Resembling Pat Morita

Living in Los Angeles I naturally know and have known a lot of people in the media creation or entertainment industry, just like I know people who build spacecraft (at NASA’s and Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) and people involved in other local industries. Just like people in Cincinnati know folks at P&G and people in Duluth know folks at 3M.

For years I ran a service business; half my clients were in show business. Our friends include video and sound editors, musicians, prop masters, directors, actors, documentarians, animators, makeup artists, and writers. Our dogs play together; our children go to school together.

So like most everyone else in this town I have personal stories and those of friends. Some stories are laudatory and a few are scandalous, but most are normal, mundane. We’re all just people, after all.

These stories stay in close circles, if they circulate at all. The charitable do good works altruistically, and the vile do not need help pumping notoriety.

Even cops and surgeons say most of their work is boring. There is more drama in an hour of TV than a career, they say. Most of it just doesn’t happen, or over such a long time that it’s the telling that’s dramatic.

I won’t tweet celebrity sightings either, like bumping shopping carts with a leading lady or seeing a teen idol buying holiday decorations with her mom. They are just people doing normal human stuff.

I do enjoy stories about people doing what they’re good at, inside looks behind the scenes, like “The Making of” special features on DVD. So here’s an ongoing story of mine.

In 1984 The Karate Kid hit theaters, and it was a mega hit. The first movie in what became the Karate Kid franchise. Mr. Miyagi’s stunts were performed by Fumio Demura. I noticed this line in the credits because around 1977 I had been taking noontime classes at Demura Sensei’s karate dojo in Santa Ana, just for the exercise. I was a sales manager at that time, so I worked mornings and afternoons and then into the evenings. The noon break worked for me.

I was happy that Fumio Demura got the work on the film. I was even more happy that Pat Morita played a starring role and was nominated for an Oscar: “Best Actor in a Supporting Role.”

Must have been in 1979 I got to spend some time with Pat Morita backstage before the premiere of Hito Hata: Raise the Banner, an independent Visual Communications film. Mako played the protagonist while Pat and other veteran Asian actors played supporting roles.

I was one of many unpaid volunteers on that production; I had saved some money from sales and factory work and didn’t need a paying gig at that point. Just for fun, at the suggestion of friends in Little Tokyo, I crewed on different location shoots over a few days. I was a gaffer for an exterior night shoot. I did stuff for an interior scene upstairs above the Far East Café: I covered the windows – lighting again – and I think I held a microphone boom. I hauled some materials in an antique (1930s I guess) flatbed truck with tall wooden slat sides. We festooned the truck with palm fronds, and I drove the truck in the parade scene that simulated Nisei Week circa 1930s through summer 1941.

This wasn’t my first movie shoot. Summer of 1975 I took a graduate seminar at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, and afterward I worked in The City and got involved in some community groups in San Francisco’s Japantown, known as J-Town. A TV movie production offered to donate money to community organizations for volunteer extras.

That’s why in the midday heat (in August or September I guess) hundreds of us stood around in winter overcoats and hats at a rural unused Sheriff’s Station in Livermore, southeast of Oakland in the foothills of the San Joaquin Valley. Looked like stables and barns, so must have been left over from days of deputies on horseback.

We waited several hours for the call “Action!” at which we ran around the corner of a ramshackle building across a rough dirt area, raising a huge cloud of dust. For the second and third takes we returned to our waiting area and waited for the dust cloud to subside in the still air.

Such is the excitement of filming on location.

The film was processed to make it all look like the nighttime, when the actual event happened in the internment camp, but we did all the trudging and running and standing during the day. In the movie you see the actors on a platform and only the tops of all us extras running by. Can’t see us like you can the extras in Braveheart or Gettysburg or Glory. So at least we didn’t have to deal with makeup.

Tedious as it was, I’m proud of doing all that. We made a little money for community groups that did good work. We also helped make the riot scene in Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s adaptation of her memoir by the same name.

Back – or forward – to 1979. I spent about a half hour strolling around the empty Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, mostly backstage, with Pat Morita. We had arrived early, waiting for the premiere to get set up. A very nice guy, down to earth and open-hearted. In conversation he had a way of surprising me and the guys who joined us as showtime approached. Every other thing he said was a hilarious one-liner on whatever topic had come up, delivered totally deadpan. He cracked us up.

Pat had started out as a standup comic. Tough profession. Tough row to hoe for a Japanese American in the first few decades after a war between America and Japan.

I find that great comics make great actors. Red Buttons won the 1958 academy award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role in Sayonara. Pat Morita was nominated in the same category in 1984 for The Karate Kid.

Robin Williams won in the same category for Good Will Hunting in 1997, although we could say Williams was an actor first, having studied theatre at Julliard before performing his comedy act in clubs and getting his first big role on Mork and Mindy. Other comics to go on to success in film or television include Danny Kaye, Red Foxx, Mike Nichols and Elaine May, Jonathan Winters, Bill Cosby, Steve Martin, and many Second City and SNL alumni like John Candy and Tina Fey. Even when they are doing comedy they can pull at our heartstrings.

Not all good actors make good comics. However, I think any great actor can do comedy (if willing). I loved Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon and The Freshman, Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia, Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year. How about Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents?

I remember watching Pat do standup on The Hollywood Palace TV variety show in the mid-sixties. My family watched a lot of TV, and we watched The Hollywood Palace every Saturday night. In Pat I loved seeing one of the few faces that looked like my family.

I should have also known Pat as Arnold on Happy Days, but I didn’t watch TV in the mid-seventies.

In the Eighties and Nineties I started getting less of strangers approaching me with the What-Are-You line and started getting more of the You-Look-Like-That-Guy line.

These folks meant I looked like Mr. Miyagi the character or Pat Morita the actor. Which I didn’t really; I only got that from people unfamiliar with Asians. Drove my wife crazy, but I didn’t mind unless I got it three days in a row.

As Pat’s performances recede farther into entertainment history I don’t get that approach much. Probably helps that now even people who never met an Asian can tell the difference between John Cho and Masi Oka, or Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.

I got a new one recently. A lady said I look like “that physicist.” She meant Michio Kaku, the physicist who explains string theory in a way that helps non-physicists almost understand ten dimensions and the multiverse.

This resemblance I can actually kind of see. Plus I think it’s pretty cool that I remind someone of an eminent scientist. I think it’s great just that this person knows about Dr. Kaku, so when I remind her of a great scientist, I’m fine with that.

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