The Hip Nip

A Portrait of Pat Morita

Tom Zimberoff


Noriyuki “Pat” Morita / ©1980 Tom Zimberoff / All Rights Reserved / May not be copied, altered, or reproduced in any manner whatsoever

He was “The Hip Nip.” That’s how Pat Morita billed himself professionally, and that’s how he introduced himself personally. So don’t be offended; it was his shtick.

In addition to standup comedy, Pat gained fame for playing Matsuo Takahashi — Arnold — on TV’s Happy Days and, later, Mister Miyagi in The Karate Kid on the big screen. He earned an Oscar nomination for the latter role and a footnote to American cultural history with his character’s heuristic approach to car care: “Wax on, wax off.” Every teenage boy since 1984 has milked that line for laughs. In the film, of course, it was a lesson about learning itself, how the repetitive practice of one menial task instills discipline, focus, and the ability to master many other skills.

Another one of Pat’s roles was Ah Chu on the TV series Sanford and Son. Few people were concerned about political correctness in 1980, and still fewer Hollywood producers, blithe in their naïveté, made any effort to distinguish one Asian ethnicity from another on screen. For example, Japanese actors were routinely cast to play Chinese characters and vice versa, as often as not with a silly if not offensive name: Ah Chu, indeed! Or how about the several European-American actors who, with affected eyelids, a Fu Manchu mustache, and a dubious accent, perpetuated the Charlie Chan movie franchise!? For actors, it was imperative to “make one’s name” in show business by any means one could, achieving recognition and, thereby, the ability to earn a living as a professional entertainer. Noriyuki became Pat because his real first name was not a good hook to hang his hat on. Considering the indignity of cross-cultural casting, Pat earned his character, the moral kind, the hard way.

As a child, he endured an excruciatingly painful recovery after surgery to beat spinal tuberculosis. Then, immediately after shedding a full-body cast and re-learning how to walk, he was sent to join his parents in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. The experience of being imprisoned and treated as a second-class citizen instilled his determination to be funny because making people laugh earned him favor.

I knew none of that when I got a phone call from Marty LeAnce, my business manager one afternoon. (As a nomadic photographer, living out of…