The Man who created Karate Kid

karate kid Fighter International 1989

By Steven M. Shear
He’s one of the most successful black belts in modern times and you probably don’t even know his name. But everyone knows his cinematic masterpieces. He gave us Mr. Miyagi and Daniel-san, and captivated audiences with the warmest, most wonderful martial arts films yet made. The Karate Kid and its sequel were critical successes and box-office blasts, grossing over $100 million each. They have made their creator, New York City’s Robert Kamen, a rich and famous behind-the-scenes screenwriter. But success hasn’t ruined this resolute traditionalist. In real life he maintains the same martial arts values he so profoundly embedded in his celebrated movie characters. Meet the man who rocketed into the big time with the martial arts, and in so doing left an immortal mark on the world.

Robert Kamen
Karate Kid creator Robert Kamen poses with reknown shito-ryo master Fumio Demura (who doubled for actor Pat Morito). The image was shot on the set of Karate Kid III.

It was a martial arts phenomenon that marked the beginning of a new era. Unlike the typical bone-breaking, blood-spattering quests for revenge common to the genre, 1984’s The Karate Kid was that rare film that portrayed the martial arts as a vehicle for self-discovery. Some genius finally showcased the power and potential of the arts through wonderful characters, human virtues, and wholesome traditional martial arts values. And the public showed its appreciation by making it a megahit. The “Kid” is Daniel LaRusso (played by Ralph Macchio), a fatherless boy from Newark, New Jersey who moves to California. Upon his arrival, local punks target him for constant victimization. Finding himself incapable of retaliating physically, Daniel retreats from life, shunning all the social activities and interactions normal to a boy his age. He is befriended by his apartment building maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi (perfectly portrayed by Pat Morita). The next time Daniel is attacked, Miyagi is closeby. Despite the fact that Daniel’s assailants are all skilled karate students, Miyagi bests them easily. Daniel discovers that his quiet, diminutive friend has been keeping a secret from him — he is a master of the martial arts. Mr. Miyagi instructs Daniel in karate and, in the process, more markedly teaches him important lessons about life. That uniquely intimate relationship between a sensei and his student, richly brought to life by the fine performances of these actors and a spectacularly well-written script, is the magic that touched the hearts of moviegoers of all ages the world over. A sequel, The Karate Kid II, followed two years later and proved equally popular. The third installment in this film series is scheduled for release this summer. To New York’s Robert Kamen, screenwriter and creator of The Karate Kid, theseries means far more than just fame and fortune — for, believe it or not, there are things in this world more important than those enviable distinctions. To Kamen, each installment represents an opportunity for him to share with the moviegoing public his lifelong passion for karate. The Karate Kid’s creator, you see, is not only a veteran black belt, but a resolute traditionalist as well. That fact comes across profoundly in his scripts. And it is his genius for scriptwriting that has created a global cult following for his characters and brought untold numbers of new students to karate schools. “For me,” explains Kamen, “the film’s success was doubly satisfying because I knew I had a big commercial movie on my hands which would establish me as a major screenwriter. And on top of that it was about Okinawan Goju, the subject closest to my heart.” In self-evaluation he adds, “I think of myself as a martial artist first and a screenwriter second.”

Rob Kaman
Left to right: Rob Kamen, Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio on the set of Karate Kid II in Hawaii in 1984.

Kamen, a native New Yorker, has been practicing karate for more than 20 years. and has been part of New York’s martial arts community almost since its inception. Despite the demands of his busy schedule, Robert Kamen still makes time to train everyday — and it shows. At 41, he looks easily ten years younger. The level of success that Kamen has achieved as a screenwriter is unique in the film industry. In much the same way that Daniel’s life is turned around by virtue of crossing paths with the right person at the right time, Kamen’s own life has followed a nearly identical course.

A Date with Destiny
Robert Kamen’s first exposure to the martial arts took place in 1964 at the World’s Fair. He saw a karate exhibition presented by Ed McGrath in the New York Pavilion. McGrath, an Isshin-ryu stylist, had received his training from the wellknown karate pioneer, Don Nagle. The 6-foot-2 McGrath put on a rugged demonstration consisting of kumite, selfdefense, and breaking. Public feats of this kind were extremely rare at this time. Up until this point in his life, Robert Kamen’s sole passion had always been writing. Quite possibly, under normal circumstances, Kamen might have shrugged the demonstration off as being no more than a collection of unusual athletic stunts. However, only moments before he saw the demo, he and his friends had been attacked. While no one was seriously injured in the altercation the incident was fresh in Kamen’s mind when he entered the New York Pavilion. Consequently, his first exposure to karate took place at a moment of peak receptivity. Immediately afterward, he became a student of McGrath’s at his American Dojo in Jackson Heights, Queens.
The “Style Wars” Era In the beginning, many of New York’s martial arts instructors engaged in practices that could best be described as bizarre. One wellknown sensei was fond of dressing up like a derelict and laying in wait in dark alleyways, hoping to be attacked so he could test his skills. Another regularly took his students to a place where even armed police are reluctant to tread after dark — the parks of New York. He would direct his students to chalk their hands and feet, and then had them ambush each other. The man with the fewest chalk marks on him was the winner. “There was a lot of foolishness to those guys,” Kamen recalls. “They picked up on one very narrow aspect of what karate is.

A lot of that stems from the way these guys learned — what they learned, and how they learned. They were taught the most primitive sort of karate and they never were willing to look beyond that. They believed that the be-all, end-all of karate was kumite, and they never looked into what the art was really about. You give what you get.” Beyond some weird practices, the New York martial arts community was also a seething hotbed of competitiveness and stylistic nationalism. Tournaments were still in an embryonic stage, so teachers took their entire school enrollment to other dojos and had their students square off. There was a narrow-minded-bordering-on-irrational point of view held by the instructors of that era that ‘/he style made the man.” The Goju-ryu instructors packed up their charges and dispatched them to battle with the Shotokan stylists. The Tae Kwon Do practitioners were pitted against the Shorin-ryu students, and so on. Bones were broken and blood was shed during these “Style Wars”. Kamen always harbored the feeling that there had to be something more to karate than just this constant thumping of fists off people’s chests. With a writer’s eye for detail, he noted the belligerent, arrogant manner with which so many sensei carried themselves. The finer points were indelibly etched in Kamen’s brain. Years later, when he created the character of the antagonistic sensei, as played by Martin Kove in The Karate Kid, Kamen had a wealth of information from which to draw.

Okinawan Goju:
The Light at the End of the Tunnel!

In the late 1960s, while attending college in Pennsylvania, Kamen began training under U.S. Shotokan karate pioneer Teruyuki Okazaki. He credits Sensei Okazaki with being the first to open his mind up to “the wider implications of karate.” In the early 1970s, Kamen met Toshio Tamano, who introduced him to the Oki-nawan Goju-ryu style of karate. There was something inherent in Goju, and the way in which Tamano taught it, that struck a resonant chord in Kamen. “I have never had the urge or desire to train in any other system since,” Kamensays. “This was the most comprehensive system. It was also the one that made the most sense to me and that I found the most fulfilling.” He began commuting four hours from Philadelphia every day for the sole purpose of training under Sensei Tamano. Then, possessed by an insatiable hunger to immerse himself totally in the martial arts experience, Kamen decided to go back to karate’s source — its homeland. “I traveled to Okinawa and had my eyes opened so wide as to the real basis of this art. the implications of what karate really is, and its application, that I was never the same again,” Kamen says. After years of training with Americans who were always so obsessed with belts, one of the things that struck Kamen most about the way Okinawans trained was their utter indifference to rank. The Karate Kid reflects this: “J.C. Penney, $3.98,” he quips about a black belt. Then, “In Okinawa, belt mean no need rope to hold up pants.” Okinawa proved to be a major culture shock for Kamen. He had finally tested the martial arts experience he had been yearning for. However, being neither a monk, or lacking in professional aspirations, he could not remain on the island indefinitely. In order to pursue his dream of success as a writer, he had to return to America. “I was lucky enough when I came back to New York to meet somebody who was a karate genius,” Kamen says. “His name is Kao Ahn. Kao is a Chinese guy who has studied kung-fu since he was 5. When he came upon Okinawan Goju he forswore everything that came before. He used to test his technique by streetfighting all over the place. He’s a little guy but he would fight anybody at anytime. He was very, very tough. He can beat you by breathing! “When he learned Okinawan Goju from Mr. Kawakami, it was a whole new world to him. Because all of a sudden he’d found what he calls the ‘no bullshit style’. He saw where the kung-fu had gone wrong, where it had dissipated and degenerated. He saw all of it embodied and fixed in Okinawan Goju, which had remained a very traditional, very pure style. “[Kao] is very unstructured. He teaches like an Okinawan. There are no set classes. You come in, you start training. He shows up. This is the first time I ever saw something like this — nobody wears a gi. He gets an idea and he just starts talking and pretty soon it evolves into something else, and something else, and something else. I’ve sat with him until 2:00 in the morning listening to him talk about the theory behind the front kick.”

Enter the Mentor
In much the same fashion that he had encountered the right person to offer him the guidance and direction in the martial arts, Kamen’s professional life followed suit. He had written a script entitled My Brother’s Keeper. His agent. Michael Ovitz, showed it to Frank Price, the head of Columbia Pictures. “Frank Price, for want of a better word, is my mentor in the business,” Kamen says. “After I wrote the script and Frank read it, he took an interest in me. He believed in me and would support me in writing projects. He spent a lot of time with me, showing me different things about writing [and] about writing movies. We talked a lot — about what kinds of movies sell, what kinds of movies are good to make. “I guess he saw in me either a kindred spirit or a talented writer, because he took me under his wing and he nurtured me. He used to pay me very high amounts of money for screenplays that never got made. When I asked him why he said. ‘One day you’re going to write one that’s going to make a fortune, and this money, the money we put into your development, will be like a drop in the bucket.'” Price’s words would prove remarkably prophetic. Three years later Robert Kamen wrote a screenplay entitled The Karate Kid. Guess which executive and which movie studio was behind it?

How The Karate Kid was Created
In The Karate Kid, Mr. Miyagi chides Daniel (“You too much TV!”) for having a perspective on the martial arts that’s clearly the product of that ultimate instrument of fantasy — television. Ironically, the idea of making a martial arts movie with a young boy as the main protagonist came from a TV show seen by film producer and music mogul Jerry Weintraub. The concept of “infotainment” programming was then in its infancy. On one of these shows that featured “Real People” who were “Incredible,” Weintraub saw a segment about a nine-year-old kid who had earned his black belt. Something in that segment struck Weintraub’s fancy. He saw a potential movie in the subject so he called Frank Price at Columbia Pictures. Price in turn called Robert Kamen. “I know you know something about this stuff,” Price said to Kamen. “Would you like to write a movie about it?” Kamen, coincidentally, had been toying for quite some time with an idea about a transplanted kid and this funny Okinawan gardener who becomes his friend. He had always wanted to pursue the project, but didn’t know if it was viable. “Jerry Weintraub read the first draft of the script,” recalls Kamen. “He called me up at 11:30 at night and said, ‘Robert, you just made me a richer man.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He answered, ‘You just made me 20-million dollars richer.’ I said, What are you talking about?’ He said, `Your movie! This thing is going to be a huge hit.’ “This was, of course, before it was even made.” Most screenplays have lengthy histories of being optioned, then left to languish until they are optioned again by some other interested party. This was not the case with The Karate Kid. “I wrote it in June of 1982,” Kamen says, “and they started filming it in September of 1983. It’s very, very rare that it ever happens that way.” Filmmaking is, by its very nature, a collaborative medium. For a screenwriter this often means that what eventually appears on the screen, after everyone has finished collaborating all over his script, bears little resemblance to the story he had originally intended to tell. Again, The Karate Kid was that most uncommon of film projects where every line spoken on screen by the actors were those of Robert Kamen, “word for word —both films.” Each installment in The Karate Kid series has been directed by Academy Award winner John G. Avildsen (Rocky). Avildsen and Kamen, as a result of their years of collaboration on this series, have arrived at a very efficient and fulfilling working relationship. “We met,” says Kamen, “and kind of found each other. I’m very close to John Avildsen, both socially and professionally, and we have a great way of working on these films. Nothing has been put into any of these films that I didn’t like.” Once production on one of these films has commenced, Kamen says he remains much more involved in the day-to-day on-the-set activities than is typical of most writers. “I speak with the director everyday about every scene that’s shot. We talk about the content, how we can make it better, what we want to do with it, and how it will hook up with another scene somewhere.”

The Model for Mr. Miyagi
The script of The Karate Kid was full of inventive devices: the quiet Oriental with a secret past, Miyagi’s miraculous ability to fix everything from bicycles to broken bones by the simple laying on of hands, the novel “wax on, wax off’ training sequences, the mysterious crane kick. Most of all, the film was about relationships — between a man and his art, and between an older wise man and a brash young kid thirsting for friendship and needing lead-ership. Kamen’s model for The Karate Kid’s Mr. Miyagi is, he says, “a composite of several of my instructors. Miyagi’s a guy who doesn’t have a belt or a rank, and is the most Unkaratelike teacher. He has a very irreverent air about him. I named the character after Chojun Miyagi, the man who invented Goju karate.” Up until his work in The Karate Kid, Pat Morita, the actor who plays Mr. Miyagi, was best known for his comedic acting in the popular TV series Happy Days. “I thought he was perfect,” says Kamen. “The minute he walked in the door I said, This is Mr. Miyagi.”‘ Indeed he was. Morita played the part so well, in fact, that in 1984 he was nominated for an Academy Award as “Best Supporting Actor” for his work in the original Karate Kid.

Lightning Strikes
“During production,” Kamen recalls, “we started seeing the rushes [film shot the previous day]. We started to say, this could be something.’ It was about the right karate, the right thing — not this punching, kicking, beating-people-up nonsense. But you never know [about a movie] until it’s put together. I will never forget the moment John Avildsen and I saw the film with a live audience for the first time. They went NUTS! it was like walking on air.” Outside of Jerry Weintraub and Frank Price, no one really expected The Karate Kid to take off the way it did. “You see,”Price told Kamen, “if you do one like this every five years, who cares if we pay you a million dollars a screenplay? It pays back.” The Karate Kid became a box-office blockbuster, ultimately grossing over$100 million. No one involved with the project remained untouched by its success. Says Kamen, “It turned me into a major screenwriter. It made me one of the chosen few who are considered for all the better projects. It gave me financial security. It made me world known. I mean, wherever I go people have seen this movie— every country in the world. There’s nowhere that they haven’t seen it.” The martial arts community benefitted the most. “Across the country enrollments in karate schools went up 25 percent,” Kamen points out. “I got calls from all over the country from guys that I’d known in martial arts over the years who had schools. From everywhere the kids walk in, and they want to learn just like Mr. Miyagi teaches. ‘I want to learn like Daniel-san,’ they say. They want to learn the crane kick, even though no such thing exists. Unfortunately, there aren’t instructors who can present this alternative in the class because they never learned it.”

Master Miyagi

Lightning Strikes Twice
Like most writers, Robert Kamen fantasized about having a hugely successful movie that might perhaps spawn a series of sequels. The follow-up story to The Karate Kid was already planned in his head long before the cash register stopped ringing from the first installment. “I set it in Okinawa specifically to make it Miyagi’s story,” he explains. Kamen had picked up on many of the Okinawan customs during his trip to the island, and much of what he had learned was incorporated into the second film. The 0-bon dance and the tea ceremony that appear in Karate Kid Hare authentic. It was also during his stay in Okinawa that he met a man bearing a toy drum. That was taught to me by one of the most extraordinary karatemen I have ever met; a man named Choki Kishaba in Okinawa, a Shorin-ryu stylist. He was explaining karate to me while he held this little drum. ‘Look,’ he said, this is the basis of all of it.’ ” Several sequences in Karate Kid ll revolved around breaking techniques. Rather than emphasize the spectacular aspects of tamashiwari[trial by wood; i.e., breaking], Kamen used breaking as a device to reveal different aspects of his protagonist’s character. “It was kind of cut up in the film, so they never really got it. Originally, the background story was that Sato and Miyagi had found this piece of wood on the beach as boys and they had a contest to see who could break it.” In the film we see a mature Sato banging away relentlessly at this piece of lumber which refuses to yield. Miyagi recognizes the familiar length of wood and a tiny smile flashes across his face momentarily. That the wood has endured for so long offers hope to Miyagi that his friendship with Sato was intended to survive as well. “Sato was using power,” Kamen explains. “All his life he used brute force and had never learned how to use the inner power. So he’s using strictly this external power to smash away at this piece of wood. When that big, thick beam lands on Sato’s chest during the storm, Miyagi breaks it by using an inner force. It was never fully explained because we didn’t have time in the film.” There’s also a sequence that takes place in a bar in Okinawa where ice-breaking is treated as the local game of chance. This was not an authentic custom, but rather the product of Robert Kamen’s imagination. Once again breaking is used not so much as a symbol of skill or strength, but as a reflection of the intensity of Daniel’s relationship with his friend/teacher, Mr. Miyagi. By placing his well-being in Miyagi’s hands, and following his instructions unconditionally, Daniel is able to perform a feat that would otherwise be unthinkable for him. “Learning to break teaches a couple of things,” says Kamen. “It gives somebody tremendous confidence when he can put a part of his body through physical objects that are harder than his body. [Also] if you break correctly it really teaches you about fo-cus; it shows you how focus can really work. The only other way to see how focus really works is to actually hit somebody, and I do not advocate that.” Kamen has little affection for what he has seen in the martial arts film genre thus far. “It’s all nonsense. I don’t go to martial arts films.” They may be packed with action, but so far as he is concerned they are perpetuating a strictly one-dimensional perspective of martial arts. “My point in doing these films,” he says, “is always to provide an alternative to the public image of karate — that conception of being tough, that conception of being a fighting machine. People pay lip service to karate as a natural force in the world. [They say] that karate is something through which you can make a spiritual connection. All these people who train in karate, 99 percent of them pay lip service to this notion and have no idea what it means to hook into any of that stuff. I wanted to provide an alternative.”

Trying to Bottle the Lightning
The public was every bit as receptive to Karate Kid Il as it had been to its predecessor. Filmgoers were possessed with a need to know what would happen next to Daniel-san and Mr. Miyagi. Columbia was ecstatic at the response — another $100+ million box-office blast — and quite naturally they eagerly anticipated extending the story to a third installment. Everyone was ready to go, everyone except Kamen. He turned down the offer to write it!

“Originally, I didn’t sign on to write Karate Kid Ill, he explains. “I turned it down with much trepidation because I realized that these were my characters. It’s not like somebody gave me this assignment. I made these people up, every one of them — and their situations, their philosophies, and their foibles — and all the rest of it. “[But] I didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to do one thing and they wanted to do another, and so they got somebody else to write it. Lo and behold, what they found was that nobody can write Mr. Miyagi. “Unless you’re really steeped in the martial arts,” Kamen explains, “you don’t understand the concept. There are very few screenwriters around who practice martial arts, and even fewer of my caliber. So this other script came in and it was just terrible. I didn’t read it, but I was told it was just not at all The Karate Kid. They came back to me and asked if I would recon-sider. At that point I had had a little more time off and I reconsidered. I also felt bad about abandoning my people — Mr. Miyagi and Daniel.” One of the dominant themes of The
Karate Kid series has always been the reason why people fight. Whenever the subject is broached, Mr. Miyagi is ada-mant that “karate for defenseonly.” In this third outing, Daniel’s feelings on this subject run counter to Mr. Miyagi’s. This division in philosophy forms the core around which the plot of Karate Kid III revolves. Karate Kid III was shot on location in Los Angeles from December 8, 1988 to early February 1989. It will be one of the major film releases this summer, probably hitting U.S. theaters in June. Although both previous films were big hits, critics felt some of the magic of the first film had been lost in the sequel. So it was decided to return to the original approach in its original urban setting. Then, only a few weeks before shooting was to begin, a major problem developed. The producers wanted to sign Martin Kove to reprise his role as the antagonistic sensei, but Kove was already on contract for another project. Consequently, Kamen had to rewrite his script virtually at the last minute. Kove does appear in the film, but to what extent is unknown at press time. He’s currently starring in a TV series, Hard Time on Planet Earth. The people behind Karate Kid III are almost assured of a good audience. “Now that we’re going on the third movie,” Kamen says, “I have an audience that spans from 5- to 55-year-olds, all wanting to see what happens next. Wherever I go in the world people have seen either one or the other of the movies, if not both.” Indeed, those who didn’t see the movies during their theatrical releases, have been able to see them on cable or broadcast TV and on home videocassette. At this point a huge reception for Karate Kid Ill appears imminent.

To Be Continued …
Robert Kamen has achieved a level of success in the motion picture business that most people can only dream about. “It changes your life,” he says. “You become known as the writer of The Karate Kid.” Rather than sitting back to rest on his laurels, content to live on past suc-cesses, Kamen has ventured into other aspects of filmmaking. “I just produced a picture in Australia with Dolph Lundgren. He’s not only a big man, but a great fighter. I mean, one of the greatest fighters I’ve ever seen. He’s big and he knows fighting technique.” Lundgren, the Swede who got his start as Sly Stallone’s Soviet opponent in Rocky IV, is in real life a former black belt heavyweight champion in Mas Oyama’s famed Kyokushinkai style. He trained in Kyokushinkai with Brian Fitkin since he was 15 years old. The film to which Kamen refers is entitled The Punisher, based on the Marvel comic of the same name. “It’s something that just kind of caught my eye so I got involved with it,” Kamen says. The Punisher is tentatively scheduled for release in May or July, either right before or right after Karate Kid III. Conceivably, Robert Kamen may end up having a hand in the making of two of the summer’s biggest box-office attractions. It can take him as little as one month to as many as two or three for Kamen to write a script. While a couple of years ago, a combination of saturation and exhaustion may have led him to turn away from The Karate Kid, these days Kamen is far more optimistic about the future of the series. “With Mr. Miyagi there’s always one more little lesson to be learned. I can see this thing going forever.” ?

karate kid
This article was originally published inside Fighter International magazine issue of September 1989.