Celebrating the Return of ‘The Karate Kid’ with Ralph Macchio

We chat with the actor about the never-ending appeal of Daniel LaRusso and the surreal experience of returning to the character in adulthood.
The Karate Kid
Columbia Pictures
By  · Published on March 30th, 2019

Outsider underdog heroism is the bread and butter of American entertainment. We could never break free of our adolescence without it. We need champions like Rocky and Luke Skywalker to symbolize the possibility of a greater life beyond our miserable ground floor existence. With a little grit and determination, we can reach a higher station of happiness. We just need to knock down those bigger, tougher bullies standing in our way.

As a kid who moved from the east coast to sunny California, Daniel LaRusso was a hero to worship. The Karate Kid saw a wet-noodle brat transform into a crane-kicking badass thanks to a little healthy mentorship. The film was another necessary example showcasing a mastery of self equalling ultimate inner satisfaction. Want to move beyond your sadsack teen nature? Look within.

Thirty-five years later, The Karate Kid is still firmly attached to the pop culture consciousness. So much so that it has reawakened in the Cobra Kai spin-off series in which bad guy Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and underdog hero Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) return to square off in a moral arena of grays rather than the black and white battleground of the 1980s. To celebrate the anniversary as well as promote Cobra Kai’s second season, The Karate Kid returns to theaters for two nights only on March 31stand April 2nd (and then a 35th Anniversary edition comes to 4K UltraHD on April 16th). You can grab your Fathom Events tickets by clicking HERE.

I spoke to Ralph Macchio over the phone. We began our conversation on his earliest memories associated with the franchise that eventually defined his career. He discusses his initial concerns over the title as well as the moment in which he realized his life would never be the same again. Of course, we delve into his excitement for the second season of Cobra Kai and the challenges of picking up his teenage character in adulthood. If anything is clear, The Karate Kid means the world to Macchio, and he’s excited that the film remains relevant to the culture.

Here is our conversation in full:

When you look back on The Karate Kid, what’s the first memory that pops into your mind?

Oh wow, that’s a good question. I would say the first memory that pops in my mind is auditioning for John Avildsen. I remember walking into his apartment in New York. I remember hearing the name of this movie was The Karate Kid and I was like “oh God, this sounds lame.” There were a bunch of guys anywhere from ages 15 to 22 lining the halls of this apartment building on the upper west side in New York. When you walked in there, you would see the poster for Save the Tiger and the poster for the original Rocky and so you sort of knew you were in a place with a guy who knew what he was doing.

And it was just him, and a video camera back in 1983, so you could imagine the size of the video camera, and he just read sentences with me, and these scenes you could actually find on YouTube right now, my audition tape. He actually intercut it with his first reading of Pat Morita and you know that’s something cool if fans ever wanted to check out, ’cause it is the first time I ever said the words.

That’s my earliest memory. When I was done, he just said, “Listen I can’t guarantee you anything right now, but if I were you, I’d start taking some karate classes.” And that doesn’t happen too often. So just from there, it kept going. That was sort of the beginning. What married me to Daniel LaRusso and we’ve been married a very long time.

I can’t imagine when you were on that audition that you would even think you’d be talking about it 35 years later.

It was the furthest thing from my mind. We had no clue even when we were shooting the movie. We had a clue that we were making something good. We had a clue that Pat Morita and myself had some kind of – I just remember it being so easy and effortless to work with him. I learned years later when it’s like that, it has an extra sprinkling of fairy dust and light from above. It’s one of those chemistry things that sort of soulful magic that you can’t really put on paper. You either connect or you don’t. And we did. So that was one of the things I felt early, but knowing whether it would resonate and God knows, knowing people would be talking about it and then we’d be back in that universe again with Cobra Kai so successful? It’s unbelievable.

You talk about hearing that title and thinking, “oh this is something silly.” At what point did you know that this was not your ordinary wish-fulfillment kid movie?

I have a very specific moment for that as well. That was back in New York on the upper west side, just ironically. They screened the film about a month before it’s release. So I think it was May 19th, it sticks in my head and then the film was released June 22nd. It was a sneak preview, which they did a lot back in the day, they don’t do it as much anymore. So it was a sneak preview at the Baronet Theater on Third Avenue I think, and we all went. I mean the filmmakers, John and Jerry Weintraub, the great producer. They’ve both passed since. It’s always nostalgic to think back.

That was a fully packed audience. I mean, word was it was pretty good, and I heard test screenings were good. But I sat in that theater, and it was really kind of an, out of body experience to just be in the back part of the theater and watching this audience be with this kid at every turn. The crowd was cheering at all the right spots. It’s all the things that are part of that movie and that legacy, but when I walked out onto the street onto Third Avenue, it could’ve been Second Avenue damn, now I’m losing my details. But on the street, on the sidewalk, everybody from a 10-year-old kid to a 65-year-old guy, or a mom was doing the crane kick. Jerry Weintraub leaned over to me and put his arm around my shoulder and he goes, “We’re gonna be making a couple of these.”

That was a moment. I always relate it to when you walk out of a Broadway musical and you can’t get the song out of your head. You usually have a hit. So there’s a little story for you. It’s true.

So why did that excitement last? What is it about this film that latched onto the pop culture consciousness?

I think why it separated itself from just being a summer popcorn movie is because it worked on a human level. The script is quite good. I mean, Robert Mark Kamen wrote just a terrific script and the casting obviously as we’ve discussed, there was something special about that and the filmmaker being John, who had directed Rocky and knew how to tell these underdog stories. Those things came together, but it worked. Daniel LaRusso is every kid next door. He is the kind of character that represents a piece of all of us, ’cause he really had no business winning anything.

But through this human Yoda, in Mr. Miyagi, this terrestrial young Skywalker is able to use the force in his hand, and the one crane kick that he learns, to carry him through. So it works. We’ve been that kid whose gotten picked on. We’ve been that fatherless child or a child of a single parent or the child who moved from a different town. It’s the outsider being believed. There’s all those peppered elements at the heart of adolescence that were very real amid the Hollywood magic of the movie and I think that’s what works on top of the well-crafted script and execution of filmmaking.

Since then, the 80s is still is relevant. “Sweep the leg” and “get him a body bag” and catching flies with chopsticks, the crane kick, the wax on, wax off, that – I mean, you could never count on that becoming what it has become. It actually became a little cheeky and sort of campy in a way through pop culture and then you have the theory, the How I Met Your Mother of it all with the Barney Stinson theory: that the real Karate Kid was always Johnny Lawrence and not this nerdy, greasy Italian kid from New Jersey, who screwed up his chances. Then all of a sudden, the Internet jumps on top of that and they say, “You know what, yeah, that kid was a bit of a pain in the ass sometimes. Maybe Johnny could’ve had it better.”

Now we have that and then now we come to Cobra Kai which has got everybody all jacked up from the nostalgia point and yet still is crafted in a way that it appeals to the young people ’cause our writers are very good. They’re writing for the now generation and our young cast is strong and all those things have come together. This franchise has been blessed more than once.

Well, let’s talk about that. What is like to come back to Daniel LaRusso today? Do you see the character the same way that you did 35 years ago?

That’s an interesting question because Daniel LaRusso as an adult is certainly based on the source material of the original film. John [Hurwitz], Josh [Heald], and Hayden [Schlossberg] are the three creators of Cobra Kai and they have a very specific vision on how to enter this universe through the eyes of Johnny Lawrence and then on how LaRusso sits in that world. We constantly go back and forth with how that all works. [William] Zabka, Billy, neither of us thought our characters would be the characters that we are in the Cobra Kai series.

We probably had different visions of where that would go. How it works and why it works is because they focus on the gray areas and the moral ambiguities of these characters, which fleshes them out even more. As teenagers, it was very black and white. Karate Kid was a film of good over evil. Miyagi good, Kreese bad, Cobra Kai bad, Daniel good, you know what I mean? It was black and white. The Cobra Kai show, both of these guys sometimes do things that are not the straight fastball down the middle. They undercut each other at times. They get wrapped up and lose focus and balance if you will, and that adds to the depth of the characters as adult men. Yet it’s still based in a childhood teen rivalry which is kinda ridiculous but very, very entertaining.

Was there ever a moment where you felt like this is not how Daniel would behave? Was there trepidation about where these new creators would take your character?

Oh yeah, listen. For 30 years I said no to everyone saying, “You know what would be cool?” It just never felt organic. What these guys had. The timing had a lot to do with it. Just this whole his streaming service world that we’re in, this sort of on-demand kind of entertainment where you could take a five-hour movie and cut it up into 10 half hour parts. Where 15 years ago, it would have had to be a major motion picture sequel or a two-hour version of what do you do now 30 years later.

This allows the characters in other stories to breathe. It was also a smart angle to come in from whatever happened to Johnny Lawrence. There’s always a push and pull and a push back right up until every day of shooting. We go back and forth in trying to find the comfort zone of where it fits and they always, as creators, get the tiebreaker. They pushed Billy and me and in the season, Martin Kove, who’s wonderful. I’ve just seen the episodes and they push us all out of our comfort zone, but you gotta trust the global vision.

The upside to it is anytime the character slips or falls outside of where you think he could go, you always have the next episode and/or – knock on wood – the next season to address those flaws. That fleshes out the characters to be more human. Unless they do something just so off-putting to the point that it’s not the character and we’ve never allowed that to happen, nor is anyone looking for that.

The thing that I pushed the most was to make sure that the essence of Miyagi will win throughout the Cobra Kai series and they have delivered on that. In Season 2, more than ever because he winds up opening up a Miyagi Go Karate Two, so as to not let Cobra Kai contaminate the San Fernando Valley. So he’s trying to teach the legacy, but he learns that it’s not as easy as it looks.

Well, how do you know if you or the writers have stepped too far from the character?

It’s tough. You know, you have to trust your creators. We work in concert on this stuff, and we discuss everything through. Listen, I’ll make a simple example: Daniel LaRusso as a car salesman. I didn’t see that, but I understand why it’s in the show, and it is funny and it’s charming. We had to figure out a way that he wouldn’t be like a total cheese ball salesman, which might’ve been their initial idea and find the balance. There you go again, it’s that word, “the balance,” but it makes sense. Find the balance here, this is a guy that’s successful and may seem a little cocky. In Season 1, it certainly took the first few episodes for him. It’s that void of not having Miyagi in his life. To return to martial arts and sorta center himself.

What happens is Johnny Lawrence is the kryptonite to LaRusso and LaRusso is the kryptonite to Johnny Lawrence. They set each other off, or push each other’s buttons, which is part of the entertainment factor. But you know, you keep pushing that but you also have to stay grounded and the writers are all over that and when I disagree or when they’ll disagree, we have those conferences and we figure it out. You know, there are a lot of characters in the show and a lot of interwoven storylines. There are three separate worlds: the high school world, the LaRusso world, and the Johnny Lawrence world. So it’s about balancing all that stuff. I said that word again, okay. [Laughter]

35 years later, is there an element of The Karate Kid that you don’t think gets enough love or attention within the conversation?

Yeah, I think I would say this, there’s a part of The Karate Kid that over time, because of the internet and because of all this pop culture talk, that has maybe taken it out of the category of say a Back to the Future kinda thing. I don’t know why Back to the Future came to my mind, ’cause recently it was put in the archives of the Smithsonian or something, and The Karate Kid is just – it gets listed as AFI’s Top 100 Most Inspiring Films and it’s certainly appreciated, but it’s not put in that level of something that might be an upper echelon movie. I think that’s potentially because of some of the stuff that has become campy or the usages of it in many sitcoms and late night talk shows and all that stuff. Even Cobra Kai is such a brand before this show.

I mean you say “Cobra Kai,” and most people know what that means. You say “Wax on and Wax off,” and it’s part of the American lexicon. So I think selfishly, I would love to see the film purists push that aside and realize at the base of it, how important and defining a film it was at its time. But that’s really -I’m not looking to sound sour grapes in any way. There is not much I would change with this legacy. It is the gift that keeps on giving.

Well Ralph, let’s end on that. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. I’ve been a fan for a long, long time. I love Cobra Kai and I’m excited about the next season.

Yeah, get ready for it. It’s a wild ride man.

The Karate Kid returns to cinemas on March 31stand April 2ndCobra Kai Season 2 premieres on YouTube Red on April 24th.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)