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‘Everyone was doing the crane kick’: Ralph Macchio on making The Karate Kid | Film

Ralph Macchio, actor

I was a skinny kid and looked young for my age, which was tough. I got a part in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders playing Johnny Cade. The reviews were positive: I was a young actor feeling good, maybe a little cocky. I got a call about a movie called The Karate Kid and thought: “That’s a silly title. Is it a cartoon?” They sent me the script and I met the director, John G Avildsen, at his apartment in New York.

John’s hallway was filled with actors vying to play Daniel LaRusso, the film’s hero. Everyone was making fun of the title. I immediately became defensive – in hindsight, I was already beginning to own the part. John had a camera on me as soon as I sat down. I was from the suburbs of Long Island and emphasised my New York accent. That attitude fed into Daniel’s move from east coast to west coast in the movie. He is new in a town where it seems that everybody has a BMW, cool sunglasses and blond hair – and he wants to defend his roots. There was one big difference between us, though. Daniel has bravado and won’t quit. If I got my ass kicked by five karate experts on motorcycles, I would have probably found a different route to school.

There was an effortless ease from the first reading with Pat Morita, who played Mr Miyagi, Daniel’s mentor. It felt as if we had been kissed by some soulful magic. Mr Miyagi is The Karate Kid. He’s a human Yoda, a father figure, the secret sauce that makes the film not just another 1980s coming-of-age movie.

Apart from four jiu-jitsu lessons when I was 10, I had no martial arts experience. Before filming, I was trained in Okinawan Gōjū-ryū karate by Pat E Johnson, who coordinated the fight scenes and played the head referee in the tournament at the end of the film.

I saw the movie for the first time at a sneak preview at the Baronet and Coronet theatre in Manhattan. I can still feel that rush, like being on the back row of a rollercoaster when you’re seeing everyone’s heads and shoulders move in concert. The love affair between this kid, his mentor and the audience kept building. During the final fight scene, people jumped out of their seats as if their team had won the World Cup or the Super Bowl. When I left the cinema, everyone was doing the crane kick on Third Avenue.

Robert Mark Kamen, creator

Frank Price, chair of Columbia Pictures and my mentor, optioned a newspaper article about a nine-year-old boy who had been given a black belt. He called me up and said: “You know about this stuff?” I said I did but that this story was a crock of shit and I had one of my own. I’d started doing karate when I was 17 after getting beaten up on the way home from New York’s World’s Fair. My sensei had been taught by Chōjun Miyagi, who founded the Okinawan Gōjū-ryū karate school.

I didn’t want to tell my life story. I wanted to create a film that captured the emotion I felt about karate and my feelings about what made the perfect teacher. Who wouldn’t want a mentor who is nonjudgmental, loving and can beat the living daylights out of anybody who hurts you? The training routine and principles in the script were all classical Okinawan Gōjū-ryū karate. They were cinematised, but I knew the blocking system and made-up the “wax on, wax off” and “paint the fence” elements to correspond with the moves.

The director, John, had won an Oscar for Rocky in 1977 but the parallels between the two films never entered my mind, although Sylvester Stallone still swears I ripped him off. John called me up during casting and said: “I think I have our kid. You want to take a look at him?” The characters were all named after members of my family. Originally, Daniel LaRusso was Daniel Webber, after my nephew who had Jewish heritage. When Ralph showed up, I thought: “This kid looks like a son of Italy if ever there was one.” So we changed his surname.

There was immediate chemistry between Pat and Ralph. Pat had been in Happy Days and a few other things, but nothing that had given any indication of what he could be. He was a good-time comic with all the frailties that come with that, including depression and bad relationships. In real life, he had none of Mr Miyagi’s wisdom – but when he inhabited the role, he became Mr Miyagi.

Ralph Macchio’s autobiography, Waxing On: The Karate Kid and Me, is out now. The fifth season of The Karate Kid reboot Cobra Kai is on Netflix. A sixth season was announced this summer.

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