Training Mr. Miyagi
In 1984, one of the most acclaimed martial arts movies, The Karate Kid, introduced the world to an equally iconic character. Mr. Miyagi, played by Pat Morita, epitomizes the standard of wisdom, patience, and pure skill anyone should be so lucky to find in a teacher.
The performance netted Morita an Academy Award Nomination for Best Supporting Actor. There is no doubt that he was a great actor, but, ironically, the man who would play a karate master had no martial arts training prior to taking his famous role.
So who was Mr. Miyagi’s sensei? There was another man behind the scenes, coaching Morita on how to not only be a karate practitioner, but a teacher as well. His story is as intricate, poignant and inspiring as any film could ever be.
Pat Johnson was born in 1939 in Niagara Falls, New York, the youngest of 11 children. When Johnson was two, his father deserted the family, leaving Johnson’s mother, who had only a fourth-grade education, to provide for her children. As a result, Johnson and several siblings were removed by child welfare authorities and sent to the Sisters of Mercy Orphanage in Buffalo, NY. He would remain at the orphanage until he was nine.
“It was not a wonderful time, let’s put it that way,” he says. “Finally my mother went to work for the International Paper Mill and was well-established enough to get us out of the orphanage.”
The family moved into the projects where everyone, like the Johnson family, was “dirt poor.” Many of the new neighbors were less than friendly, and some were openly hostile.
“When I first got there I saw a bunch of boys playing, and I went out there and said ‘Hey guys, can I join you?’” he remembers. “And they beat the snot out of me. I got to a point where I was afraid to go out anywhere.”
It was here that Johnson’s first unofficial martial arts training took place. He had no mentor, no Mr. Miyagi of his own, but the bullying escalated until Johnson knew he had to do something. Sick of being jumped by a gang of older children whenever he walked home, Johnson took matters into his own hands and laid an ambush.
“I would hide behind one of these long brick buildings, because I knew where all of these young men went,” he recalls. “I’d pick up a bottle, and when one of them came around the corner I’d smack him over the head as hard as I could and run home like crazy. Of course they knew who did it, and the next time they’d see me they’d beat the heck out of me.”
This process repeated itself seven or eight times, by Johnson’s estimate, before the bullies finally gave up in search of easier targets.
“That’s when I learned that you have to stand your ground no matter what,” Johnson says. “To this day I will never bother anyone unless they bother me.”
Johnson’s true induction into the world of martial arts came in 1962, when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Korea to serve as a chaplain’s assistant. He quickly befriended a Korean man named Kang Lo Hee who had been assigned to the army as a translator and was a master of tang soo do. Kang proposed a trade: he would teach Johnson the martial art in exchange for help improving his English. Johnson readily agreed.
For 13 months, he trained daily in tang soo do. Hard work revealed that the New York native had a knack for the Korean art. By the time Johnson returned stateside, he had attained his first degree black belt.
There were no tang soo do schools in Niagara Falls, NY at that time. Johnson, undeterred, opened his own and named it Tim’s Studio, after the nearest instructor he could find, Master Tim in Buffalo, NY. Johnson trained with Master Kim to further his martial arts training, and began to travel for regional competitions.
While attending a tournament in Detroit, Johnson struck up a friendship with another young martial artist who had trained in Korea. He lived in California and owned several karate schools.
“If you ever come to California, look me up,” Johnson remembers him saying. “I think we could work together and do really well.”
Johnson returned to Niagara Falls, but eventually decided it was the right time to move on.
“I have no idea to this day what came over me,” Johnson says with a laugh. “I just decided to take a Greyhound bus and come to California.”
He took with him one suitcase, packed with a change of clothes, his karate uniform and the few dollars he had to his name. In California, he sought out the young fighter he had met in Detroit: Chuck Norris.
Pat Johnson (center) with Chuck Norris (second from right) and other students.
“At the time, Chuck was beginning to open a chain of karate schools,” Johnson says. “He had six at the time, and he asked me if I would take over the school in Sherman Oaks, which I did. For whatever reason, I had a knack for teaching the martial arts. There was a balance between discipline and having fun. I think that anything you do seriously, you have to enjoy doing.”
While teaching at Sherman Oaks, Johnson also joined the school’s fighting team, the Chuck Norris Competition Team. He easily secured a spot as team captain, defeating all other contenders. If any of his teammates had been upset to lose, they were certainly grateful to have Johnson on their side later.
Johnson was a uniquely talented fighter. His childhood run-ins with bullies came back into play, and it became clear that those early encounters had shaped his fighting style. Just as he had once waited, bottle in hand, he would now wait in the ring, circling. He deliberately left openings in his defense – a lowered hand, one side exposed. Knowing in advance where an opponent would strike gave him an advantage.
“I fought guys who were bigger than me, faster than me, stronger than me,” Johnson says. “But – and I don’t mean this to sound conceited – I never fought anyone that was as smart as I was.”
Talking with Johnson, it’s hard to imagine him as conceited. And besides, his results speak for themselves: his personal record in competition is 198 matches, with 196 victories, one loss, and one draw that he took because it was all his team needed to win.
Later, Johnson took over running Norris’ studios while the latter went off to pursue a passion for acting. Johnson’s own entry into the film industry would take place not too long after, and was almost wholly inadvertent.
Through Norris, Johnson met another celebrity from the martial arts movie scene – Bruce Lee. Lee and Johnson formed a friendship, and when directors were looking for stuntmen familiar with martial arts for Lee’s movie Enter the Dragon, Johnson’s name came up.
Most Hollywood stuntmen at the time were not well-versed in the arts – neither reacting to them or using the style to fight. The lack of experience was evident in early takes of one scene, leading the director to reach out to Johnson. But when he got to the set he was in for a surprise. The director asked, “Okay, are you going to do the dialogue?”
“And I said, ‘What dialogue?’” he recalls. “‘Nobody said anything about dialogue!’”
Fortunately, there weren’t too many lines to memorize. Johnson learned the part and completed the scene, which turned out much more authentic than the original. He played one of a trio of thugs who attempt to assault John Saxon’s character, Roper, who has failed to repay a loan from a mob boss.
“It’s the dough, Roper, or we gotta break something,” Johnson’s thug threatens.
The scene is too early in the film for any serious harm to befall the heroes, so Johnson and the other two thugs are handily defeated. However, that role follows him to this day.
“I was walking down the street near my home, and this man stopped and stared at me,” he says. “I think, ‘Uhoh, looks like this guy’s going to give me some trouble.’ I’m passing him, and all of a sudden he points at me and says, ‘It’s the dough, Roper, or we gotta break something!’
The line’s been called out to him more than once.
“I have to just start laughing,” he says. “It’s sort of haunted me to that point.”
Eventually Johnson expanded beyond acting and stunt work. He was a writer for the Chuck Norris film A Force of One; he choreographed fight scenes and helped direct Mortal Combat: Annihilation. And, of course, he trained non-martial artist actors for martial arts films.
His teaching credentials brought him to the set of The Karate Kid, helping to create some of the most famous characters in martial arts cinema. Although Johnson’s primary art had been tang soo do, training at Chuck Norris’ school had introduced him to karate, the style Norris had learned from Japanese instructors on the west coast. Johnson taught that discipline to the Kid cast, but even more important was the manner in which he instructed.
Johnson (background) coaching.
“Ralph [Macchio] and Pat [Morita], they were my buddies,” Johnson says. “I trained both of them until they were unable to move, and they would share their aches and pains like two little old men and they built camaraderie through the training.”
Johnson had read the script, and knew how important the mentor-student relationship between their two characters would be. He tried to foster that bond through the way he trained them. There were also less savory karate practitioners in the film: the bullies of the Cobra Kai dojo and their ruthless instructor John Kreese, the anti-Miyagi.
“When I would train [Cobra Kai actors] I would be harsh, very strict – the same way Kreese, who was played by Martin Kove, would have to do it in the script,” Johnson explains. “Then whenever Martin did the scenes in front of them, he was me.”
Johnson was pleased with the way the training turned out, but he is quick to give the actors all the credit for the movie’s end result.
“Martin Kove was really a wonderful, wonderful man, and for him to act so mean on screen, it was just amazing,” he says. “And [Morita] knew when to turn on the anger, and when to make it light. His great acting ability really brought the character [of Miyagi] to life.”
Today, from his home in Los Angeles, California, Johnson is still teaching martial arts in group classes and private tutorials. He prepares students for the real world rather than movie roles. His teaching remains grounded in reality, something he fears is being lost from martial arts training in general.
“The problem…is this: there is no one central governing body that regulates the criteria for what a black belt has to be or know,” he says. “If a young man or young lady goes in and trains for a year and they are given a black belt, they’ve just been told: ‘You can kick butt.’ And in reality, that’s not possible in that period of time.”
In movies, the good guy often gets to win no matter what. Out on the streets, in dark alleys and bad situations, it’s a different story, Johnson says, and that’s the real danger of rapidly given belt promotions. The issue is exacerbated by the black belts who, consciously or not, take advantage of their unearned promotions and open schools then pass along their poor training.
“It really does devalue the martial arts,” Johnson says. “And it’s a crime, really.”
If Johnson has a few worries about the future of martial arts, he’s optimistic that true martial artists and true arts will ultimately win out – an ending worthy of a movie. And he is more than happy with where his own story has taken him.
“It’s been exciting. I’ve received a lot of recognition for what I’ve done, and I’ve always tried to represent the
martial arts in a way I feel it deserves to be addressed and represented,” he says. “It’s been a good run. It’s been a really good run.”