Three decades ago, a young man named Daniel crane-kicked his way into the hearts and minds of audiences. The Karate Kid debuted in 1984 from writer Robert Mark Kamen and director John G. Alvidsen. The film featured Ralph Macchio’s Daniel learning karate from Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) as a way of dealing with bullies training under Vietnam veteran Kreese (Martin Kove) at the Cobra Kai Dojo.
The new kid in town — a transplant from New Jersey to the San Fernando Valley near LA — Daniel got into trouble with Johnny Lawrence (Billy Zabka) after our hero started hanging out with Johnny’s ex Ali (Elisabeth Shue). Daniel trained with Miyagi to defend himself, but eventually decided to compete against Johnny and Cobra Kai in the All-Valley Karate Tournament. Film history ensued.
To celebrate the movie’s 30th anniversary, Macchio, Zabka and Kove appeared together on stage during a panel at the New York Comic Con. Though they got a bit held up in traffic, the trio entered to near-deafening applause and hollered quotes like, “Put him in a body bag!” and “Sweep the leg, Johnny!” As a way to kick things off, the panelists recalled how they got involved with the film starting with Kove.
“Originally, John saw my picture and said, ‘We don’t want him,'” Kove said. He did get his hands on the script eventually though and was given very late notice to come in for an audition. “I used all that venom for the scene,” Kove said describing how he went in there and dumped all that on Alvidsen, who eventually gave him the part.
Macchio remembered going to Alvidsen’s house to audition along with a group of other young actors who all thought the movie’s title was dumb.
“I read for John,” Macchio said, noting that Alvidsen posted many of the audition tapes on YouTube. “You can see the genesis of these characters from the first time we spoke the words. I knew pretty early I was a frontrunner for the role. Alvidsen called me and said, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing but you might want to take some karate lessons.'” Macchio added, “I was the right kid at the right time although I was like 30.”
Like Kove, Zabka got the part by going a little crazy on the director. “Everybody in this audition was reading for Johnny,” he said. “[They were] trying to out-Johnny the next guy.” Instead of getting involved with all that Zabka went out to his car and listened to ’70s rock band Zebra. Once it was his turn though, the young man embraced his inner Johnny and “literally grabbed the director” showing off his bully moves, earning the part in the process.
The subject then turned to Pat Morita, who died of kidney failure in 2005. Though Macchio repeatedly referred to the actor as having a “soulful magic” he remembered that not everyone was convinced that the man who played Arnold on Happy Days had what it took for the role of sensei, “until they said ‘action’ and this character emerged with humor and soul.” “There was an ease with the scenes we had together,” he said. Macchio added that Miyagi was like the human Yoda to his Luke Skywalker.
Kove recalled that, after shooting, Morita gave everyone photo albums as a reminder of the good times they had. “He was a lot of fun,” he said. “Pat was so giving. He was so much fun.”
Since he was working on his first film, Zabka said he asked for and received great advice from the elder actor especially at the famous fence scene. “I got my butt handed to me at the fence,” he said.
That scene also apparently resulted in a real attack as Zabka accidentally made contact with Macchio. “My chin here somehow found its way to his foot,” Macchio said.
But, the biggest and baddest fight scene of the bunch of course came at the end of the film during the All-Valley Karate Tournament.
“That first time we did the entire fight all the way through with a full crowd…and they were seeing it for the first time. That was an amazing experience,” Macchio said. “That was theater.”
Macchio also noted that Zabka had more skill, but he had a secret weapon up his sleeve. “He was better at martial arts, so thankfully the script was in my favor,” he said.
One of the many great elements of The Karate Kid is that it’s not just about a kid overcoming bullying and winning the big tournament, but also about him finding young love with Ali. After auditioning for the part of Daniel, Macchio said he returned to help test the various Alis, the first of which was Elizabeth Shue. “We got along very, very well,” Macchio said. After the audition they went out and talked about their lives. “By the time we got to L.A. there was a nice camaraderie there.”
As fans of the film series remember, though, Ali and Daniel’s love was short lived as the second film quickly got rid of her so that he and Miyagi could travel to Okinawa. The plot point didn’t sit well with many viewers, including Macchio.
“I was never a fan of that and certainly she was not,” he said. “I think she feels she was shortchanged by the franchise. That happens in Hollywood sometimes.” He added that they did the same thing to his on-screen mother played by Randee Heller.
All three members of the cast agreed that being part of a film like this that not only stood the test of time, but also seems to keep making new fans is a delight.
“It’s fascinating to see the reaction,” Kove said, noting that the variety of elements including bullies, romance and the fish out of water story appealed to lots of people. “This movie is so well constructed,” he added, crediting screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen as the unsung star of the project.
“The fact that the film works on a human level and is relatable…it touches people on many levels with a human connection,” Macchio said. “Whatever references and images, all that stuff is fantastic and stood the test of time. But the reason it resonates is that the story works on a human level. That’s something that’s majorly missing today’s mainstream cinema.”
Zabka agreed that the human aspects helped make it a classic, adding that some of that came because they felt like a family on set. “It’s a thrill,” he said of the film’s growing legacy. “To be in a film that has cultural impact is overwhelming.”
The Karate Kid the film is available on DVD, Blu-ray and on a variety of streaming platforms, including Netflix.
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