Written by Michael Vacchiano
It can be both a blessing and a curse when a legendary actor becomes synonymous with one character on their resume. Of course, when it’s a role as iconic as Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid franchise, most people would assume that type of association falls on the positive end of the spectrum. Almost every movie lover on the planet remembers the 1984 seminal classic and its beloved martial arts instructor/father figure. Only a miniscule number of fans, however, may know the much less glamorous years of his portrayer, Pat Morita’s life. Kevin Derek’s documentary More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story is a very candid and insightful look into the actor’s early and later years. The film is a sweet love letter to the actor, who sadly passed away in 2005, as well as a beautifully=told description of everything about and around Karate Kid’s underdog success story.
Derek constructs his film through written and recorded snippets from the unfinished autobiography Morita had been working on prior to his death. These are interwoven simultaneously with personal anecdotes from his widow Evelyn Guerrero, which gives More Than Miyagi a nice cross-narrative of the subject’s life behind the cameras. Born as Noriyuki Morita in central California in 1932 to Japanese immigrants, the film showcases a great collection of photos from Morita’s early years before fame. More than Miyagi also details some lesser known and sad aspects from this time, mainly him suffering from spinal tuberculosis as a child and spending nine years in a full body cast. Not to mention that Morita and his family lived in a Japanese internment camp in those pre-WWII days, which makes his breakthrough into show business even more remarkable.
More Than Miyagi also has plenty of great clips and videos from the beginning of Morita’s career in stand-up comedy. It also tells the backstory of how he adopted “Pat” as his more Americanized stage name while working the club scene in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Self-anointing himself “The Hip Nip”, Morita was always willing to mock and embrace his heritage in his act and got plenty of exposure doing sets on many variety shows of the late ’60s-early ’70s. Notable guest spots on popular shows like M*A*S*H and Sanford and Son led to his memorable role as Arnold on Happy Days, which helped to skyrocket Morita’s career. The film features some glowing commentary from cast members Henry Winkler, Anson Williams, Donny Most and Marion Ross, who all have great praise for Morita as both man and performer.
The cinematic lore of The Karate Kid is what dominates the middle act of Derek’s film. More Than Miyagi’s director himself is an admitted superfan, speaking here for all of those who have been touched by the movie. The challenges Morita faced when getting cast in his trademark role are explained, mainly having to convince the producers that he could do a more dramatic part. Anyone will tell you the sports underdog aspect of the story is dominated by the heartwarming bond forged by Mr. Miyagi and his protégé/surrogate son Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). The actor’s success clearly reached its highest point when the movie became a surprise hit upon release, followed with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Karate Kid’s multi-generational endurance is evident even further now with the cult hit spin-off series Cobra Kai. Franchise stalwarts Macchio, William Zabka and Martin Kove are on hand in to provide some incredible stories of working with Morita on the modern classic.
However, the story that Derek tells of Morita’s later years paints a bit of a tragic picture. Guerrero draws back some of the curtain on her late husband’s struggles with alcoholism and being unable to find substantial work. Frequent guest spots on various series and minor roles in forgettable flops filled his resume until his death. The double-edged sword of his Karate Kid fame (not to mention being an Asian actor in his twilight years) led Morita to be frequently typecast in “sensei/wise man” style characters. Derek and Guerrero are to be commended for being as straightforward as possible on revealing the demons the actor faced towards the end. While Morita’s inability to overcome his drinking were known by his friends and costars, suffice to say it did little to tarnish his reputation amongst those who loved him best.
More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story is an amazing, in-depth look into the life and career of a showbusiness legend. Kevin Derek’s documentary combines biographical details, images and castmate commentary to create an overall fascinating presentation. Like plenty of entertainers, unfortunately, personal issues and unsustainable success got the better of Morita too soon. And while the actor’s rise to prominence may have reached its apex with The Karate Kid, there is certainly no denying the legacy of the film nor of the man behind Miyagi himself.