The phone rings. My heart stops for a moment. When I pick up, a voice—that voice—says, “Hi, this is Ralph.”
As in Macchio. As in Ralph Macchio. My 12-year-old self faints just a bit, but I rally. This is work.
“2-7-7,” he says, of the first three numbers in my phone number. “This is East Islip.”
That’s how Lawn Guyland he is. Born and raised in Huntington—a Half Hollow Hills High School alumnus who lived for a spell in East Islip and currently resides in Miller Place—Ralph Macchio’s an LI lifer to the bone, with a new film, Across Grace Alley, that’s been taking film festivals by storm. We’ve all heard stories of how down-to-earth he is, how true to Long Island, even as he has become not just an actor, but a bonafide piece of pop culture. The Karate Kid, The Outsiders, Crossroads—these movies are some of the main ingredients that made up our childhoods. We practiced falling in love with teen idols through the removed safety of the big screen. These characters taught us about struggles and of generosity of spirit, the triumph of the weak over the powerful, and gave us a narrative to hold onto out in the big confusing world where adults lived. And they live on inside us.
Daniel LaRusso, the teenage karate student who defied all odds in the 1984 cult classic, lives on inside Ralph Macchio as well. On June 22, the 30th anniversary of the screen debut of The Karate Kid, he tweeted:
Happy 30th Anniversary, LaRusso!! You have enhanced my life, dude! As well as so many others. Here's to another 30 years of inspiration.
— Ralph Macchio (@ralphmacchio) June 22, 2014
He is fiercely protective of the character and of The Karate Kid film (which spawned a trilogy, then two remakes).
“Daniel LaRusso was the kid next door that had no business winning anything and he represented a piece of all of us,” he says.
As for its 2010 adaptation, starring Jaden Smith, Macchio is quick to give it praise:
“I thought they did a good job re-imagining a story that really works. It’s a really interesting comment on how you could tell the exact same story but make a totally different movie.”
But he is just as quick to refer to The Karate Kid as “The one that I was in. Or what many of us say, the only one,” he kids. Kinda.
The truth is that there is good reason to be protective of that film—for what it meant, as a time stamp of a different era, and for who we all were. And while the remake was a good movie, “No one’s going to be reciting lines from that film 30 years from now like they are with the original,” he says.
Ralph Macchio, 52, has grown to become equally as fascinating as the teenager some of us fell in love with in the ’80s: an actor (who many of us became reacquainted with in the 1992 comedy My Cousin Vinny, starring Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei), a dancer, a director and a writer who has combined all of his passions into his latest project, the short film Across Grace Alley.
The 25-minute coming-of-age story stars Manhasset native Ben Hyland (Marley and Me, The Strain) as its curious 10-year-old protagonist, along with Macchio’s Dancing with the Stars partner, world-class dancer Karina Smirnoff and four-time Academy Award-nominated actress Marsha Mason.
It premiered on the East Coast at the Hamptons International Film Festival and was then screened at the Staller Center for the Arts at Stony Brook University during the recent Stony Brook Film Festival to a sold-out crowd of more than 1,000. On August 10th, Across Grace Alley will be screened at Bellmore Movies and both Macchio and Hyland will be on hand for Q&A with the audience afterward.
“The film was born out of my relationship with Karina Smirnoff of Dancing with the Stars,” Macchio tells the Press. “And I got to know her personally, she got to be friends with my wife and kids. And she wanted to venture into acting, so we came up with this concept to tell the story through the eyes of a child who was a victim of his own parents’ divorce. And here’s this woman who he views, sort of a rear-window scenario, but it’s innocent. I mean if there’s any kind of voyeurism it’s completely innocent, which is a flip on that style.”
He was inspired to make the film after re-watching Rear Window, Cinema Paridiso, and The Artist. The voyeur element comes through as young Ben Hyland watches the woman in the window across from where his grandmother lives.
“It was a good way to introduce Karina in a world where she was a dancer, but then expose and unveil the onion layers of who the person is through the eyes of a 10-year-old,” explains Macchio.
If you think that Macchio directing Smirnoff had some revenge element to it after watching her school him in the 2011 season of DWTS, you might be onto something.
“I tease her,” he admits. “I said, ‘You’ve been telling me what to do, now I get to tell you what to do.’ It’s just when she told me what to do, I was always in pain the next day. I always joke—‘How come when I tell you what to do, you’re not in pain?’ She says, ‘But internally. You’re killing me.’
“We would joke around because dancing over 40 is not the same as dancing when you’re in your 20s. [Unless you’re John Travolta.] It was a nice trade-off,” he continues. “We got to tell stories through dance and after it ended there was a creative void. This was a way for us to continue telling stories.”
While dancing certainly took Macchio out of his comfort zone, so did Across Grace Alley for Smirnoff. The film is her acting debut.
“It was her first time acting, certainly with dialogue. And her first language is Russian, so she does a really nice job,” says Macchio.
Macchio learned invaluable skills during his lifetime on film sets—from such cinematic geniuses as Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, The Outsiders) and John G. Avildsen (Rocky, The Karate Kid Parts I, II & III)—and applied them to his job as a director. Coppola oversaw lots of rehearsals; Avildsen played them back on videotape so the actors could tweak their performances. So while Macchio didn’t have the resources he might have had with a major studio production of Across Grace Alley, he possessed something far better: an amazing wealth of knowledge about the preparation, creation and execution of the craft, gleamed directly from these legends. He utilized this extensively.
“As far as composing music for the film and building the dance sequences, they were done very early and thought about very early, because on the day you have to make a zillion split-second decisions based on: if it’s raining, if it’s sunny, you have the permit, you lost the permit, you don’t get the building, you lost the actor. You know all those elements come into place, so the more prep that you have, it gives you more opportunity to make the day how you envisioned it,” he says.
Across Grace Alley was shot in six days in Brooklyn Heights and lower Manhattan and captures the tender emotional experience that Macchio was striving for, perfectly.
“So much of everything is dumbed-down to force- and hand-feed what you want the audience to feel,” he says. “But I think for the most part you find richer value when you discover for yourself.”
Yet, in one of his other best-known screenplays, subtlety is nowhere to be found—and that’s a good thing.
In 2010, Macchio pitched the idea for Wax On, F*ck Off to the producers at Funny or Die. After hearing the idea and the title, they immediately bit. What followed became one of the most shared videos of that year, cementing Macchio’s place in pop culture and celebrating an icon who could laugh at his own image.
It was the year when Charlie Sheen was coke-ranting about being a rock star from outer space (Long Islanders know who the real rock star from outer space is), Tiger Woods’ sext-messages were getting unlimited air time, and our collective hearts were breaking when Sandra Bullock’s marriage to Jesse James fell apart in front of us when his affairs were revealed. It was also the year that Karate Kid was remade.
“I said, ‘I can’t just sit here and do nothing. I can’t let that film come out and me not have something in my pocket because the projects I’d been working on did not sell at that time,’” confides Macchio.
Thus, viral comedy gold.
The four-minute video is a mock trailer for Macchio’s cinematic transformation from squeaky-clean former Karate Kid star into Hollywood bad boy, kicked off by a reverse intervention staged by Macchio’s close family and friends (which includes Molly Ringwald). Their concern? They think he’s addicted to being nice, and his manager can’t book him for gigs, not when his image is so clean. It plays on his genuine historic kindness—and then sets it on his head, as he attempts to “rehab” his image. He makes a sex tape (that’s just cuddling); he makes a smiley face out of cocaine and cuts it with his Costco card; he propositions a prostitute, just to hug.
It’s a masterpiece. It’s also garnered more than 3.5 million views to date, achieving “Immortal” status on the site.
“I knew I wanted it to be a reverse intervention on a guy who was, you know, a family guy. Where everyone—his wife, his kids, the mailman—are like, ‘Please do something. Become relevant. You’ve really never slept with anyone else?’” he explains. “And then Todd Holland and the editor just did a great job weeding it all together. We got a couple of cameos. Kevin Connolly came in there. He’s a Long Island guy. And Mike Learner as the manger, the agent, was just hilarious. He became the backbone for the whole piece. ‘If he was a degenerate, I could sell him.’”
“It’s great,” says Macchio. “I’m proud of it. It’s a short film. It lit up like a Christmas tree once we put it out there like two days before The Karate Kid.”
The remake of The Karate Kid, he means. Not the real one.
Ralph Macchio’s latest film Across Grace Alley will be screened at noon Sunday, August 10 at Bellmore Movies, 222 Petit Ave., Bellmore. Both Ralph Macchio and Ben Hyland will be on hand for a Q & A afterward.