The Karate Kid franchise has demonstrated its staying power through four films and a full reboot in 2010. Now, eight years later (and 34 years since the original film), both William Zabka (who played Johnny Lawrence) and Ralph Macchio (Daniel LaRusso) are returning to show fans how their character’s lives were impacted by the original’s iconic final fight in Cobra Kai, a YouTube Red original series that debuts today.
Despite the heavy nostalgia-fueled interest in the show, however, Cobra Kai isn’t hollow fan service. While there are callbacks and Easter eggs, there’s also a clear desire to show some growth for the former Karate Kid as he once again clashes with Lawrence, who is, himself, far removed from being the Golden Boy that he had been prior to Danielle’s punishing crane kick.
Earlier this week, we spoke with Macchio about the dimensions on display in Cobra Kai, being protective about the character and franchise, being replaced by Hilary Swank, and why the time (and story) was right for a return.
I want to go back through franchise history a little bit. What happened when they made The Next Karate Kid with Hilary Swank in 1994? Was there any interest in you doing another film or did you just not want to have anything to do with it?
I think about that, occasionally. I mean, this was a while ago. This is all so interesting, to reopen the cobwebs of 30 years ago, 25 years ago. I heard they were making the movie. There was a section of time, for no specific reason, where Pat Morita and I were probably not [in] as much contact. It had nothing to do with anything … all I have for Pat Morita is the utmost love and respect. For our entire relationship, always, there was never a hiccup. But as years go by, not every year as much. And so, I wonder if the truth lies here… if this came across the agent’s desk at one point, but usually, that always comes to me. I know John G. Avildsen didn’t make the movie, I know Robert Mark Kamen did not write the movie. So the original creators weren’t involved, and I think it was just… my assumption was [there was] an idea from the studio to continue on, and they got Pat to sign on with that idea. And I had heard they were making it, and probably almost dealt with it the first time I heard about it.
It was kind of odd for me. I never really had a conversation with Pat about it afterwards. Again, for no apparent reason. It wasn’t like they came to me and [I] said, “Oh no, I’ll never do another one of these.” None of that happened. I think it was probably a decision by the studio and producer at that point, “Hey, let’s take this in this direction, let’s find another way to go.” But I have run into Hilary Swank once or twice and we have had an internal smile about it all.
At that point, I assume you’re thinking, “Well, I’m probably never going to play this character again.” What changed over the years, and what made this feel like something that you wanted to be a part of?
Well, it was something I was very protective of. The character first and foremost, and then the franchise — certainly the original film, which has become such a special part of pop culture, and a slice of all our childhoods, and a piece of Americana, in a way. I said no a lot of times. Everyone had their favorite pitch, whether it was Daniel LaRusso had a kid and Rocky Balboa had a kid, and they got together and opened a dojo together. You can not imagine the pitches. And some of these pitches came from accomplished screenwriters and TV writers. Everyone had a fix. And I just felt that the legacy of the film stood so much on its own, that it was — and I’ll use the word “safer” — but it always felt more right, correct, not to go back to the well and then fall short.
When they made the remake in 2010 … I did not want to be involved in that in any way. I understood that Hollywood is show business and not show-art and there was another angle that they came up with, and it only enhanced the legacy of the original, but I always kept arms-length. I heard nothing that sounded fresh and original.
Now what’s happened is the platform and the timing is a big part of it for me. The timing of the streaming platforms, where you essentially can make a 5-hour movie like we did, and cut it up into 10 parts. So, timing lends itself. The big, fat, warm comfort food embrace of Will & Grace and Roseanne. When it’s well-executed, the audiences are chomping at the bit to revisit old friends.
But more so on top of that, it’s Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald. These guys are the biggest Karate Kid fanboys ever. They can recite it like a nerd recites Star Wars, inside and out. They wanted to pay homage and respect to their favorite thing growing up and make a piece of entertainment that they believe respected the franchise, but yet is everything the fans would want to see.
They had written the Harold and Kumar franchise, the Hot Tub Time Machine franchise, between the three of them. I felt they knew how to write for the “now” generation, the younger generation. And everything they pitched was completely soup to nuts… the pilot, the first season, where it could go in the second season, third season, and beyond. But it was not without a handful of concerns by me and a ton of questions, and then the importance of infusing the Miyagi character into the adult Daniel LaRusso’s life.
None of us would be here without Pat Morita’s performance, and it’s a spectacular role created by Robert Kamen and John Avildsen and, obviously, Pat Morita. It was important that certain things were threaded through the entertainment of it all, and that’s a very long answer to a very simple question, but that’s why now it’s done.
[Laughs] We all saw what happened with Mark Hamill with Last Jedi and Rian Johnson where he’d let on that he was a little uneasy with the new direction. It seems like Daniel is going in a little bit of a new direction, so I’m curious how you felt about that since, as you said, you’re protective of this.
Yeah, there’s certainly… I call it, it’s fan fiction. These guys are writing their version of where LaRusso picks up. And also, [with] the fresh angle in from the Johnny Lawrence side and whatever happened to this guy, and what happens to bullies when they grow up, and where does that lie? That’s an interesting take, and that was part of what was so interesting about coming in through this sort of side door. Not unlike with Creed, where that film was about Apollo Creed’s son and that journey, but then Rocky Balboa came in from a different angle.
I think, yes, there’s always an uneasiness. You don’t know if the water is 85 degrees or if it’s 60 degrees, and you do have to jump in. It’s difficult. It was absolutely a leap of faith, but I believe that they had… and they told me over and over when I kept questioning, where the arc was, where they’re going with it, and what how the collaboration will be. And based on my notes and interactions and how they responded with adjustments, I believe that I have to go outside my comfort zone sometimes. Because I’m a little too protective and Daniel LaRusso may be a little too precious to me. Also, it’s nice to place these characters as both protagonists and antagonists in the series.
[People] remember LaRusso as wholesome good-hearted and earnest… as he is and he still is, [but] there was a bit of an edge, a little bit of cockiness to him that kept him going back and getting himself in more trouble. So, we still have those elements. In the trailers and stuff, obviously, the studio cut it in a way that it’s almost like, “Oh, wow! Johnny’s a good guy and Daniel’s a bad guy!” But as Miyagi would say, “Not everything is as seem.” How about that?
That’s a good answer. Do you guys pack this with Easter Eggs? Is there going to be a “sweep the leg” moment or anything like that teased?
There are plenty of Easter Eggs and callbacks and flashback moments in the series that I think the fans are going to absolutely love. You know, it comes to that point where you can go too far, and I think the creators have done a good job of picking and choosing those.
What’s also very cool is there are angles and shots in some of the flashbacks from Johnny’s point of view and from Daniel’s point of view, where we had the opportunity to go back into the archives of Sony Pictures, which is Columbia Pictures, and they were able to use footage from the film that was never in the movie. There is one shot of the crane kick in the first flashback in episode one that is three different angles that have never before been seen of that same moment. And that’s kind of cool. The nerds are going to love that.
I know you guys had a little fun with the characters with the No More Kings “Sweep The Leg” music video that William Zabka directed about ten years ago, and I’m curious if you’ve looked for more opportunities like that to have some fun with all of this and also if you felt any kind of fatigue with the character over time?
I certainly get… even now as we’re promoting [Cobra Kai], every show I’m on is coming in, “Oh, can we do a little skit for online? Can we do a little sketch for the opening segment?” And I’m always very, “The show is the reason to jump forward and look at these characters. I’m not going to parody the character.” We did… I even did my Wax-On, Fuck Off video. But it’s more about Ralph Macchio, but there are elements in there where I poke fun at it all.
With this, how I approached Daniel LaRusso as an adult is much different than how I approached him as a teenager, back in 1983. It’s a good part of the grounded version of what I believe is the natural part of myself and my sensibilities and kind of the heart and soul that is me. And then, hopefully, add a little sprinkling of the heightened reality that brings LaRusso up to be that kind of character that reminds us of ourselves, but still has balls and is not a wimp and he goes forward to drive the story.
And so, as an adult, the biggest difference, when I approached it, is that now I have life, I have wisdom, I have 34 years. I have a wife of 31 years myself, I have two kids in their 20s. Larusso has a wife that he has been married to for at least 18 years and a successful family and two kids and has successful businesses. As I have had some success in my career. So there are sort of interesting parallels, and so it just was the experience of being a man in his 50s and then once again sprinkling on top the cocky swagger that LaRusso has, which makes him someone you root for and then someone you also can see how he can rub someone the wrong way. You can see his dimensions.
Cobra Kai is available to stream on YouTube now.