Members of the cast and crew wax on about making the eminently quotable coming-of-age classic that inspired a million crane kicks (which, by the way, are totally bogus)
OBERT MARK KAMEN was 17 when he took up martial arts after getting jumped by bullies at the 1965 World's Fair in New York City. His earliest instructor was a truculent Marine captain who preached raw violence, which helped on the revenge front but left Kamen desiring a deeper spiritual connection to the craft. He discovered Okinawan Goju-Ryu, a defensive style that turned aggression on the aggressor with smooth blocks and sharp counterstrikes, and trained four hours daily, seven days a week, under a teacher who spoke little English: a sensei named Chojun Miyagi.
Sound familiar? Three-and-a-half decades after Kamen turned his life into a 109-page script, The Karate Kid waxes on. Released in June 1984, the film endures through its quotable catchphrases: sand the floor, paint the fence, sweep the leg.... It inspired generations to stand up against schoolyard tormentors and lives on through a web series on YouTube Red, Cobra Kai.
Many of the production's principal figures have died, including producer Jerry Weintraub, director John Avildsen and Pat Morita. But nearly three dozen other members of the cast and crew spoke with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED about the making of The Karate Kid, reliving a whopping hit that, like Daniel LaRusso's performance at the All-Valley Under-18 Karate Championships, no one saw coming.
July 2, 2018
"Just a little movie no one was going to give a s--- about."
ROBERT MARK KAMEN (writer): I was mentored in the film business by Frank Price, who was the chairman of Columbia Pictures at the time. Frank called me up and said [producer] Jerry Weintraub had optioned an article about a nine-year-old kid who earned a black belt.
SUSAN EKINS (production coordinator): There was this blurb about a kid who kept getting beat up. His mother was a single parent and he asked to go to karate school. And he got a mentor who took him under his wing.
KAMEN: Jerry asked if I had a story to wrap around this. I told him about me and my own teacher.
EKINS: Robert wrote a brilliant script.
RALPH MACCHIO (actor, Daniel LaRusso): I found it a little corny.
CLIFFORD COLEMAN (first assistant director): I thought it was a piece of s---.
MARTIN KOVE (actor, Cobra Kai sensei John Kreese): All of us used to complain about the title.
R.J. LOUIS (executive producer): What is it, a drive-in-theater movie?
YUKI MORITA (Pat Morita's wife at the time): A schmucky, quickly-put-together ... kids show, maybe.
MACCHIO: I fought to change the title. I knew there was a chance I had to carry it the rest of my life.
KAMEN: Sylvester Stallone and I joke about it all the time. He says: "You just f------ ripped off [Rocky]." I've got an Italian kid, an old man ... You know what, you're absolutely right. You had one good idea, and I ripped it off!
EKINS: It wasn't a big budget. Like $8 million.
RON THOMAS (actor, Cobra Kai's Bobby): My manager told me, "This movie has no audience. It's not going anywhere."
BUD SMITH (editor): We started like it was just a little movie no one was going to give a s--- about.
ROB GARRISON (actor, Cobra Kai's Tommy): Later, during filming, we were all laughing. John stopped us. He goes, "You guys have no idea what you're making here. This is going to be a classic." We all thought, Yeah, whatever.
"Perfect. We have a kid who knows nothing."
KAMEN: The casting was magic.
THOMAS: It was Jerry Weintraub's idea to hire the sons and daughters of famous people [for some supporting roles].
RANDY SABUSAWA (assistant to Avildsen): We had [Steve McQueen's son] Chad McQueen, Frankie Avalon Jr., John Travolta's nephew....
BONNIE TIMMERMANN (casting director): I brought Ralph in [for the lead] because of the work he did in The Outsiders.
ELISABETH SHUE (actress, Daniel's girlfriend Ali Mills): Ralph was a big star compared to the rest of us. We were all like, Whoa, he has a manager.
KAMEN: John called me up [to his apartment in Manhattan]. I open the door and there's Ralph: a skinny little string bean of a kid. He wasn't particularly coordinated. I showed him some simple blocking and punching moves and he couldn't do them at all. I said, "That's perfect. We have a kid who knows nothing." I wanted a wimp. And Ralph is the paradigmatic wimp.
RANDEE HELLER (actress, Daniel's mother Lucille LaRusso): I auditioned and I got a callback. Then I read with Ralph. I walked out of there and I go, "Wow, he's such a mature person for 16 years old!"
MACCHIO: I was 21. The Macchio family curve means that you take off six years [from your age] and that's how old you look.
HELLER: His hormones never kicked in. They still haven't.
MACCHIO: The character was originally named Danny Weber. As soon as I walked in the room, it changed to LaRusso.
SABUSAWA: Jerry was of the mind: Let's get the most famous Japanese actor on the planet for Mr. Miyagi. Let's go for the grand slam.
MACCHIO: I envisioned one of the Seven Samurai playing Mr. Miyagi, because that's how it was written.
EKINS: They brought in Toshiro Mifune [who'd starred in Rashomon and Seven Samurai], but he didn't speak a word of English.
SABUSAWA: Pat was an unusual choice.
DARRYL VIDAL (Morita's stunt double): Everyone thought of him as Arnold from Happy Days.
COLEMAN: He had a horrible background. He was the type of stand-up comic who got up on stage loaded, dirty and foul.
EKINS: Jerry goes, "Are you kidding? I used to [work in stand-up] with Pat Morita in the Catskills. He was called the Hip Nip. He used to wear his eyeglasses upside-down. How can you even think he's good for this movie?"
ALY MORITA (Pat Morita's daughter): My dad had come from playing these ching-chong-Chinaman roles. That gets tiring and demeaning and draining. But here was a character who had a past, a history, and there was this wonderful relationship between him and Daniel.
KAMEN: John insisted on Pat. He put him on tape.
EKINS: It almost brought Jerry to tears. He said, "That is Mr. Miyagi."
SABUSAWA: Shue had just done a Burger King commercial.
SHUE: I'd been to Wellesley for two years, and I left to do a pilot for ABC. I auditioned for The Karate Kid after that.
TIMMERMANN: Elisabeth was so beautiful and fresh-faced. She was one of the most intelligent young actresses I had met in a long time.
WILLIAM ZABKA (actor, Cobra Kai's Johnny): Robert Downey Jr. was considered for Ralph's part. And Charlie Sheen. [Other notable considerations: Emilio Estevez, Anthony Edwards and Eric Stoltz for the Daniel role; Crispin Glover for Johnny; Helen Hunt and Demi Moore for Ali; Sarah Jessica Parker for one of Ali's friends; and Valerie Harper for Lucille LaRusso.] I think they were looking for an unknown for Johnny.
KAMEN: The Cobra Kai were a bunch of generic kids taken out of a box of generic kids. Billy was the standout. He was very athletic. You'd show him [some karate moves] and he'd just do it.
ZABKA: My audition was at the Columbia Pictures lot. The role was this gang leader—tough karate guy—and so it wasn't a friendly environment [among the other actors trying out]. I didn't want to sit in the waiting room, so I went in my dad's 1970 red Volvo station wagon and cranked some Zebra until they called me in.
SABUSAWA: The Cobra Kai was this white-blond dojo.
CHAD MCQUEEN (actor, Cobra Kai's Dutch): John wanted that whole Aryan look. Once a week I'd have to get my hair dyed platinum f------ orange. In hindsight it was a good thing, so I didn't get [recognized and get] my ass kicked when the movie came out.
SABUSAWA: Part of this movie was Robert pointing out that martial arts is based on love. The Cobra Kai attitude was a stark contrast to that.
"A little fraternity, a clique ... We were the Cobra Kai snake, all one piece."
TONY O'DELL (actor, Cobra Kai's Jimmy): [Our rehearsals] were like summer camp. Go to dinner, fool around, listen to music. I remember hanging out in a parking lot and playing a Lionel Richie album that had just come out.
PAT ROMANO (Macchio's stunt double): We had a few days of motorcycle training [for a scene in which the Cobra Kai chase Daniel on dirt bikes].
THOMAS: We took a whole Sunday to go to the Columbia Studios ranch area. Picture five guys on 350 Hondas, the studio's closed, we're there alone, driving up on these old wooden sidewalks for the western sets and riding into the saloons, spinning donuts on the Fantasy Island set....
GARRISON: ... down by the old Leave it to Beaver house, the streets they later used in Desperate Housewives.
ZABKA: It was like a little fraternity, a clique. We were the Cobra Kai snake, all one piece. It was by design that John Avildsen separated us from Ralph.
MCQUEEN: I never talked to Ralph. If I did, I'd say something nasty.
LOUIS: We brought in Pat Johnson to do a lot of the karate training.
PAT JOHNSON (martial arts choreographer; actor, tournament referee): I'd been in martial arts since 1963. I was sent to Korea with the U.S. Army and I learned Tang Soo Do, a Korean form of karate. I trained with Chuck Norris and became the captain of his fighting team.
KOVE: Pat is the softest man in the world. But he's a major killer.
MCQUEEN: He's a hard-ass motherf-----.
KOVE: I got the attitude for my character from Pat. I used his Ki-yahs. I used the way he stood with his hands in his belt. I became the Darth Vader of the karate world. [Other actors whose names were floated for Kove's role: Kurt Russell, Jeff Bridges, Leonard Nimoy and Christopher Walken.]
JOHNSON: [Martin] just stood in the background when I was teaching the Cobra Kai kids; he'd watch me pound them into the ground. "You guys are worthless! Get down and do 50 push-ups, you punk!"
ZABKA: We worked five days a week, four hours a day for the month before we shot. Then every day after that. They'd just roll out gymnastics mats on the set. If I was doing something sloppy, Pat would grab me and twist my leg. If I ever turned my back on him, he'd sweep me to the ground and say, "Never turn your back on anybody!"
JOHNSON: I trained Pat [Morita] and Ralph separately, really hard. They would moan and bitch—they developed a relationship because they had that in common.
KAMEN: Neither of those guys knew s--- about karate. You don't see Daniel throwing any flying wheel kicks. You see him being defensive. That's as far as I could get him.
WILLIAM MATTHEWS (set designer): We all wondered if Ralph could do it because he looked so frail.
MACCHIO: Good thing the other person I trained with was Pat Morita, so I always looked good.
SHUE: I made fun of him a bit, like: I could kick your ass.
"We had a fly wrangler.... He tried putting these flies in a refrigerator to slow them down."
MACCHIO: We started shooting on Oct. 31, 1983, at Leo Carrillo beach in Malibu: the scene where the Cobra Kai are coming down on motorcycles. That was a couple of days of getting my butt kicked.
SHUE: I remember having to wear a bathing suit for that scene; I felt so uncomfortable. When we started filming, I was given a trainer [Jake Steinfeld, of Body by Jake fame] and asked to stay in shape. Once the beach scene was shot, I went back to eating whatever I wanted. Watch, I slowly gain weight throughout the rest of the movie.
PETER CHOI (trainee assistant director): That movie uncovers this whole other part of L.A. that hadn't been seen much. It wasn't the usual Beverly Hills. I think that's why people really related to Ralph's character, why the movie seems so authentic.
SHUE: We filmed at an arcade in Norwalk for two days, played Foosball and bubble hockey and rode Go Karts....
CHOI: The Cobra Kai dojo was in North Hollywood. Mr. Miyagi's house was in Canoga Park. I remember shooting the catching-a-fly-with-chopsticks scene there....
EKINS: We had a fly wrangler.
LOUIS: He tried putting these flies in a refrigerator to slow them down. But as they warmed up, they'd get faster.
MACCHIO: We built a pipe frame, with a piece of wire hanging from it with a little fly on the end; he'd be on the side making this dead fly move.
LOUIS: That wasn't working. So I got a pole and some thin thread. The script supervisor was wearing a black sweater; I took piece of fuzz off it and the prop guy tied it to the thread. You didn't have a lot of CGI 35 years ago.
MACCHIO: [For another scene] they spent money creating this thing called Mr. Hashimoto.
KAMEN: It was supposed to be a training dummy that Mr. Miyagi had made out of a broom. Ralph was supposed to bow to it, then it would hit him.
MACCHIO: Inside was this hydraulic unit that never worked. It was too slow and it looked as corny as it sounds.
LOUIS: So Hashimoto turned into Pat putting on a catcher's mask and vest as Ralph went to work on him at sunset. It was a nice moment. You can't do that using a dummy.... Later, the scene with the Halloween party was terrific, trying to come up with all these unique costumes.
DANA ANDERSEN (actress, Ali's friend Barbara): I was a cigarette girl in a bunny outfit. They could never do that today.
ALY MORITA: Poor Ralph had to stand around wearing this jimmied shower curtain thing.
MACCHIO: It was heavy. I don't know if it was actual brass, but it felt like it.
MATTHEWS: I had to design the skeletons.
O'DELL: Those outfits were absolutely skintight.
THOMAS: Chad McQueen is not far off from his character, Dutch—a little crazy, a wild child.
MCQUEEN: I took a rolled-up sock and stuffed it down the costume as a codpiece. I looked like f------ John Holmes.
GARRISON: We're in the trailer one day and he goes, "My dad told me to do this. It makes it look nicer."
SABUSAWA: That was one of the first physical stunt nights.
MACCHIO: It's such a great payoff scene when they're beating the living s--- out of this kid [after the party].
THOMAS: There were two fences, one on each end of this long field. We started running way before the first fence, then we jumped the fence and ran at least 150 yards. Multiple times. In the cold. It was brutal. I was sucking wind.
O'DELL: They had oxygen tanks for us at the starting line.
MACCHIO: In reality I would've been caught in 150 feet. They were like gazelles; I was an ostrich with a broken leg.
ZABKA: He was carrying the whole movie, so he had a lot of weight on his back.
VIDAL: Ralph actually got kicked in the head that night.
MACCHIO: Billy was supposed to fake a front roundhouse, and he nailed me right in the jaw.
ZABKA: He leaned into it. It wasn't my fault.
GARRISON: That was the night I got my nose broken. [Morita's stuntman, Fumio] Demura hits Ron Thomas and me in the groin, and we bend over and he does a kick with his knees and knocks us back. He got a little too excited and slammed his knee right into my nose. I'm laying on the ground and I can feel the blood pouring out. They couldn't use that shot because you're not allowed to show real blood. Everyone remembers Ralph getting hurt. No one remembers me getting hurt.
LOUIS: It's karate. Steven Seagal used to tag a lot of his stunt guys. It happens.
"The crane kick? I would just bum-rush you, knock you on your ass."
CHOI: We shot the big finale karate tournament at Cal State--Northridge in a basketball stadium. That's where I met my wife. She was one of the extras filling the bleachers.
LOUIS: We needed 500 to 1,000 people in the stands, so we staged an actual tournament. It became more real.
ZABKA: Part of me felt like an imposter at that tournament. I wasn't a real black belt. We were [so choreographed].
VIDAL: A lot of us experienced martial artists were standing in the back chuckling about the staged karate, it looked so bad.
KOVE: There's this shot [at the tournament] when Pat [Morita] comes in and we're marching around, then this great shot from up above—we waited like five hours while they orchestrated that. I remember telling my students, "I want you to march out like you're Hitler youth going through a parade. Walk right past Pat and Ralph as if they're the enemy."
MACCHIO: The first run of the [final] fight, beginning to end, we shot it like theater. The place was going crazy.
ZABKA: I'm facing the audience between takes, and they're booing me. I see my mom sitting in the stands and she's like, "He's my son! He's not a bad guy!"
THOMAS: My famous line, I never said that while filming. I looped that in two months later. I was in the recording booth with John and he said he needed two seconds of something. I said, "Get him a body bag!" on the first try. John said, "That's going to be a classic. You'll never be forgotten because of that line."
SMITH: The very last scene was the most difficult. Ralph really got into it, even though he was not physically capable of taking out the other guy.
JOHNSON: I worked with Ralph on doing the crane kick. It's not something that's really legitimate or realistic.
THOMAS: It's pretty much bogus.
KAMEN: I made it up. It was something I thought up on the spot. You have no balance. Your hands aren't in a defensive position. It's just cinematic.
VIDAL: I would just bum-rush you, knock you on your ass.
MACCHIO: The famous shot in that last scene is low and wide. We shot it so many different ways though. Close-ups, slow motion; I was on a ladder; over Billy's shoulder, over my shoulder, above us.... I'm proud of myself for the kick, but I'm equally proud of Billy for taking the kick. Like a great passing play in football, it's all about timing.
KAMEN: It was the Rocky moment.
THOMAS: In an actual tournament, that's a disqualifying kick.
"This is what I've been trying to tell people: I'm not the bad guy!"
KAMEN: John Avildsen and I went to a test screening in New York. Afterward, we went around the corner and smoked a joint, and a cop car came by. I said, "This is the headline in tomorrow's Daily News: WRITER AND DIRECTOR FOR THE KARATE KID ARRESTED. Then we went into a bar and had two shots of tequila and talked about the audience reactions. The publicity people called and told us to come back outside the theater. There were guys in suits trying to do the crane kick. Right then we knew: We had something.
COLEMAN: And guess what? The picture went out and made a million dollars overnight, and I fell off the f------ bridge.
LOUIS: It opened to $5 million. The next week another $5 million, and the week after that another $5 million. And that's back in the days of a $3.50 ticket. It caught everybody by surprise.... Of course, now there've been five of these.
KAMEN: They immediately wanted a sequel. I used it as an excuse to go to Okinawa and see my teacher. I spent a bunch of time hanging out and training. The people there were very excited. No one ever talked about Okinawan karate, really.
MATTHEWS: Jerry [Weintraub] was friends with George H.W. Bush, so he invited him to the set of The Karate Kid Part II. At the last minute we had to make a helicopter pad so his Black Hawk could land for the afternoon.
KAMEN: For the third one, I wanted to make a Hong Kong flying-people movie. I wanted to take them to 16th-century China with a girl in a fever dream who wakes up in a boat going through the South China Sea. She's with Mr. Miyagi and they come to this village and they get into a flying kung fu battle.
MACCHIO: Part three is not my favorite. All they did was make the first one over again, without the good stuff.
YUKI MORITA: As sequels came, I saw the deterioration in characterization. And in Pat himself. Things started to fall away. Everybody would mimic him. It became cult-like. It hurt him. It was a burden.
EKINS: There's a script to make another one.
KAMEN: A Broadway producer asked me to co-write the book for Karate Kid: The Musical. I want choreography for the Cobra Kai. People are going to burst into song.
GARRISON: It's still part of the culture. There's seldom a day when someone doesn't say to me, "Put him in a body bag!" And I say back, "It's: Get him a body bag!"
JOHNSON: Every single parent in the country wanted their children to protect themselves against bullies, so karate studios were signing people up right and left.
KAMEN: I got calls from people who had dojos who said their attendance doubled. People came in and said, "We want to learn 'Mr. Miyagi karate.'" What the f--- is that?
MCQUEEN: That's the big positive: That movie probably saved a lot of ass whoopings.
ZABKA: I carried on training [with Pat Johnson] a little longer after the film. I was a marked man sparring in class. The black belts wanted to knock Johnny out.
KOVE: I would walk down the street and guys would be screaming out of cars, "No mercy!" My son owns a vape store now, and there's a vape juice called Sweep the Leg made by Banzai Vapors. I've got a beer from [Infamous Brewing Company in] Austin called Sweep the Leg.
KAMEN: I have a shirt advertising a car wax called Miyagi's Wax On Wax Off.
VIDAL: I saw a Pop-Tarts wrapper once with a drawing of a pastry doing the crane kick.
ZABKA: In 2006 this label approached me with a band, No More Kings, that had written a song called "Sweep the Leg." They asked if I wanted to be in the video. The only way I'd do it was if I could write and direct and get everybody back. They said, "That sounds great."
PETE MITCHELL (No More Kings singer-songwriter): I ended up studying jujitsu because of that movie. The song is an apology from Johnny to Daniel saying, "It wasn't my fault." He's been hanging onto this and he gets a chance to make it right.
ZABKA: I had been trying to outrun the shadow [of that movie] in a way. I wanted to do something new. The music video was the first time I [embraced the nostalgia].
MITCHELL: He was like, This is what I've been trying to tell people: I'm not the bad guy!
MACCHIO: Justice for Johnny. It's the How I Met Your Mother theory. On that show, Barney Stinson [one of the main characters] says Johnny is the real Karate Kid.
CHRIS HARRIS (writer-producer, How I Met Your Mother): Like most of the writers on that show, I grew up in the '80s. The Karate Kid was our Rocky. We had a lot of celebrities appear on the show, but there was never a longer line for autographs among the cast and crew than there was for that episode when we had Ralph and Billy on. One executive who watched it said she teared up a little when Barney finally got his wish, the Karate Kid villain showing up at his bachelor party.
HELLER: When people hear I was in that movie—especially men in their 40s—they just light up.
HARALD ZWART (director, The Karate Kid, a 2010 remake with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan): It's a very relatable story for young people. The idea that you can actually face and defeat your bully is big.
MACCHIO: Daniel LaRusso was a 98-pound weakling with East Coast swagger. And yet he was very much every 15- or 16-year-old fatherless kid looking for guidance.
KAMEN: We all want the perfect teacher, the perfect mentor. Someone to give you the secret, the knowledge.
MACCHIO: Yes, you have them catching flies with chopsticks, you have the crane kick.... But I think the human element is why it connects.
"During filming, we were all laughing. John [Avildsen] stopped us," Garrison recalls. "He goes, 'You guys have no idea what you're making here. THIS IS GOING TO BE A CLASSIC.' We all thought, Yeah, whatever."
"I'm proud of myself for the kick, but I'm equally proud of Billy for taking the kick," Macchio (above) says. "LIKE A GREAT PASSING PLAY IN FOOTBALL, IT'S ALL ABOUT TIMING."
BOX OFFICE PUNCH
Budget for the 1984 original Karate Kid.
Total lifetime domestic box office gross of the classic hit.