‘Karate Kid’ Star Pat Morita’s Heartbreaking Childhood: Body Casts, Internment Camps, and More

Although he passed away 16 years ago, celebrity Pat Morita remains one of the most important Japanese actors in Hollywood’s history.

Although he is most well-known for his portrayal of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid franchise, his story off camera may have been the most mesmerizing role he ever played.

Morita had a rough life before getting bit by fame later on in life, from time in internment camps to childhood illnesses. 

Pat Morita on camera

Morita may have found fame with Mr. Miyagi, but his acting career goes back far earlier. He made his on-screen debut in 1964 in a film called Car Thieves. He became a hard-working television actor on series such as Gomer Pyle USMC and The Queen and I. While he was making a living as an actor when Japanese Americans struggled with representation, he wasn’t getting substantial roles. 

His most significant break came in Happy Days, where he played the recurring Arnold Takahashi. This was his most substantial role to date and helped lead to his eventual breakout in 1982 when The Karate Kid came and changed everything. Morita played Mr. Miyagi, a man whose past tragedies helped form him into a handyman and part-time sensei in later life. Now in his 50s, Morita was an Oscar nominee at the peak of his career

While he struggled to find much success outside of the franchise that made him a household name, he continued his work on television for the rest of his life, this time as a guest star. While his film work never took off past the franchise, his voice work in Mulan showed that he was far from a one-trick pony. He passed away in 2005 at the age of 73. The most compelling part of his life, however, was mostly unknown to the average person. 

Morita’s hard life

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Morita was born in America, but he was treated as an outsider as the son of Japanese field workers. He spoke about his life with Charles Champlin of the LA Times in 1986.

“One day,” Morita told the paper, “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.”

This one sentence said so much about him and his hard work. At two years old, he was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis and spent much of his time in a body cast at a sanitarium in Sacramento, California. Then, in 1941, America was attacked by the Japanese and responded by locking millions of Japanese Americans in internment camps across the country. 

Eventually, Morita made it out of childhood scathed but still alive. By his late twenties, however, he found himself at an impasse. 

“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,” Morita told the paper. “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”

After causing family drama by pursuing a career in show business, however, Morita began to make his name as a hard-working bit actor in Hollywood. The rest is history. 

Triumph over tragedy

Pat Morita
Pat Morita | M. Caulfield/WireImage

From severe medical issues to his time in an internment camp, Morita’s rise to fame was filled with more sorrow than most could handle. Now, years after his death, Morita’s story still resonates with people to this day. Aspects of his tragic life helped create Mr. Miyagi as the character that he’s known for today. After Cobra Kai, a revival of the Karate Kid franchise premiered on its new home, Netflix, the fruits of his labors can still be felt today. 

Cobra Kai will reportedly pay tribute to its fallen father figure and the actor who played him. However, regardless of what he did on camera, Morita’s story is one of triumph in the face of life’s most miserable curveballs. Luckily, he took those curve balls and ended up hitting a home run, anyway.