November, 2005

A Tribute to Pat Morita

by George Takei

Pat Morita gave me a pain in my sides. His jokes were non-stop and relentless. I would be laughing, helpless and in pain. But he was merciless. His gags kept coming like machine-gun bullets. He would "slay" me with his jokes. Wherever we were, at dinner in a Las Vegas restaurant, at a party in Los Angeles, a fund-raiser for a non-profit institution, Pat kept me in pained laughter.

Now there is a different pain. It is the ache of parting. Pat is gone. He passed in Las Vegas of natural causes. Yet, it seems unnatural for Pat not to be bringing us joy and laughter. He was always so vibrant, so funny, and so alive. Noriyuki Pat Morita was a beloved friend and an extraordinary man.

He was extraordinary in that Pat was of a generation of Asian Americans that rarely ventured into show business. It was an insecure and inhospitable arena for Asian performers. Yet, with his passion and his gift of humor, he boldly ventured forth into that unpromising world.

He was extraordinary in his determination. Building a career was a constant struggle. The roles offered him were largely stock stereotypes that he turned into comic gems. His stand-up gigs in nightclubs were where he really flourished, opening for star like Ella Fitzgerald, Della Reese, and Smokey Robinson. He shared the bill with Redd Foxx at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He was brilliant - he "slayed them," as he would say, with his comedic genius.

Yet, his iconic creation was a dramatic role. That of the karate master, Mr. Miyagi, in "The Karate Kid." It takes an actor with enormous humanity to fill a character so richly with such charm, spirit, and moral fiber. His Mr. Miyagi had the gentle humor that comes with wisdom combined with humility. He had the firm discipline of martial artists. He had the resilience of someone who survived unjust incarceration in an U.S. internment camp in the blistering sun of an Arizona desert. He embodied the amazing patriotism of an American who went from behind those barbed wire fences to fight heroically for his country. Pat Morita, with his extraordinary talent, made Mr. Miyagi the Japanese American Everyman. Pat infused that role with his joy, his sorrow, and his life struggles. Mr. Miyagi is a singularly American character personified uniquely by Pat Morita. I was blessed and proud to have had him as a dear friend.

I last saw him in San Francisco two months ago when we were both inducted into the Japanese American Hall of Fame. He was shockingly frail. I had to help him into cars and down stairs. But, his indomitable jokes were as relentless as ever. My laughter almost made me drop him on occasions. They were precious days we had together in San Francisco and I cherish them.

Since then, we talked on the phone. Now he is gone and I feel an unfamiliar pain. It is not the kind of pain I associate with Pat. But, this too is now a part of Pat.

We all feel this pain Pat, we who loved you, because you gave us so much. You gave us laughter and joy and the appreciation of life. Thank you, Pat, for your gloriously painful gift.

 

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