By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer
Miyagi Sensei would have been pleased.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of “The Karate Kid,” cast and crew members from the 1984 box-office hit gathered to reminisce on Sept. 9 at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo.
A screening of the movie, which elicited cheers from the audience, was followed by a panel discussion featuring actors Ralph Macchio, Billy Zabka and Martin Kove, and director John Avildsen, who also directed “Rocky” (1976).
The late Pat Morita, who received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Mr. Miyagi, was represented by his daughter Aly. Also present were Morita’s daughter Tia, wife Yuki, and many other relatives, plus Tamlyn Tomita, who starred in “The Karate Kid Part II.”
The moderator was Jared Cowan of L.A. Weekly, who earlier this year wrote an article titled “How a Movie Shot in the San Fernando Valley Made Us All ‘The Karate Kid.’”
The film centers on Daniel LaRusso (Macchio, who was 22 at the time), who moves with his mother (Randee Heller) from the East Coast to San Fernando Valley. At school, Daniel befriends Ali (Elisabeth Shue) and gets bullied by her ex-boyfriend Johnny (Zabka) and other members of the Cobra Kai dojo, taught by Kreese (Kove). Miyagi, the maintenance man at Daniel’s apartment building, becomes Daniel’s mentor and teaches him karate. In the end, Daniel and Johnny face off at a karate tournament.
Avildsen said that when he first received Robert Mark Kamen’s screenplay, he wondered if the film would be mocked as “The Ka-rocky Kid.” But he disagreed with those who see “Karate Kid” as just a “Rocky” knockoff. “It’s a very different movie. This is the story of a surrogate father that everybody wanted to have. It’s a much more touching story than ‘Rocky.’ In many ways it has a lot more emotion.”
Macchio, who had previously appeared in the TV show “Eight Is Enough” and the movie “The Outsiders,” noted that Avildsen videotaped all the “Karate Kid” auditions and rehearsals. “Years later when he sent me that audition tape of my first reading and he intercut it with Pat’s, I looked at that and said … ‘I was just that kid.’ Even then I was just Daniel LaRusso way before I had any idea who he was and what he was. It was just the right time, the right role, the right actor, the right place, the right story.”
Videos of the auditions and rehearsals can be viewed on Avildsen’s YouTube page.
At the time, Morita was best known for playing the owner/operator of Arnold’s Diner on the sitcom “Happy Days.” Avildsen recalled that Morita was the first person brought in by casting director Caro Jones for the role of Miyagi. “I had no idea who he was. I’d never seen ‘Happy Days’ and I had no preconceived conception about Pat Morita.”
Avildsen was “knocked out” by Morita’s audition. “I ran into the producer and I said, ‘We got him. This guy is terrific. We don’t have to look anymore.’ He said, ‘Who are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Pat Morita.’ He said, ‘Give me a break. Pat Morita, he’s a comic, he’s not an actor. We need a real actor for this.’ So we blew about two weeks looking at a lot of other people, and finally they decided to give Pat a proper screen test — and there wasn’t a dry eye.”
Macchio said he initially had the same reaction as the producers. “But when I met with Pat for our first reading, it was evident there was a sort of soulful magic. For me … it was just fluid and seamless. The scenes just seemed very natural and easy to do … I was watching it tonight and still there’s so many magical moments.”
Macchio and Morita did two “Karate Kid” sequels and stayed in touch long after that. “We maintained the relationship and the friendship throughout the years … Years later when we looked at each other, there was sort of an unspoken connection that we knew what we had together, that onscreen partnership, and I think there’s a great deal of respect there both ways,” Macchio said.
Aly Morita remembered her father as “a complicated man, but a consummate entertainer. He was comic at heart. He was hard worker. He loved making people laugh. He was a great daddy. He loved his family very much. But I think sometimes after ‘Karate Kid’ and he was doing movies, he had a difficult time balancing both.”
The role “came after years of struggle,” she said. “He was an out-of-work actor. He had done ‘Happy Days’ and he had his own show, ‘Mr. T and Tina,’ for a very short time … For Asian American actors, there weren’t that many parts out there for them. He just rose to the occasion and embraced this role of Miyagi with everything he had.”
The character, who came from Okinawa and served in the Army during World War II, incorporated “his father, his brother, the 442nd, so many strong, tough, vulnerable, hard-working Japanese American men that he knew growing up,” Morita said. “I think he tried to take their essence and become Miyagi.”
Asked if Morita actually knew karate, his daughter said, “Not at all. My sister and I sort of joked, ‘You’re going to be in “The Karate Kid?” What are you going to do?’”
But like Miyagi, “he did love the mentor role … My dad took many people under his wing … He had many people who he tried to help over the years,” she said.
Aly Morita visited the set and was present during the Halloween party scene in which Daniel’s costume is a shower curtain. “My sister remembers going on set and her school was really close to where they were shooting, so she would be doing her homework sitting in my dad’s chair while they were filming.”
When her father got the call — at 5 a.m. — that he was an Oscar nominee for best supporting actor, “my parents woke us up and they were elated. The phone didn’t stop ringing. It was just absolute disbelief, too. ‘What? He was nominated for an Academy Award?’ That was crazy.”
Morita remembered going to the ceremony with her parents and sister “in our ’80s finery,” outfits that would not be fashionable today.
The Oscar went to another Asian American actor, Haing S. Ngor, for “The Killing Fields,” but the nomination marked a turning point in Pat Morita’s career.
The Bad Guys
Zabka, whose only acting experience at the time was in commercials, recalled, “Pat did kind of mentor me … He called me B.Z. from the first day and I called him Uncle Pat. He was a really soothing, funny, generous, genuine guy.”
For a scene where Johnny and his gang attack Daniel, “I wasn’t projecting loud and Pat pulled me aside and said, ‘B.Z., when you do rehearsals, you’ve gotta give 110 percent. That way when the camera’s rolling, it’s like bread and butter.’” Zabka took that advice but went a little too far, accidentally hitting Macchio for real.
Johnny’s sensei, Kreese, reflected Miyagi’s philosophy that there are no bad students, just bad teachers. Zabka said that Kreese encouraged Johnny’s bad behavior because “when you have somebody behind you as a mentor, right or wrong, you get empowered.” Only at the end does Johnny realize that Kreese is leading him down the wrong path.
“The character I created was someone who in high school and college … was a great champion, then when he went to Vietnam, unfortunately he wasn’t allowed to win, like a lot of our boys,” Kove said. “… When he came back, he vowed that he would never lose and none of the Cobra Kai would ever lose under any circumstances. He created the dojo and ultimately that was his motto, that winning and being triumphant was the most important thing in life. Karate was an offensive sport, not a defensive art.”
For the fight scenes, Macchio said, “One thing I will say about John Avildsen is when he wants something, he gets it. He was very steadfast in making sure I looked good at karate … We rehearsed that 10,000 times, but it pays off so well … Pat Johnson, who played the referee in the movie, did all the martial arts choreography and trained all of us. He would train me separately in the Okinawan style.”
Avildsen said of Darryl Vidal, who is credited with creating the movie’s iconic crane kick, “I was looking at a lot of karate tournaments when I was casting for this, and I saw this guy and nobody came close.”
Vidal, who was in the audience, explained, “The writer had this concept where Daniel gets his leg injured, so he has to stand on one leg and do the final kick … In martial arts circles [they say] ‘He couldn’t have invented that. That’s an old kick’ … Yes, there’s a kick called a double-jump kick … but what I believe is that this whole part here is something I made upon their request. The other part is a kick that’s in every system.”
Though he is a martial artist and not an actor, “I’m Mr. Miyagi [doing the crane stance] on the beach, and in the tournament you can see me, the only Asian guy, jumping around,” Vidal said.
The movie was supposed to end with a confrontation between Kreese and Miyagi in the parking lot. “But after I shot that moment with Daniel being carried off and the kick being so successful … I said I don’t think we need that scene in the parking lot, it’s not going to top what we just did,” Avildsen said. “I think the movie ought to end with him being carried off.”
The Kreese-Miyagi face-off became the first scene of “The Karate Kid Part II,” also directed by Avildsen.
When it was suggested that Daniel and Miyagi should be seen together at the end, Avildsen compromised with a final shot of Miyagi smiling. “It worked because of Pat’s terrific acting, He was so subtle in this thing. It was so reserved, he held back, he just did a great job.”
A key scene is when Daniel finds Miyagi drunk and wearing his old Army uniform. As Miyagi sleeps, Daniel learns from newspaper clippings and a telegram that Miyagi’s family was interned, and that his wife died in childbirth in camp while he was serving with the 442nd.
“One of the other editors said we don’t really need that scene, it slows everything down … I thought it was a pivotal scene, it was the love scene between these two guys,” Avildsen said. “Fortunately, it prevailed and I think that was the scene that caught the Academy’s attention and cinched the nomination for Pat. He was just perfect in that scene. It’s probably the most touching scene in the movie.”
Macchio added, “I’m often asked, ‘What is your favorite moment, your favorite line?’ It’s difficult because there so many great moments in the film, but that scene, we knew when we were shooting … that the scene had another level of depth. Watching it as years have gone on, I learn more each time from that scene.”
After making sure Miyagi is safely in bed, Daniel turns and bows before leaving the house. “My eyes are filing with water, it’s such a beautiful moment,” Macchio said. “It takes the movie up to the level where it is renowned for being what it is.”
Aly Morita, who noted that her father was interned at Tule Lake and her mother at Manzanar, agreed: “That scene in particular it gives so much depth to his character. I guess without that scene he could sort of be a caricature, but because of that scene it gives him a past, it gives him a history. He’s a decorated soldier of World War II, he had a family that was in the internment camps … He was channeling again all of those experiences, all the history that he grew up knowing, what he had gone through himself. Certainly he felt like this was a moment that may never come again …
“I think within Japanese American families, it’s something that’s not really talked about. So to be able to see that on the big screen and for all of America to learn about this chapter of our history, it so resonates for me … It’s an important moment in film history, too.”
Although there are many 30th anniversary screenings this year, Macchio said it was important for him to attend the one at JANM. “The way this film takes these two cultures and puts it together and enlightens in such a big way, in such a commercial and a mainstream way — it’s quite beautiful to even witness at this point.”
Regarding his last memories of his mentor, Macchio said, “As the years went by, I learned a little more about who Pat Morita was. Fortunately for me, about a year before he passed he was given a lifetime achievement [award] in New York City … There was a tribute to him at Lincoln Center and he asked that I present the award to him, and I had the opportunity to explore further elements in his life and I also got to say basically anything I would have ever wanted to say to him. It was quite a special moment for me and the audience, so I’m really grateful for having had that.”
At the close of the program, Aly Morita presented the Army uniform that her father wore in the film to JANM President and CEO Greg Kimura, Board of Trustees Vice Chair Wendy Shiba, and New Leadership Advisory Council President Kira Teshima.
“We believe that it deserves a good home and we are entrusting it to the Japanese American National Museum because it doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to everybody,” Morita said.
Kimura pledged to “treasure and steward this as well as steward the story of the 442nd Go For Broke battalion and the story of the unlawful and unjust incarceration of over 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.”