Best known to audiences as Mr. Miyagi, Ralph Macchio’s mentor in the “wax on, wax off” school of combat in the 1984 hit The Karate Kid, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita is the most prominent Japanese-American actor of his generation. Morita is also well known for having played Arnold, the amiable diner owner on the hit television series Happy Days, for two non-consecutive seasons (1975-1976 and 1982-1983). His status as one of the most familiar actors of Asian descent kept him working in a variety of projects throughout the 1980s and ’90s.
Having spent part of his youth in a Japanese internment camp during World War II, Morita nonetheless emerged with his sense of humor intact, giving up work as a computer programmer to concentrate on stand-up comedy in the early ’60s. After a number of nightclub and TV variety show appearances, Morita found his first film role in 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie as a stereotypical ethnic henchman. His natural affability soon began shining through, winning Morita his role on Happy Days for the 1975-1976 season. As Arnold, Morita interacted with Richie, Fonzie, and company with a memorable combination of good humor and exasperation. He returned to the gig in 1982-1983 after a failed attempt to front his own series (the critically lambasted Mr. T and Tina in 1976), a number of small film roles, and guest appearances on such shows as The Love Boat and Magnum P.I.
His major pop culture breakthrough was the role of janitor and karate master Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. An eccentric tutor who at first appears to be using his student for an endless variety of household chores, Miyagi soon reveals the method behind his training, turning the scrawny Daniel (Macchio) into a confident fighter, while also instilling an important message that violence should remain a last resort. The exceedingly popular film made Morita a household name, and audiences were left with the indelible image of a jolly and wise old soul trying desperately to catch a fly with a pair of chopsticks. Morita reprised the role for the two sequels starring Macchio in (1986 and 1989), as well as The Next Karate Kid, which starred future Oscar winner Hilary Swank, in 1994.
In the late ’80s, Morita found the success that had previously eluded him in television solo efforts with the two-season detective series Ohara (1987-1989). In 1987, he also wrote and starred in the World War II romance Captive Hearts, a film about a pilot shot down over Japan who falls in love with a village woman. Morita plays the village elder who saves the young pilot from execution.
Morita spent the 1990s continuing to work regularly as a character actor in both television and movies. His film roles included Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1993,) and vocal work as the Emperor in Disney’s Mulan (1998). He guest starred on such shows as The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Diagnosis Murder, and The Hughleys, and had a recurring role as Mr. Tanaka on Baywatch.