'Karate Kid' Actor Pat Morita, 73, Dies

Actor and comedian Pat Morita, best known as the star of the Karate Kid movies, died Thursday. He was 73. Steven Proffitt has an appreciation.

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(Soundbite of "The Karate Kid")

Mr. RALPH MACCHIO: (As Daniel) How come you didn't tell me?

Mr. NORIYUKI "PAT" MORITA: (As Mr. Miyagi) Tell you what?

Mr. MACCHIO: That you knew karate.

Mr. MORITA: You never ask.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

The man known as Mr. Miyagi from "The Karate Kid" movies has died. Seventy-three-year-old actor and comic Pat Morita died at his home in Las Vegas yesterday. During his career, Morita became the first Japanese-American to headline in Las Vegas and the first to have his own, if short-lived, television series, "Mr. T. and Tina." But Morita's early life was anything but funny. DAY TO DAY's Steve Proffitt has this remembrance.

STEVE PROFFITT reporting:

He was born Noriyuki Morita in California, the son of Japanese-American fruit workers, and at the age of two, Morita was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis. He spent most of his childhood in hospitals, only to be released to an internment camp, where his family was detained during World War II. After high school, he got a job in an aerospace plant, and somehow in the early '60s when he was 30, he made the transition to stand-up comic, one of the first Japanese-Americans to do so. Soon he was playing Playboy Clubs and opening for acts in Las Vegas.

(Soundbite of "Happy Days")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) The weekend comes, my cycle hums, ready to race to you. These days are ours...

PROFFITT: But it was the role of Arnold, the goofy malt shop owner on the 1970s sitcom "Happy Days," that secured him a place in the American culture. The transition from that image to the austere and wise Mr. Miyagi was about as big a jump as any actor has been asked to make.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. MORITA: To be able to play these aspects became a challenge because I knew I couldn't live like Miyagi. (Laughs)

PROFFITT: In 1984, when the first of the three "Karate Kid" movies was released, Pat Morita told NPR's Andy Lyman that he was intrigued by the story line and by the chance to play the father figure to the character of a teen-age boy being raised by a single mom.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. MORITA: I had never seen any examples in my lifetime of a Japanese guy playing a surrogate father to a Caucasian boy, so I had to try and recall how my father addressed his own son--me in this case.

(Soundbite of "The Karate Kid")

Mr. MORITA: (As Mr. Miyagi) In Okinawa, all Miyagi know two thing: fish and karate. Karate come from China, 16th century, called tae, hand. Much later, Miyagi ancestor call karate: empty hand.

Mr. MACCHIO: I always thought it came from Buddhist temples and stuff like that.

Mr. MORITA: (As Mr. Miyagi) You too much TV.

PROFFITT: Morita received an Oscar nomination for his role as Mr. Miyagi, but to his friends he remained a funny and accessible character. Among those who remember him fondly is Gary Austin, founder of the comedy improv group The Groundlings.

Mr. GARY AUSTIN (The Groundlings): He was a silly, warm--he was always right there when he was needed and just a great man.

PROFFITT: Pat Morita went on to act in films such as "Spy Hard" and "Honeymoon in Vegas," but his role as Mr. Miyagi was his crowning achievement, a fact he acknowledged at a ceremony shortly after the original film came out, when he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

(Soundbite of speech)

Mr. MORITA: When I was a kid, I spent nine years in a hospital and doctors said this kid would never walk. Who would know that he would walk all his way up to an Oscar nomination and the star on the Boulevard? Not a bad odyssey, my friends.

PROFFITT: Pat Morita died of what his wife describes as natural causes at his home yesterday in Las Vegas. He was 73. Steve Proffitt, NPR News, Los Angeles.

BRAND: The DAY TO DAY theme was composed by Greg Smith. DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from slate.com. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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