As fans of the Karate Kid franchise are aware, Noriyuki “Pat“ Morita famously portrayed Daniel LaRusso’s mentor Mr. Miyagi. The role even “earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor” in 1984, as reported by The New York Times. The publication also noted that before starring in The Karate Kid, the Japanese-American-born actor had a long career in the entertainment business, first working as a comedian. He eventually started appearing on popular sitcoms such as Sanford and Son and Happy Days.
That being said, his most beloved role was the Okinawan-born sensei. For over 35 years, the character has been revered as a pop culture icon. Mr. Miyagi arguably had a resurgence in popularity since 2018, when the show Cobra Kai premiered. The acclaimed series has honored the character’s legacy for the past three seasons.
Morita, however, was unable to enjoy the show’s success, as he died in 2005. The actor was 73-years-old at the time of his passing. The New York Times reported that he was “survived by his wife and three daughters from a previous marriage.”
Here’s what you need to know:
Morita’s Death Was a Result of ‘Complications From Alcoholism’
Following the actor’s passing on November 24. 2005, People magazine reported that “complications from alcoholism,” ultimately resulted in his death. The publication noted that he was taken to “a Las Vegas hospital” approximately three weeks before his passing. While he was there, he “developed a severe bladder and urinary tract infection.”
Soon after his death, Morita’s third wife, Evelyn Guerrero, spoke to the publication about her husband’s issues with alcoholism. She revealed that a year before his death, she had taken him to a rehabilitation center. However, he was unable to maintain his sobriety.
“He relapsed big time. [The doctors] warned him if he continued to drink, he would die,” explained the actress.
Guerrero went on to say during his hospitalization, Morita was accepting of his death, telling her:
Evi, you have to let me go. I gotta go home now. I gotta be with Redd Foxx and all those funny guys up there in the sky.
According To His Daughter, Morita Was in a Low Place When He Passed
In April 2010, one of Morita’s daughters, Aly, penned an emotional essay about her father for Hyphen Magazine. She detailed her relationship with the actor and referenced his substance abuse issues, writing that she “was concerned about his alcohol consumption.”
She also wrote about her father’s career as an actor, noting that he had “a period of struggle” and “retreated to Hawaii.” When Morita was 50, however, he was cast as Mr. Miyagi. The role made him famous, allowing him to “gain accolades from peers and the media.”
She revealed, however, that all eventually dissipated, writing,
At the time of his passing in 2005 at age 73, my father was a forgotten star. He lived in Las Vegas, separated from his third wife, unable to land any jobs because he was too old and still riding on the coattails of his Karate Kid heyday. His fans remembered him; the Asian American community remembered him. But he was of no value to Hollywood. After enjoying the bounty of success for a good 10 years after the first Karate Kid film, he was just another washed-up movie star.
Morita Was Interested in Starring in Another ‘Karate Kid’ Before His Passing
Pat Morita and his Karate Kid co-star William Zabka, who portrayed Johnny Lawrence, shared a strong bond. During a recent interview on The View, alongside his Cobra Kai co-star Ralph Macchio, the actor revealed Morita was his mentor while filming the first installment of the film franchise.
He revealed that he gave him advice on how to improve his performance. In the interview, Zabka also noted that Morita “was a super, just a great, fun, beautiful guy.”
While speaking to Collider in August 2020, the 55-year-old noted that Morita had approached him with a pitch for The Karate Kid Part V, soon before he passed.
“[Morita] wasn’t done with Miyagi yet, and this was in his, you know, last years,” explained Zabka. “He called me and said, ‘B.Z. B.Z., I have a great idea for a Karate Kid 4, you know, a Karate Kid 5. You know, I want — Miyagi’s going to die.’ And he wanted him to have a proper Okinawan burial, but while he’s sick, he saw Johnny Lawrence as being his doctor.”
Ralph Macchio Released a Statement Following Morita’s Death
William Zabka was not the only Karate Kid star who had a fondness for Morita. Following his death, the “Karate Kid” himself Ralph Macchio shared a statement about his co-star, as reported by E! News.
“Pat Morita was a truly generous actor, a gifted comic, and an even greater friend. It was both my honor and privilege to have worked with him and create a bit of cinema magic together,” read a portion of the statement.
According to The Guardian, Macchio “spoke at Morita’s funeral.” He told the publication in August 2020 that he felt sentimental about working with Morita during the production of Cobra Kai Season 2.
“There’s a montage scene in series two in which I’m teaching a younger kid, just as Miyagi taught LaRusso, and that brought a real rush of emotion for me. Every time we shoot I hearken back to those early days of rehearsal with Pat,” explained the actor.
Ralph Macchio & William Zabka Reconnected at Morita’s Funeral
During a 2020 interview with Esquire, Ralph Macchio and William Zabka revealed that they grew closer after seeing each other at the late actor’s funeral.
“After [The Karate Kid], we were young, we went our different ways. We bumped into each other at a screening here and there. But I remember it being Pat’s funeral where we reconnected,” explained Zabka.
Macchio clarified that he and Zabka had also been in contact for professional reasons before Cobra Kai premiered.
“After the movie, there was a long chunk of time. We connected through a little bit of work and a little bit of fandom. Billy would say, “Can we ever go back and bring these characters together?” He had ideas. And now we look really smart,” said the actor.
To learn more about Morita’s life, watch the documentary More Than Miyagi, available to purchase on February 5.