What is it about The Karate Kid that inspires such fevered fandom? The 1984 original, shot for an estimated $8 million, featured zero marquee names, yet became a cultural touchstone to many an 80s kid and spawned two lackluster sequels. And while Ralph Macchio, a.k.a. “Daniel-san” LaRusso, effectively walked away after the third installment, the franchise lived on: Hilary Swank starred in The Next Karate Kid in 1994, and Jaden Smith appeared in another reboot in 2010. Yet still, certain questions and theories plagued Karate Kid diehards: what happened to LaRussos dreaded rival, Johnny Lawrence (played by William Zabka)? Should Lawrence have actually won the All Valley Karate Championship in the first film, since LaRussos crane kick was technically an illegal move?
These same queries haunted Josh Heald (Hot Tub Time Machine), Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg (both of Harold & Kumar fame), who have parlayed their obsession into Cobra Kai—a 10-part YouTube Red series that picks up 34 years after Daniel and Johnnys fateful match. Both Zabka and Macchio are on board, reviving Johnny—who sports scars both physical and psychic—and Daniel, who now runs a successful car dealership, where he hands out bonsai trees as a cheap gimmick. The writers smartly place heart over humor, positioning Cobra Kai as a nostalgia trip and an effective action story.
The show also gives Macchio and Zabka a pair of richly human roles, and a return to the dojo that neither could have foreseen. Both have remained active in Hollywood since their Karate Kid days, Macchio mainly as a journeyman actor and Zabka as an actor and a director. (He earned an Oscar nod in 2003 for his short film Most.) While both have toyed with their image over the years—Zabka played the “true” hero of The Karate Kid on How I Met Your Mother, and Macchio lent his voice to a Robot Chicken spoof of the film—both actors turned down numerous reboot or sequel offers until Cobra Kai came along.
What made them change their minds? According to both, this is simply the right project at the right time—though neither can believe were still obsessing over these characters 34 years later.
Vanity Fair: After Karate Kid Part III, what was your relationship to the franchise? Did you swear you were done?
Ralph Macchio: There was no swearing I was done, but Part III was not the most pleasant experience. It mostly came down to the fact that the script never got to the place it should have been. It felt like a poorly done repeat, and I wasnt the only one that felt it. If you were to ask me the day we wrapped if I would time-travel ahead and do a [Karate Kid] series in 2018, Im sure I would have passed. Thirty-four years later, here we are. I still feel that the original Karate Kid is the great piece of work that has stood the test of time. Its a bit of soulful magic.
Did you have any personal doubts about taking on Cobra Kai, William? Youre asked to give a wide and challenging range of emotions in the role.
William Zabka: My color palette has been there from the beginning, but Ive only been able to show what Ive been cast as in the past. The range didnt bother or worry me at all. Stepping into the skin of the Johnny character so many years later—the guy has 34 years of mud on him. In a lot of ways, hes a whole new character, as a lot has happened in between. The creators pitched it to me over chips and salsa, and I think I agreed to do it before the waiter took our order. They had the whole universe carved out. The combination of it coming from a fan point of view, with their skill set, was the right match. It felt right, smart, and timely.
Ralph, did you stay close to your on-screen mentor Pat Morita over the years?
Macchio: I spoke at Pats funeral. That was a difficult time, and its still full of emotions. Its sad that he wasnt able to be a part of Cobra Kai, or to just see it, to know how much Mr. Miyagi is infused into the series. He was my partner in this franchise.
As cinemas greatest bully, William, did you ever experience bullying in your personal life?
Zabka: When I moved from New York to California, I was 10 years old and the new kid. My dad used to put a bowl on my head to cut my hair. I had the bell-bottom jeans, a “Pinball Wizard” shirt, and a banana-seat bike. I rode into a Motocross, knobby tire, O.P., Vans, California-type thing. I was a total fish out of water—but coming from New York, I grew up throwing fists and getting hit. I stood my ground, and gained their respect. My dad taught me how to fight really young. Hed take me down to the basement and let me punch him in the jaw, to let me know what it felt like to hit someone. He wanted me to learn to not be afraid. It sounds harsh, but it was the 70s, man.
Tragedy strikes so many child stars. Do you think you emerged unscathed?
Macchio: Comedy writers and producers, when theyre looking for some hook, ask, “Why cant I find any crap on you?” Unscathed? Yes, I would say thats true. Its partly by the makeup of who I am, and I blame my parents for grounding me. Ive always kept one foot in and one foot out. Family is hugely important to me, and living away from Hollywood in New York is a big part of it. I wasnt the guy running out to the Viper Room or comedy clubs until three in the morning. I was the guy running back to watch the Mets win the World Series in 1986. I wanted to go to the hockey game or the family picnic.
Did you ever hit a personal rock bottom, in regards to how your career has played out?
Zabka: I was raised in an entertainment family, and it was feast or famine. One thing that my parents instilled in me from a young age was to find something I love to do, and Ill never work a day in my life. Before Karate Kid, I was in film school studying to be a filmmaker. I chose film school over acting school.
As for the optics of how people view my career from the outside, most of the journey is a valley. The valley is where you grow and learn, yet people only see the highs and lows. Ive done music videos, and been nominated for an Academy Award for a short film I did. There was never a time when I set out to be a star actor. Success for me is maintaining the same group of friends Ive had since I was a kid. Its my family. Im very content not being in that spotlight. Ive never done drugs, and Ive never been a drinker who passes out on the floor. Theres no resemblance [between] my life and the Johnny character.
Did you and Zabka ever have any real animosity?
Macchio: We enjoy the rivalry part of it, and ribbing each other. If we do a panel at a convention or attend a screening, we definitely play the part. We try and one-up each other, as he claims that LaRussos crane kick was illegal, and he should have won the tournament. I love that people are still having the conversation about if Daniel was the real bully. When audiences ask about that concept, I always say, “The fact that I made the movie in 1983, and in 2018 you guys are still debating it, is totally awesome.”
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Full ScreenPhotos:15 Movies That Are the Epitome of 80s Fashion
This petite welder (Jennifer Beals) had some big dance dreams—and an impressive collection of dancewear that launched a nation of women trotting around in leg warmers and off-the-shoulder tops. Thats fashion: Take your passion and make it happen.Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)
Its impossible to think of Madges style without reminiscing about her 80s look. In Desperately Seeking Susan, it was out in full force; the pop stars free-spirit big hair, lace gloves, and unapologetically glitzy jewels pretty much defined the decades fashion.Photo: Getty Images
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Never have a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a bad boy so looked the part—despite the fact that this John Hughes classic broke down those high school stereotypes.Photo: Getty Images
Risky Business (1983)
In one of his earliest roles, Tom Cruise plays a mischief-making high school senior with a killer grin and preppy taste. Joel Goodsens greatest legacy: his dancing-in-underwear moves and the pale-pink Oxford as fashion statement.Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lees breakthrough film about racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood also made [fashion history]:(http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/10/27/how-spike-lee-s-do-the-right-thing-ignited-street-style.html) it was one of the first movies to clothe characters in what we now call “streetwear.”Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures
Fatal Attraction (1987)
Nearly 30 years after Fatal Attraction debuted, we dont know whats scarier: Psychotic stalker Alex (Glenn Close) attacking Dan (Michael Douglas) with a kitchen knife, or the puritanical-white knit dress she wore while she did it.Photo: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
St. Elmos Fire (1985)
From Mare Winninghams Wendy, who had a penchant for Peter Pan collars and cardigans, to Demi Moores Jules and her thing for metallics and poufed hair, this coming-of-age classic gave us the full, glorious spectrum of 80s style.Photo: Courtesy of Columbia PicturesPreviousNext