It was a rare, rainy monsoon-like day in Southern California. Traffic jams, flash floods and slick roads littered the coast, yet a martial artist, actor/filmmaker and author named Sean Kanan drove a 230-minute obstacle course from Los Angeles to La Jolla to fulfill a promise to appear at a screening of his new film 5th of July. Before the screening, Kanan graciously spoke with me.
by Dr. Craig D. Reid
Near the beginning of our conversation, Kanan recounted that the first martial arts film he saw was Chuck Norris’ 1980 hit The Octagon. “He was such a badass,” Kanan said. “Years later, my dad attended an event and got me an autographed picture of Chuck that said, ‘Sean, keep on kicking.’ It was a treasure for me. I later did an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger — it was a dream come true to be in a fight scene with Chuck.”
The seed had been planted. By the time he saw Karate Kid in 1984, Kanan was a student of shotokan karate under William Stoner. Later, his instructor told him about an incredible martial artist named Fumio Demura. Stoner eventually converted to shito-ryu, which is Demura’s style. Around the same time, Kanan learned that the producers of The Karate Kid Part III were in need of a new villain.
“That’s when I started working with sensei Demura and Pat Johnson,” Kanan said. “I admire them tremendously. They’ve given me untold value and have had profound effects on my life.”
Although the actor wasn’t a black belt, that didn’t deter Johnson from doing his best to mold him into bad-boy Mike Barnes, Kanan recalled. “Pat looked at what I could do well [and said], ‘We’re going to make you look like a million bucks.’
“There was a lot choreography to learn. We worked out with Pat every day, going over each technique. It was imperative no one got hurt. During the big tournament scene, John Avildsen had eight cameras running to ensure that everything was caught on film. We got what was needed because Pat drilled us hard and we were terrified of him.”
Although Kanan doesn’t practice karate on a daily basis these days, the martial arts lifestyle is still there, he said. “It’s taught me discipline, humility and understanding the concept that one is always a student. Like most people, I’ve made mistakes in life, but martial arts and accepting humility have helped me get out of bad situations.”
Case in point: Because of chronic pain that resulted from stunts in Karate Kid III, Kanan regularly took aspirin for relief. Problem is, he didn’t realize he’d actually injured his omentum, a membrane that connects the stomach with other organs. Aspirin’s blood-thinning property induced hemorrhaging, and a tremendous amount of blood seeped into his abdomen, creating severe low blood pressure. Death would have followed if surgery hadn’t been performed.
Against his doctor’s advice, Kanan — with surgical staples up and down his abdomen — discharged himself from the hospital and returned to the set, where he told director Avildsen that he wanted to do his upcoming fight rather than relegate it to a stunt double. His martial spirit was in full force.
Because of the iconic nature of his role in Karate Kid III, I was compelled to ask Kanan if part of him is Mike Barnes. “I’d just started acting and was still an undisciplined kid with charisma and a forced personality,” he said, grinning. “I had to quickly learn how to sublimate it and didn’t know if I was succeeding. On a professional level, if I didn’t succeed, the film wouldn’t succeed. So I was brash, cocky — but that’s what got me the part. Outside of Barnes, I think I’m a pretty decent guy.” (smiles)
Decent guy or not, Kanan’s dream of being an action star started to wane around the time the phone calls stopped coming. That’s when, in true martial arts fashion, he realized that he had to depend on himself to find work and improve his acting skills.
Kanan talked his way into a three-month, low-budget play, after which came an opportunity to get into the most un-martial-arts-like genre of entertainment: soap operas.
“A good friend who starred in General Hospital told me they were looking for someone to play his brother,” Kanan recalled. “We looked remarkably alike. I was the only one testing for the role. If I didn’t get the job, then I knew I was no good.”
But he was good — so good, in fact, that he became a regular from 1992 to 1997. The actor built a solid fan base and secured roles on The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful.
The secret of his success? Putting his karate discipline to work when he was tasked with memorizing lines. Producers of daytime soaps often require actors to learn 20 pages of lines a day, Kanan said. “Sometimes they’ll hire really good actors, but they can’t learn all the lines. If you can’t keep up, you’re out.”
As of 2019, Kanan still hasn’t starred in another martial arts movie, but he did a fight scene in which he got to showcase his kicking skills and his prowess with the bo in 2000’s The Chaos Factor. “It would’ve been great to get a multi-picture martial arts deal back then,” he said. “I chose other opportunities.”
However, during one scene in Chaos, which turned out to be an unwitting prophetic moment, Jay (Kanan) tells head villain Max that the hero got away. “He went back to his apartment and got something,” Kanan’s character says. Max snidely replies, “A cookbook maybe?”
A cookbook is precisely what Kanan would write years later. Titled The Modern Gentleman: Cooking and Entertaining With Sean Kanan, it was published in 2011. Full of fabulous recipes and plenty of guidance on how to develop social skills, it dispenses Kanan’s advice on winning a lady’s heart with manners, respect and food.
In Chapter 12, subtitled “The Modern Gentleman Defends Himself,” Kanan urges men to practice martial arts to build confidence and learn discipline. “If a modern gentleman has to hit a guy, see my recipe on mashed potatoes because they’re easy to chew,” he wrote.
That brings me to Kanan’s latest publishing project. In response to September 11, Jill Liberman wrote a book titled American Pride: Famous Americans Celebrate the USA. It features the emotional yet dignified pining of 70-plus notables on what it means to be an American and what constitutes patriotic spirit. Kanan was one of those notables. “With people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Anthony Robbins in the book, I was way out of my league,” he said humbly.
With America under duress and with turmoil in the streets, Kanan decided to reunite with Liberman to create Success Factor X. The book, which will be published in May, features 50 celebrities from various fields as they share the best advice they’ve ever received or given on the subject of success. The luminaries include Run-DMC, Mark Cuban and, close to Kanan’s heart, Fumio Demura and Pat Johnson.
“There’s so much divisiveness in America today, and it made me think about something we can all agree on — wanting success for ourselves, our loved ones and our children,” Kanan said. “Success is definitely one of several pillars that hold up your happiness, your health, the quality of your relationships and that sense of giving back in service. Everyone will find some words of success in this book they can benefit from.
“The take-away is that many successful powerful people in this book don’t talk about success in terms of wealth or power but [in terms of] their ability to inspire and help others achieve their own success, fulfillment and happiness. It’s getting a sense of achieving what you set out to achieve while improving the common good.”
The topic took Kanan back to the martial arts. “When you start, the concept of succeeding looms heavily,” he said. “Yet eventually there’s recognition that your skills are improving, that you’re learning the philosophy and that martial arts is not an impossible thing to do. You’re given a sense of direction.
“Humility makes successful people more tolerable to others, and discipline allows us to do something. The passion of openness and humility allows us to authentically connect with and emotionally reach people, which may inspire them and result in a blossoming friendship.”
Dr. Craig D. Reid’s book The Ultimate Guide to Martial Arts Movies of the 1970s: 500+ Films Loaded With Action, Weapons and Warriors is available at blackbeltmag.com/store.
Just prior to press time, Sean Kanan contacted Black Belt to update this update. “I have finished principal photography on a film currently titled A Simple Man,” he said. “It stars Steven Seagal, Johnny Messner and DMX.”