Best known for his marijuana-themed Cheech & Chong comedy albums, Tommy Chong continues living life to the fullest. Most recently, the actor, musician, comedian took part in an eye-opening documentary, More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story. Crooked Llama had the privilege to chat with Tommy about his unique relationship with legendary actor Pat Morita. Check it out…
Linda: How did you get involved in the project, Tommy?
Tommy: Well, Pat Morita and I go way back to the beginning of Cheech and Chong actually so that would be the seventies. Early seventies, yeah. You know that little club they talked about, [Red] Foxx’s [Club] on La Cienega? Well, Cheech and I came to town to make it as comics and Red was a friend of mine from my music days. So I called the club and Norma… Red was out of town, of course, and Norma Miller, said, “Yeah, come on down”. So Cheech and I went down and we performed and Sally Mar and Tony (Viscarra), but I don’t think Pat was there that time. He was probably out working, but the whole Sally Marr gang was there.
Sally introduced me to Pat Morita and that was the first time I went over to Pat’s house and he was making a beautiful bookcase, a wood bookcase himself; it was very Japanese, very beautiful. And yeah, that’s the first time I met Pat. We never got that tight [though]. We were like fellow comedians more than anything. [But], the night before I went to prison, I got a call from Pat – the only call I got by the way. I never got a call from my lawyer, I never got a call from Cheech, I never got a call from any of my close friends. I hadn’t seen Pat for years [and] he called me. That’s the kind of [guy he was], he was Mr. Miyagi. He called me and just gave me a beautiful pep talk that I really needed at the time. Because when you’re sentenced to jail, the way I was, for what I was, you don’t ‘really’ think it’s going to happen because I never broke a law. But Pat called me the night before I went to prison. When you’re getting ready to get picked up the next day to go to drive to prison, it kind of sinks in then.
Linda: I’m sure.
Tommy: It’s really going to happen. Pat was such a spiritual super guy. I’m so proud to have known him the way I did.
Linda: That’s excellent to hear Tommy, that’s what we (with producer Oscar Alvarez) were saying… the kind of guy that Pat Morita was especially considering all his struggles. I think most people were unaware of it. He had the capacity to hide it and still go on.
Tommy: Well, I mean, he’s a survivor. I mean, think about it, he could imitate anybody. Being Japanese, it was very hard to do it physically. But vocally and mentally, he had that capacity. Pat could get inside you, he could get inside your mind. And he knew how you thought, he knew the worries you had and everything else. The first day I met him (Pat), Tony Viscarra told me the whole story.
That was the connection that Pat and I had. If you look at my career, you look at Pat’s career, it’s so similar because we’re both very on our own. Pat had been in the hospital, same as me. I was in a hospital since I think I was two years old when my mother got TB and I got pleurisy. I spent a couple of years in a hospital without anybody. My mother was quarantined and so I never really hugged my mother until I was eight years old. You know? So Pat and I, there was a lot of similarities in our life, him being Japanese, me being half Chinese, and then both of us becoming Lenny Bruce disciples, and then both of us being comedians and actors without the formal training. Pat never had it. I never had it. It was just something that we did to survive.
Linda: That’s incredible, I had no idea there was so much similarity between the two of you.
Tommy: Yeah. I mean, because not only was it his personality, it was very Oriental, very stoic. You’re not bragging, you know what I mean? I mean, we did it comedically. But his life, I was so surprised when I saw the movie and I saw the similarities between his life [and] my life. Can you imagine being Japanese during World War II?
I remember my parents, there were certain things they wouldn’t do, because it was Japanese, even though my dad was Chinese, he was in the war. He enlisted in Edmonton, Alberta, when I was just born. I was just a new baby. And he was off to war because in those days when dad went to training camp we went with him. I was a baby, but you know my dad was in training to go to war and this is some serious shit. See, back in the early days, you traveled by railway, period, and boat – there were no direct flights anywhere. You’re on a troopship and you’re going through all that. It was serious stuff. Yeah. And Pat, can you imagine being locked up in the United States, just because he was Japanese, they put him in a concentration camp. I mean, I see that. And I love the fact that after a while he [Pat] couldn’t do the Chinese accent anymore. I laughed so hard at that part [in the documentary] because they’re telling the Japanese guy that he can’t do a Chinese accent. I was so mesmerized by the movie… I just watched it. I was like, wow, I wasn’t expecting that.
Linda: So well done.
Tommy: You know, I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting that usual kind of superficial Pat Morita is a funny guy.
Linda: Is there anything that you want people to know about Pat that they might not know?
Tommy: My dad was like Pat, looked a lot like Pat too. My dad and I never really had any long conversations. In fact, he was a truck driver and he would leave without saying goodbye, you know how people go, “Okay, I’m going. See you later, I’ll call you.. blah, blah, blah.” My dad would never say goodbye. He would just leave. And sometimes he would leave unexpectedly. You turned around, oh, he’s gone. To me it was almost like Pat, like there was never a start and a stop with these guys. You always picked up where you left off. There was none of these sort of empty things that you do. “Hey, how are you doing…what’s up”… small talk. Pat and I, never had small talk. It was almost like a silent enjoyment of each other. It was just being around each other.
Linda: You’re comfortable.
Tommy: Yeah, something just fit. Like Pat, you couldn’t tell one way or another with these guys, they will never get emotional… they’re always in control. And that’s what you’re talking about. His drinking, you know, he had it under control, except when it got out of control.
They kind of said that in the movie (documentary), Pat would go on and do a show and then he would do the same show. He would do the same joke that he just did five minutes ago. They couldn’t understand why people weren’t laughing but that’s what alcohol would do to you. And my dad was a lot like Pat too. He loved to drink. It was the forties, fifties. Alcohol was a necessity. In our home in Calgary, Canada, Christmas time meant that there was a ton of booze. You may not have anything else but you had your stash of booze underneath the bed somewhere or stashed in the closet.
Linda: Oh boy.
Tommy: So yeah, Pat was really out of that alcohol culture. It’s a culture and I grew up with it. But my dad, you couldn’t tell if he was drunk, he just never showed it. I think Pat had the ability to hide it. He had the ability to hide it, to work, as much as you can. But as he got older, he lost that ability.
Linda: I didn’t know a lot of these things about Pat and I look forward to other people’s reactions.
Tommy: Oh yeah. It got me. Not only got me…just because I knew Pat and the Karate Kid, but it was all the rest of the backstory. I mean, oh my God, what he went through and how he did it and his talent. You know, I mean the depth of the guy, when you think about it. I couldn’t believe that movie (documentary). I’m looking at what he did and oh my God, it’s incredible. I can’t wait to show it to my wife and the people here.
A big thank you to Tommy for taking the time to chat. Be sure to catch More Than Miyagi: The Pat Morita Story available now on iTunes, Amazon Prime Video and other streaming platforms.