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‘More Than Miyagi’ film explores complex life of Pat Morita

Updated January 28, 2021 - 10:28 am

As a teenager, Evelyn Guerrero lived with her cousin Lenny Bruce as he battled obscenity charges and a heroin addiction. As an actress, she made a name for herself as Donna in three Cheech & Chong movies. So, it’s perhaps not entirely surprising that the love of her life turned out to be a comedian with sobriety issues.

The shock is that the comedian was Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, the beloved “Happy Days” actor and “Karate Kid” Oscar nominee whose six decades of drinking contributed to his death in Las Vegas in 2005.

For those who didn’t know him, Morita’s alcoholism seems completely out of character. The documentary “More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story,” executive produced by Guerrero-Morita and available Friday digitally and on DVD and Blu-ray, is made for those viewers.

“I wanted his story to be a testament to the resilience of the human spirit,” says the longtime Las Vegan, who relocated to the valley with Morita after they wed here in 1994. “And, at the same time, I wanted to examine the fragility of his life.”

The film is structured around the memoirs Morita began writing but never finished. The last third tackles his alcoholism, a subject Guerrero-Morita was hesitant to include. “I didn’t want it to define him,” she says. “I didn’t want people to walk away and say, ‘Oh, what a sad story.’ ”

But the late actor made her promise to tell his tale — all of it.

“It’s a triumphant story, really,” she says. “Listen, it’s nothing short of a miracle that he was able to overcome those incredible odds and achieve such great success.”

A difficult beginning

After contracting spinal tuberculosis as a 2-year-old, Morita spent the next nine years in hospitals, much of that time immobilized. For seven years, he was in a cast from his shoulders to his knees.

When he was finally released, Morita was taken straight to the Arizona internment camp where his parents were being held. His grandfather ran the camp’s bootleg sake operation, which helped distract the prisoners from their unspeakable conditions. Morita, who would spend three years locked up there, started drinking when he was 12.

“He carried those horrors of incarceration all his life,” Guerrero-Morita says.

The young man’s dreams of medical school were dashed when his help was required in Sacramento, California, at the Chinese restaurant his parents opened — at the time, so soon after World War II, a Japanese restaurant wasn’t commercially viable.

Morita wouldn’t get his start in show business until he was 30, which is when the then-12-year-old Guerrero met the man she would marry.

Her aunt, Sally Marr, Lenny Bruce’s mother, served as a mentor for Morita. Some of his earliest jobs included opening for Guerrero-Morita’s mother, Dee Strang, a burlesque dancer working under the name Dee Dee Cartier.

“It was common to see him coming and going, between my house and my aunt’s house,” she says of Morita. “He was part of the family. If anyone had said to me then, ‘You’re going to grow up someday and marry this man,’ I would have said, ‘You’re crazy! Uncle Pat?’ ”

The Las Vegas years

The two saw each other over the years but didn’t reconnect until the 1992 L.A. riots. Morita called to check on Marr, not knowing she had fled the city. Guerrero-Morita was house-sitting for her, they began talking and went for sushi that night. Two years later, they wed in Las Vegas, where they would eventually make a home alongside her mother and other relatives, as well as famous friends such as Debbie Reynolds, Lance Burton and Siegfried & Roy.

Despite his demons, Guerrero-Morita says, her husband found catharsis in his work. “For years he was the consummate professional. You’d never know that he’d been drinking in his trailer all day.”

Things started to change in 2003, when Morita’s alcoholism made him all but unemployable. She eventually got him into a treatment facility run by Dr. Drew Pinksy, and Morita stayed sober for three to four months. Boredom soon set in, though, and he couldn’t wait to get back to work. In 2004, Morita started performing at the ticketed celebrity brunch that Larry Manetti, of “Magnum, P.I.” fame, hosted at the Plaza.

Guerrero-Morita says she begged her husband not to take the job because of the ready supply of alcohol in the showroom. Despite her best efforts to get the bartenders to ignore him, he paid them off and quickly fell off the wagon. Morita, 73, died Nov. 24, 2005, as a result of kidney failure.

‘Karate Kid’ resurgence

In the ensuing years, Guerrero-Morita tried to get the film that would become “More Than Miyagi” off the ground, but there was little interest.

She revived the project after being interviewed for “The Real Miyagi,” the 2015 documentary about Fumio Demura, the karate master who was Morita’s good friend and “Karate Kid” stunt double. She was so impressed with the work of the film’s director, Kevin Derek, and producer, Oscar Alvarez, she offered them the chance to tell Morita’s story.

The project finally gained momentum, buoyed by the success of “Cobra Kai,” the follow-up series, streaming on Netflix, that stars Ralph Macchio, William Zabka and others from the “Karate Kid” franchise.

“He would have loved it,” Guerrero-Morita says of the series that continues to find ways to honor the Mr. Miyagi character her late husband popularized throughout four films. “Are you kidding me? He would have been so humbled.”

Now, Morita’s full story, the highs and the lows, finally is being told.

“Before he passed away, he made me promise that I would be candid and honest and tell the good, the bad, and the ugly,” Morita-Guerrero says. “He wasn’t concerned about his accolades or his successes. He didn’t want his legacy to just be about that.

“He said, ‘If I can help one poor bastard with this disease, then I would have felt like I did something good, that I left something good on this Earth.’ ”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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