‘Cobra Kai’ Star Billy Zabka On Living With ’80s Novelty Fame And What Today’s Kids Could Learn From His Generation

Billy Zabka in Cobra Kai
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Cobra Kai, the “continuation” of the Karate Kid franchise that released its second season on YouTube Premium earlier this year, shouldn’t work, but a big part of the reason it does is Billy Zabka. You’d expect the series to be a cheap nostalgia play, a way to maintain the IP that already gave us three sequels in the 80s and 90s (I saw the fourth one, starring Hillary Swank in the theaters with my mom), but Cobra Kai doesn’t just exploit our Karate Kid nostalgia (I mean it does, but it doesn’t just do that), it attempts to unpack it.

In Cobra Kai, nostalgia isn’t just the hook, it’s the theme. Does this thing we loved just remind us of being young, or is it genuinely worthy recreating?

Zabka reprises his role as the now grown-up Johnny Lawrence, and it’s Johnny’s personal conflict that drives the series. It would’ve been easy to just paint Johnny as “victim of toxic masculinity” and spend the whole show ripping on him. Or, conversely, to have him toughen up these sensitive youngsters and spend the whole series smashing up participation trophies to help the kids grow into their traditional and “correct” roles.

But Cobra Kai attempts nuance and Johnny Lawrence is complicated. He obviously feels a kind of wistful pride in his days as a sleeveless be-gi’d member of Cobra Kai, the Oakland Raiders of San Fernando Valley karate tournaments. It was largely their teachings that made him the man he is. But how much does he like that man? Can he separate all the self-confidence and strength he learned to feel from the more toxic lessons? Or, you know, from the fact that his sensei/surrogate father broke his trophy and tried to kill him?

Zabka turns out to be the perfect vehicle for this conflict, between which traditions to pass on and which to let die. Cobra Kai allows for a depth of acting ability most of us probably didn’t know Zabka had, managing to pull off both “funny 80s bully” and “relatable everyman.”

That’s a tough task, not just acting-wise, but even looks-wise. It’s hard to think of two more inherently contradictory appearances than “working class everyman” and “former 80s child actor” (imagine, say, Corey Feldman trying to manage that one). Ralph Macchio probably couldn’t pull that off the same way, but he’s been reimagined in Cobra Kai as the gloryboy owner of a local car dealership and it works beautifully. The show, created by Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald (the first two the writers behind the Harold and Kumar franchise), was nominated for an Emmy last week and announced a season three greenlight last month.

Zabka and his co-star, Ralph Macchio also recently teamed up for their first commercial, for the exotic car collection by Enterprise, which lets customers choose a rental from their collection of exotic cars, including a bunch featured in Daniel’s dealership in the show. I had the chance to speak with Zabka while he was promoting the launch, and I got to pick his brain about 80s fame, life as an iconic movie bully, and why so many movies, songs, and shows seemed to be set in the San Fernando Valley in the ’80s.

So tell me about the Enterprise exotic car collection you’re promoting. Are they anything as cool as the matte black and yellow Challenger from the show?

They’re all exotic cars, man. Take your pick. There’s a great lineup. It’s all the cars that you see on the show at the LaRusso dealership. So he’s got his high-end lot, and then he’s got his junk lot, which he let Johnny pick a car from, but take your pick. I don’t know if they have a Challenger there. That Challenger was specially built, but it’s filled with beautiful cars.

Are you a car guy at all?

I’m really not a car guy. I mean, I’m a Jeep guy. I have 1985 CJ-7 Laredo four-wheel drive that I’ve had since then, so that’s my thing. Although, I’m digging the cars they give me on the show. The Firebird’s cool. I like the old ones, you know?

Right. So, so many of your ’80s movie peers are dead or living out some kind of weird novelty fame now. How did you survive into adulthood seeming relatively well-adjusted?

Wow, that’s a soliloquy. I don’t know. Is that true? I don’t know, man. I mean, I look to my left and see the guys that I worked with back in the day, and a lot of them are doing some amazing things. I think something about Karate Kid, it evolved with time somehow. It aged well, and the conversation about the themes of Karate Kid and the characters have just been passed down for generations. It’s gone from the theater, to cable, to the Internet, streaming, and all that. And it’s created enough energy and conversation that’s about the characters and the themes of the show to provide an opportunity like Cobra Kai to come around. But I don’t know.

Since this seems like one of those frequently-asked Billy Zabka questions, what are some of the things that you were doing between your years of ’80s and ’90s movie fame and your current run on Cobra Kai?

Well, I did tons of independent films. I did a lot of guest spots on shows, but primarily, I was doing behind-the-scenes stuff. I went to college before I even got The Karate Kid. I wanted to be a filmmaker. My first love has always been behind the camera. I did a short film that I produced and wrote. I lived in Europe for a while. That film premiered at Sundance, and I took it on a tour around the country, and we ended up getting nominated for an Academy Award for it. And then I went on to direct music videos. I did a couple of big Rascal Flatts videos that were nominated for video of the year. I did two documentaries that I produced and edited. I’m also an editor. So I did a little bit of everything.

I think there are certain times you get lucky in something that is popular and everybody knows you from, and the rest is obscure. I don’t expect everybody to track my career and know where I’ve been. But it’s a common question, like, “Hey, man, it’s been 30 years. What have you been doing, man? How have you been eating?” It’s a fair question, but I do many things. I write, produce, direct, edit. I’ve always had a hand in one aspect or another, and I’ve been equally content and happy. It’s been nice to be off the grid a little, to be honest. I’m back out there again, and that’s a whole new thing. It’s a new day and it’s super exciting. And I’m well equipped for it, because in the ’80s, I was 18, and now… I’m 27 (laughs). (According to Wikipedia, Zabka is 53. I didn’t ask for ID.)

Another thing that I did in the middle of all that is I went, and this is funny, because last night, we had a great music concert to honor the music of Cobra Kai, with the two composers of the show, and so I lived the dream last night, and I got to go play at The Whiskey last night, one of the songs, which is the theme song of Cobra Kai for the Johnny Lawrence story. In between my acting and filmmaking, I also went to music school. I’m a guitar player.

What was happening in your life when you first got that part as Johnny Lawrence in Karate Kid?

I had just graduated high school, and I was going to film school at Cal State Northridge. I was in my first semester of school, and I started going on auditions for Karate Kid. About halfway through my first semester, I booked the job. So I got pulled out of film school and thrown into a film. Ironically, the ending tournament scene, where we did the final fight, happened to shoot at Cal State Northridge in their gym. So I went to college as a student and came back by the end of the semester as one of the stars of Karate Kid. Go figure.

Did you grow up in the San Fernando Valley?

Yeah, I did. I was born in New York City, lived in Long Island for 10 years. I moved to California when I was 10. My dad worked for NBC. He was a director on The Tonight Show and a lot of different shows. So did my mom, she worked at NBC. And my dad got transferred to California. I was the Daniel LaRusso really, coming out here. I was a fish out of water with the weird accent and the funny bike, and I had to make my way in the first couple weeks and months of California and try to blend in.

It seemed like the (San Fernando) Valley was the hot place to set movies and songs and shows in the ’80s. Why was that such a hot setting then as opposed to now? (Cobra Kai) seems like a throwback in that way too.

It’s a great question, man. I don’t know. I mean, Fast Times, I think, just kicked it off. So much happened in California. It was a lot easier to shoot back here. It was also a lot less congested. There was something about California being the mecca of pop culture and music and films, and everything’s just coming out of here. So I think it was just easy to film in your backyard. I think it just was by default that it was California, but it just became thematic with all those films.

I think today it’s just not as friendly to shoot here. It’s a lot more expensive to shoot here, so everybody’s setting in their things everywhere else and running away. We even shoot our show in Atlanta. But what I love about our show is that we pull it back to the Valley, and we did shoot a lot here too and bring that flavor and taste back, because there’s something really special and fun about seeing palm trees, and Ventura Boulevard in Encino, and the hills, and the beach, and all that.

It’s a good escape for people that don’t live here to vicariously live through the characters and the setting. And if you haven’t been here and lived here, it’s like another world, and that’s a cool place to visit.

I mean, in the ’80s, there was Fast Times, there was the song “Free Fallin'” (“it’s a long day, livin’ in Reseda…“), there was entire concept of the “Valley girl,” all very specific to the San Fernando Valley–

Oh, yeah. Yeah, right. And I grew up in all that. Valley Girl came out in… (1983, a year before Karate Kid). I mean, it was like just watching a documentary almost of your life. It was all those people I knew. Those directors and filmmakers really nailed that moment in time. I mean, they really encapsulated it. It’s awesome. And you get to watch it today, and it’s refreshing to look at. I’m thankful for all that. I’m a huge fan of all those films and all those actors. I mean, it’s funny, I always fell out of the box a little bit and was like, “Really? I’m here too?” Look to your left, and there’s just all those great, great actors. And to be a part of that at the time, was a little surreal.

I mean, on that note, speaking of the actors, it’s crazy to me when I look you guys up to realize that you’re four years younger than Ralph Macchio. I would’ve never guessed that from watching the first Karate Kid.

Yeah, Ralph was 22 when he filmed Karate Kid. I’d just turned 18. He’s got those genes, I guess. He eats a lot of broccolini, he’s got the face creams. He does it right.

So the show, which I really enjoy, and especially you in it, it feels like it’s all about reckoning with the lessons that you were taught as a child and trying to decide which ones that you want to pass down to the next generation. What are some parts of your upbringing that you think kids today are missing out on?

I think any parent today will say the same. In the day, we used to go out at night and come home when the lights went out. It felt like a more safe environment, a safer world, and the kids got out of the house more, and they went and played more. There was just something about playing baseball rather than playing X-Box baseball and Wii Tennis. We actually played tennis. Forget the virtual world. There’s a real world out there. And I love that Johnny Lawrence is, in a way, a fossil of that time and a reminder of the simpler things. And that’s very easy and natural to step into those shoes. Go river rafting, go climbing, go jump in the mud, go live, ride your bike, fall down. This culture is a little bit more… We’re a little isolated. We’re connected online, and that’s a big change.

I have kids, and I’m trying to balance that myself, making sure that they get a dose of the good stuff, the real stuff, real-life experiences. So that and the music, man. Turn on the classics, classic music, classic movies. There’s so much to learn from that, and it’s good for the soul.

And then on the other hand, what are some of the more toxic ideas that your generation was raised with that you’re happy to see go and not be passed down?

Well, I’m sure there are those things, but I can’t recall anything right now. I think somehow we polish our past, and we feel like our history is the right one, so I don’t know, man. I don’t remember anything. Back in the ’80s, drugs crept into the culture. I mean, we’re doing shrooms and this and that, and I avoided all that stuff. I’ve never done a drug, so I didn’t get swept up in that. And that’s just as prevalent today too. I avoided all that, all the toxicity, I think, and the credit goes to my parents and my upbringing. So I wouldn’t judge anybody else for that and say, “Do this, or do that.” I think people pretty much are the same and things evolve, and we have a new generation of good and bad. Hopefully, you got right line to follow and avoiding it, being an example. I mean, I was the guy at the high school parties with the iced tea, you know?


Really, I was the guy that wasn’t drinking at the parties, but I’d be there, and–

So no Coors Banquet?

Well, Coors Banquet isn’t really alcohol, is it?

Are they a sponsor, or do they just–

There’s nothing wrong with a good Coors Banquet, man. I mean, that’s what I’m talking about.

How much have you actually gotten to drive the cars from the show, like the Trans-Am, and the Challenger?

Oh, yeah. Yeah, I’ve driven them all. I’ve driven one of the Enterprise Audis, which is actually my favorite — air-conditioned, got the good sound. And we got the old school Firebird, which just smelled like the ’80s, literally smelled like the ’80s, it even had the cassette deck in it. And then the Challenger, that thing was built by the guys that did The Fast And The Furious, the guys that built all those cars built that car. And I think each one of those tires is worth more than most houses. It’s a crazy car, it’s got so much power. So yeah, I get to drive that around. But when I drive it around, I got a camera guy in the back, and I got a cop on my left, so I don’t get to go and step on it. But one day, maybe I’ll sneak off the set and take it down the coast, I don’t know.

You actually have a cop with you when you do that?

Well, sure, when we’re filming, we always have escorts. There’s a camera car in front. There’s a camera right behind you. You know what I mean? There’s a walkie-talkie on my seat. There’s two cops, one in front, and one in back usually. And they escort you around the ‘hood, so you don’t chip the paint.

Okay, so last question. Is there anything we should look forward to in season three?

I think a lot of seeds have been planted for entries of characters that may come back, and I’m excited. The guys are writing it now, the three creators, Josh, Jon and Hayden. But I haven’t even seen the download yet of the full season, but a lot of it is exciting, everything that’s happened so far and then more. It’s going to be just as a big or bigger than last season as far as the scope of it.

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