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‘KARATE’ KIDDER PAT MORITA

        

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Feb. 19, 2021

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: A new documentary, ‘More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story,' now streaming on a variety of sites, reveals the dark side of the late beloved actor — who died in 2005 at age 73 — as he battled depression and had to compete with the decades-long practice by Hollywood of heavily made-up Caucasian actors doing broad Japanese accents for roles that could have gone to Asian performers. All of which brought to mind the interview I did with Morita some 32 years ago, which was decidedly more upbeat as he answered questions over the phone (for the umpteenth time that day, I’m sure) and demonstrated considerable wit as he cracked wry jokes along with answering my mundane questions. It’s one of my more pleasant interview memories as film critic for the Deseret News; it was published on June 28, 1989.

 

Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, in Denver recently to promote “The Karate Kid, Part III” (opening in Salt Lake theaters Friday), announced he’s ready to continue as Mr. Miyagi for “Karate Kid IV” on through “Karate Kid XXVII,” if Columbia Pictures keeps making movies in the popular series.

 

Of course, Ralph Macchio, who has the title role in each film, has said often that he never would have made “The Karate Kid, Part III” if he hadn’t been tied to a three-movie contract. Macchio feels that, at age 27, he’s a bit long in the tooth to keep playing perpetual teenager Daniel LaRusso.

 

But, as Morita points out, Macchio’s absence wouldn’t necessarily stop the studio from cashing in if “Part III” proves to be another hit.

 

“Hollywood being Hollywood and writers being writers, who’s to say they won’t simply call it ‘Karate Kid’s Uncle’ or ‘Godfather’ ”? Morita mused during a telephone interview.

 

“I sympathize and empathize with Ralphie, if indeed that is his reaction. He’s never confided to me in any assertive degree that he feels that way. He could have his own reasons for not wanting to do any more of them, all of which are justifiable. But I have no qualms about doing Miyagi, depending on the stories and who’s involved.”

 

Morita, who said he has pleasant memories of Salt Lake City from shooting “Savannah Smiles” here some seven years ago is proud of Miyagi. After all, the role earned him an Oscar nomination for the first “Karate Kid” film.

 

But in the end, it’s “just another role. I enjoyed doing them, and as long as the stories remain good I don’t mind playing Miyagi again, or Arnold again (the character he played in the 1975-76 and 1982-83 seasons of the ‘Happy Days’ TV series).”

 

Is that a hint that “Happy Days” cast members might come together for a reunion movie, a popular TV trend these days?

 

“Talk of doing a reunion show is scuttle-butted around but as of this moment I don’t foresee that it’s going to happen. It’s really tough. I’m available, but trying to pull Ron (Howard) and (Henry) Winkler and (Tom) Bosley and Marion (Ross) and all these people together, that effort in itself is an enormous problem."

 

        

 

Henry Winkler, left, Pat Morita and Ron Howard in the sitcom 'Happy Days,' on which Morita played 'Arnold' for 26 episodes from 1975-83.

 

In addition to “The Karate Kid, Part III,” Morita continues playing Miyagi for a “Karate Kid” cartoon show due this fall. But possibly only for the first few episodes.

 

“I just began the animated children’s Saturday morning cartoon program. I don’t even know which network that’s on (it’s scheduled for ABC). They’re doing a ‘Karate Kid’ variation for the cartoon audience. I insisted that I do the voice of Miyagi because I know how his language goes and how and when and where he inverts grammar, etc. And once they get a pattern for him down I’m sure they could bring in John Byner doing Rich Little doing Billy Barty doing Miyagi.”

 

One real concern on the minds of Columbia Pictures executives is how “The Karate Kid, Part III” and Columbia’s other current film “Ghostbusters II” will fare against such big guns as “Batman,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “Star Trek V.”

 

“This is the spring and summer of sequels,” Morita said with a sigh. But he added that he is confident fans of the first two “Karate Kid” movies will want to see where “Part III” takes Daniel and Miyagi. “We come back from Okinawa to find the building Ralphie was living in and I was working in being demolished by a wrecking crew. So he now no longer has a place to live and I no longer have a place to work.

 

“He uses his college money, much to my chagrin, to set me up in a bonsai shop, and in the meantime circumstances develop so that he becomes challenged to defend his title. But Miyagi refuses to train him for that endeavor, and for that reason and for matters of principle they are in great danger of coming to a parting of ways.

 

“They do get back together, of course, but how they achieve it and under what circumstances I can’t say. Don’t want to give too much away.”

 

In addition to live-action and animated “Karate Kid” ventures, Morita continues as a commercial spokesman for toothpaste. “The Colgate contract is lucrative and they’ve picked me up for a second-year option. And while we haven’t shot the spots yet, the money is more than enough to convince me to show up for work.”

 

And he’s involved in a prestigious new animated video series. “I am the host-narrator for a series of classic children’s stories – ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ ‘Hansel and Gretel’ and that sort of thing – for the Encyclopedia Britannica, for tapes to be available for the holiday season.

 

“They are really a very unique presentation and done artistically very, very well. Very detailed animation, not simply line drawings. I feel good to be attached to that process.”

 

   

 

There was supposed to be another big-screen film last year, the police comedy-thriller “Collision Course,” for which Morita teamed with comic Jay Leno in the latter’s big-screen starring debut. But that film has been tied up in legal machinations for more than a year, following the bankruptcy of the financing studio DEG Entertainment. Morita said he recently heard “Collision Course” may soon be going straight to video, as has been the case with some of the other DEG films that were never released theatrically.

 

“I liked (the movie) overall, but I didn’t like it as well as I liked ‘Karate Kid III,’” Morita said wryly.

 

“ ‘Collision Course’ was a fiasco. It’s unfortunate it had all the trouble it did. But my work is in the can and the movie must stand by itself.”

 

And how was perennial “Tonight Show” substitute-host Jay Leno as an actor?

 

“Jay’s not going to be able to give you much range as far as an actor goes but he can portray himself going through the motions of whatever the scene calls for. To that extent he’s decent enough, funny when he has to be. In particular for him it was unfortunate that it evolved as it did because he needs the screen credit. I could have used the exposure, but I’m fine.”

 

In addition to all of this activity, Morita has a rather odd hobby. “I’m singing the National Anthem at ballparks.

 

“It’s just a personal thing of mine. I’ve done it a few times in front of fights and I sang at Tiger Stadium last year. Just a little ‘Pat Morita’ – one of those if-you-could-do-anything-in-your-life bizarre kind of things. I’d really love to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl.”

 

Morita said he’s still surprised at how many different people he has become in the eyes of the moviegoing and TV-viewing public. “My public recognition factor goes well beyond ‘Karate Kid.’ There’s ‘Ohara’ (his recently canceled TV series) and Arnold (from ‘Happy Days’). Certain sections (of the country) recognize me for one thing more than another. In the Baltimore-Pennsylvania area they seem to pick on ‘Ohara’ as a handle. The Midwest seems to lean toward ‘Ohara’ and Arnold. But the majority of people pick me out as Miyagi – especially the kids.”

 

And with “Karate Kid III” and an animated Miyagi on the way, that recognition factor can only get larger.