Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: Chuck Norris turned down The Karate Kid.
When it comes to legends, Chuck Norris has pretty much anyone beat, as there is a whole industry made up of just inventing facts about Chuck Norris, like “There used to be a street named after Chuck Norris, but they changed the name because no one crosses Chuck Norris and lives” and “When Chuck Norris does a pushup, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down.” However, even a guy as legendary as Chuck Norris still has some false stories told about him. One of the most notable characters in the 1984 film, Karate Kid, is the “evil” sensei, John Kreese, played by Martin Kove. Kreese infamously tells one of his pupils to use an illegal kick to the knee with the intent of injuring his opponent (Ralph Macchio’s Daniel, the “Karate Kid” of the film’s title).
It gets that pupil disqualified, but sets it up so that another one of Kreese’s pupils will win by default. It almost knocks Daniel out of the tournament, but Daniel’s sensei, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), uses a pain suppression technique to allow Daniel to keep competing. In the finals, Kreese has his classic line where he tells his remaining pupil (Johnny Lawrence, played by William Zabka) to “sweep the leg” (attack the injured leg). Daniel, of course, succeeds anyways. A long-standing rumor was that the original choice to play Kreese was Chuck Norris, but Norris turned it down because of the bad example it gave for karate instructors.
Is this “Chuck Norris fact” true?
It does not appear to be true, no.
Few actors were as closely associated with martial arts at the time of Karate Kid‘s release as then 44-year-old Norris.
In the late 1960s, Norris became one of the most decorated martial artists in the United States. He parlayed that success into a career in movies, slowly working his way up the food chain until he got his first starring role in 1977’s Breaker! Breaker!. Norris starred in a few more movies in the late 1970s and early 1980s before breaking out with 1984’s Missing in Action, about a solider going back to save prisoners of war in Vietnam (it is often criticized as a rip-off of the Rambo film with the familiar plot, but it is worth noting that Missing in Action came out a year before Rambo: First Blood Part II, the first Rambo film with that same plot).
That film set Norris on a hot streak, starring in a number of action-oriented films over the next few years.
So right off the bat, Norris was busy starring in an action film when Karate Kid was being worked on, but obviously shooting schedules could be changed. So did he turn down the role?
Norris himself says that he was never offered the role, but had he been offered the role, he would have turned down the role for the very reasons given for him ostensibly turning it down – that he felt that the character of Kreese was such an unfavorable depiction of a karate professional that he did not think it was a good idea.
The director of the film, John G. Avildsen, does not recall Norris ever being offered the part.
I tend to believe, then, that Norris was never offered the part. Former Norris martial arts team member, Pat Johnson, did end up doing the martial arts choreography for the film. Also, one actor who definitely did try out for Kreese was a young Steven Seagal (Avildsen was not impressed).
I’m willing to go with Norrisn and Avildsen and say that the legend is…
Thanks to Larry Powell and Tom Garrett and their book, The Films of John G. Avildsen: Rocky, The Karate Kid and Other Underdogs, for the Avildsen quotes.
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