Ralph Macchio: Still Kicking Cobra Kai

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After a 30-year absence, Ralph Macchio has reprised his role as The Karate Kid’s Daniel LaRusso in the trending YouTube series Cobra Kai. Photo by Art Streiber.

Arguably one of the most iconic young actors of the ’80s, Ralph Macchio piled up a list of hit films within a decade-plus output that included three Karate Kid movies, Francis Ford Coppola’s unforgettable Outsiders adaptation, the blues-guitar cult classic Crossroads and a supporting role alongside Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny. He’s remained an active, working actor ever since, grateful for his enduring Karate Kid fame, yet content to leave the past where it lies. That is, until 2018, when Macchio, 57, donned LaRusso’s karate gi again, for the first time in 30 years.

Macchio now co-stars alongside Bill Zabka (Johnny Lawrence), his old on-screen rival, in Cobra Kai, a YouTube original series that revisits LaRusso and Lawrence as middle-aged men, decades after the Karate Kid films. The series is a well-deserved smash, expertly bringing the franchise into a new age, yet honoring the nuances of what came before it.

With season two of Cobra Kai set for an April 24 debut, I recently chatted with Macchio about the show, his legacy, and his life on Long Island, as well as what to expect this season at Daniel LaRusso’s new dojo.

Cobra Kai is such a great show, especially if you love The Karate Kid films. How did the series happen? Our three creators [Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg of the Harold and Kumar franchise and Hot Tub Time Machine writer Josh Heald] were superfans of The Karate Kid. They were just Jersey guys who connected to the movie. I’ve been pitched many Karate Kid reboot ideas that just didn’t appeal to me, but they had an angle in the story that was fresh and relevant for today, yet embraced all the nostalgia. I trusted their vision, which was difficult to do, because I still walk with this character; I walk in his skin on the street, to the public, and the fans, so if it missed, that was a bit of a risk. But I felt if there was ever a time, this was it.

How does it feel for you to be playing Daniel LaRusso again after all these years? I approached him as an adult in the same way I approached him as a teenager, which was just a piece of my own East Coast sensibility of a grounded, good-hearted person who maybe is a little more knee-jerk than Ralph, maybe has a little more of a temper than Ralph. The only difference with how I approached it now is the wisdom, the parenting, the life that I, Ralph, have led to this point. I brought that to the table, just like how I brought my adolescence to the table back in 1983 when we made the first movie. I’ve raised two kids who are in their 20s … so I brought the experiences of a husband, father and successful business person … We’re very different, but there’s a piece of yourself in every role.

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In season two of Cobra Kai, Daniel LaRusso (right) will train students Robby Keene (left) and Amanda LaRusso (center) at the new Miyagi-Do.

Fatherhood is definitely a consistent theme throughout Cobra Kai. Yes it is. It very much is. Leading into season two, it becomes even more so, as Johnny Lawrence is trying to connect with his son and LaRusso’s still navigating raising his own kid, balancing his family and business, and now that martial arts is back in his life, he puts that on the front burner. Family is the base of things, and those lessons that Mr. Miyagi taught him over the years that maybe he’s lost a little track of, and has to re-find.

Daniel and Johnny Lawrence (Bill Zabka) are a classic rivalry. How do you and he get along in real life? It’s not Daniel and Johnny. We do get along. He and I have a friendly rivalry with each other, no matter what we do. We have fun ribbing each other…. It’s nothing but respect, and he has certainly delivered in performance. I enjoy watching his side of the story. When we get together, it just has a heightened level of intensity that you can feel when you watch the show.

The Karate Kid was a very black-and-white story, good over evil, but with Cobra Kai, there are gray areas with both characters. There’s moral ambiguity, and it’s a little more realistic about what it’s like to balance life. Not taking anything away from The Karate Kid — that movie gives back over and over again for all the right reasons — but there’s a difference there.

Did you plan for more than one season of Cobra Kai? There are always questions about subsequent seasons, where would it go, and what would happen to Johnny Lawrence in the future. All characters from the original films could potentially make an appearance, if it organically works in the story. I think the goal is several seasons. I’d love it to go on as long as it makes sense and we could keep the quality up there. Season two is very exciting.

What else can you tell us about season two? Martin Kove (sensei John Kreese) is certainly an integral part of season two. There’s also the opening of Miyagi-Do, so there are these dueling dojos, and all that comes with recalibrating your life to now be a martial arts teacher. LaRusso is an interesting journey this season, and the speed bumps and hiccups and hurdles that come his way, as well as Johnny, and all the kids. It’s a karate soap opera [laughs]. It escalates in intensity in season two. Also, the ’47 Ford — the “wax-on, wax-off” car in the original movie — I’ve had that car, and it’s making an appearance, among other surprises.

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The Karate Kid (1984) rocketed Long Island native Macchio to widespread fame and an enduring pop culture legacy.

Will Elisabeth Shue eventually return as Ali? That’s the question we get asked the most … As far as Elisabeth Shue or anyone else from the original films, everyone has been talked about. When it fits into the story organically, and if they can get the actor, we will entertain it. Last year we had Randee Heller (Lucille LaRusso) for an episode, so we’d like to keep that going with more additions in seasons to come.

Is it bittersweet, doing the show without Pat Morita [who passed in 2005]? He and I had some soulful magic on and off screen — one of those things that doesn’t come around too often — and I don’t take it for granted. He would have loved this show … My relationship with Pat was wonderful. We both knew that we had something special there that touched so many people. For the set of Miyagi-Do in season two, they rebuilt Mr. Miyagi’s house, with the backyard and the old cars in front. The first day of shooting was very emotional for me … It reminded me that’s where all the magic happened. I wouldn’t be doing Cobra Kai today if it wasn’t for Pat Morita and his performance. There’s no way.

You grew up on Long Island. Where? I grew up in the Huntington area and graduated from Half Hollow Hills High School West. When The Karate Kid opened, and The Outsiders, I drove from my house and went to watch the movie and went home. Long Island has always been a home base. My wife’s family is here, my parents are still here, and outside of the traffic and cold weather, it’s perfect.

Do you have favorite places or things to do on Long Island? I used to go to the Nassau Coliseum all the time to cheer on my beloved New York Islanders. I like going to Montauk. Port Jefferson is a fun town I enjoy. Mainly when I do stuff here, it’s restaurants. I used to spend a lot of time on the South Shore, and now I spend a little more time on the North Shore, and I’m always in the City.

Another of your classic films was Crossroads. Do you really play guitar? How did you appear so convincing? I worked really hard. I didn’t play guitar before then. I had a couple of guitar coaches….I learned how to play basics, and then learned classical acoustic guitar, slide guitar, acoustic slide and bottleneck electric. I had that [Fender] Telecaster [guitar], which I still have to this day. That yellow Telecaster is the coolest.

Do you have a favorite role? Johnny in The Outsiders holds a special place for me. I read that book on Long Island in my seventh-grade English class, and I got to be in a movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola and play a role that was one of the best roles I ever had. What’s wonderful about that is middle-school classes still read that book all the time, so The Outsiders never goes out of style. It’s great to be part of that.