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[RIP] Goodbye to Pat Morita, Best Supporting Asian

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  • eugenia_beh
    Editorial Observer Goodbye to Pat Morita, Best Supporting Asian By LAWRENCE DOWNES The New York Times Published: November 29, 2005 Pat Morita, the
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 29, 2005
      Editorial Observer
      Goodbye to Pat Morita, Best Supporting Asian
      The New York Times
      Published: November 29, 2005

      Pat Morita, the Japanese-American actor, died on Thanksgiving Day in
      Las Vegas. He was 73. News reports over the weekend were not specific
      about the cause of death or funeral details. Also not clear was what
      Hollywood would do now that Mr. Morita is gone.

      The movie and TV industry has never had many roles for Asian-American
      men, and it seemed for a while that they all went to Mr. Morita. He
      made his debut as "Oriental No. 2" in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" in
      1967 and never stopped working. He hit two peaks - as Arnold the
      diner owner on TV's "Happy Days" and the wise old Mr. Miyagi in
      the "Karate Kid" movies - and spent the rest of nearly 40 years
      roaming an endless forest of bit parts.

      He was Mahi Mahi, the pidgin-talking cabby in "Honeymoon in Vegas,"
      Lamont Sanford's friend Ah Chew in "Sanford and Son," Brian the
      waiter in "Spy Hard," Chin Li the Chinese herbalist in "The Karate

      Whenever a script called for a little Asian guy to drive a taxi,
      serve drinks or utter wise aphorisms in amusingly broken English, you
      could count on Mr. Morita to be there.

      Those who knew Mr. Morita say he was a man of uncommon decency and
      good humor. He fulfilled the actor's prime directive, to keep busy.

      But it's distressing to think that the life's work of one of the best-
      known, hardest-working Asian-American actors is mostly a loose
      collection of servile supporting roles.

      I know nothing about Mr. Morita's ambitions; if he had a longing to
      interpret Eugene O'Neill on Broadway, I have not heard of it. But
      actors generally have to work within the range of what's available.
      And with Asian-Americans, particularly men, what's available
      generally stinks.

      Mr. Morita was one of the last survivors of a generation of Asian-
      American actors who toiled within a system that was interested only
      in the stock Asian. Harold Sakata played Oddjob in "Goldfinger" and
      was typecast as a mute brute forever after. Philip Ahn played
      houseboys and villains for decade upon decade.

      Some actors - well, a couple - broke out, like George Takei, Mr. Sulu
      in "Star Trek," and Jack Soo on "Barney Miller." B. D. Wong's role
      on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" is a major improvement, but it
      will be a long, long time before we erase the memory of the
      bucktoothed, jabbering Mickey Rooney in "Breakfast at Tiffany's," or
      Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan.

      Watch Rob Schneider play Ula, a leering Hawaiian in the Adam Sandler
      movie "50 First Dates," with a pidgin accent by way of Cheech and
      Chong, and you get the sense that Hollywood still believes that there
      is no ethnic caricature a white actor can't improve upon.

      Mr. Morita, who was born Noriyuki Morita to migrant farmworkers in
      California and was sent to an internment camp in Arizona during World
      War II, never gave the sense of bearing a racial burden.

      He had a comic's perspective and sense of humor, and would play his
      parts - Chinese, Japanese, Korean, whatever - with relaxed
      professionalism. As a standup comedian in the 1960's, he called
      himself "the Hip Nip," and he once told a group of Pearl Harbor
      survivors in a Waikiki nightclub that he was sorry about messing up
      their harbor.

      Mr. Miyagi remains everybody's idea of a positive character. Who can
      forget "wax on, wax off," his wise counsel linking car care to
      karate? But still, it bother me Miyagi-san so wise, but find so hard
      use articles, pronouns when talk.

      Mr. Morita's legacy may soon take a posthumous turn for the better.
      He has a role in an unreleased movie, "Only the Brave," about
      Japanese-American soldiers of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team,
      one of the most decorated units in World War II. He plays a Buddhist
      priest who is imprisoned in Hawaii after Pearl Harbor.

      Lane Nishikawa, who wrote, directed, produced and acted in the film,
      which is now making the rounds of festivals in search of a
      distributor, said it told its story from the Asian-American point of
      view - an unusual perspective, by past or current standards.

      With its wide pool of Asian-American talent, including Mr. Morita,
      Tamlyn Tomita and Jason Scott Lee, the film promises to be at least
      different from the other movie about the 442nd.

      That one -"Go for Broke!" - was made in 1951 and starred Van Johnson,
      with a large, and utterly forgotten, supporting cast.

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