appeared in a succession of comedies (The Shakiest Gun in the West, Evil Roy Slade, Every Little Crook and Nanny, Where Does it Hurt? Cancel My Reservation). He also had a recurring role on the Alan Alda television comedy, M*A*S*H. Morita played a South Korean Army Captain.
Once Mr. T and Tina was abruptly canceled in ‘76, Morita performed his Happy Days character of Arnold on the sitcom, Blansky’s Beauty’s in 1977. He revived the character again on Happy Days in 1982. In 1984 Morita gained movie stardom as Mr. Kesuke Miyagi in the Karate Kid. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He went on to star in three sequels as well as Karate Dog in 2004.
Morita stayed busy. In 1987 he starred in Ohara for ABC. Another short-lived show, but Morita hardly noticed. That same year he wrote and starred in the World War II film, Captive Hearts. He starred in the Nickelodeon series The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo and Talk to Taka. He had a recurring role on The Hughley’s and guest starred on Married With Children. Morita did animation voice-overs (Mulan, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Robot Chicken) and music videos (Alien Ant Farm’s “Movies”). Until his passing he was busy working on independent films, industrials and feature length motion pictures (many released posthumously).
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton