Thirty years ago, a wise man from Okinawa taught the world – or at least the children of the 1980s – that waxing a car has significance beyond just making it shine. Mr. Miyagi inspired us to believe that our dreams could be achieved as long as they come from our hearts, and that if you could catch a fly with a pair of chopsticks, you could accomplish anything.
In June 1984, a relatively small film about a New Jersey teenager who unhappily moves to Los Angeles with his mom made an unexpected impact. Though the film didn't have the benefit of big stars, and didn't rely on slick visual effects, it became a blockbuster, grossing about $91 million at the domestic box office – something fairly common today but not so in 1984, when a movie ticket cost $3.50.
The movie spawned three sequels, a 13-episode animated series and a 2010 remake, which has a sequel of its own currently in development. There was also merchandise: action figures, video games, toys (like the rare chopsticks-and-fly game), Halloween costumes and pajamas. (Yes, pajamas; I had them.)
The Karate Kid made a star of Ralph Macchio, then 22 but appearing far younger as vulnerable teen Daniel LaRusso. Also surprising, but deserving, was an Academy Award nomination for comedian Pat Morita, previously best known for his role as Arnold on the hit TV series Happy Days.
The Karate Kid is an L.A. film to its core: Produced by Columbia Pictures and the prolific Jerry Weintraub, it was shot almost entirely on location in the San Fernando Valley and other L.A.-area sites. It's set in a time when Asian immigration was dramatically changing the character of the city: The Asian-American population in the United States would grow 70 percent in the 1980s, with much of that growth in West Coast cities. By making the hero Mr. Miyagi – a World War II veteran of Japanese descent who'd fought for the United States in the most decorated unit in the Army, the 442nd – it suggested that this influx could be a good thing for Los Angeles, that these newer Americans were every bit as patriotic as those who'd been here for generations, if not more so. And, of course, it kicked off a veritable craze of non-Asian kids learning martial arts. When I was a 5-year-old living outside Philadelphia, The Karate Kid meant the world to me. My friends and I would practice the iconic crane kick – and occasionally get in trouble for trying it on one another.
The film was released in the same summer as other kid-friendly blockbusters: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Ghostbusters, Gremlins. But The Karate Kid was different from the others. It was real: Daniel is a teen being raised by a single mom with just enough money to scrape by, a world away from the rich, blond kids around him.
That's a reality many of us could relate to, including in some ways me. Like Daniel, I was picked on anytime I started at a new school, which I did a number of times before high school. I didn't wear stylish clothes, I loved the movies and the theater, and I hung out with other kids who weren't “cool.”
As a child, I couldn't have pointed directly to the themes in The Karate Kid. But while my friends and I may have only wanted to imitate karate moves, in our hearts we felt the character's anguish. It's only years later that we recognize that many of us – boys and girls alike – were Daniel LaRusso.
Robert Mark Kamen, screenwriter of The Karate Kid (as well as parts two and three) had been studying martial arts for about 17 years at the time he wrote the script. “When I started training, there were very few dojo,” Kamen says. “It was not teenagers kicking and getting belts and putting on padding. It was very, very serious, traditional, hard-core stuff. I think it changed when I wrote The Karate Kid. People started opening up these dojos all over the place.” Today an Internet search suggests there are 150 in the San Fernando Valley alone. There's even a popular chain of dojos called, yes, Karate Kids.
With his background in karate, Kamen, who had previously written Taps, was approached by the head of Columbia Pictures to write a script loosely based on a story that producer Jerry Weintraub saw on the local TV news. The story was about a boy from the Valley, who, like a lot of kids who get picked on or bullied, just didn't know how to respond or retaliate.
“He wasn't a well-built kid,” Weintraub recalls. “He wasn't particularly athletic, and every day on the way home from school, the other guys beat him up.”
His mom, who had seen a sign on Ventura Boulevard for karate lessons, suggested they give it a try. The boy eventually became a black belt.
“As soon as the other kids in school found out that he was doing karate, nobody bothered him again,” Weintraub says. “It was the real karate kid.”
Kamen incorporated into the script some details of his close relationship with an Okinawan instructor, and handed in his first draft in September 1982. When John G. Avildsen, who'd previously won an Oscar for directing Rocky, came on board to helm the project, the casting process began.
“When this came my way, I said, 'Karate Kid? They're going to call me 'The Ka-Rocky Kid,'?” Avildsen quips. After all, both films focus on blue-collar, Italian-American underdogs; both are set against sports backdrops.
“I can see why people make that comparison,” Avildsen says of the two films, “but I always found them quite different.” Rocky is a love story, but The Karate Kid is about a vulnerable teenager transplanted from New Jersey and his surrogate father.
Avildsen recalls auditioning many actors for the role of the teen. However, when Long Island native Ralph Macchio came into Avildsen's Manhattan office, the director knew he'd found his Daniel. Macchio, who'd been featured in Eight Is Enough and a few made-for-TV movies, had recently starred in Francis Ford Coppola's The Outsiders, alongside future A-list stars Tom Cruise and Patrick Swayze.
“The minute we met him, and the minute we tested him, and the minute we talked to him, we felt he was the guy,” Weintraub says. “He was the karate kid … and he didn't know anything about karate, which really made him right.”
You can see the birth of Daniel LaRusso in that first audition, available today on Avildsen's YouTube channel. “There's the right time, the right guy, the right role, the right movie,” Macchio says, “and in the case of The Karate Kid, with myself and Pat Morita, and some of the other cast, that's just the way it was.”
With the role of Daniel cast, the filmmakers now needed to find his father figure. Weintraub's first choice for Miyagi was Toshiro Mifune, the Japanese actor famous for his work with Akira Kurosawa. Mifune wanted the part badly, even bringing Avildsen photos of himself dressed in various wardrobe possibilities, but there was one big problem: He didn't speak English. Beyond that, Avildsen recalls, Mifune's persona was one of strength, while Miyagi was supposed to be modest.
Before seeing Mifune, Avildsen did an informal screen test of Pat Morita, who was suggested by casting director Caro Jones. “I had never heard of him,” Avildsen says of Morita. “I hadn't seen him on Happy Days. I had no preconceived conception about this guy, at all.”
The director quickly became set on having Morita in the role: “He became Miyagi,” Avildsen says of Morita's first audition.
But Weintraub knew Morita very well: He'd booked him for stand-up gigs in the Catskill Mountains years before, when Morita performed as the Hip Nip. He didn't think Morita was right for a heavyweight part such as Miyagi. Macchio also had reservations at first. He remembers thinking, “Arnold from Happy Days? I don't know.”
The production needed to cast its Miyagi or risk postponing the shoot. Weintraub remembers Avildsen coming into the office, locking the door and playing a VHS tape of Morita's informal test. “He was brilliant,” says Weintraub, who promptly ordered an official screen test. “I cried at the test, and I cried when I watched the film, and I said, 'OK, he's Miyagi.'”
After testing with Morita in L.A., Macchio agreed, describing their relationship as “a very pure, genuine affinity for each other.”
Daniel's and Miyagi's father/son relationship is countered by another teacher/student pair, that of Sensei John Kreese and his prized student, Johnny Lawrence. The film is set in motion after Daniel first meets “Ali with an i,” played by Elisabeth Shue. We quickly learn that Ali is Johnny's ex-girlfriend, and Johnny is not about to lose out to a 98-pound weakling from New Jersey.
Johnny's sensei, played with intense ferocity by Martin Kove, is Miyagi's foil. “My first karate teacher was very much like Kreese,” Kamen recalls. “He was a Marine … tough as nails.” (In the film, Kreese is a Vietnam vet who served in the Army.) Kamen had almost studied with another teacher, who would tell his students to break people's noses. “He thought that in combat only one person should be left standing, and the other person should be hurt,” Kamen says.
Miyagi's line “No such thing as bad student, only bad teacher” perfectly describes the Kreese/Johnny relationship. William Zabka, who played Johnny, says that when he first met Kove, the actor was in character as Kreese: “When I met Kreese, I understood Johnny better.”
Kove references the famous scene in which his character tells his students, “An enemy deserves no mercy!” He says, “If my prized student was having a problem, it's my problem. That's how sick this puppy was. … [Johnny] was John Kreese when he was in high school and therefore, I need to cultivate this Johnny Lawrence with great care because,” as Kove lowers his voice to a slight growl, “he's going to be just like me.”
The Karate Kid shot for 45 days in the fall of 1983 in Los Angeles, primarily in the San Fernando Valley. Not only was the Valley where the original news story came from but it also was the perfect setting for a suburban-based film dealing with class differences. “It's not like the kids were from Beverly Hills or Santa Monica. The Valley is a real place,” Shue says. “Where you live becomes who you are. That was a really important theme of the movie.”
Interestingly, Kamen had never actually been to the Valley until shortly before he wrote the screenplay. At the time, an employee of Weintraub's drove Kamen around the Valley for inspiration. “I said, 'Take me to someplace that is so ordinary,'” the writer remembers saying, “and we went to Reseda, and we hung around [there] for two days.”
For the shoot, Avildsen wanted places that felt true to the story. “The more real you can put in, the better … and it's better for the actors, because subconsciously they're there, they're not in Burbank at Warner Bros.,” Avildsen says. It fell to location manager Richard Davis Jr. to make that happen.
Of Davis, Avildsen recalls, “He was terrific. He was absolutely the best location guy I've ever worked with. He found all these great places and was just relentless.”
Up next, images of Karate Kid locations, then and now…
Most of the film's L.A. locations are still around today. Daniel's apartment building, the South Seas, near the corner of Tampa and Saticoy in Reseda, has become a mecca for movie enthusiasts, with fans posting photos online to commemorate their visit. Davis remembers that Avildsen liked the bleakness of the complex's exterior, which ultimately helped build empathy for Daniel.
Shue agrees: “It's just a devastating feeling when you feel not good enough because of where you live and what your house looks like, and whether the paint is chipping and how embarrassed you'll be if someone comes over.”
Avildsen also loved the image of a half-empty pool of dirty water – the complex's pool was drained specifically for the film, symbolizing, Davis says, “the shabby California dream that [Daniel] wasn't buying just yet.”
Other Valley locations included Charles Evans Hughes Junior High School in Woodland Hills, a North Hollywood dojo as home turf for the Cobra Kai, Ali's house in Encino, the Chatsworth Nature Preserve where Miyagi and Daniel trained and, finally, the Matadome at Cal State Northridge, where the All Valley Karate Championship was shot.
They also shot some scenes outside the Valley, including the scenes at Leo Carrillo Beach where Daniel played soccer, first met Ali and had his first run-in with Johnny and the Cobra Kai. Golf N' Stuff, the family fun park just off the 5 and 605 freeways in Norwalk, looks exactly as it did when Daniel and Ali have a perfect 1980s date night of bumper boats, go-karts and miniature golf.
The only location from The Karate Kid that is no longer in existence is, ironically, the one where many of the film's key scenes took place. Mr. Miyagi's Asian-inspired home was in Canoga Park, not too far from the South Seas apartment building.
“Miyagi's house was an absolute gem to find,” Davis says. At the time of shooting, the house was in the middle of an empty field. Train tracks, a junkyard and a garden were built around it for filming. It's here that Daniel unknowingly begins his karate training by washing and waxing Miyagi's classic cars and painting his garden fence – both sides.
One of the film's most notable moments is Kamen's beautifully written scene in which Daniel visits Miyagi at his home to find him dressed in an Army uniform, inebriated. Surprisingly, that scene was almost cut from the film – Avildsen remembers being told that it was too slow.
In the scene, we learn that Miyagi fought for the United States during World War II and that his wife, imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp run by the U.S. government, died during childbirth.
The scene surely had resonance for Morita. The California-born son of Japanese-American fruit pickers, he had been sent to an internment camp at age 11. As AsianWeek reported in 2005, Morita had contracted spinal tuberculosis as a child and was in a full-body cast for nearly a decade before he was sent to the camp, in Gila River, Arizona. “One day I was an invalid,” he'd later tell the Associated Press. “The next day I was public enemy No. 1 being escorted to an internment camp by an FBI agent wearing a piece.”
Avildsen's inventiveness is on display in the scene. Macchio's character puts Miyagi to bed, temporarily becoming the caretaker to his mentor. Before he exits, Avildsen suggested to Macchio just before one take, “This time stop and bow [to Miyagi].'”
The director recalls, “And he did, and I thought that that really put the capper on it.”
Today, the block in Canoga Park might be any suburban neighborhood: modest, ranch-style homes in gray, brown and white, a far cry from Miyagi's house of pine green. Some of the white picket fences that line the yards are in need of Miyagi's “paint the fence” technique.
There is no trace of the Asian-inspired house, which then stood out from the monotony of Valley architecture. The home was torn down sometime after the first sequel and had to be re-created on the Warner Bros. Ranch for part three.
Even after production wrapped and editing was complete, no one had any idea of the wallop The Karate Kid would make at the box office. Certainly, no one involved suspected they'd be talking about the film 30 years later. “I didn't know we were making something as special as we were making,” Macchio says. “I was often worried that it was too corny and sweet.”
Randee Heller, who played Daniel's mom, Lucille, remembers discussing the title with Macchio on set: “We were trying to think of a new name for it because we thought it was so cheesy.”
Sneak previews revealed that moviegoers thought otherwise. “The first time I saw the film curtain-to-curtain was with a full house,” Macchio says, “and that experience will go in the top five of my lifetime of just amazement.”
Kamen, who also attended that screening, vividly recalls the audience going wild at the end of the film when Daniel delivers the famous crane kick. “People stood up and were high-fiving each other and yelling in the theater.” Kamen and Avildsen could only laugh in astonishment.
Although test screenings were strong, no one could have expected the full effect the film would have until it opened at the Chinese Theater on June 22, 1984. “When I came out of the first screening of The Karate Kid,” Weintraub says, “there were a hundred kids in the parking lot doing the crane kick, and I said to my wife, 'Look at that.'”
“It wasn't just a popular success: The New York Times liked it. So did Roger Ebert, who wrote, “I didn't want to see this movie. I took one look at the title and figured it was either (a) a sequel to Toenails of Vengeance, or (b) an adventure pitting Ricky Schroder against the Megaloth Man. I was completely wrong. The Karate Kid was one of the nice surprises of 1984 – an exciting, sweet-tempered, heartwarming story with one of the most interesting friendships in a long time.”
Today The Karate Kid's legacy is alive and well. You can still purchase T-shirts and posters, which prominently feature some of the film's memorable lines. If you check your cable TV guide, The Karate Kid, or one of its sequels, is almost always scheduled to air at some point. The DVD continues to be a big seller, and it's also a popular VOD title.
There's no question that, all these years later, the film still resonates. On its 30th anniversary, we kids of the 1980s are showing the film to our children.
Avildsen, 78, just had a book written about his career, The Films of John G. Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs by Larry Powell and Tom Garrett. The book inspired a documentary, which is now in production. After helming The Karate Kid, Avildsen directed a number of other films, including The Karate Kid's first two sequels, Rocky V and Lean on Me.
The Oscar-winning director has been developing what he hopes will be his next project. It's a contemporary story about a wisecracking Holocaust survivor who hears that the former Nazi guard responsible for the murder of his wife and newborn child is about to be deported from the United States to Lithuania. Along with other (equally wisecracking) Holocaust survivors, he attempts to kidnap the guard before his deportation.
Just about anywhere Avildsen goes today, he says, people talk to him about The Karate Kid. He says, “I was just at an X-ray place, and I looked at the [technician], I sized him up, I figured he falls into the category [of fans], and I said, 'Wax on, wax off. What does that mean to you?' and he delivered.”
Pat Morita is one of the only principals in the film not here to witness The Karate Kid's anniversary. He died of natural causes in 2005, at age 73.
His was an incredible American life: From spinal tuberculosis to the internment camp, and then, as a young adult, to a job as head of computer operations at an aerospace firm. But his heart wasn't in it; at age 30, he embarked on a stand-up career, which led to appearances on shows such as The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Sanford and Son. With the Welcome Back, Kotter spinoff Mr. T and Tina, he became the first Asian-American to land a leading role on a primetime show – but it was canceled after just five episodes.
There weren't many good parts for Asian actors in Hollywood in those years. But The Karate Kid showed what Morita could do, given a real dramatic role, and he worked steadily after it: Among many forgettable pictures, he starred in its 1994 sequel, The Next Karate Kid, with future Oscar winner Hilary Swank. He also voiced a character in Disney's Mulan.
Macchio says he still reflects upon some of the lessons Daniel learned from Morita's Miyagi, via Robert Mark Kamen's script. “Those pieces of wisdom, I think they still pertain even in today's day and age.” One “Miyagi-ism” that particularly resonates with him is the “walk left side, walk right side, walk middle” metaphor.
“I've had more than a few times,” Macchio says, “where I'd waffle on a decision or a situation, I'd be stuck in the middle, and I think the only bad choice is no choice.”
Whether it's “wax on, wax off” or “paint the fence” or “sand the floor,” the lessons an Okinawan man taught to a fatherless teenager in the heart of the San Fernando Valley still resonate today. Canoga Park has changed, but some things never do.
Jared Cowan is a photographer and avid filmgoer living in Los Angeles. In 2002, he graduated from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia with a B.F.A. in film and video production. For more photos of The Karate Kid's L.A. locations today, as well as more commentary from cast and crew, please see his slideshow at laweekly.com. See more of Cowan's photography at jaredcowanphotography.com.