The iconic 1980s franchise The Karate Kid is best known for the relationship between karate master Mr. Miyagi (Noriyuki “Pat” Morita) and his student, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). When the original movie first premiered in 1984, it ended up becoming the fourth-highest grossing film of the year. However Morita was not director John Avildsen’s original choice for the part, according to Mental Floss.
Morita’s Comedic Background Almost Lost Him The Part
According to the 2013 book, The Films of John G. Avildsen, despite being Avildsen’s first choice, producer Jerry Weintrau was hesitant about Morita playing the role of Mr. Miyagi, fearing he was too recognizable as Mitsumo “Arnold” Takahashi from Happy Days.
Morita, whose only facial hair was a distinctive moustache during his 26-episode stint on Happy Days, was born and raised in California, and thus did not have the noticeable Japanese accent the character of Mr. Miyagi did.
Morita, however, was determined to win the role, and eventually came back with a beard and a Japanese accent that he modeled after his uncle’s, which convinced Weintrau to give him the part, according to People. As Morita’s wife, Evelyn, later explained, “When Jerry [Weintrau] saw it, he said, ‘That’s what I want—a goddamn actor,’ not realizing it was Pat.”
Morita, who was 51 at the time, was not the only actor being considered for the role. According to Screen Rant, famed Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in many of Akira Kurosawa’s films, was another contender for Mr. Miyagi; however, he was deemed too serious for the part. Furthermore, according to production coordinator Susan Etkins, the actor “didn’t speak a word of English.”
Also in consideration, according to Screen Rant, was Mako Iwamatsu, who was also from Japan, though he was already committed to starring in another movie, Conan the Barbarian. In the end, director John Avildsen was able to land his first choice.
Other Cast and Crew Had Doubts About Morita As Mr. Miyagi
Even after Morita landed the role, some people on set were still concerned about him playing the part, including co-star Ralph Macchio. In a February 2021 interview on the Life is Short podcast, the actor, who previously starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 hit, The Outsiders, referenced how difficult it was to obtain any role after The Karate Kid franchise was over, due to his association with the iconic Daniel LaRusso.
He then went on to explain how he felt similarly about Morita at the time: “Ironically [that’s] what I felt when they brought Pat Morita in for The Karate Kid. I’m like ‘oh Arnold from Happy Days? This is going to be terrible,’” the 59-year-old actor explained.
In a 2018 Sports Illustrated interview, other actors and members of the movie’s production also expressed their doubt about Morita playing the role. Randy Sabusawa, assistant to director John Avildsen, said, “Pat was an unusual choice.”
Morita’s stunt double, Darryl Vidal, said, “Everyone thought of him as Arnold from Happy Days.”
First assistant director Clifford Coleman explained:
Nobody wanted Pat Morita; he had a horrible background. He was the type of stand-up comic who got up on stage loaded, dirty and foul. He was not Pat Morita the sensei.
Aly Morita, Pat Morita’s daughter, said of the situation:
My dad had come from playing these ching-chong-Chinaman roles. That gets tiring and demeaning and draining. Here was a character who had a past, a history, and there was this wonderful relationship between him and Daniel.
The Karate Kid not only ended up becoming the fourth-highest grossing movie of 1984, it was also the number one most rented movie on video cassette in 1985, based on Billboard’s survey of rentals that year.
Morita went on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Supporting Actor in 1985 for his role as Mr. Miyagi, and went on to star in three more Karate Kid films, including The Next Karate Kid, co-starring Hilary Swank as Julie Pierce.
Pat Morita died in 2005, though Ralph Macchio continues to star as Daniel LaRusso in Netflix’s Cobra Kai. As for Morita’s character, Mr. Miyagi died in 2011, as shown in the Netflix series.