Pat E. Johnson, ‘Karate Kid’ Choreographer, Trainer and Referee, Dies at 84

Pat E. Johnson, the ninth-degree black belt and Chuck Norris contemporary who choreographed the fight scenes, trained the actors and portrayed a tournament referee in the first three Karate Kid films, has died. He was 84.

Johnson died Sunday of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, his niece, Colleen Mary Johnson Summerville, told The Hollywood Reporter.

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Johnson also was a stuntperson, stunt coordinator, trainer and/or fight coordinator on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mortal Kombat movies; and on other films including Enter the Dragon (1973), To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), Showdown in Little Tokyo (1991), Batman and Robin (1997) and Wild Wild West (1999).

Johnson served as a top instructor at Norris’ karate schools in the Los Angeles area starting in the late 1960s, and his students over the years included Steve McQueen, Bob Barker and members of the Osmond family.

For The Karate Kid (1984), Johnson told Sports Illustrated in 2018 that he trained actors Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio “separately, really hard. They would moan and bitch — they developed a relationship because they had that in common.”

He also taught Macchio the “crane kick” that his desperate Daniel LaRusso delivers to end his All Valley tournament match with Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) in the first film’s climatic moments. He would note, however that the move is “not something that’s really legitimate or realistic.”

Johnson then returned for the sequels in 1986 and 1989 and for the 1994 reboot, The Next Karate Kid, starring Hilary Swank.

Born in 1939 in Niagara Falls, New York, Johnson learned Tang Soo Do, an ancient Korean form of karate, while serving as a chaplain with the U.S. Army in Korea in 1963. He said it took him just 13 months to earn his black belt.

After the service, he competed in karate tournaments in the U.S. and met Norris at an event in Detroit. “He and I struck a really good bond at the time because we had both trained in Korea, we had both gotten our black belts in Korea,” he said in a 2016 documentary.

“He mentioned to me one time that ‘If you should ever decide to come to California, I think we could work really well together.’ I really don’t know exactly why I did it, but one day I jumped on a Greyhound bus, came to California and said, ‘Chuck, I’m here.’”

With Norris operating a chain of karate schools, Johnson served as his main instructor at the Sherman Oaks location (Norris had opened that spot with legendary grappler Gene LeBell). Later, he captained the actor’s black belt competition team and won an individual national karate title in 1971.

(Johnson also is known for creating the sport’s penalty point system, designed to keep fighters safe and encourage sportsmanship.)

He did stunts and tussled with John Saxon in Enter the Dragon, starring Bruce Lee and Norris, then worked on films including Black Belt Jones (1974), The Ultimate Warrior (1975), Norris’ Good Guys Wear Black (1978) and Curtis Hanson’s The Little Dragons (1979), where he played a karate instructor.

In 2019, Zabka told Men’s Health magazine that the martial arts expert “built me up from nothing.”

“I didn’t know anything about [karate] when I first started,” he said. “I was a wrestler in high school and very limber and athletic. The discipline that he gave physically, mentally and technically was incredible; so much so, that I trained with him after the film was over. It’s amazing how his teaching has stayed with me all these years.”

In the Sports Illustrated piece, Zabka said he “got the attitude for my character from Pat. I used his Ki-yahs. I used the way he stood with his hands in his belt.”

Johnon also served as president of the National Tang Soo Do Congress, which was created by Norris in 1973, until it disbanded in 1979. He and Norris than led the United Fighting Arts Federation. He was inducted into the North American Sport Karate Association Hall of Fame in 1993.

In addition to his niece, survivors include his wife of more than 50 years, Sue; sons Brett (and his wife, Leah), Garth (Lisa), Larry (Kim) and Erik; and siblings Richard and Cindy.

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