Don’t get your panties in a bunch! That’s how Pat introduced himself. It was part of his shtick.
Pat was famous for playing Matsuo Takahashi — Arnold that is — on “Happy Days” and, of course, Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid,” for which he garnered an Oscar nomination. “Wax on, wax off.” He milked that line for a few laughs. So did every teenage boy. Pat played many other characters; but, in name only, my favorite was Ah Chu from “Sanford and Son.”
One afternoon in 1980, lolling around my apartment on Almont Drive in Beverly Hills, I got a phone call from my business manager, Marty. He was on a car phone. Not common. You had to be some kind of big shot. Or, in L.A., you had to look like one: cruising in your ragtop, shades on, hair in the wind, schmoozing into a handset. Hello operator, get me 271-5900.
It was a Bell System mobile radio telephone. No direct dial from mobile phones weighing in at about thirty-five pounds. And you didn’t have to give the — always female — operator an area code. You know what? Voice quality was way better.
Marty said he and his buddy Pat, riding shotgun, had no particular place to go. The Chuck Berry tune popped into my head. He asked if they could drop my place. He explained further that he had an ulterior motive. Marty asked if I could set up lights in my living room and shoot a portrait of him and Pat together, to memorialize a moment of shared sorrow and empathy. They were driving west from the courthouse in downtown L.A., where Pat had been to finalize a divorce. Marty drove him there, tagging along to hold his hand.*
Marty and Pat were really close. It quickly became apparent that the bottle of vodka they’d been sharing was close too. I wanted them off the street ASAP. “Come on by,” I said.
I hung up the phone. I took a framed picture off the wall in my living room, so I could have a plain background. I moved some furniture out of the way. I fetched lights from the trunk of my car. I was just about ready, fastening my Hasselblad to a tripod, when the doorbell rang. There they were: Frick & Frack, a little worse for wear.
They acted like there was little time to waste; so I immediately put Marty and Pat shoulder to shoulder in front of the wall. I tweaked the modeling light on my strobe and shot a few Polaroids. I loaded some black-and-white film. I wound through no more than a few frames before Marty excused himself to visit the bathroom, leaving Pat with me alone, a stranger with a camera. I didn’t know much about him; I wasn’t a “Happy Days” fan and this was before “Karate Kid.” He lingered there, for a while, then he began to speak.
Pat told me how Marty was the only guy in the world he could hang out with right now. They just had to have a photograph of themselves together at this moment. Couldn’t wait. Always the comedian, he tried to make me laugh. He tried the Hip Nip routine. He wasn’t convincing. Then he stopped trying to be funny altogether. Instead, he tried to explain how he felt. He began to demonstrate what it would look like to have his head physically twisted and spun around on his shoulders because he was in that much pain. That’s what you see in our portrait. He was not trying to strike a funny pose, nor had I asked him to. At that moment I shot one frame. Then, quietly, he began to weep. I continued to photograph him. Marty came back. Soon, we were all drinking vodka.
My portrait of Pat hung over the bar for a while at one of his, any my, favorite watering holes, the erstwhile Imperial Garden, a restaurant and bar on the Sunset Strip; another Hollywood landmark lost. The last time I saw Pat, we bumped into each other by chance in San Francisco, a year or so before his passing. We ducked into the Palace Hotel for our last cocktail.
* The year of Pat’s divorce from his second wife doesn’t square with a Wikipedia entry and what I recall being told. But a question mark appears with the online reference.
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