A manuscript written by the late Karate Kid star Pat Morita, sharing his life story in his own words, was the catalyst of an inspiring but heartbreaking documentary More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story.
“There [were] some really dark things,” the film’s producer Oscar Alvarez told Yahoo Canada. “I would say the manuscript was the blueprint of everything and that's what got us excited, especially because he had talked about his early years and that's the stuff that you don't know, pre-Mr. Miyagi.”
Coming off the heels of the Cobra Kai release on Netflix, Karate Kid actors including Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, Happy Days stars like Henry Winkler and Marion Ross, and other celebrities including Tommy Chong, Larry Miller and Esai Morales tell their personal stories about Morita — the man known to millions as “Mr. Miyagi.” One thing that really comes across is that Morita was not only important to fans of his work, but also to his colleagues.
Alvarez believes there is still so much people don’t know about Japanese-American actor. The producer revealed he was recently speaking to someone who didn’t even know Morita was nominated for an Oscar for his role in The Karate Kid. We come to find out in the documentary that Macchio still wishes he had gone to the Academy Awards ceremony with Morita in 1985.
For anyone who is a Karate Kid fan, there are lots of memories from fellow cast members about making those films, including the famous “wax on, wax off” moment, and discussions around the studio not wanting Morita to play Mr. Miyagi, due to concerns about casting a comedic actor who played Arnold on Happy Days in the role.
The documentary also provides more context on how Morita developed the legendary character of Arnold, which has a connection to the cook who worked at the Chinese restaurant run by Morita’s parents.
Even if you’re not the biggest Karate Kid fan or you never really watched Happy Days, there’s plenty to learn about Morita in More Than Miyagi that will hold anyone’s attention.
“I think people need to understand how much he achieved during his career, considering all of [the] obstacles,” Alvarez said.
From a body cast, to an internment camp, to the stage
Morita was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis at age two and spent nine years in a hospital, immobilized in a body cast for seven years. An experimental surgery allowed him to beat the odds and walk again but just a few years later, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 led to another traumatic moment in Morita’s life.
When Morita was able to leave the hospital in California at age 11, he was taken by the FBI to join his parents at an internment camp with other Japanese Americans in Arizona.
This is really just one piece of the complicated life Morita lived, going on to fulfill his dream of being an entertainer, starting out as a stand-up comedian under the same agent as fellow comedian Lenny Bruce. You’ve probably heard that name if you’re a fan of the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Morita’s third wife, Evelyn Guerrero, is actually Bruce’s cousin. She originally met her husband when she was a teen but they reconnected later in life and ended up getting married. Much of the film is told through her narrative, sharing her personal memories of their lives together, including the impact Morita’s drinking had on their relationship.
More Than Miyagi shows the stark and tragic reality of Morita’s alcoholism, a significant factor that led to his death in November 2005. The film reveals an incredibly a heart wrenching moment with the cast of Happy Days during 30th anniversary reunion of the show, where Morita’s drinking prevented him from participating in all the events with the cast.
“That hit home for me because I had an uncle who lived with us for about, maybe two or three years of my life [when] I was in junior high, and I know what that's like,” Alvarez shared with Yahoo Canada.
“When you watch the documentary you hear what he went through, all of his struggles, I mean I'm surprised he didn't do anything worse to himself.”
Morita’s daughters decided not to participate in the documentary, but they have publicly spoken about him in the past.
“At the time of his passing in 2005 at age 73, my father was a forgotten star,” his daughter Aly Morita wrote in a piece for Hyphen Magazine in 2010. “He lived in Las Vegas, separated from his third wife, unable to land any jobs because he was too old and still riding on the coattails of his Karate Kid heyday.”
“His fans remembered him; the Asian American community remembered him. But he was of no value to Hollywood. After enjoying the bounty of success for a good 10 years after the first Karate Kid film, he was just another washed-up movie star.”
‘Still a problem that we have right now’
While the documentary largely focuses on Morita’s life in particular, Alvarez and director Kevin Derek made the decision to spend some time discussing the portrayal of Japanese people in Hollywood films, and the type of roles that Japanese actors are cast in, both previously and today.
Examples of prejudices in films include Mickey Rooney in yellow face as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, called out by many for being racist, with Rooney’s character looking like caricature depictions of Japanese people during World War II.
Morita himself experienced limitations on possible roles for him to play, and Alvarez said this was a particularly important to include in the documentary because it is “still a problem that we have right now.”
A more recent example is Ghost in the Shell, which originated as a Japanese manga series but in 2017 the lead character Major was played by Scarlett Johansson. Additionally, Tilda Swinton’s character The Ancient One in Doctor Strange in 2016 was criticized for whitewashing as the character is depicted as an Asian man in the comics.
This break from the purely Morita-led storyline in the film was certainly welcome, providing additional context about the entertainment industry the actor longed for, even if it was seemingly working against him, and why Morita is such an important actor in Hollywood history.
“I think it was important because I think we need to understand that all those odds are up against him, and he's still persevered, he still went as far as he went,” Alvarez said.