On a cool summer night in a suburb of Buffalo, my siblings and I packed into the family fan and headed out to the local drive-in theater. The first film of our double feature, The Karate Kid – a film about a subject I knew nothing about, starring two unknown actors. I left that night a fan of karate, the film, and its stars – but most of all inspired. It is an experience I seem to share with just about every kid of the 80s.
Decades later, Cobra Kai, a series that would continue and build upon the story and events of The Karate Kid film series was announced. The trip back to The San Fernando Valley blew me away, again. The series captures the spirit of the films while bringing back many of the characters fans loved. This of course included, the formerly unknown stars now cultural icons, Ralph Macchio and William Zabka.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Macchio and Zabka in a spirited conversation that begins with how they became part of the original film and continued right on through their work on the series. Their chemistry is contagious and gives an idea of how it must be working on the set of series.
Below are select excerpts from the interview. While very interesting, I highly encourage you to watch the full video interview (below), because not only are the duo a lot of fun to watch, they share a few laughs by the time it is over they provide a lot of information I had not heard before along with some interesting insights to their work on the series. One thing that was very evident is their respect, love, and appreciation for the series and each other.
On joining the 1984 film:
Macchio: I brought in my East Coast kind of cockiness. And, although it wasn’t backed up by anything, that’s a piece of who Daniel Russo has become. I went to his (director John Abelson) apartment and read the scene with Pat Morita. When Daniel Russo realizes that Mr. Miyagi has a superpower, and could maybe teach him how to fend off the bullies.
Zabka: And then after Ralph was cast, they brought us a bunch of guys like me out to a field and they put Ralph in the middle and then we had to run and chase him. Whoever was the fastest got the part. I wasn’t the fastest, but I beat that guy up. So I got it.
The true story
Zabka: (They said to me) ‘I think you’re great for Johnny’ and went home and read the script. He’s a black belt. He’s a motorcycle gang leader. I didn’t know karate, never rode a motorcycle. He’s the prick of the show (laughs). And I’m like, ‘Wow, how am I this guy?’ And then I got towards the end of the movie – in the end when he kind of turns around a little bit, I kind of connected with him there. But it was a series of auditions for me.
The first day on set
Macchio: Me walking up that day and seeing all these, these guys that I had a sort of snapshot into, okay, so for about the next 11 weeks, one of these guys is going to be throwing me all over the place. So I just picked the best one. It’s as simple as that.
Zabka: The one who didn’t know any karate. Go with that guy!
Macchio: That makes two of us. Right.
On stepping back into The Karate Kid dojo 30 years later
Zabka: The moment where it felt like ‘Oh, here’s the show,’ is when Ralph came on set, and we did our first scene in the dojo. We both came in and he walks in the mat. And it was just, something happened. As soon as that scene was over, and he walks in and says, ‘I hear you’re picking on some kids.’ And I say, ‘those assholes that deserved it.’ There’s that tension in that moment between us and all this and as soon as they said cut, we both, everybody applauded. We knew there’s something there – we felt it was back -what was there in The Karate Kid is there now, but as an adult version in this context.
Macchio: The way it came together, what I didn’t know is because we both walked in the shoes connected to this entity for 34 years from two totally different perspectives. And all of that, without trying, was all under the surface of the dialogue. So there was a richness and performance that came from this life lived as actors as men as husbands as fathers as Billy as Ralph is Johnny and Daniel. So that was really a special moment and it was like ‘whoa.’ A silent conversation between us was just, ‘I think we have something.’ We both said those things to each other from across the mat. And credit Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald, and Hayden Schlossberg (the showrunners) for setting that up – and whoever scheduled the shooting schedule, because it was the perfect scene to launch it.
On finding the warrior in yourself
Macchio: That’s a big part of what it is – that aspirational, inspirational characters that are the guys you grew up with, the guys you knew, and you felt you are part of that. That’s always what I say about the Daniel Russo character in that film. He had no business winning anything, but he made us all feel that we can achieve these goals. So it’s that sort of thrust of adrenaline and empowerment. And so that’s just great for storytelling.
Watch my full interview with Ralph and William (above). And, if you have not already, check out their work on Cobra Kai. All four seasons are now exclusively on Netflix with a fifth season coming this September.