By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON
Jerry Weintraub is a good con man. I came to this conclusion after reading his new book “When I Stop Talking You’ll Know I’m Dead: Useful Stories From a Persuasive Man” (with Rich Cohen; ISBN 978-0-446-54815-1, Twelve, Hachette Book Group Inc., SRP $25.99, 291 pages).
When I write “good con man,” I mean that in the best way possible. Weintraub, 72, is the type of guy you’d want on your side if you had to sell malt liquor to Mormons or kim chee to Koreans. (It’s no mistake that on the cover he’s on the Brooklyn Bridge, which has supposedly been sold countless times to countless rubes since it was built.)
Weintraub is the kind of con man who not only builds confidence in his clients and partners, he’s a master at “conning” the public in the P.T. Barnum sense—but he uses his powers for good.
An impresario whose résumé includes talent management, concert promotion, Broadway productions, heading a film studio, being a film producer and a philanthropist, Weintraub has had a successful career that spans five decades. He has been associated with some of the biggest names in show business and politics: Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra, George H.W. Bush to George Clooney.
Reading his entertaining memoir, I get the impression he enjoyed “conning” icons like Presley and Sinatra, as well as John Denver and others when they were feeling insecure or out of sorts to make them (and himself) more millions of dollars and more famous.
I also get the feeling that as a raconteur, Weintraub could have written a few more books with even more anecdotes, but is either taking those tales with him when he finally does stop talking—or has plans to release them in the years after he has left this mortal coil, just to keep his name in the press.
Although he sometimes waxes serious and wistful in the book, Weintraub is mostly celebratory as he looks back at a remarkable career. It’s no insult to say this book is the sort where you go to the index and look up a name and go to the page to find out what sort of interaction Weintraub had with a particular celebrity or personage—and that is exactly what I did.
With this weekend’s release of the remake of “The Karate Kid” (which he co-produced with Will Smith after producing the first four of the original series), it’s fitting to note that early in the book Weintraub writes: “Never get paid once for doing something twice.” A corollary to that he must follow surely would be: “Get paid many times for repeating and repeating something done well once,” because “The Karate Kid,” “The Next Karate Kid” and now this new one are all basically the same story! And “Karate Kid” was essentially a teenage “Rocky,” with karate instead of boxing and both sharing the same director, John Avildsen. (Did I not say Weintraub was a good con man?)
Still, I must admit that I’m a “Karate Kid” geek. I loved the first one, cheesy as it sometimes is, because it had heart and chemistry, having captured lightning in a bottle. Frankly, it should not have been as good as it was but the combination of script and casting created a rare alchemy that cannot be planned. It just happens, and happen it did.
But it happened for a reason and that reason was Weintraub. Otherwise, the late Pat Morita, who breathed life into screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen’s iconic character of Mr. Miyagi, might be remembered only as a semisuccessful nightclub comic who had a few bit parts like playing Arnold in TV’s “Happy Days.”
Instead, thanks to Weintraub giving the go-ahead to cast him in the pic, Morita achieved film immortality, not to mention an Oscar nom in the category of best supporting actor.
Although I had heard that the great Toshiro Mifune was originally looked at to play Miyagi, Weintraub reveals why ultimately he was not chosen—his English was not good enough. Still, Miyagi, according to Weintraub, was “the most important part in the movie—the father, the teacher, the moral center, heart and soul.”
It got to the point where all the major roles—Ralph Macchio, Elisabeth Shue, Randee Heller, Martin Kove, Billy Zabka—were cast, except one. Weintraub writes: “Miyagi was important. And I could not find him. I was about to put the picture on hold. We would just have to wait until fate brought us Miyagi-san.”
Then, Avildsen tells Weintraub that he has found the perfect actor to play Miyagi: Pat Morita. Weintraub isn’t buying, remembering him only as “The Hip Nip” from his standup comedy days. Avildsen won’t take no for an answer. Drama!
He brings a tape of Morita in costume as Miyagi doing a monologue from the script. Weintraub is intrigued. “We staged a test with Morita and Macchio, a scene in which the kid, who has been hurt, is in bed and Miyagi is nursing him. We shot it. And while we were shooting, I started to cry. I mean, real goddamn tears. The next day, as we were looking at the footage, I said to Avildsen, ‘You were right, so very right.’”
To me, the key scene in the original “Karate Kid” is when Macchio’s Daniel Larusso visits Miyagi, only to find his normally reserved sensei drunk, wearing his U.S. Army uniform, mourning his wife, who, while incarcerated in Manzanar died giving birth to their child, who also died as Miyagi served in Europe as a member of the 442nd.
The kicker comes at the end of the scene, when Larusso learns this humble maintenance man who happens to be a karate master is also a recipient of the Medal of Honor. It was the best work Morita ever committed to film.
And it wouldn’t have happened without Jerry Weintraub.
If after reading the preceding you’re thinking that now you don’t need to get a copy of “When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead,” well, that depends. If all you care about is “Karate Kid” and Pat Morita, then that’s true, because I just shared it with you.
But if you’d like to hear firsthand the observations and recollections of a man who had and continues to have relations with some of the biggest names in pop culture over the last few decades, get yourself a copy of Jerry Weintraub’s book. It’s a fun and educational read—I con you not!
Nikkei Nation Dept.: I haven’t mentioned it lately, but I’d like those of you with computers and Internet access to take a moment to visit the following Web site: NikkeiNation.net. It’s my community news Web site, launched earlier this year. It’s humble but it does the job. Not only that, I’m also offering a daily Nikkei Nation email newsletter. Email me using the address below and I’ll send you complimentary copies of this newsletter. If you like it, I’ll also send you a form to use to subscribe to Nikkei Nation. The subscription, incidentally, includes a DVD of my award-winning short form documentary “Going for Honor, Going for Broke: The 442 Story.” If that’s not a deal, I don’t know what is!
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
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(George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at George@NikkeiNation.com. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Past columns can be viewed at www.IntoTheNextStage.com. Copyright (c) 2010 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.)