Friday, November 25, 2005

Domo arigato, Mr. Miyagi

Tragic news to wake up to, on the morning after Thanksgiving...

Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, the actor best known as the soft-spoken Okinawan martial arts guru who turned Ralph Macchio and Hilary Swank into weapons of teenage destruction in the Karate Kid films, has died at the age of 73.

Although many people first became aware of Morita as Arnold, the drive-in owner on Happy Days, my earliest memories of the actor-comedian came from his appearances on Sanford and Son, where he guested occasionally opposite Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford's apoplectic Chinese neighbor Ah Chew. In those halcyon days before political correctness, Morita did a standup comedy act in which he was billed as "The Hip Nip."

But it was as the humble and wise Mr. Miyagi that Morita became a household name, as well as an Academy Award nominee. Ironically, the first Asian-American actor to be put forward for an Oscar lost the award to another Asian, Dr. Haing S. Hgor, who costarred in The Killing Fields.

After the first two Karate Kid movies, Morita starred in a short-lived TV crime series, Ohara. The show started with a lot of promise, then meandered to the point of banality in its later episodes. Morita did an effective turn as a police detective whose ethnicity, quiet manner, and small stature often caused suspects to underestimate him. Ohara was also noteworthy for its talented supporting cast, which included (at various times in the show's brief run) Robert Clohessy, Catherine Keener, Rachel Ticotin, Madge Sinclair, and Jon Polito.

Morita never became a huge box-office star, but he always lent sparkle to any film (and he turned up in a lot of lousy ones) or television episode in which he appeared. He gave perfect voice to the Emperor in the Disney animated film Mulan, and his cameo as a cab driver was one of the best things about Wayne Wang's The Center of the World.

Not bad for a guy born to migrant farm workers in California, and who spent several years of his childhood in an internment camp for Japanese Americans.

A sad loss. He'll be missed.

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