Friday, November 25, 2005

Arnold, R.I.P.

How many of you remember the sitcom Happy Days?

You remember that Ron Howard, Anson Williams and Henry "Eyyy! It's The Fonz!" Winkler hung out at a burger joint called Arnold's, in 1950's Milwaukee. Most people remember the joint being run by the jolly Al Molinaro, but the original Arnold was actually a Japanese refugee.

Seeing him was my first introduction to Pat Morita, who's probably best known as the sensei to The Karate Kids. Morita passed away yesterday at the age of 73.

He did more than that, of course. He had a career as a stand-up comedian, and he also got top billing in a few short-lived TV shows, Mr. T & Tina and Ohara. Of course because their plots depended on the Asian-American culture clash, their ratings sufferered from mainstream indifference to Asian-American leads; one wonders if they'd do better in today's anime-saturated climate.

Comedy was an escape for him. He was California-born, not an immigrant, born in 1932. Which meant he became a victim of the American internment policy during World War II, imprisoned in an Arizona camp while recovering from tuberculosis. He later remarked that it was quite a jump, going from an invalid one day to Public Enemy No. 1 the next.

Despite the association with Master Miyagi, Morita should be considered one of those trailblazers (along with Star Trek's George Takei) who proved that Asian Americans could play positive roles outside the martial-arts genre. He'll be missed.