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DHH

David Henry Hwang is a playwright who has been producing plays, musicals and operas for three decades. He won the Tony Award for his play M. BUTTERFLY and also writes for movies and television. This is the second blog where David opens up about his worst career moves and unleashes his Asian Shame.

If you accept the theory that many Asian cultures hit upon Shame as a means of societal control, then you have to hand it to our ancestors. Shame is not only a powerful emotion, it is also incredibly versatile. In my previous blog, I wrote about the most obvious, garden-variety Shame: the kind derived from having betrayed one’s own ideals, and acted in a manner which is immoral, unprincipled or just plain stupid. In my case, this involved penning the 2001 turkey THE LOST EMPIRE. (I have since seen an interview with BATTLEFIELD EARTH screenwriter J.D. Shapiro, apologizing for his turkey. I hope this isn’t shaping up into a trend, because screenwriters complaining about the films made from their movies could rapidly exhaust the capacity of most industrial internet servers.)

Another kind of Shame occurs when one sets out to accomplish a goal which is not inherently shameful, but fails to achieve it. In my case, this experience was compounded by my feeling that I failed to satisfy, or even connect with, one of the most beloved of Asian American actors.

WORKING WITH PAT MORITA

Pat Morita, who achieved international success as “Mr. Miyagi” in the KARATE KID franchise, passed away in 2005. Most Asian Americans can remember him warmly as an APA trailblazer: an Internment Camp and tuberculosis survivor who went on to groundbreaking success as a stand-up comedian, Oscar-, Golden Globe-, and Emmy-nominated actor, and as the star of not only the first Asian American television series (remember MR. T & TINA?) but two more thereafter (BLANSKY’S BEAUTIES? OHARA?). I, on the other hand, am unable to summon such unambiguous memories. Because I worked with the man.

In 1985, Channel 5 in Boston was owned by a company called Metromedia, whose stations eventually evolved into the Fox Broadcasting Network. Channel 5 decided to produce an original play for television, modeled on CBS’ legendary PLAYHOUSE 90 series of the late-1950’s and early-1960’s. At the time, I was 27 and a newly visible Off-Broadway playwright, having had my first four plays, including FOB and THE DANCE AND THE RAILROAD, produced at the Public Theatre in NY. So I was selected to write a one-hour TV play.

I don’t actually remember much about the script I ended up penning, except that it involved a marriage between a Japanese American man and a Caucasian woman. The station seemed happy with my work, and began plans for production. When I met the director, however, his first comment about my teleplay was, “Well, at least we have a script.” At the time, I had only written plays about Chinese Americans; he joked that I was expanding my range by writing about Japanese Americans, ha ha. These did not strike me as good signs.

Sure enough, the director brought in a friend of his, an older Caucasian writer named Fred, to rewrite my script with me. Fred was a very nice man and a perfectly good writer, though neither of us had much in the way of film or TV credits. He no doubt found his job as uncomfortable as I did. But we got along and tried to work together as best we could.

The show was cast with Cloris Leachman as the wife, opposite Pat Morita, who was just coming off the gargantuan success of the first KARATE KID movie. With a hot-as-a-pistol Asian American actor coming onto the project as the “heavy element,” I had hopes that he, at least, would understand what my script was trying to achieve. As rehearsals began, however, I started to get this strange feeling: was it my imagination, or was Pat totally dismissing my contributions, both on paper and in discussions, consistently deferring instead to Fred? This became one of those difficult productions, with Fred and I up until 3 am struggling to deliver new pages for the following morning. As the days dragged on, my suspicions intensified: Pat would glance cursorily over my pages with what I took to be a look of disdain, before turning to Fred: “What do you think?” Now, it’s possible Pat was correct — that my writing was always inferior to Fred’s. That is, of course, a difficult explanation for me to accept. Added to the somewhat dismissive tone he took regarding my Off-Broadway plays, I eventually came to a different conclusion: he thought of me as someone who had gotten this job based on my ethnicity, and whose talent and abilities were therefore suspect.

The show, eventually titled BLIND ALLEYS (because it’s set in a bowling alley, get it? I swear, that wasn’t my title) aired on Metromedia’s stations; it was neither a great success nor a terrible disaster. I didn’t watch the program myself. Three years later, I achieved a Broadway success with my play M. BUTTERFLY. When I would run into Pat, he would embrace me warmly and talk about working together again. But I just couldn’t return those feelings. From time to time, I’m asked by a reporter or student, “Have you ever felt patronized or discriminated against as an Asian American in your field?” I usually give some vague reply, but inside I’m thinking, “Yes, once. By a TV director – and Pat Morita.”

I think about the life Pat led, the insults he must’ve had to swallow, the self-hatred that must have resulted – a tiny portion of which may have splashed my way. And I wish I could’ve done better, that I could somehow have figured out how to work effectively in that situation. But I couldn’t. I wish I could remember Pat with unambiguous affection. But I can’t. And so, I feel Ashamed.

25 Comments

  1. Hmm…2 things.

    1. Have you ever spoken to Morita about this. He may not even be aware of his actions or even have other albeit regretful reasons for turning to Fred. If you’re willing to blog this, you should be able to talk to him directly bout it.

    2. Isn’t Morita just a jerk in real life who smokes a lot of weed anyway? That’s what I heard anyway so take that with a grain of salt. or msg, bahahahah.

  2. Good to hear all sides. Justin had the opposite experience.
    http://youoffendmeyouoffendmyfamily.com/vegas-and-the-hip-nip/

  3. To be fair to Mr. Morita, it’s human nature to cast a more critical eye towards your “own kind” than others. Perhaps he perceived something in you (rightly or not) that he was uncomfortable with in himself. Or maybe he was just a douche. Or maybe it had nothing to do with race (I would get along better with a white liberal than an asian conservative). The possibilities are many.

  4. I guess someone didn’t read the part that Morita passed away.

    Five years ago.

  5. Fuck David, I love your posts.

    I love how you have the balls to tell it how it is, was, and will be for many.

    I am so Offended in the best possible ways…

  6. Thanks, Darcie, for referring me to Justin’s post about Pat. I’m glad to learn that Justin and those who commented had such positive experiences with him. I think Pat was probably like us all: a complicated human being with many sides. Reading about his warmth and generosity helps me find some closure with my own memories. So I can say: Thank you for everything you were, Pat. And Rest In Peace.

  7. In comparing the two stories, I think what was missing was a few (or many) drinks.

    I’ve never met the guy, but I do remember hearing his moving speech at a Japanese-American Veterans event, talking about his experience in the camps making him feel uncomfortable about being Japanese-American.

  8. I think the differences between these two experiences with Pat was the amount of years between them. When David interacted with him, he had just been nominated and was at the “height” of his career. On the other hand, when Justin met him, it was many years later and he was at the twilight of his career and life. Maybe the long road humbled him. Either way, we go through our fits sometimes, professionally and privately. Nobody’s perfect.

  9. i fail to see how this is a career mistake. the show eventually aired after all, albeit — compromised.

    not everybody has to get along, but boy would I have loved to share a joint or a drink with Pat!

  10. Thanks for sharing, David. Can’t wait to read the next installment which I’d like to let the readers know is coming soon. Having never worked with Mr. Morita I can’t speak to that experience, but I think I and many of my fellow Offenders who work in this biz have had our most difficult experiences not with the “white man” but with other Asian Americans so David’s experience is not an uncommon one.

  11. Sounds like an honest recounting.

    I’ve had some interesting encounters with API names in our small universe, our allotted slice-of-the-pie in the Industry. They’ve all be interesting. Some good and some typically shallow, egomaniacal and insecure.

    Sounds honest.

  12. Well, I actually think it might be a function of age. If presented with an older writer and and younger one of any ethnicity, I think the tendency would be to defer to the older one, because of experience level, taste, and having bigger credits.

    Of course, I think I’d also be hurt as you were. The self-hatred is real.

    My theory is that in mixed race company, it’s kinda like jockeying for status….I’m the top Asian American dog here!

  13. David – Thanks for the post and being unafraid of airing our dirty laundry.

  14. It’s deep to see a person from all angles. Thanks for the recollection.

  15. Aloha David,

    I had a kind of parallel experience to yours. Pat was harsh, but he was honest and FUNNY!

    I was hired to work as a kind of ethnic “script doctor” to “Mr. T. and Tina” when everyone knew it was failing, brought in by Jimmy Komack, the famed producer, when the “token ethnic” on the writing staff (playwright Momoko Iko) INSISTED a younger, funny writer be brought in and named me. I was on staff for about two weeks and it totally depressed me, as everything I wrote would be scurrilously, rudely dismissed by the mostly Jewish comedy writers, who kept citing their creds on “Your Show of Shows” and “Lucy” and such. “Shuddup, kid–you don’t know FUNNY!” they kept yelling at me through cigar smoke in the staff meetings.

    Tired of this treatment, I ditched one afternoon, holding my chin in my hands as I sat on a curb outside the staff room at ABC where the show was taping. Morita came out, twirling his berety, freshly showered from his dressing room. He said, “What’re YOU doin’ here–aren’t you supposed to be a the staff meeting?”

    I nodded and said nothing.

    He looked at my face, then said, “You really hate this, kid, don’t you?”

    I said, “Yeah.”

    “What do you love, then?”

    I said, “Poetry.”

    “Whyn’t you do that then?”

    “Because you can’t make money doin’ poetry.”

    “Hell, ya think comedy makes money? I worked for 20 years in North Beach opening for strippers, became an alcoholic for comedy. But I LOVED IT! You gotta do it for LOVE, kid. You oughtta do your POETRY, then.”

    I had to admit, he had a point.

    “Besides,” he said, “You ain’t FUNNY!”

    I didn’t quit the next day, but about a week after that, taking my earnings and flying back to Seattle, where I was living, paid my bills, paid my rent for 6 months, my girlfriend’s rent, bought a lot of books and tapes (no CDs yet), and read poetry like a fiend.

    In 6 months, I was in an MFA program at Irvine, studying poetry.

  16. That’s a brilliant story, Garrett, thank you for sharing it! An added bonus is learning that Momoko worked on T & TINA.

  17. The flip side to the story is that he met with me later that month–at Musso & Franks on Hollywood Blvd.–offering to buy my script for “Nisei Bar & Grill,” my still unfinished play about Hawaiian Japanese marooned in Chicago after WW II. I had no idea where it should go, what I was doing, how drama worked (obviously). So, I declined. He wanted it for an episode of “Mr. T and Tina.”

    “You know,” he said. “Maybe T goes out to a bar on a bad night and meets these raucous Hawaiians! It could be funny!”

    I was so proud in those days, I refused to let him pick up the check, though I was broke.

    I think the idea kicked around Komack & Co. for a while and, when I saw “Cheers,” I thought it was my bar set in Boston with non-ethnic regulars. And, it was a better script too! Probably a total coincidence, actually.

    Later, one of Pat’s daughters was a student of mine in a workshop I taught at the Japanese American National Museum. It was a good, karmic circle that life drew around me.

  18. Thank you David. Thank you Garrett (Sensei). Your honest revelations allow for a broader understanding and meaning of what it takes to be an Asian American artist, especially when at a crossroads in your professional life. You both met my father at very different periods of his career–while much of his personality always remained the same, there was so much he had to adjust to as the trajectory of his career took off. He was never really prepared for the kind of fame he had during the Karate Kid heyday. And he was never really a good Asian American rolemodel–he was a decent Jap comic, a pretty good actor, but really he might have been an old Jew or Black man at heart.

    And, David, I remember “Blind Alleys” vividly! It was one of the few family trips we took that was actually fun! 😛 And I still adore Cloris Leachman to this day!

    Thank you for posting this…xo

  19. Pat Morita sort of falls within the confines of other actors of color and artists of color from that time period. In reality, he is like all artists. You spend an entire life to produce one memorable piece of work that will outlast you.

    One of the things is that everything moves slowly in terms of ethnicity and popular culture. Sammy Davis Jr wasn’t exactly considered a poster child for the Black Power movement. Neither was Louis Armstrong who also had a sort of tempered reaction towards things. We still remember then. We often forget the negative discourse surrounding them.

    What must be clarified is this: people remember the Miyagi character. The other stuff will not be remembered with the exception of maybe Happy Days. Even then, that work doesn’t carry as much as the Karate Kid film. Happy Days is not really known beyond TV Channel. African American students, Latino students, White students, oh hell a student from Kenya: they all know this character. They can quote the lines from the film.

    As artist, we often try to produce the ONE good thing. Most artists do not achieve the one good thing. Pat Morita did it.

    Everyone knows the phrase, “Wax on; Wax off.” It is part of the popular culture now. We must honor what has been achieved. No one is perfect. No one can maintain that label. To think so, is irrational.

  20. Aly, thank you for accepting my memory with such generosity and grace. I’m so happy to learn that “Blind Alleys” was a fun experience for you! Taken together, this seems to have turned into an opportunity to commemorate a great AA artist and a complete human being. Whatever mistakes I made working with Pat, I was lucky to have had the experience.

  21. David’s testimony reveals a great tragedy in the Asian-American experience, which more often than not sadly gets rationalized rather than addressed, or simply gets dismissed as idiosyncratic or eccentric behavior. There is a Stockholm syndrome like behavior among some Asian-Americans to treat other Asians / Asian-Americans with contempt if not outright hostility regardless of talent or ability all the while showing a greater deference to their non-Asian counterparts. I find the behavior similar to Asians who preferably marriage non-Asians while adamantly denying race was a factor in an attempt to gain greater acceptance and legitimacy into mainstream culture.

    verumestmortuus[at]yahoo[dot]com