Pat Morita

Mr Miyagi in 'The Karate Kid'
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The Independent Online

Noriyuki ("Pat") Morita, actor: born Isleton, California 28 June 1932; thrice married (three daughters); died Las Vegas 24 November 2005.

As the wise and wily martial arts expert Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid (1984) who becomes the mentor ("sensei") to a bullied, fatherless teenager and teaches him not only self-defence but gives him valuable spiritual and moral lessons, Pat Morita created an indelible portrait of warmth and wisdom that won him an Oscar nomination and a role with which he will forever be identified.

Already an experienced actor and stand-up comic (sometimes billed as Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, usually as Pat Morita), he was particularly known for his portrayal of the excitable Arnold, owner of the drive-in malt shop in the television series Happy Days (1975-76 and 1982-83), and he was the first Japanese American to star in a television series (Mr T and Tina, 1976). But it was as the diminutive "Miyagi sensei" to Ralph Macchio's "Daniel-san" that he achieved international fame - the film was a huge box-office success and Morita starred in three sequels, two with Macchio and the last with a female pupil played by Hilary Swank.

Morita had survived a difficult childhood. Born Noriyuki Morita in Isleton, California, in 1932, he was the son of migrant fruit pickers who followed the harvests and lived mainly in shacks with dirt floors and leaky roofs. At the age of two Morita contracted spinal tuberculosis and spent nine years in a sanatorium encased in a body-cast and unable to play with other children. "So I made puppets out of socks to entertain the nurses and other kids," he later recalled. "Who knows? If it weren't for my disease, I might not be where I am today."

When he left hospital at the age of 11, it was after Pearl Harbor, and he was sent to join his family who, along with 110,000 other Americans of Japanese ancestry, had been put in an internment camp:

I was picked up at the hospital by an FBI agent wearing dark glasses and carrying a gun. I think back to the ludicrous nature of it all: an FBI man escorting a recently able-to-walk 11-year-old to a place behind barbed wire in the middle of nothing!

After the Second World War, his family eventually settled in Sacramento and opened a restaurant serving Chinese food (because of lingering Japanese prejudice). After graduation, he joined an aerospace company, but at the age of 30 decided to pursue a career in comedy. Billed as "The Hip Nip" , he gained a reputation in clubs, then was asked to fill in for an ailing headliner at an Hawaiian theatre. Finding an audience of war veterans, many disabled, observing the 25th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he began by telling them he wanted to apologise, on behalf of his people, for screwing up their harbour. The audience roared with laughter and cemented the comic's reputation.

Morita made his screen début in the pastiche of Twenties musicals Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), playing (with Jack Soo) one of two Orientals assisting Beatrice Lillie (as a white slave trader) in her nefarious activities. More than 20 other films preceded his casting in The Karate Kid, including Midway (1976), in which he played a Rear-Admiral indecisive about whether to arm his planes with bombs or torpedoes. He auditioned five times for his star-making role, which he won despite the producers' wanting a Japanese rather than Japanese American actor - they were considering Toshiro Mifune. To make him sound more ethnic on the credits, they asked Morita to use his given name, Noriyuki, rather than his stage name of Pat.

He proved perfect casting, catching the enigmatic character's endearing quirkiness (in one scene he teaches Macchio how to catch flies with chopsticks) and vulnerability (in a memorable drunk scene - partially written by Morita - he confesses his enduring sorrow that his wife and child both died during the child's birth at an ill-equipped internment camp). Morita lost the Oscar to the Cambodian actor Haing S. Ngor (for The Killing Fields).

He made over 70 films after The Karate Kid, including the comedy Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) in which he played a taxi-driver, Mahi Mahi, and he was the voice of the Emperor of China in Disney's animated feature Mulan (1998).

Television appearances included recurring roles in M*A*S*H, Sanford and Son and Baywatch, and countless guest roles. At the time of his death he was making a film called Princess.

Tom Vallance