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The unquestionable star of The Karate Kid is Mr. Miyagi. The quiet repair man turned karate mentor steals the show with an endlessly quotable performance and it's hard to picture anyone else other than the late great Pat Morita in the iconic role... unless you were Jerry Weintraub in 1984. The producer just couldn't see Morita -- then known as a comedian -- for the heavy dramatic role and thus made him audition five separate times before he finally understood how perfect he was.
Pat Morita had to go through a lengthy audition process before he was finally given the role of Mr. Miyagi, a role that would boost The Karate Kid to the pop culture status it's enjoyed for some 33 years. Producer Jerry Weintraub didn't want Morita for the part, a comedian whose biggest credit at the time was a role on Happy Days. As Morita recalled to THR, Weintraub didn't think Morita was a good enough actor to be able to handle the heavy dramatic parts of Miyagi.
He wouldn't even consider me for a reading. 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 heavy weight part. I want an actor.'
True, the story of Mr. Miyagi, an immigrant who fought against the Japanese in World War II and lost his wife and child due to birth complications in an American internment camp, is a deeply sad one that requires a great actor with dramatic chops. Luckily, director John Avildsen knew that Pat Morita was just the man for the job. He recorded him in a one-on-one interview and then played the tape in a meeting with Jerry Weintraub. Weintraub was impressed but not sold so they called Morita back four times: first by himself, then for a chemistry test with Ralph Macchio, then in costume in front of studio heads, and finally to film on a sound stage in costume.
It was a grueling process, but if The Karate Kid teaches us anything, it's how to triumph in seemingly impossible battles. After the final audition, Jerry Weintraub admitted just how wrong he had been about Pat Morita. The actor said:
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.
And we're all the better for it! Pat Morita ended up being nominated for an Academy Award for his role as Mr. Miyagi and would go on to play the character in three more sequels. Some would argue that Miyagi is the secret main character of the series, as Community points out in a hilarious Season 6 episode with a community theater production of the film.
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