When Ralph Macchio first auditioned for the role of Karate Kid’s Daniel LaRusso, he could never have imagined what would come next.
A scrawny, 5ft 8in, 23-year-old actor who had started out in commercials in the ‘70s before moving on to TV and film, it was Macchio’s gaunt appearance that helped him land the role as a High School misfit who discovers a new sense of self-worth through martial arts.
But the man picked to play Daniel LaRusso wouldn’t have worked, had he not had the right Kesuke Miyagi alongside him.
A comedian and television actor known for roles on M*A*S*H and Happy Days, Pat Morita had overcome more than his own share adversity to make it in Hollywood.
Diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis at the age of two, Morita’s childhood was spent in and out of hospital in his native California, often unable to move in a full body cast.
When he was finally released from hospital aged just 11, he was forced to join his family in an Arizona Internment camp that had been set up in the wake of the Pearl Harbour attacks.
Having overcome so many setbacks so early in his life, Morita’s film career finally got going in 1967’s Thoroughly Modern Millie, starting with a series of generic “henchmen” roles before getting an opportunity to showcase his sizeable comedic talents.
A year after leaving Happy Days, in 1984, however, Morita would head to the audition that would come to define his career and that of his co-star that day.
Captured in the accompanying clip, it’s clear the two actors enjoyed an on-screen chemistry crucial to the success of Karate Kid with Macchio the brave but fragile hero and Morita the mentor teaching him strength through more than just karate (wax on, wax off, anyone?)
“Pat Morita and I had a natural organic ease in our acting styles,” Macchio recalled watching the audition back with USA Today, years later.
“Those scenes just really – I don’t know how to describe it. If there was anything evident on that set, it was evident that relationship was very natural and real.”
“Even in those audition scenes, you see Miyagi and Daniel there,” he noted. “Those were just cold reads. Those were walk ins. John [Avildsen, the director] talked about the characters a little and go.”
“Those takes were done without any direction outside of explaining what the scene was and who the character was. It’s not terribly far from what’s the polished version on the screen. It informs you on how important casting is and how important the right actor in the right role is. I was just the right kid at the right time and Pat was the right actor at the right time.”
The pair would go on to make a further two Karate Kid films together before, at the ripe old age of 32, Macchio opted against reprising the role, keen to avoid becoming “the Sylvester Stallone of Karate movies.”
Morita, meanwhile, would continue to enjoy steady work in the years that followed, imbued by the newfound success and star status the Karate Kid films had given him.
The actor, who had endured so much hardship to reach Hollywood in the first place, passed away at his home in Las Vegas in November 2005 at the age of 73.
An occasional TV and film star, who most recently featured in the Comedy Central Roast of Rob Lowe, Macchio is happily married to his teenage sweetheart with two children of his own.
Morita, though, will always hold a special place in his heart.
Asked to speak at his co-star’s eulogy, Macchio’s final words to his old friend were thus: “Forever, my Sensei.”
Loaded staff writer Jack Beresford has produced content for Lad Bible, Axonn Media and a variety of online sports and news media outlets.