Despite losing their resident ninja, Sho Kosugi, The Cannon Group realized there was still money to be made in the Shiruken and sword business, so they set out to release a new ninja image. As noted by These Fist Break Bricks (via Collider), the company has pre-sold “American Ninja” as a vehicle for Chuck Norris. The problem? Norris wasn’t interested, so the studio set up a casting network for a new action star.
Enter Michael Dudikoff, a former model-turned-actor who had amassed a resume of modest film and television roles playing friendly friends and best friends in movies like Bachelor Party and Uncommon Valor. Director Sam Firstenberg was immediately smitten with Dudikoff, telling Kung Fu Magazine.com, “It was like ‘Who! This is the American Ninja!’ The way he spoke, the way he acted, his body language, everything.”
Unfortunately, what Dudikoff didn’t have were American ninja-level martial arts skills. He knew some aikido and judo, but wasn’t entirely believable as someone who could fight multiple ninjas or jump out of a helicopter – like his character Joe Armstrong does in the film. As Firstenberg said, “He’s not a martial artist in the sense that Sho Kosugi…is.” Luckily, Cannon had Mike Stone on hand to choreograph the fights and help Dudikoff achieve ninja-level skills. It certainly didn’t hurt that he was on screen with Steve James, a hefty true martial artist who lent credibility as Armstrong’s partner.
Dudikoff played Joe Armstrong in three sequels and shared the lead role with actor David Bradley (not the Harry Potter actor) in American Ninja 4. He then handed the franchise over to Bradley, who soon left the acting business and has kept a low profile to this day.