Today there’s no question that Pat Morita was destined to play the role of Mr. Miyagi, the handyman and martial arts trainer in The Karate Kid. But you might be surprised to hear that, as he approached the role, no one wanted to hire him, according to co-star Ralph Macchio. Here's the full story.
After Ralph Macchio was cast for the role, the big question was who would play Mr. Miyagi. At the time, Pat Morita had primarily done comedic roles and was mostly known as Arnold on the TV show Happy Days. In an interview with Vanity Fair Ralph Macchio said people in the studio (including him) had doubts that Pat Morita would be a good fit. Here’s what he said:
Who was going to play Mr. Miyagi? They were talking about Toshiro Mifune, the great Japanese actor who didn’t speak any English, so that would have been a challenge. But all the sudden Arnold from Happy Days shows up on video tape from Pat Morita and the studio did not want him. The producer did not want him. I was like, ‘Arnold, from Happy Days?’ But John Avildsen was like, ‘I’ve read him and I’ve read you and I’m putting you guys in a room together.
To a degree, it makes sense why they might have doubts when placing a comedic actor like Pat Morita up against the legendary Toshiro Mifune of Yojimbo and Seven Samurai fame. However, it looks like Rocky’s John Avildsen saw a spark in Pat Morita and was one of the few that wanted to give him a shot. As it turns out, that’s all that was needed for Pat Morita to shine. Once Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita did a read-through together, the tables started to turn. Ralph Macchio said later,
Pat Morita and I got in a room together, just grabbed the pages, started reading. It was effortless. That magic that happened on the screen happened the first day we picked up the pages. He had Miyagi in his skin, in his mind, in his consciousness. I for whatever the reason, had the yin to the yang, literally the balance, that was the beginning of the cinema magic that resonates to this day.
Years ago Pat Morita also commented on not being able to get the role at first, saying producer Jerry Weintraub was adamant he didn’t want a comedian for the part and would rather have a heavyweight actor. But as things evolved, Jerry Weintraub admitted he was wrong and called Pat Morita to apologize.
Pat Morita delivered such an inspiring performance that he was nominated for an Academy Award for it. We also got a slew of quotable lines and memorable scenes that still resonate 30 years later. So clearly the right casting choice was made in the end.
He cemented his powerful legacy as Mr. Miyagi by appearing in several sequels with Ralph Macchio until finishing things up with The Next Karate Kid, starring Hilary Swank. Now Ralph Macchio is helping honor Pat Morita’s legacy in the new Netflix TV show Cobra Kai.
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