Pat Morita owed his fame to kids, he once said. "You know why? I'm the same height." A generation raised on Mr. Miyagi might beg to differ.
Morita, who played the iconic martial-arts guru in four Karate Kid movies, and earned an Academy Award nomination for his uncommonly profound car-waxing tips, died Thursday in a Las Vegas hospital. He was 73.
The cause of death was unclear. A daughter told the Associated Press that Morita succumbed to heart failure; his manager told the wire service that the star passed away while awaiting a kidney transplant.
Ralph Macchio, who played Mr. Miyagi's most prolific pupil, Daniel LaRusso, called Morita's death a "sad day" for him and his family.
"Pat Morita was a truly generous actor, a gifted comic, and an even greater friend," Macchio said in a statement Friday. "It was both my honor and privilege to have worked with him and create a bit of cinema magic together."
Morita tutored Macchio in three Karate Kid films: The original 1984 adventure where teen outcast "Daniel-san" learns to stand up to bullies by performing menial tasks, including a little "wax on, wax off" car work, for Mr. Miyagi; 1986's The Karate Kid, Part II; and 1989's The Karate Kid, Part III, released when the "kid" was 27. Morita scored his Oscar nod as Best Supporting Actor for the first film.
Morita did one final Karate Kid movie in 1994, The Next Karate Kid, with future Oscar winner Hilary Swank as his new charge.
If Morita was Mr. Miyagi to children of the 1980s, then he was the Arnold of Arnold's to children of the 1970s. The actor played the unintelligible owner of the Happy Days gang's hangout in two stints, 1975-76 and 1982-83.
To children of the 1990s, Morita was the voice of the emperor in Disney's Mulan.
"My fame is largely due to young people, they're the first ones to discover me," Morita observed to the Ottawa Sun in 1999, before making the crack about his height, or lack thereof. (He stood about 5 foot, 3 inches.)
Morita's show business career began in the 1960s in the decidedly un-kid-friendly world of comedy clubs. At the time, Morita, the California-born son of Japanese immigrants, billed himself as the "Hip Nip." ("'Hip Nip' just sounds groovy," Morita told Stars & Stripes in 1967. "A drummer laid it on me.")
A refugee from a computer office job, Morita was 30 when he started doing standup. Within five years, he'd appeared on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and leading variety shows of the day (Laugh-In, Hollywood Palace).
In the 1970s, Morita was a prime-time fixture. He guested on several episodes of Sanford and Son, costarred on Happy Days, and became Mr. T before the mohawk-sporting Mr. T became a household initial. (The latter was owed to Morita's starring role in the short-lived 1976 sitcom, Mr. T and Tina.)
The Karate Kid Oscar nomination didn't make Morita an A-list movie star, but it did bring him meatier TV work. He earned an Emmy nomination for the 1985 TV-movie Amos, about elder abuse, and headlined the 1987-88 police drama series Ohara.
To look at Morita's lengthy credit list on IMDb.com is to surmise that Morita didn't like to go too long between gigs, even if latter-day gigs included 2004's The Karate Dog, a non-Mr. Miyagi tale about a dog that, well, does karate, and Miss Cast Away, a 2005 spoof comedy featuring a cameo by Michael Jackson.
Morita was born Noriyuki Morita on June 28, 1932. (Some sources say 1930.) His early years were spent apart--up until the age of 11, he lived in a hospital due to spinal tuberculosis; then when his health was restored, in the midst of World War II, he was dispatched to an internment camp for U.S. citizens and residents of Japanese descent.
As Morita said in Stars & Stripes: "I had to find things to laugh at."
In the end, Morita persevered--and taught others to do the same, in reel life and in real life.
"My life is all the richer for having known him," Macchio said. "I will miss his genuine friendship."
"Forever my Sensei..."