It seems unimaginable now, but The Karate Kid producer Jerry Weintraub was dead-set against Pat Morita even auditioning for the role of Kensuke Miyagi, believing he was all wrong for it.
The late Weintraub was so against the idea of a comedian playing the serious role, he had to be ambushed by director John Avildsen with a tape of Morita reading lines to be convinced it was possible.
In an interview unearthed by Heat Vision, Morita, who died in 2005, explained (his speaking voice is nothing like Mr. Miyagi) how he had to test over and over again for Weintraub and studio brass. But in the end, he would land the iconic role that made him a household name. The Karate Kid went on to be a huge hit when it was released 33 years ago, on June 22, 1984.
It all began when Weintraub and Avildsen found their Daniel in Ralph Macchio but weren’t having any luck with Mr. Miyagi. Somehow, Morita — previously a comedian whose largest credit at the time was Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi on Happy Days — was brought up.
Weintraub hated the idea, Morita explained.
“He wouldn’t even consider me for a reading,” he said. “Every time my name came up in the casting process, he was adamant: ‘I don’t want a comic. I don’t want a comedian for this role. This is a heavyweight part. I want an actor.'”
Avildsen (who died June 16) decided he would take matters into his own hands, so a reading with just the two men was scheduled, which Avildsen recorded. At the end of the reading, Avildsen asked Morita if he wanted to take his script because he might need it.
“That’s the first teeny, teeny, teeny glimpse that hey, maybe I got a shot at something here,” Morita said.
During a preproduction meeting days later, Avildsen popped in the tape while Weintraub was talking, surprising everyone. The producer was shocked how good Morita was but still wasn’t sold that the Happy Days actor could hold his own.
“They bring me in five times,” Morita said. “They want to see if I can do it again. Then they bring Ralphie in. … They want to see if there is chemistry. They make us do it again, this time in costume in front of the studio heads. The fifth time, we were on a cold, blank outline stage — no sets, nothing, but in costume — but they shoot it this time for real.”
It was a fight, but in the end, Morita won.
“To Jerry’s credit, he gets on the horn and says, ‘Pat, I almost made the worst mistake of my life. I just want to be the first to congratulate you. You got the part of Miyagi.'”
Morita would go on to be nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for his role as Miyagi in The Karate Kid.
The entire story Morita tells is interesting, but the payoff is at the very end, when he drops into his Miyagi voice and says, “That’s why Miyagi talk like this, because he run out of energy.”