Pat Morita recalls his first day on the Happy Days set. They’d gone through rehearsals and were getting closer to the live taping when one of the producers came over in near hysterics.
The performance wasn’t working. It was getting laughs but not as big as they’d hoped at the dress rehearsal. So, show creator Gerry Marshall stopped by and told the California-born Morita to pick an accent. Morita searched for the funniest one he had that would seem believable and went with a cook he worked with at a Chinese restaurant. Morita says being an actor means paying attention to the world around you, he told the Television Academy Foundation. It’s also about taking advantage of those small moments that may lead to larger ones.
“They’re elements that come out of some ethereal place that that if you get a little nudge in the right direction something chemistry-wise happens.”
For example, Morita wasn’t meant to be on Happy Days originally. Heading into the third season, ABC had a list of demands for the show. One being Fonzie needed to move into the Cunningham’s home and another being the audience needed to meet Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi, owner of Arnold’s diner.
Pat Morita Was Almost Fired For Not Being Chinese
Pat Morita also recalls a moment later that third season when it all almost ended for Arnold. Morita, who is of Japanese descent, had given Arnold a Chinese accent. For no particular reason other than he thought it would get it a laugh.
About five weeks later, a Happy Days producer stops by his dressing room with some bad news. He was going to be fired as Arnold.
“During that time element we were getting all these on college campuses, you know ‘Mexicans can’t play Asians’ and ‘Asians can’t play Indians.’ and there was his so-called yellow power,” he said. “… And standards and practices says it’s a new policy, and I’m sorry. But because Arnold is Chinese and you’re Japanese, you can’t play him. … That’s when the actor’s survival instinct kicked in.”
They hadn’t given Arnold a last name in the scripts. Morita created a backstory on the spot for Arnold that explained why he had a Japanese last name but a Chinese accent. Arnold’s mother, who was Chinese, fell in love with a Japanese soldier during World War II. His father died in combat, and his mother moved them to Milwaukee to a Chinese enclave there.
“They looked at each other and said ‘OK, works for me,'” and Morita stayed on the show. Even though none of that backstory made it into Happy Days.