Pat Morita thanked M*A*S*H for giving him his first serious role
"We’ve never tried Pat in a role like this before."
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Pat Morita is one of those actors whose characters will forever remain as key entries in the pop culture lexicon. As Mr. Miyagi, he helped turn The Karate Kid into a full-blown franchise, gracing film history with a disciplined mentor with a penchant for metaphor who had generations repeating the phrase "Wax on, wax off" like a serious mantra.
But before we met Miyagi in 1984, Morita had already gifted us with the campy character of Arnold Takahashi on Happy Days, which wrapped production the year before the film debuted. For an actor who had risen up playing two-dimensional characters on sitcoms and dramas like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Sanford and Son, The Bob Newhart Show, The Odd Couple, Columbo, and Hawaii Five-O, Arnold gave Morita a chance to embrace his comedic chops long-term, but what would set him up for The Karate Kid - which got him nominated for an Oscar - was actually a bit role he took on M*A*S*H a year before Happy Days premiered.
On M*A*S*H, Morita played Captain Sam Pak, and we first meet him in the episode "Deal Me Out." He's involved in a poker game with Hawkeye, Klinger and Henry Blake, and though the scene Morita was in provided the lighter fare in a charged episode also starring John Ritter as a disoriented wounded soldier who at one point holds Frank Burns at gunpoint, Morita remembers this role as a banner moment in his career, telling the Archive of American Television, "‘Deal Me Out’ on M*A*S*H was really my first serious role within the spectrum of a so-called comedy show. It was straight-ahead acting. It wasn’t goofy stuff." In the interview he did a little impression of the mannerisms he was known for as Arnold, then continued, saying that on M*A*S*H, "You had to be a real person."
In the interview, Morita recalled the casting call that led to his big chance to prove his dimension as an actor on M*A*S*H. He said there was always tons of competition for these roles, but he went, did his thing, and figured that's the best he could hope. Fortunately, someone involved with casting saw an opportunity in Morita to help him do just that. Morita said, "Somebody saw something [in the audition], like, ‘We’ve never tried Pat in a role like this before.’”
In "Deal Me Out," Morita's character trades barbs with Klinger and battles exhaustion as a game of poker drags on through an otherwise intense night in the 4077th. Like Harry Morgan, who later deftly handled the balance between comedy and drama that was M*A*S*H's special formula, Morita's Sam Pak is dry, but cutting, as authentic a soldier as any of M*A*S*H's fine dramatic actors who brightened the series out of the shadow of the hit movie that spawned it.
Once the decision was made to cast Morita, the character came back in an episode the next year, "The Chosen People," which was written to center on his character's return visit to the camp. Of his brief time on set, Morita remembered working with the award-winning ensemble cast fondly, saying of his scene with Alan Alda, McLean Stevenson and Jamie Farr in "Deal Me Out": "The guys were a joy to work with.”