MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Chuck Norris turned down The Karate Kid.
When it comes to legends, Chuck Norris has pretty much anyone beat, as there’s an entire industry devoted to inventing “facts” about him, like "There used to be a street named after Chuck Norris, but they changed the name because no one crosses Chuck Norris and lives" and "When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn't lifting himself up, he's pushing the Earth down." However, even a guy as legendary as Chuck Norris still has some false stories told about him.
One of the most notable characters in the 1984 film The Karate Kid is "evil" sensei John Kreese, played by Martin Kove. Kreese infamously tells one of his pupils to use an illegal kick to the knee to injure his opponent (Ralph Macchio's Daniel, the "Karate Kid”). The move gets that student disqualified, but sets it up so that another one of Kreese's pupils will win by default. It almost knocks Daniel out of the tournament, but his sensei Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) uses a pain-suppression technique to allow the young man to keep competing. In the finals, Kreese delivers his classic line in which he tells his remaining pupil (William Zabka) to "sweep the leg.” Daniel, of course, succeeds anyway. A long-standing rumor is that Norris was original choice to play Kreese, but the martial artist turned down the role because of the bad example it gave for karate instructors. Is this "Chuck Norris fact" true?
It doesn’t appear so.
Few actors were as closely associated with martial arts at the time of Karate Kid's release as then 44-year-old Norris. In the late 1960s, he became one of the most decorated martial artists in the United States, and parlayed that success into a film career, slowly working his way up the ladder until he landed his first starring role in 1977's Breaker! Breaker!. Norris starred in a few more movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s before breaking out with 1984's Missing in Action, about a soldier going returning to Vietnam to save American prisoners of war (it’s often criticized as a rip-off of the Rambo film with the familiar plot, but it’s worth noting that Missing in Action came out a year before Rambo: First Blood Part II). That feature set Norris on a hot streak, with starring roles in a number of action films released over the next few years.
Although Norris was busy with an action film when Karate Kid was being shot, obviously production schedules could be changed. So did he turn down the role?
Norris himself says he was never offered the part, but had he been, he would have turned it down for the very reason stated in the rumor -- that he felt Kreese was such an unfavorable depiction of a karate professional that he didn’t think it was a good idea.
Karate Kid director John G. Avildsen doesn’t recall Norris ever being offered the part either.
I tend to believe, then, that Norris was never offered the part. Former Norris martial arts team member Pat Johnson did end handling the fight choreography for the film, however. Also, one actor who definitely did try out for Kreese was a young Steven Seagal (Avildsen wasn’t impressed). Norris later appeared in the Karate Kid-inspired film Sidekicks.
I can believe that perhaps Norris was considered. Heck, I can even believe the part was written with him in mind. I don't think, however, that Norris and Avildsen would be in agreement on something like this if it were not true, so I'm willing to go with them and say the legend is ...
Thanks to Larry Powell and Tom Garrett and their book, The Films of John G. Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs, for Avildsen’s comments.
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