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Morita's Long Road To Miyagi

June 22, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

"One day," Noriyuki (Pat) Morita said over lunch recently, "I was an invalid. The next day I was Public Enemy No. 1, being escorted to an internment camp by an FBI man wearing a piece."

Morita was 11 years old. It was August, 1943 and the nation was at war with Japan. His parents were already in an internment camp for Japanese-Americans. For nine years, from the time he was 2, he had been in a sanitarium near Sacramento, recovering from spinal tuberculosis. His parents, who had come from Japan sometime between 1907 and 1912, were itinerant fruit pickers, working the orchards and field crops in the Sacramento delta.

"We were pioneer braceros, " Morita used to say in his nightclub act, dropping into a Latino accent, one of the several he renders with eerie accuracy. (He does an excellent rabbi.)

These days, of course, Morita is Miyagi, the karate master and peaceable mentor to young Ralph Macchio, a team now reunited for "The Karate Kid Part II." (The film opened Friday.)

Miyagi is the first extended dramatic role Morita has had in an acting career largely limited to vignettes until now. But it is clearly the role of a lifetime, a well-nigh perfect melding of actor and character, in which he is part Lewis Stone as Judge Hardy and part Burgess Meredith as Rocky's manager. (It is less than coincidental that John Avildsen, who directed "Rocky I" has done both "Karate Kid" films.)

"If they want to do 'Karate Kid Part IV, or IX, or XI,' I'm their man," Morita says honestly, if indiscreetly, neglecting to play hard to get.

At that, Morita's story is less a tale of show business triumph (he was nominated for an Academy Award in "Karate Kid I") than a piece of American social history and an account of life as a series of barriers overcome: the sickly child of immigrant parents become a computer expert become a nightclub comedian become a character actor become, at last, a beloved short, balding, 54-year-old sex symbol.

In Weimar Sanitarium, a cheerful Irish chaplain named Father Cornelius O'Connor expanded Morita's name to Patrick Aloysius Ignatius Xavier Noriyuki Morita and taught him Latin so he could do the responses at Mass. Teachers came to his bedside three times a week for the rest of his schooling.

When, recovered at last, he was escorted away to join his parents at the Manzanar camp in the Owens Valley, Morita says, "I cried for four days I was so homesick for the doctors and nurses."

The war over, the family left the camp in October, 1945, and started all over again, living out of knapsacks and working the crops. Morita went to high school, graduating in 1949 in Fairfield, Calif., and doing some picking himself.

"Pears. All day, carrying a 12-foot ladder and a wire ring to measure the fruit. It was piece work, 18 cents a box, which was 40 pounds of fruit." Apricots were picked by size, not color, and the work he remembers least fondly was the stoop labor of harvesting tomatoes.

"But," Morita says, "we're all the beneficiaries of my people, and the way they helped establish those acres and acres of cultivated crops. Without the 60 years of their labor, the farm industry wouldn't be what it is in California."

Morita's parents, having at last saved some money, opened a Chinese restaurant in Sacramento. "You get the picture?" he asks: "a Japanese family running a Chinese restaurant in a black neighborhood with a clientele of blacks, Filipinos and everybody else who didn't fit in any of the other neighborhoods."

The restaurant got into volume cooking and catering, and it prospered. Morita and his mother kept it going for three or four years after Morita's father was killed in a brutal hit-run accident as he walked home from an all-night movie where he used to unwind after hard days.

But Morita, then with a wife and a baby, needed a regular job. He became a data processor with the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state agencies, graduating to a graveyard shift job at Aerojet-General, in the days when the computers required an air conditioner the size of a warehouse.

In due time he was a department head at another aerospace firm, handling the liaison between the engineers and the programmers who were mapping out lunar ellipses for Polaris and Titan missile projects.

"I was 28, maybe 29, a 190-pound Japanese butterball with no college degree, in competition with Ph.D's and therefore with a limited future in the company. I was unhappy and my hair was falling out, and I said, 'OK, what do you really want to do? Doctor and priest are out.'

"The only answer, if I was brave enough to face it, was show business. Crazy. I couldn't sing, I couldn't dance, all I could do was talk. I had a good job, with a month's salary every year as a bonus. Very crazy; stupid, wrong. But, with the great support of my family (even though eventually it broke up the family), I quit my job."

At first he got what he calls humbling gigs at small clubs in Sacramento and San Francisco. He was a comedian who then knew very little about comedy.

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