PAT MORITA / 1932-2005
ASSOCIATED PRESS / 1994
Pat Morita got his Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 1994.
‘Karate Kid’ actor felt kinship to Hawaii
Pat Morita was not from Hawaii, but many people here assumed he was, thanks to a long-running series of bank commercials, appearances in several local productions and frequent visits here.
"Pat's relationship with Hawaii was very unique," said singer Jimmy Borges, who met Morita in San Francisco more than four decades ago. "Everybody here thought he was from Hawaii because he had that feeling of being a local. He used to laugh at that. And he felt he was home here."
Morita, who rose to stardom for his television role on "Happy Days" and earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi in "The Karate Kid," died of natural causes Thursday in Las Vegas where he lived. He was 73.
Borges said Morita was one of the first Asian Americans to break into comedy in the early 1960s and started doing stand-up at San Francisco nightclubs.
"In those days there were no Japanese comics," Borges said. "He was the man. He was the first of his type."
Morita was born in Northern California in 1932 to migrant fruit pickers. He spent most of his early years in the hospital with spinal tuberculosis, and doctors predicted he would never be able to walk.
He recovered -- only to be sent with his family to a Japanese-American interment camp in Arizona when World War II broke out.
In 1994 he told martial arts magazine Furyu that he would recite the Pledge of Allegiance daily at the camp and "had this sense of 'What's this all about? Why am I saying "liberty and justice for all?"'
"I was too young to rationalize this," Morita continued, "but I do remember that the hurt of bigotry began early on and was to last for many, many years. Whenever I think about it, it still hurts."
Morita was trained as an aerospace engineer and was rising in his field when he decided, in his early 30s, to take up comedy and acting. He had been doing stand-up comedy as a hobby for years, including at his family's Sacramento restaurant when he was in his teens.
In 1984, Morita appeared in "The Karate Kid" as Kesuke Miyagi, a caricature that would spawn countless good-natured imitations.
Borges said the role has been wrongly criticized as perpetuating a Japanese stereotype. "When he became Miyagi, he took what could have been a very stereotypical role, and he took that one step beyond," Borges said. "He was an intelligent (karate) teacher who happened to be Japanese."
Morita was well known in the isles for his First Hawaiian Bank commercials, which ran through the early 1990s. In the spots, he would raise his arms over his head to make a Y for the institution's "Yes, we can" slogan.
Morita also filmed several "Karate Kid" sequels in the islands, appeared in several plays and other productions, and lived in Hawaii during the 1980s.
Borges last saw Morita a few months ago, when the actor was in the islands to do a commercial. They had remained friends through the years, ribbing each other constantly while also providing unwavering support.
In 1993, Borges was in the middle of a Frank Sinatra ballad at a concert -- accompanied by the Honolulu Symphony and singing to hundreds -- when Morita ran on stage, took the microphone and said, "It's the yes-man."
"The audience went bananas" with the reference to Morita's bank commercials, Borges said. "My first thought was, 'I'm going to kill you.' Then, I started laughing so hard, I couldn't stop."
And as Borges recovered, Morita leaned over and whispered, "I'm so proud of you." Then, "he put this big lei around my neck," Borges said, holding back tears. "We hugged and he went off stage."
Morita was to be buried at Palm Green Valley Mortuary and Cemetery. He is survived by wife Evelyn and three daughters from a previous marriage.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.