Ralph Macchio on ‘Cobra Kai’ and the Legend of ‘The Karate Kid’

“It’s a karate soap opera,” says Ralph Macchio, accurately describing Cobra Kai, the series that revives the Karate Kid universe, with a few twists. He plays a now-middle-aged Daniel LaRusso, a dad and car-dealership owner who’s also doing his best to become a Miyagi-style sensei to a new generation of would-be crane-kickers. With the first two seasons (originally produced for YouTube) now on Netflix, and a third on its way, Macchio discussed the show, the original movie, dealing with Eighties fame, the glories of Crossroads and more.

Seeing a recreation of Mr. Miyagi’s house on the show was unexpectedly moving. What was that like for you?
Well, the house they used in the original Karate Kid film was sold and torn down — and then they had to build it on the back lot of what was Columbia Pictures for parts two and three, and it changed a little bit. Now we shoot exteriors in Los Angeles, but a lot of the stuff is shot in Atlanta, so we had to figure out how to pull that off. That was part of the early discussion: I said, “OK, so how do we disguise it not being exactly the house, because it’s not.” Hey, it’s 30 years. Anything could have happened to it!

Mark Hamill told me about being emotionally overwhelmed when he walked back onto the Millennium Falcon after three decades.
I was the same. Because Pat Morita is no longer with us, nor is director John Avildsen and the producer Jerry Weintraub. But more so because the first day I worked on the Miyagi set, in the backyard, it was a scene with Robby, us painting the fence side by side, going opposite directions. We rehearsed the scene, and I just, “Wow, this is where the magic all happened.” It was emotional because some of my friends that I made that movie with are no longer here. And also, from the get-go when they pitched this idea, I needed to have those moments, the legacy of what Miyagi brought to Danny LaRusso’s life. It’s important that it was peppered throughout the Cobra Kai series, and they assured me of that. Because I remember shooting those scenes in the movie more than getting my ass kicked. Because those are just like, “Is this over yet?”

Then on the flip side, on the personal side, it’s me as someone who is not 18 anymore, or 16 anymore, or 25 or 35 or 45 anymore, saying, “Wow.” It was just a realization of how much time has gone by. Not that deep, dark place like, “Oh my God, I’m old now,” which is true if you’re my kids, but it’s the nostalgia of life. Most of the time that I’m talking to, say, someone like you or someone on the street for maybe the first time, the conversation is funneled into a small section of time in my life, which is not the norm. So Cobra Kai is just going back to that same section of time, which is now 34-plus years ago. It’s kind of wonderful and beautiful, and on the flip side it’s like, wow, that is a long time ago.

It’s hard to convey to young people just how famous you were in the Eighties. What was your experience of it like?
I guess it was overwhelming at times. I always kept one foot in and one foot out of Hollywood. I lived in the ’burbs of Long Island, not far from where I live now. When I wasn’t working, that’s where I would go. I had attention there — it was like the map of the only star’s home. I was the only guy. It was me and two hockey players. Going to a mall on a Saturday probably wasn’t something I was apt to do. The most difficult was when I was on Broadway in a play with Robert De Niro and Burt Young, and The Karate Kid 2 had just come out. I was at the Longacre theater, and then just up the street the movie was playing, so when I would come out to the street, that was like… I’m not saying the Beatles at Shea Stadium, but it was crazy.

I watched your first audition for Karate Kid, and your naturalism is incredible. I also saw someone said you came off as obnoxious.
That was probably the writer, Robert [Mark Kamen]. Obnoxious is the wrong word. You could have said maybe a little cocky. I don’t know if you’d describe me as obnoxious, but hey, listen, sometimes I’m in it. I can’t step back and look.

Were you, at that point, very confident in your abilities?
Yeah. I think I had an aura of confidence. Where it came from, I have no idea.

When you went into The Outsiders, were you confident?
I was confident I wanted that particular part, and I didn’t want to read for another part. I just wanted that. But Coppola wanted everybody to read for a different role. I said, “I just want this part.” I had the balls to say that. I knew who Francis Ford Coppola was; I knew who I was in the room with. So it’s interesting. I probably would say that now, too. That’s just the essence of me. I read that book. I connected to The Outsiders when I was 12 years old, and when they were doing the movie I had to be in it, and I had to play that part. That doesn’t happen often and may never happen again. I did have, and probably still do have, a little defiance and cockiness, and that’s bled into LaRusso and that makes him entertaining. A guy who has such knowledge about balance and inner peace and all those Miyagi-isms and philosophies, but when the wrong guy rubs him, he goes to his childhood ways — that makes him entertaining.

So when they first brought the Karate Kid script to you, do you remember your first reaction?
I didn’t like the title. A lot of people didn’t like the title. They kept trying to change it.

Was there a leading candidate?
The Moment of Truth, which was the end-credit song, was what it was called in France and other countries where martial arts weren’t big. The Moment of Truth is kind of a lame, forgettable title. But with Karate Kid, Jerry Weintraub said, “You know, it’s a great title because it’s a terrible title.” I said, “Yeah, but if the thing’s ever a hit, I’m probably going to have to carry this for the rest of my life.” And here we are.

How about the script itself?
I thought the script was corny at times. The Miyagi character, there was a little bit of humor, but they wanted to cast Toshiro Mifune. But he didn’t speak English! The human Yoda that was Pat Morita was perfect. They didn’t want Pat Morita at first. Jerry Weintraub and the studio said no way: “No Arnold from Happy Days. Not going to happen!” John Avildsen just said, “You have to watch this tape.” And now the footage of Pat’s first reading and mine, you can see it on YouTube, and Avildsen cut that together. That was his first reading and my first reading, and what’s most intriguing about that footage, it was just me and John Avildsen. He had a big video camera. There was a line of guys out in the hallway of his apartment; one after the other, he just brought them in. When I watched that, and I watched myself listening to him, a little nervous — as my wife would say, “You keep touching your nose.” I was nervous. But when I read the scene, that’s LaRusso. It got better from there, probably deeper, but it’s not like I went from zero to a hundred to get there. I think with young actors, that’s often the case. It’s like when you see Henry Thomas’s audition for E.T. I mean, it was there. So I think that I was just the right guy at the right time.

Were you doing an East Coast accent or was that just your accent?
That was just me. I amped it up because I knew in reading the script [Daniel] didn’t back down. I just thought of a couple of kids in my junior high and high school that had that kind of won’t-leave-well-enough-alone quality or knee-jerk kind of cockiness.

It turns out that a Long Island accent and New Jersey accent aren’t much different.
It’s the same. We’re just a couple of rivers away.

Once, Springsteen said, introducing Billy Joel, they were once one landmass.
That is right. That’s a good point.

The thing about returning to The Karate Kid now is, you only had this one shot. That must have added extra pressure to make it right.
I think the difference this time, one: timing. It just felt to me like two years from when I said yes might have been too late. But more so, Jon [Hurwitz], Josh [Heald], and Hayden [Schlossberg], our three creators, are super Karate Kid fanboys. They know so much more about those movies than I did. It informed their childhoods, so they feel like they have the Holy Grail. They are treating it with such respect, yet they come from Harold & Kumar and Hot Tub Time Machine, so they know how to write comedy for right now. It felt like these guys can marry today’s teen dialogue with yesterday’s nostalgia and make it feel all fresh. But jumping in, I didn’t know how cold that water was, how deep it was. Billy Zabka, the same way. It was tough.

It was already your most famous role, and this is making it even more so. What about that aspect?
Is it going to typecast me further? I didn’t think of that as much. Daniel’s a different human being. He’s 35 years older. It’s the same universe, but a different world. The tone is a little bit different even though there’s the goosebumps and all that stuff that The Karate Kid had. Certainly there are some people that will probably say, “Oh, he’s playing that role again.” And that’s fine. I try to balance it with shows like The Deuce and whatever else is in the on-deck circle now.

Did you actually go back and watch the movies before you did this?
I watched the first one. I watched it, but it didn’t inform how I approached it more than it connected me to certain things. I’m on point, just taking it a little bit to the left. One of the interesting things with viewing the Karate Kid film is you’re following that kid. The camera’s on his shoulder, and you’re living every frame through Danny LaRusso. When I showed the film to my kids, say 15 years ago, all of a sudden I viewed that film from the perspective of Mr. Miyagi because I was looking at this kid that would not listen, and he was less interesting to me than Miyagi was. So I gained a new perspective on the same — and it is something we’re bringing.

By the way, I don’t know if you know how big a deal Crossroads was to guitar players in the Eighties.
Hey, man, I’m talking to Rolling Stone!

Yeah, exactly. I guess you learned enough guitar to be able to master the finger movements?
Yeah. I mastered the look of where they should be, but getting that sound? That ain’t happening. I still have that Telecaster, though. That’s a cool guitar. I’ve had musicians make crazy offers for the guitar. And I have the ’47 Ford convertible from The Karate Kid, which is in this show now.

You can neither really play guitar nor do karate?
Not to that expertise level. I have a couple of confrontations in Season Two, and there’s one or two really pretty good kicks that are all me.

What sticks in your memory from filming Crossroads?
Shooting the battle, the duel at the end, the first time, with the crowd in there. The assistant director pumping everybody up, this is the guy you’re rooting for and this is the devil, and us shooting it with five cameras straight through. It was the dream rock-star moment for me. it was amazing because growing up, we all have that time in your room where you have the door closed, the music on and you’re on top of your bed, and you’re playing air guitar, and the crowd’s cheering. We’ve all done it, right? And if we haven’t, we’re lying.And then in real life I couldn’t get “Mary Had a Little Lamb” out of the damn thing!

Finally, after rewatching My Cousin Vinny, I have to say it’s easy to underestimate what you had to do in that movie amongst the flashier comedic performances.
We had to care for those two kids. Oh, the funny stuff wouldn’t have been half as funny. It wouldn’t have had any gravity to it, any weight to it. That movie gets funnier every time. The thing with My Cousin Vinny is that every setup pays off beautifully, better than you had hoped. And when you know it’s coming, it’s even better. I call it the late-for-dinner movie. If it’s on, you’re gonna be late for dinner, because you just can’t stop. One more scene, one more scene.

The I-shot-the-clerk bit is so fantastic.
We actually had to go back and redo that because we got notes from 20th Century Fox: “We need it to be a statement, but sound like a question.” We went, “I shot the clerk. I shot the clerk. I shot the clerk.” We’re doing take after take, and I don’t know which one. It’s probably the first one we used. It had to be a question and a statement. It’s like a dessert wax. I don’t know. “I shot the clerk? I shot the clerk.” They were concerned it was too much of a question. I said, it is a comedy. You know, it’s great to be a part of that, The Outsiders, and as you mentioned, Crossroads and Karate Kid. In that small window of time, it’s a couple of films that still stand the test of time and still play. That doesn’t happen too often, so I consider myself fortunate.

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