Producers of this weekend’s 1980s reboot, The Karate Kid with Jaden Smith, must be hoping for a little of the Ralph Macchio “wax on” magic to rub off on their film. The original movie, a 1984 crowd pleaser that made Macchio an underdog icon, grossed $90.8 million and spawned three sequels, all of which made money until the last one, sans Macchio, made only a tenth of the first.
The original series made Macchio and Pat Morita superstars but what happened to them and their Karate Kid alumni once the final tournament was over?
Macchio’s years as a box office draw extended past Karate Kid III, but just barely. After parts in Crossroads and My Cousin Vinny, he couldn’t make the transition into adult roles. Luckily, he avoided the post-fame pitfalls of other ’80s kid actors like the Coreys, but despite steady gigs in low budget film and episodic television he hasn’t been able to shake the spectre of his most famous character.
“‘Wax on, wax off,’” he says. “Every week someone yells out the phrase as if they’d just come up with the idea, thinking, ‘Whoa, isn’t that genius? Hey Ralph, wax on, wax off!’”
Macchio’s replacement in the franchise fared slightly better — like two Oscars better. In an attempt to inject some new blood into the series — “Who says the good guy has to be a guy?” read the advertising tagline — the 20-year-old Hilary Swank beat out hundreds of other girls to don Macchio’s gi in The Next Karate Kid. It was a flop critically —“The franchise is still kicking, but not very high,” wrote Variety — and commercially but only slowed her career momentum momentarily. By 1996 she was working regularly and by 1999 it was Oscar time.
The only actor to appear in all four of the original movies was Pat Morita, who became the first American-born Asian actor nominated for an Oscar for his performance as sensei Miyagi in the first film.
It’s impossible to imagine the films without him but he nearly didn’t get the part. Producer Jerry Weintraub initially rejected Morita, claiming he was too well known as Arnold on Happy Days.
Determined to win the role, Morita grew a beard, mimicked his uncle’s Japanese accent and screen tested.
“When Jerry saw it, he said, ‘That’s what I want — a goddamn actor,’ not realizing it was Pat,” said the late actor’s wife Evelyn.