“One day,” Noriyuki (Pat) Morita said over lunch recently, “I was an invalid. The next day I was Public Enemy No. 1, being escorted to an internment camp by an FBI man wearing a piece.”
Morita was 11 years old. It was August, 1943 and the nation was at war with Japan. His parents were already in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. For nine years, from the time he was 2, he had been in a sanitarium near Sacramento, recovering from spinal tuberculosis. His parents, who had come from Japan sometime between 1907 and 1912, were itinerant fruit pickers, working the orchards and field crops in the Sacramento delta.
“We were pioneer braceros, " Morita used to say in his nightclub act, dropping into a Latino accent, one of the several he renders with eerie accuracy. (He does an excellent rabbi.)
These days, of course, Morita is Miyagi, the karate master and peaceable mentor to young Ralph Macchio, a team now reunited for “The Karate Kid Part II.” (The film opened Friday.)
Miyagi is the first extended dramatic role Morita has had in an acting career largely limited to vignettes until now. But it is clearly the role of a lifetime, a well-nigh perfect melding of actor and character, in which he is part Lewis Stone as Judge Hardy and part Burgess Meredith as Rocky’s manager. (It is less than coincidental that John Avildsen, who directed “Rocky I” has done both “Karate Kid” films.)
“If they want to do ‘Karate Kid Part IV, or IX, or XI,’ I’m their man,” Morita says honestly, if indiscreetly, neglecting to play hard to get.
At that, Morita’s story is less a tale of show business triumph (he was nominated for an Academy Award in “Karate Kid I”) than a piece of American social history and an account of life as a series of barriers overcome: the sickly child of immigrant parents become a computer expert become a nightclub comedian become a character actor become, at last, a beloved short, balding, 54-year-old sex symbol.
In Weimar Sanitarium, a cheerful Irish chaplain named Father Cornelius O’Connor expanded Morita’s name to Patrick Aloysius Ignatius Xavier Noriyuki Morita and taught him Latin so he could do the responses at Mass. Teachers came to his bedside three times a week for the rest of his schooling.
When, recovered at last, he was escorted away to join his parents at the Manzanar camp in the Owens Valley, Morita says, “I cried for four days I was so homesick for the doctors and nurses.”
The war over, the family left the camp in October, 1945, and started all over again, living out of knapsacks and working the crops. Morita went to high school, graduating in 1949 in Fairfield, Calif., and doing some picking himself.
“Pears. All day, carrying a 12-foot ladder and a wire ring to measure the fruit. It was piece work, 18 cents a box, which was 40 pounds of fruit.” Apricots were picked by size, not color, and the work he remembers least fondly was the stoop labor of harvesting tomatoes.
“But,” Morita says, “we’re all the beneficiaries of my people, and the way they helped establish those acres and acres of cultivated crops. Without the 60 years of their labor, the farm industry wouldn’t be what it is in California.”
Morita’s parents, having at last saved some money, opened a Chinese restaurant in Sacramento. “You get the picture?” he asks: “a Japanese family running a Chinese restaurant in a black neighborhood with a clientele of blacks, Filipinos and everybody else who didn’t fit in any of the other neighborhoods.”
The restaurant got into volume cooking and catering, and it prospered. Morita and his mother kept it going for three or four years after Morita’s father was killed in a brutal hit-run accident as he walked home from an all-night movie where he used to unwind after hard days.
But Morita, then with a wife and a baby, needed a regular job. He became a data processor with the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies, graduating to a graveyard shift job at Aerojet-General, in the days when the computers required an air conditioner the size of a warehouse.
In due time he was a department head at another aerospace firm, handling the liaison between the engineers and the programmers who were mapping out lunar ellipses for Polaris and Titan missile projects.
“I was 28, maybe 29, a 190-pound Japanese butterball with no college degree, in competition with Ph.D’s and therefore with a limited future in the company. I was unhappy and my hair was falling out, and I said, ‘OK, what do you really want to do? Doctor and priest are out.’
“The only answer, if I was brave enough to face it, was show business. Crazy. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t dance, all I could do was talk. I had a good job, with a month’s salary every year as a bonus. Very crazy; stupid, wrong. But, with the great support of my family (even though eventually it broke up the family), I quit my job.”
At first he got what he calls humbling gigs at small clubs in Sacramento and San Francisco. He was a comedian who then knew very little about comedy.
“In the beginning I was so out of place and so out of pace,” Morita says. “I didn’t know writing; I didn’t know punch lines; I didn’t know the structure of jokes. I’d read those little squibs in the Readers Digest and if they felt funny to me, I’d personalize them and use them in my act.”
After two years he realized it was costing him $35 more a month getting to the jobs than he was making. A fellow performer, the ventriloquist Hank Garcia, told Morita that San Francisco was not show business; he’d have to tackle Los Angeles.
Morita came to Los Angeles and convinced Sally Marr, an agent who was also Lenny Bruce’s mother, to be his manager. “She booked me at a couple of joints in the Valley and at the Horn in Santa Monica.” It was at the Horn that Jim Nabors among others had famously been discovered, and a talent coordinator from the “Hollywood Palace” TV show caught Morita one night and signed him for an appearance.
“I’d been Nori Morita through high school, then I changed to Pat. In show business it sounded right. Comedians are Pat: Pat Henry, Pat Buttram. Not Harold, for example. Harolds go into weather.”
Morita had given himself a five-year plan, he says--"The Ed Sullivan Show” in five years or no more show business. “It was four years and it was ‘Hollywood Palace,’ but I figured that’s close enough.”
He had worked enough hostile audiences to develop what he now calls “the comedian’s heart,” a combination of total paranoia and absolute fearlessness.
In the mid-'60s his agent (he was now with General Artists) called to say he’d got Morita an engagement in Honolulu, filling in for Don Ho, who was on a stateside tour. Morita, ever so slightly cocky, figured that at last he had the world by the tail.
“Opening night I’m waiting in the wings. The opening act is 80 Polynesian dancers, wiggling their what-nots. A waitress walks by me and almost drops her tray.
“ ‘You’re the act? ' she says. ‘Aren’t you terrified?’ ‘Why should I be terrified?’ I ask, all confidence. ‘Don’t you know who has the club tonight?’ ‘No,’ I say, still confident.
“ ‘It’s the 25th anniversary reunion of the Survivors of Pearl Harbor.’
“O . . . K. . . . Well, I tell myself I’ve got the heart of a comic and I’m going to stay. I turned on all the angelic, cherubic charm I could find and I went out and I said, ‘Before I begin, I just want to say I’m sorry about messing up your harbor.’ There was a second of silence, and then a big wave of laughter started at the back and rolled forward. That was all it took. I did all the regular material--'I’m really Italian but I had an eye job'--and then I even turned it around and started kidding them about using any excuse to go out and get loaded.”
A writer hung the tag “The Hip Nip” on Morita and he was working the Blue Angel in New York, Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago and what, it is now clear, was a diminishing band of nightclubs around the country.
There were also, for a while, several television variety shows eager for comic turns, Glen Campbell and Carol Burnett among them. Actually, Morita says, his television career had almost capsized before it began, because he’d never heard the term “Hit the mark.”
Sally Marr, then still his manager, had said to a furious, impatient, invisible director in the control booth that she needed a quick conference with her client. She dragged Morita out into the parking lot and explained some facts of television life, concluding dramatically, “You will hit your blanking mark or I will blanking kill you.”
But the variety shows went into history and what Morita calls the tux clubs where he used to be the opening act for star singers were shuttering fast. Morita began to do commercials, as for Hush Puppies and Ford pickups, and cameos in series like “Green Acres” and “Love American Style.”
He moved toward more dramatic work with the excellent television film “Return to Manzanar,” for which he returned to the site of the camp where he had spent two years.
“I remembered as clearly as anything saying, the day our family left the camp, that I’ll never, never have to come back here again. And then, 40 years later, there I was.”
There used to be thousands of sea gulls scavenging around the camp.
“My cousin Bobby and I used to trap sea gulls with a box and a stick on a string, using rice balls as bait.” The boys painted rude designs in lipstick on the undersides of the gulls’ wings and released them, to do their bodily functions identifiably. “We had 30 kamikaze sea gulls,” Morita says. The boys would throw rice balls onto the guard towers, to make them a particular target.
The feelings that Morita has about the internment years are masked, as they are in most of his contemporaries, by a stoicism that accepts rather than denies the depth and strength of those feelings. Morita simply acknowledges that the gestures of reparation and regret made toward the internees in recent years are welcome, even if belated.
But, as in other matters, success and other aspects of living well are their own revenge. Morita has come a long way since the camp and the pear orchards.
Now, with the leverage that “The Karate Kid” and Miyagi have given him, Morita finds it possible to dream of doing or re-doing a number of Japanese properties.
“I’d like to do Sakini in ‘Teahouse of the August Moon’; it’s never been played by an Asian,” he says. “I think you could do a wonderful updated version of ‘The Flower Drum Song,’ maybe with the Grateful Dead. It’s a valid concept; they’re all valid concepts.”
Morita is currently negotiating to do a dramatic screen biography. Meantime, he remains an expert dues-paid comedian whose humor transcends ethnic boundaries.
“If you can’t make everybody laugh, you’re doing something wrong,” Morita says. “Humor is for everybody.”