Whenever you think of The Karate Kid, you think of Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita). The bulk of the movie is them sanding the deck, painting the fence, waxing on, waxing off, catching flies, yelling “Bonsai!” Miyagi not only fixed the LaRusso’s sink, but he repaired Daniel’s bike, kicked the asses of his assailants, gave him a freaking car, and taught the kid discipline and karate. Morita was a soulful character, who brought humor and humanity to the role, endearing Mr. Miyagi to us all, and giving the character an immortal essence that continues to live on.
But not everyone was convinced that Morita, the mostly comedic actor who had appeared in shows like Laverne & Shirley, and Welcome Back, Kotter, and was best known for his roles in Sanford and Son and Happy Days, could pull off the serious tone and somber backstory of the complicates character that was Mr. Miyagi.
In a recent Vanity Fair interview, Macchio talked about the studio’s casting reservations, as well as his own, saying:
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.
Apparently The Karate Kid and Rocky director John G. Avildsen saw the potential in Morita, and knew he could pull off the role opposite the already cast Macchio. Of what came next, Macchio said:
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.
Magic, indeed. I can’t imagine anyone else playing Mr. Miyagi. I love that he brought some humor to the role. It made the character feel so real, lovable, and memorable. I definitely wish Pat Morita were still around for the Cobra Kai series, but it sounds like we will be getting back in touch with the character this coming season when Daniel travels back to Okinawa, Mr. Miyagi’s home.