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Why Pat Morita Was The Producer's Last Choice For Mr. Miyagi

The 1980s produced some seriously iconic cinema, and — for some reason — it became a golden age for fictional mentor figures. Think about it: From Star Wars' Yoda to Rufus from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure – in the '80s, our cinematic heroes and heroines always had a sage guiding them along their journey. Perhaps the greatest cinematic mentor of all came into pop culture in 1984's The Karate Kid. We speak, of course, of Mr. Miyagi.

Nariyoshi Miyagi is a thoughtful, collected martial arts sensei, teacher to the hot-headed, impulsive Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). His character is the moral heart of The Karate Kid. From the moment he first appeared on screen, he instantly became one of the most popular and quotable characters in film history, and it wouldn't have worked without a capable actor bringing him to life. The late, great Pat Morita was the man responsible, and nowadays it's hard to think about the legendary actor without thinking of his Mr. Miyagi performance. 

Shockingly, he very nearly didn't land his best-known role, and at one point found himself at the very bottom of the list of potential candidates. The film's producer, Jerry Weintraub, had his reasons to dislike Morita for The Karate Kid, though we're certainly happy he came around in the end.

Pat Morita's comedian label made producers hesitant to cast him

Before becoming the wise old sensei, Pat Morita made a name for himself on television through a handful of light-hearted, sitcoms in the 1970s. Shows like Happy Days, Mr. T and Tina, and Sanford and Son filled the bulk of his resume, alongside funny big-screen efforts like The Shakiest Gun In The West, effectively pinning him as a comedian by most in Hollywood. It's easy to get pigeonholed in the industry, and Morita had climbed into a pretty deep one by appearing in a long line of laughers. As a result, when Weintraub started the casting process for The Karate Kid, Morita wasn't seen as a top contender for such a dramatic role.

"He [Weintraub] didn't want me for this, he wouldn't even consider me for a reading," Morita said in an interview for the Television Academy Foundation in 2000. "He was adamant, he says 'I don't want a comedian, I don't want a comic actor for this role. This is a heavyweight part, I want an actor.'" Thankfully, director John Avildson eventually stepped in at the last moment and started allowing anyone and everyone to read for the part, against Weintraub's wishes. 

Morita stepped up to the plate, put on a fake (but incredibly convincing) Japanese accent, and impressed everyone in the room. After an eternity's worth of hurdles, he finally earned his place as Mr. Miyagi and cemented his legacy as one of the most legendary characters of all time.