True Hollywood Stories, With Martin Kove Of ‘Cobra Kai’

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Martin Kove is a character. He’s a professional character, true, with a 40-year-plus career of playing the heavy — shark-toothed, pitted-chin tough guys like John Kreese in The Karate Kid and Ericson in Rambo: First Blood Part II — but also personally. He’s the kind of guy you can ask a simple question like “how many days a year do you generally work” and get an answer that involves Greek soldiers with guns, being held captive on a producer’s yacht, and a dispute between one of his movie’s producers and the financiers.

Which is to say: the dude’s got stories.

I suppose 40-year careers in Hollywood will do that to a person. These days, Kove is hot again, returning as John Kreese in season 2 of Cobra Kai on YouTube Premium (which recently announced a third season) and a role in Quentin Tarantino’s hotly anticipated Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, opening in the coming weeks. As to how that came about… well, naturally, Kove has a story.

Who wouldn’t want to pick that brain? I had a chance to speak to the 73-year-old actor recently, after his reps read my write-up of a chat with Kove’s Cobra Kai co-star Billy Zabka. Kove, a Jewish-American who a 1987 profile in the Chicago Sun-Times once called “the Kosher cowboy,” will tell anyone who will listen that his passion is rejuvenating the movie western. But naturally, he has other stories too.

So how did the role in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood come about? Did Tarantino tell you anything about why he wanted you in it, did you guys have a relationship before?

Well, it’s a really funny story. I mean, I’m a big proponent of the Western, and I wanted to get Django and Hateful Eight, and I never did. Actually, I decided to go the Director’s Guild screening of, I think it was Inglourious Basterds. And I just raised my hand to ask a question about the music. Tarantino (points at me and) says, “Martin Kove…” This is in front of 500 of my peers. And Brad Pitt’s on the dais, and Michael Fassbender’s on the dais, and they’re all there. And he says, “Marty Kove, Marty Kove, you’re one of my favorite actors. I love you in this movie called Firehawk.”

Firehawk was a movie that I did in Manila in 1992. It was a shoot ’em up, and it didn’t go anywhere. But (Tarantino) loved it, because he worked in video stores and knew all these wonderful movies that had gotten forgotten. I was very touched. And Brad Pitt grabs the mic and says, “And you’re a huge legend in my house, Mr. Kove. I just screened The Karate Kid for my six-year-old daughter two days ago, and we walk around the house with bandanas on our heads.” You know?

Yeah. (Ed. note: I didn’t, but what else do you say here?)

So, I felt like a million bucks. Bottom line, we went backstage, we exchanged phone numbers. And I got home, and I couldn’t read his handwriting. It was terrible. Six months I spent trying to reach him. Faxes, agents, all that, because I was excited. I wanted to work with him. Anyway, I bumped into him at the screening of Hateful Eight, and we talked, and he said, “You’re going to be in the next one.” And sure enough, I got a call right before they started shooting the movie — to do this small part, but it’s a Western deal. And when I saw him at the party preceding the movie shoot, I walked up to him and I said, “Quentin … ” I said, “Did you ask me to come play with you at this picture because I’m hot from Cobra Kai, or because I’ve been bugging you for three years to do a movie with me?” And he said to me, “A little bit of both.”

Whatever works, right?

Yeah, so the rest is history. And then I’m on the set, and he’s just terrific. He’ll say to you at the end of the day, “I think I got it, but I want one more. …And you know why?” And he turns around to a hundred crew, they all scream in unison, “BECAUSE WE LOVE TO MAKE MOVIES!” He’s just a real gas. My stuff is with DiCaprio, and it’s the best.

Is John Kreese still the role that you get recognized the most for?

Well, yeah. I guess Cagney & Lacey, Rambo, and Karate Kid are the three that I get recognized for most. Rambo and Karate Kid, they’re always vying for popularity. People, they love Karate Kid because Cobra Kai is current. But Rambo‘s the definitive first movie that was one man against the world, you know? It was the very first one. And then came Commando, and then came a variety of pictures, but that was the first. It’s like knowing Sean Connery as James Bond. He was the first. That’s who you remember.

How did you first get into acting?

Well, I always I knew I wanted to be an actor since the fourth grade, and I’d do plays in school all the time. And then I started out in New York, working at Lincoln Center and La Mama Theater Group and a variety of different theater groups. And then in 1974, I just came out here (to LA). My first year, I think I did eight TV shows and three movies. And it was always as a heavy. It was Capone with Ben Gazzara and Susan Blakely. And then I did another one with Jack Palance, The Four Deuces.

There was another one I did — I think it was Death Race 2000 — that Sly and I did right after Capone. Thing is, I never liked these movies at the beginning. I just did it because it was a good credit to have, and I was hungry to work. And I remember doing The Last House on the Left and I never realized it would become such a cult classic. To me, it was a little too violent. But David Hess, who did the lead, he was a friend of mine. I lived with his sister at the time, and I brought him in. I dressed him up with a lot of sweaters and made him big, and Wes Craven liked him. It was Wes Craven’s first movie. But it was fun. Some of these movies, you never know what will have the legs. No one ever thought Karate Kid would have the legs. God knows, we all hated the title.


Yeah, Billy and I, and Ralph, we all just… “Karate Kid” sounded like a Bruce Lee movie.

It is a little on the nose.

But all the pieces fell together. We still say, “Sweep the leg” and “No mercy” and all that 35 years later. And if you think about the history of cinema, there’s probably a dozen movies in history that you will remember the lines. You remember, “May the force be with you.” “Make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “Play it again, Sam.” It’s rare. Robert Kamen is a huge credit to this picture, and he loved the writing of our Cobra Kai writers. So to me, it’s all in the writing. Unquestionably.

So when you first came out to Hollywood from doing theater, did you know that you would end up playing the heavy?

No, I didn’t really know. I mean, that’s what seemed to happen in all these shows, these eight television shows and three movies. At that time, it was really interesting because as a young actor, you want a lot of lines, so you’re willing to do a lot of physical stuff. Because as young actor, you’re not getting a big part unless you’re really lucky straight away. So you’re getting a smaller role. And if it’s an action role you would give anything physical. And sometimes when I see a Marty Kove retrospective of movies, like, I’ll go to the Egyptian or whatever and I’ll see White Line Fever, or I’ll see even Capone or a couple of others, you do a fight scene, instead of just falling down, you’d loft yourself up three feet in the air taking a punch, and you just overdo it because you’re trying to make a little mark for yourself.

You think back to the early days of when you just wanted to say something. And now, when you do an improv, the most effective improv you’ll do is basically keeping quiet and listening. And this just comes with seasoning. And I guess when you loosen your instrument and you get older, you find that that’s what’s important — the basic communication between actors. Not becoming a star, not becoming an action hero, but the sophisticated communication between actors.

So you seem like you’ve worked pretty consistently your whole career. As a character actor, did you ever find yourself overworking yourself, or working a ton just in the hopes that you’d keep getting calls?

Well, you always feel that. You always want to keep getting work, but it goes up and down. Last couple years have been fine, and the series (Cobra Kai) is very exciting, and the press. We set records. We’re the most-watched streamed show. We have the most streamed show on the planet. There was a company called Parrot Analytics. And Parrot Analytics did a study, like a Nielsen study, and that’s what they found. (According to the report Kove cites, during the first week of May, “Audiences made the season 2 premiere of Cobra Kai the most in-demand digital original series in the world during its launch week!”)

In the early days, I was doing a lot of these A-movies after Karate Kid, and then all of a sudden I started doing films where I liked the part, but I didn’t think the script was that great. But I took it because I was arrogant enough to think that I could embellish the film and make it better with a good performance. And nine out of 10 times, even if you’re Anthony Hopkins, you work in a movie, even if you’re the lead, if it’s not very good, no one’s going to see it. Whereas you could have five lines in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and everybody’s going to remember that. I don’t do that anymore.

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In terms of shooting days, what do you think is the most days that you’ve worked in a year versus the least?

Well, I remember going to Greece — it was 1980. It was James Earl Jones, José Ferrer, Lila Kedrova. A movie called Red Tide (Blood Tide, per IMDB -Ed.). And we shot in the southern tip of the Peloponnese. It was in Greece, a city called Monemvasia, which was a Byzantine ruins. So I went to Cannes, and I went with the producer. The producer had an argument with his wife. And they had a 65-foot Ketch, and they were sailing to Capri, Ischia, Taormina, Malta, Corsica, Elba. And they were going to end up in Greece. But he had a fight with his lady, and this was the producer, and he said to me, “Come on the trip.”

We sailed out of Cannes, and it was incredible. And we would read the script, and it would be like a rehearsal. So we were two weeks at sea, and it was rough seas. I’m telling you, rough seas. It was like a force eight the first night out, which is like hurricane time. And so, we read the script over and over and over again. And then I was on location for two months in Monemvasia. So I was away for three months at a time.

At the end of the movie, it was tense, because the money didn’t come through to pay the per diem and the crew. So the crew started carrying guns in Greece, and they seized the negative ultimately. And the day before we did the last scene, the director and I, a young guy, he and I got out on the last hovercraft going to the mainland to Athens. Because they weren’t going to let anybody else off the island who was a member of the crew or the cast, unless this money arrives, it was actually going to be held hostage. …So it was quite interesting, you know?

Right. I mean, you’ve done some of these action movies in these crazy locations. What’s the scariest situation you’ve been in on one of these sets?

That was pretty scary when those guys were coming to the set with guns and the executive producers and the producers wouldn’t even show up on the set. But okay, here’s a much better story. I’m on the set of White Line Fever. And White Line Fever‘s a movie with Jan Michael Vincent, and I’m playing the heavy, Clem. So the stunt guy says to me, it’s a weekend, and he says, “Why don’t you come back to my place.” He knew I loved the West, so he had horses, and he was going to take me back to the Superstition Mountains to ride horses. So we were shooting in Tucson, and he lived in Phoenix. So we drove up there, took my laundry. I took all the laundry, and his mother did my laundry. It’s like 1975. Jonathan Kaplan’s directing this, and it’s a big scene on Monday morning. And now, it’s Sunday night, and we’re driving.

And I’m nodding out. I’m in the passenger seat of his car, and all of sudden I wake up, and I hear tall reeds from the desert and bush hitting the windshield. I turn around and look who’s driving. He’s nodded out on the wheel. I figure this is going to be it. I put my head between my legs. The car is going diagonally off the road, spins around, flips over, ends up facing the other way, and the entire hood is on fire.

We’re in the middle of the desert and this guy is definitely going to die. So I open up the door. I drag him out up to the road. I pulled him out, and the fire has now encompassed the front seat. So I have all my American Express papers, all this shit that you gotta — in those days, when you’d lose a card, you’d have to file triplicates. It was an enormous amount of paperwork if your card was lost or stolen, and I never wanted that to happen. So I dove into the backseat, grabbed my wallet and all the personals, and walked up to the road. The cops came, blah, blah, blah, took him to the hospital, took me to the hospital.

And the joke is that we couldn’t get to the big fight scene that we were training for with Slim Pickens, with L.Q. Jones. It was the climax fight scene that morning on Monday. And it was written up in The Hollywood Reporter, “Big Switch. Martin Kove saves stunt man’s life.” Because usually a stuntman is saving us. Everybody on the set, instead of asking how we were — because I left this guy in a hospital, I got to set, because I didn’t get hurt — everybody was pissed off at me for not showing up. The fact that I almost died, the fact that this guy almost died, didn’t make a bit of difference. You can see the true colors of show business.

You mentioned Cannon Films, did you ever see that documentary they made a couple years back about the Cannon Films’ heyday?

No, but I mean, I know all about it. They gave me my first job, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and it was called The Four Deuces. And it was a ’30s gangster movie. It was Jack Palance and Carol Lynley. I got to be really good friends with Jack Palance. He hated the business. Loved acting, but hated the business.

But anyway, they were characters, man. You know what they’d do? They’d go and advertise they got Dustin Hoffman, and then they’d raise all that money and pre-sell in the territories. And then they’d call Dustin Hoffman and give him a million dollars and say, “Will you be in my movie?”

Have you seen the business change a lot? Are there things that you miss about, I don’t know, maybe the ’70s era, or the ’80s era, of Hollywood films?

Oh, yeah, I miss the personalization. Years ago, you had meetings with directors, you could sit with the casting person and chat. It was much more personal. I remember meeting Samuel Fuller and crawling along the floor of his desk. He was doing a movie called (The Big Red One), I think, and I figured I was definitely going to be in it, because we had such a good time at the meeting. We were crawling on the floor, shooting at each other with make believe guns, and crawling on desks. It was great. This was Sam Fuller!


Today, it seems like everybody’s so busy. And now that the budgets are so big, there’s constraints on these movies. It’s almost like no one can afford to make a mistake, because there’s so much money on the line.

I think Sam Worthington said it on a talk show. He said he’d done so many good parts and the movies were not seen. I feel the same way. I’ve made so many good movies that I really like and wished they were released, but they went right to DVD, because the production company didn’t have enough money to go and promote it, didn’t have enough money to go and take it out to two weeks in the theater to get Academy consideration.

As an independent project, you have to save enough money for post-production. But it gets away from them. That money is always spent on other problems that they’ll have during production. And God knows, I think more actors have great roles in movies that nobody ever saw. You know?

Of course.

And that’s a shame. It’s truly a shame.

Finally, while I was researching I found this story Bill Hader told Marc Maron about being your driver. I’d love to hear your side of it if you’re willing.

Total fabrication. Not quite clear why he spreads this story. It’s quite uncharacteristic of me to indulge in such a level of being so inconsiderate. I don’t remember him or the event. Maybe he drove me to a set one day, but I really don’t remember him at all. I am truly happy for his success, though. As well as my old friend Henry Winkler’s success.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.