Pat Morita was a stand-up comedian and actor. He had recurring roles on SANFORD AND SON and HAPPY DAYS before landing his most notable role as Mr. Miyagi in THE KARATE KID films; the first of which earned him an Academy Award nomination in 1985.
It’s because of Pat’s A-list status that initially made getting him on ADVENTURES WITH KANGA RODDY a little difficult for co-creator George Chung. However, once they bonded over their shared love for Redd Foxx and a guarantee for creative control over his character, Pat became just as enthusiastic about the show.
Photo courtesy of Lee Armstrong
“He said, ‘These young kids are doing this show. It’s so great,’” recalled Erin Morita, Pat’s eldest daughter who visited him on set. “‘So they’re young people, young adults, who have this great idea to do educational stuff for kids.’”
While the role of Uncle Pat was created for him, this wasn’t the first time that he was given that kind of creative control. Erin explained how when he got cast as Mr. Miyagi, he worked with the producer to flesh out the character more, by incorporating traits of the old men who befriended him, while incarcerated in the Gila River and Tule Lake internment camps.
“When they created a character for him for KANGA RODDY, he was really excited to have that kind of experience again; something where he could contribute himself,” she said.
Photo courtesy of Allison Langley
Despite being – in puppeteer Kamela Portuges’ words – “the big fish in the little pond,” the show gave way an opportunity for Pat to learn. When first running through his lines with Portuges as puppet character, Shakespeare the bookworm, he was doing it without her. It wasn’t until she told him that they need to work together that he realized otherwise.
“I don’t think he really worked with puppets that much or if he has, then I was not aware of it,” she explained. “It was never introduced. We just started working, and after that, we would improv, we would do whatever, and it was quite delightful to work with him, with regards to the scenes that we did.”
Apart from playing the friendly bookseller, Pat also voiced the snow monkey master of Kanga Roddy. For Kerra Rodda, Erin’s daughter and Pat’s only granddaughter, she remembers him more so as that character.
Photo courtesy of Lee Armstrong
“I more remember the monkey character because I didn’t recognize him at first and just thought he looked familiar, and then I eventually figured it out,” she recalled.
Rodda was only a preschooler when KANGA RODDY was on the air, and she and a friend were big fans of it.
“They would sit and watch it and Kerra’s friend also called [Pat] Jiichan and my mom Baachan, because that’s what Kerra called them,” Erin reflected. “So I remember being in the other room, in the kitchen or something, and hearing them squealing, ‘Oh look! There’s Jiichan!’”
Both Pat and Erin were particularly excited when Rodda and her older brother, Cameron, met Kanga Roddy while visiting the set.
Pat’s enthusiasm came about from not only having his family there, but also from being in an environment where he got to work with kids.
“After working on big budget films, he liked that these were young people who weren’t that experienced, who were working on a labor of love,” Erin explained. “For him, it was like the [athletes] who say that they want to go back and rediscover the love of the game. For him, I remember him talking about that that was a really fun part; being with people who didn’t have a big budget and they didn’t have a lot of experience, but they have a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of love for what they were doing, and that it was just really fun for him to be around that energy.”
Erin believes that it’s this same appeal for interacting with the younger generation that also led to him being cast in Nickelodeon’s THE MYSTERY FILES OF SHELBY WOO and in Disney’s MULAN that same era.
“Kids were his people,” she added. “If he could have chosen to only work with kids, I think he would have chosen to do that.”
Photo courtesy of Allison Langley
However, for actor Cori Laemmel, she was initially intimidated by Pat, for his intense focus and keeping the kids in line. But much like his character on KANGA RODDY, she does recall advice he bestowed on her when she was having a rough day; advice that has stuck with her since then.
“There’s this thing that happens to boxers called cauliflower ear, because they get hit in the ear so often, the cartilage grows up in the ears and turns really puffed,” she remembered him saying. “It doesn’t look great, but it doesn’t have much pain involved due to the cartilage in their ears.
“When you perform, you kind of have to grow a cauliflower heart, and you have to get to a point where you can be tough, even when you don’t feel so tough.”
When not filming for the show or spending time with his Carmel-based family, Pat would get into mischief in downtown San Jose with co-star James Harris. The two became really close, with Harris taking on the role as his unofficial handler.
“He would be in the elevator, and he’d act all senile,” he recalled. “He would just try and throw people off. People would be like, ‘Is he okay?’”
Pat would skip dinners with VPs and play pool with Harris (or “Jamie Boy” as he called him), occasionally putting on the Mr. Miyagi voice just for kicks. These instances would often result in crowds surrounding them.
“You’d be at the movie theaters with this guy, and people would be jumping over the seats to come say hi to him,” Harris added.
Photo courtesy of James Harris
In the 20 years since KANGA RODDY first aired, Erin looks back on the effect of its mission, as well as its timeliness.
“I think that it would still be relevant today, and maybe even more so given the social and political climate today,” Erin contemplated. “What [Rodda] was saying about learning to play on the playground together or cooperate, that’s something they can bring to Congress.”
For Rodda, she doesn’t have too many thoughts about KANGA RODDY, but is disheartened by the growing number of people in the younger generation who don’t know who her grandfather was. While she enjoyed watching him on the show, she more so connects him to his role as the Emperor of China in MULAN (which is also having its 20th anniversary this year).
“That’s also, I think, one of the more important roles for me, because he also did the voice for the emperor in the video game, KINGDOM HEARTS [II],” she elaborated. “MULAN was always really important to me, but the movie feels a little more distant, as you consume it as an audience. In the video game, you’re participating, so it somehow felt like being closer to him.”