Ralph Macchio Remembers Jerry Weintraub and Making ‘The Karate Kid’ (Guest Column)

Karate Kid Ralph Macchio Jerry Weintraub
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

I don’t think anyone forgets the first time they meet Jerry Weintraub. For me, one of my earliest memories of him was on the set of the original “The Karate Kid” in 1983. He was in his office at Bungalow 1 of the Columbia Pictures lot. He had a golf car with a Rolls Royce grille parked out right in front, whereas everybody else had a standard beige golf cart. On that day, Jerry strutted past me and called out loudly to his assistant, “Get me George Bush on the phone.” He was wearing this khaki safari-like jacket, big sunglasses and he always had swagger in his walk.

While I was making the first three “Karate Kid” movies, Jerry was an influential figure in my career. He’d say to me as recently as our last conversation, “I love you like a son.” But he was more like an uncle. After the first “Karate Kid” screened and everybody was doing the crane kick in the parking lot, he put his arm around me and said, “You’re going to be making a few of these.” I was contracted for three. This was the beginning of when studios had an idea, and they would get you for two more. At the time, this movie was Jerry’s baby and I was the right kid right at the right time. It was a role that changed my life.

A big debate early on was that Jerry didn’t want Pat Morita to play Mr. Miyagi. He supposedly said, “There’s no way Arnold from ‘Happy Days’ is going to be in the movie.” Jerry would never admit that he was wrong. But he later came to Pat and said, “I almost made the mistake of my life.”

The second “Karate Kid” was shot in Hawaii, and I must have been tired and having an off day. Jerry came over and said, “I saw the stuff yesterday. You’re half in and half out.” He then waited a second and said. “If you give me half, I pay you half,” he threatened, jokingly.

Jerry was the last of a dying breed in Hollywood — the legendary mogul who always had the best table at a restaurant. He name-dropped with the best of them, but you couldn’t help but love the guy. He was a man of his word with loyalty and heart. He had a big roar, and yet I was never intimidated by him. I enjoyed his energy and his brash confidence. I did a good imitation of him way back, and he always laughed at my version of him. Like any actor growing up, you want to be taken seriously and become the next Marlon Brando, and so at first I hated the title “The Karate Kid.” It sounded like an after-school special to me, and would rag him about it. He’d say, “It’s a terrible title, but because of that, it’s a great title.”

Jerry taught me a lot about Hollywood. He told me about how in this business, you make one for them and one for you (or was it two for them and one for you?). He said to me once, “I saw the biggest piece of shit I ever saw in my life. It’s called ‘Grease.’ I wish I produced it.” He understood and had a knack for projects that were “commercial.” He had a great eye for talent and was unrelenting in his passion as a producer. When Jerry believed in it, Jerry got it done. Attaching the right filmmakers to the right material was also an instinctual talent of his, from Robert Altman on “Nashville” to John G. Avildsen on “The Karate Kid” to Steven Soderbergh on the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise.

Through the years, Jerry always stayed in touch with me. He’d call me up and say—“Are you making money? Are they paying you for that?” The morning after I premiered on “Dancing With the Stars,” the first call I got was from Jerry: “You’re a smash! If I’d known, I would have done a dancing picture with you.” A few weeks later, I got ripped apart by the judges, and he called to say, “F— them. The word on the street is that you’re great, people love you, they will always love you.” I couldn’t get past this image of Jerry Weintraub sitting on his couch on a Monday night, watching “Dancing With the Stars,” and rooting for his kid.

Even though we spoke a bunch on the phone, the last time I saw Jerry was at the premiere of “The Karate Kid” remake in 2010. He had the studio fly me and my son Daniel in to Los Angeles to see the movie. We were talking after the screening, and he reintroduced me to his wife Jane. “Remember, this guy?” he told her. “He bought you a couple of houses.” I laughed out loud and shook my head. I’m not sure if he even said my name or not, but he gave me a bear hug and a kiss on the cheek and said, “I love you.” Then he called the photographers over to grab some pictures. He wanted to make sure my son got in the shot: one big happy family. That was Jerry being Jerry. At that moment, the kid who bought him a couple of houses, he loved like a son. Jerry Weintraub was one of a kind. He will be missed, but his personality will live with me forever.