Inside Pat Morita’s Battle with Spinal Tuberculosis

Pat Morita

Getty Pat Morita strikes a pose at the Democratic National Convention in 2000.

The late actor Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, who passed away in 2005, is best known for his portrayal of Daniel LaRusso’s sensei in the 1984 film The Karate Kid. However, despite starring in the iconic movie, Morita had a difficult life. As an adult, he struggled with his sobriety and career as an actor, as noted by his daughter Aly Morita in a 2010 essay she penned for Hyphen Magazine

In the same essay, she noted that her father’s childhood was also less than idyllic. She stated he “spent his childhood in a body cast after contracting spinal tuberculosis,” in 1934.  An article titled “Spinal tuberculosis: A review,” published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, noted the disease “is a destructive form of tuberculosis,” which often causes the “destruction of the intervertebral disk space and the adjacent vertebral bodies, collapse of the spinal elements, and anterior wedging leading to kyphosis and gibbus formation.”


Morita Was In a Sanitarium During His Childhood

Black and white photo of Pat Morita

LOVE PROJECT FILMSPat Morita waves to the camera.

According to a 1967 Stars and Stripes article, Morita was initially diagnosed with the disease as a toddler and stayed at the Weimar Sanitarium located in Colfax, California. The actor disclosed to the publication, he found ways to entertain himself during his time at the sanitarium.

“I had to find things to laugh at. We used to throw spitballs at the ceiling to try to make them stick,” said Morita. 

The Los Angeles Times reported that while at the facility,  an “Irish chaplain named Father Cornelius O’Connor expanded Morita’s name to Patrick Aloysius Ignatius Xavier Noriyuki Morita,” resulting in his nickname Pat. 

In 2005, Gold Country Media reported that he was eventually “transferred to the San Francisco Shriners Hospital.” At this location, he received “experimental bone grafts to promote spinal fusion,” which enabled him to fully recover from the debilitating illness. 


After Morita Recovered He Lived In an Internment Camp

Pat Morita and Hilary Swank

Getty1994 Noriyuki “Pat” Morita As Mr. Miyagi And Hilary Swank As Julie Pierce In “The Next Karate Kid.

Morita was deemed healthy and could walk in 1943. However, he was swiftly taken to an internment camp where his parents, who were Japanese immigrants, had been held, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. 

“I cried for four days. I was so homesick for the doctors and nurses,” explained the actor to the publication in 1986. 

Morita recounted the experience while speaking to the Television Academy.

“The war was on and so I was escorted from the hospital by an FBI guy to join my parents at an internment camp in the middle of Arizona and I, you know, what did kids know about wars, you know? I was happy to be walking. They said this kid would never walk and I felt like I was some kind of a big deal because an FBI guy carrying [me], I, mean being, escorted,” explained the actor.

He noted that he was initially taken to the “Gila River internment center” and implied that he disliked the term “internment center.”

“Uncle Sam and we Americans, we like to use euphemistic words or invent words if we think certain — certain words are too harsh. So they called him relocation centers they were — they were American’s version of concentration camps,” said the actor. 

Morita revealed that his family eventually relocated to Camp Tulelake to be closer to his maternal grandfather.

To find out more about Pat Morita’s professional and personal life, check out the new documentary More than Miyagi, available to purchase on February 5.

READ NEXT: Pat Morita’s Death: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know

 


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