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‘Karate Kid’ Director Avildsen Dies at 81

Ralph Macchio, John Avildsen and Aly Morita share memories of the filming of “Karate Kid” in 2014 at the Japanese American National Museum. (J.K. YAMAMOTO/Rafu Shimpo)

John Avildsen, the director of “Rocky,” for which he won an Academy Award in 1977, and three “Karate Kid” films, died on June 16 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 81.

The cause of death was pancreatic cancer, according to his son, Anthony.

Avildsen’s other films included “Joe,” “Save the Tiger” (for which actor Jack Lemmon won an Oscar), “Neighbors,” “Lean on Me,” “The Power of One,” and “Rocky V.”

A documentary on his career, “John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs,” directed by Derek Wayne Johnson, is in production and will be a companion to the book “The Films of John G. Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs” by Larry Powell and Tom Garrett.

“The Karate Kid” (1984) starred Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso, who moves with his mother from the East Coast to San Fernando Valley. At school, Daniel befriends Ali (Elisabeth Shue) and gets bullied by her ex-boyfriend Johnny (Billy Zabka) and other members of the Cobra Kai, led by Kreese (Martin Kove). Miyagi (Pat Morita), the maintenance man at Daniel’s apartment building, becomes his mentor and teaches him karate.

Morita received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. The Oscar went to Dr. Haing S. Ngor for “The Killing Fields.”

Avildsen went on to direct “The Karate Kid Part II” (1986), which took place in Okinawa but was filmed in Hawaii, and “The Karate Kid Part III” (1989). He did not direct the fourth and final film in the franchise, “The Next Karate Kid” (1994), deciding instead to direct “8 Seconds.”

The Directors Guild of America said in a statement, “We were greatly saddened to learn of the passing of beloved director John Avildsen. His iconic ‘Rocky,’ which won the DGA Feature Film Award in 1976, has been lionized throughout our culture as the quintessential underdog story – a recurring theme in his notable body of work, which included ‘Save the Tiger’ and ‘The Karate Kid’ franchise. Throughout the decades, his rousing portrayals of victory, courage and emotion captured the hearts of generations of Americans.”

“Karate Kid” Memories

Director John Avildsen and actor Pat Morita talk during the filming of “The Karate Kid Part II.”

Avildsen participated in a screening and panel discussion celebrating the 30th anniversary of “The Karate Kid” at the Japanese American National Museum in 2014 along with Macchio, Zabka, Kove and Morita’s daughter Aly.

While many saw “Karate Kid” as a knockoff of “Rocky,” Avildsen disagreed: “It’s a very different movie. This is the story of a surrogate father that everybody wanted to have. It’s a much more touching story than ‘Rocky.’ In many ways it has a lot more emotion.”

Avildsen recalled that Morita, who at the time played Arnold on the sitcom “Happy Days,” was the first person brought in by the casting director for the role of Miyagi. “I had no idea who he was. I’d never seen ‘Happy Days’ and I had no preconceived conception about Pat Morita.”

Avildsen was “knocked out” by Morita’s audition. “I ran into the producer and I said, ‘We got him. This guy is terrific. We don’t have to look anymore.’ He said, ‘Who are you talking about?’ I said, ‘Pat Morita.’ He said, ‘Give me a break. Pat Morita, he’s a comic, he’s not an actor. We need a real actor for this.’ So we blew about two weeks looking at a lot of other people, and finally they decided to give Pat a proper screen test — and there wasn’t a dry eye.”

Avildsen said of Darryl Vidal, who created the movie’s iconic crane kick, “I was looking at a lot of karate tournaments when I was casting for this, and I saw this guy and nobody came close.”

The movie was going to end with a confrontation between Creese and Miyagi in the parking lot after the tournament. “But after I shot that moment with Daniel being carried off … I said I don’t think we need that scene … It’s not going to top what we just did,” Avildsen recalled. “I think the movie ought to end with him being carried off.” (Instead, that confrontation became the first scene of “The Karate Kid Part II.”)

In one scene, Daniel learns that Miyagi served with the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II and that his wife died in childbirth in camp while he was gone.

“One of the other editors said we don’t really need that scene, it slows everything down … I thought it was a pivotal scene,” Avildsen said. “… Fortunately, it prevailed and I think that was the scene that caught the Academy’s attention and cinched the nomination for Pat. He was just perfect in that scene. It’s probably the most touching scene in the movie.”

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