The world’s most famous martial arts instructor, fictional division, is a guy who, in real life, doesn’t much care for martial arts movies. ”I never paid much attention,” says Noriyuki ”Pat” Morita. ”They just seemed like an endless swirl of bodies.” As an era-traveling domino enthusiast in the new direct-to-video sci-fi picture Timemaster (MCA/Universal), Morita doesn’t make too many action moves, but the tenor of his role is familiar: unassuming, sagacious, slightly secretive—all characteristics of Mr. Miyagi, whom Morita brought to life in four Karate Kid movies, the first of which not only redefined the actor and rerouted his career, but also earned him an Oscar nomination.
The 63-year-old former comedian admits he’s played his share of ”off-the-wall” types—most memorably restaurateur Arnold on TV’s Happy Days. ”I take great pride in being a character actor, and I enjoy tackling many different roles,” says the constantly busy Morita, whose Captured Alive hits video stores in January and who’s currently filming the new Nickelodeon mystery series The Files of Shelby Woo. Different is one word for it: He plays a sadistic crime boss in the 1991 girls-and-guns actionfest Do or Die (”a weak picture, but it gave me the opportunity to play a heavy”), mugs alongside Huntz Hall in the 1991 cannibal comedy Auntie Lee’s Meat Pies, and chases crooks with Jay Leno in the 1990 buddy-cop flick Collision Course.
Yet despite all this work, Morita, who has homes in Hawaii and Las Vegas, also seems to be motivated by painful memories of career lulls—not to mention his formative years, which were spent in the hospital with spinal tuberculosis and then at a Japanese internment camp during World War II. One dry spell in the early ’80s even caused the actor to flee back to Hawaii and work as a stand-up on military bases. ”I didn’t know if I would ever get back into acting,” he says. Soon thereafter, he was approached to play Miyagi, and a franchise was born.
Recently married to actress Evelyn Guerrero (Bound by Honor), the man who was billed as ”the Hip Nip” during his ’60s stand-up days says he’d like to play roles that ”have nothing to do with ethnicity. Universal figures, like, say, Kris Kringle in a new version of Miracle on 34th Street.” Not a bad twist: St. Nick in a Hawaiian shirt. —GK