Award-winning independent filmmaker Oscar Alvarez has brought legendary actor Pat Morita back to life in the recently released documentary More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story. While best known for his role as Mr. Miyagi in the pop culture classic Karate Kid series we are shown that Pat is so much more. Mr. Alvarez opens our eyes in this “painfully revealing autobiographical record of his much-too-brief time here on Earth…”
Crooked Llama had the awesome opportunity to chat with Oscar about his desire to tell Pat’s tale, what he has learned, and the legacy that remains. Check it out…
Linda: What inspired this documentary?
Oscar: It was kind of by accident. Just to go back, the very first documentary we ever did was called Empty Hand: The Real Karate Kids, and we ended up bumping into Sensei Master Fumio Demura, and that was my director’s karate sensei that he had lost touch with. He’s always wanted to do a documentary on his life, so we asked him and he said, yes. Then we started shooting, and that one we called The Real Miyagi because he was the stunt double for Pat Morita for all of the Karate [Kid] franchise movies.
That’s how people get confused, they go, “Didn’t you already do it?” I go, “No, that was the story of the Japanese master who was Pat’s stunt double.” We put it all together and it got into Netflix’s hands and they picked it up for three years. When we had to do a release for everybody, I had to reach out to Pat’s wife to get signed off. So, I had to drive to Vegas and I met her and she was really sweet and we just talked a little bit.
She ended up telling us about this 50-page manuscript that Pat had written. He didn’t complete it when he passed away, but it’s pretty extensive. We heard about it, thought about it, and then my partner and I, Kevin, [asked her] what she was going to do with it? I think she was trying to do a book or she was trying to make it into maybe a movie or a biopic or something like that, but she had no luck trying to get it off the ground. Then we reached out to her and we go, hey, what if we did a documentary on his life? She was like, “Oh my gosh, yeah.” Then I was thrilled because we grew up watching Pat. We put everything together and we were off and we did it. Then you start really learning about his [life]… I didn’t know he was a standup comedian.
Linda: I didn’t either.
Oscar: His mom was his agent. To me, Lenny Bruce, he’s just one of the old-time comedians, especially back in the day. Then I’m thinking, my gosh, to me, comedy is one of the most difficult things to do, besides acting, I think, because you’re right there, you have an audience, and it’s like, everyone’s different every night, it’s hit or miss delivery, and to think that back in the ’70’s or late ’60’s, a Japanese-American guy was killing it on stage and doing amazing. He’s a pioneer and he was ahead of his time. Then you ended up finding out that Gary Marshall did a spinoff just for him, he was so far ahead that I think our world –
Linda: – wasn’t ready.
Oscar: But he paved the way.
Linda: Incredible. All those things you’re talking about, we only knew just a fraction of his life. He didn’t even get into acting until he was what? 30? That absolutely blew my mind.
Oscar: That took a lot of courage for him at that age. First of all, in the Japanese community, even now, I lived in Irvine, which was at one point, for 10, 15 years, where that’s a huge Asian community influence [and] everything is school, doctor [etc]. You don’t tell your parents, hey, I want to go be a comedian in Hollywood. Back in the ’70s, it’s just unheard of. You don’t do it. Like you saw in the doc, he was smart. He was going to go to a certain school and he couldn’t even go to the university that he wanted to go. He worked for the aerospace industry. He was very intelligent, but then to be able to say, hey, I’m going to go get myself a five-year plan and go to Hollywood. People might have thought he was crazy.
Linda: There are some iconic guests weighing in on Pat’s life. Did anybody share a story that you found surprising?
Oscar: I had a chance before, we didn’t get to interview him because he ended up passing away, but we had in the previous documentary, we interviewed John G. Avildsen, who was the director of Rocky and Karate Kid franchises, and he told us a story about how producer, Jerry Weintraub, didn’t want Pat, so that was like a thing, and it was him who advocated for him [Pat], and he was fighting for him, and somehow he slipped in the audition tape one day, and then that’s when Jerry was like, who’s this guy? He looks like a Miyagi or whatever.
Maybe he didn’t recognize him in the moment he started doing the performance, which that shows you right there, that if he was intrigued by his performance, he completely didn’t realize that that was Pat Morita. But when you just say Pat Morita, and he goes, you know the guy from Happy Days, and you go, Arnold? We can’t have a comedian in this. It’s supposed to be like a sensei master, like Japanese Master Sensei Fumio Demura where he looks like Yoda and he’s just intense. I think that, to me, was interesting because I didn’t realize he’s so good. Can you really imagine who else could have-
Linda: No, of course not.
Oscar: That’s my point. Jerry Weintraub apologized, he was about to make the biggest mistake of his life. Welcome to the cast. You are Miyagi. Boom. I thought that was fascinating.
Linda: Do you have a favorite role he played?
Oscar: Yeah. I think, still for me, it’s Miyagi because I think a lot of people, I don’t know if you remember this until you saw the doc, but did you know that he was nominated for an Oscar?
Linda: I did not.
Oscar: That’s what I’m saying. I think people overlook that. Look, it’s already hard enough to be an actor, if you get nominated, to me that’s a win, just to get nominated. Obviously, the icing on the cake is you want to take home the award and win, but the fact that he got nominated, I think people don’t remember that. You know what I mean? Then when you look at the whole thing, I don’t know, just outside the box, just knowing that, because I knew that he was nominated, I always think that that was the role for him. It was it. All things aside, just in his performance and what he did with that, he embodied that character. He was it. My kids are actors, so I know that when a role is meant for you, it’s meant for you.
I always tell them, patience. Have patience. When it’s right, you can’t even explain it. You walk out and then you get the phone call and they go, you got it. I don’t know. I’m sure you saw the taped auditions that John Avildsen streamed together, when we look at that, you just put him in the set, that’s the performance.
Linda: Acting part aside, the documentary highlights his life and his struggles, and another thing that wasn’t clear to me, was just how much alcohol played a role… I wouldn’t have guessed it ran that deep. He hid it so well. The people close to him truly cared about him through it all. Could you talk about that aspect of him?
Oscar: Yeah. I think the thing that I learned is that a lot of people didn’t know and was not aware. He hid it so well. There’s a name for that. Was it like a functioning alcoholic? I think that’s what the thing was, only he knew, and nobody else knew, or if they did know, I don’t know if people really knew though it was that bad, because he hid it so well. I actually had an uncle who was a big-time alcoholic and he lived with us. If I recall, he lived with us for three years, four years, when I was in junior high, so I understand what that’s like, and I know.
Everything that I would hear, it was like I was reliving that with my uncle. I think it’s hard because, and funny enough, that was familiar to me because my uncle was very funny. He wasn’t a standup comedian, but if he went there, I think he could have been because he knew he was a great storyteller. Pat was too. It was this weird thing. When I was doing this documentary with Kevin, it hit home for me.
I’m no one to judge anyone. When you look at everything he went through [for example] I didn’t know about the spinal tuberculosis. What? He has a body cast for 10 years and that he was separated from his family. He gets escorted after that surgery, and he goes over to the German camps, can’t even speak to his family because he doesn’t know Japanese. All of that is insane, and to think that he achieved everything, I’m like, how did the guy not commit suicide?
Linda: Exactly. Most people, can’t handle all that.
Linda: Do you think this documentary is now going to change how people feel about him or look at him?
Oscar: I hope not, because I think we’re all human beings and we need to realize that. Who am I to say all these things, when I haven’t been through that walk of life yet? He got dealt certain types of cards in life, and he had to just deal with that, and that’s that. Was it the right way of dealing with it? I don’t know, but that’s what he had to do to get through it. I don’t know what else to say. No one’s perfect, and if anybody says that they are, come on. Come on.
My job was just to make sure that myself with my director, Kevin Derek, my partner, that we made sure that we were doing our detective work as filmmakers, and making sure that asking everyone the same questions and making sure that everything that we were hearing is true, and that’s it, and to celebrate his life and to tell a story. I really believe that Pat would be proud of this in the sense that if he can help anyone that’s going through the same thing that he’s going through… I don’t know, that’s how I see it.
Imagine if it would have been the flip side. I think he left us a gift that he shared and we got to see his comedy and his talent, and he shared it with the world. What if we’d never saw that? What if we never met Pat Morita? What if he wasn’t that strong and wasn’t that courageous to ever follow it? The fact that the nurses, when he was in the gurney, would say, what do you want to do when you grow up Pat? And he goes, I want to be an actor, and they’re like, you can go a lot further. Can you imagine? That to me, I’m blown away because there could have been a chance, a scenario, where we would have never met Pat Morita.
Linda: We touched upon the people in the Karate Kid movies and now we have Cobra Kai. Regarding Miyagi’s legacy, do you think it’s been handled well?
Oscar: Yeah, I think they’re doing a great job with it. I mean, obviously, if you see how it’s resonating with the whole world, the show’s doing really well. I think they did a great job on capturing… they have obviously our generation that grew up with the original Karate Kid and they’re telling that story. And then they have on the flip side, trying to hit the demographic of the younger [generation], with Daniel’s kids, and etcetera and William Zabka’s kids on the show. But I think they’re doing a great job with it. I like the twist, how they flip the characters and how Zabka’s character is now struggling like Daniel was. I love that whole thing. Daniel’s world right now is falling apart and he wishes that his sensei was there but he’s no longer with him because he’s the guy who has the answers and can bring balance to his world and so forth. And he needs him. And I thought they did a great job when he went back to Okinawa.
Linda: Oh, that was beautiful.
Oscar: So I was happy and to be honest with you, it’s weird because we shot those interviews with Ralph and with William and with Marty Kove back in 2016. And I remember vividly when Zabka said, we have something that’s in the works and they hadn’t announced yet [Cobra Kai], but he already knew it was coming. And then they made the announcement shortly after that. But we could have maybe released this a year before or whatever, and I think it’s just the perfect fit that it just happened right when they were doing that episode. And it just kind of works-
Linda: I think the timing is terrific. I was fortunate to interview William and Ralph at New York Comic-Con shortly after Cobra Kai came out and it’s nice to see everything coming together. And I mean, you talk about the Okinawa scene… I got a little misty-eyed in that part. You can feel his presence in the series. Karate Kid is a classic and I was like, “Oh, please let Cobra Kai be good”. I love it.
Oscar: At the end of the day, everybody, if they haven’t figured it out already, they know that Cobra Kai wouldn’t exist without the original Karate Kid.
Linda: Of course.
Oscar: Without those characters without Miyagi. I mean, when you think of Karate Kid, you immediately say “Wax on, wax off”, “Miyagi” and “Daniel-san”. Period.
Linda: He’s led an amazing life. It’s unfortunate he’s not still around.
Oscar: You know there’s people that still say, “Oh, what is he doing now?” I’m like, “He passed away in 2005”. They don’t even know.
Linda: You’re right.
Oscar: They have no idea. It’s really weird that it almost feels like that when he did pass away, it was kind of like a quick thing like Pat Morita passed away and that was it. Which I think is sad.
Very sad indeed. A big thank you to Mr. Alvarez for taking the time to chat. Be sure to catch More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story available now on iTunes, Amazon Prime Video and other streaming platforms.
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