- Ralph Macchio talked to Business Insider about reprising his character in “The Karate Kid,” Daniel LaRusso, for the YouTube show “Cobra Kai” after years of saying no to playing the role.
- Macchio shared the worst pitch he ever got for a “Karate Kid” sequel.
- He recalled being part of one of the best young Hollywood movies ever, “The Outsiders,” which also starred Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, and Diane Lane before they were huge stars.
- Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.
Ralph Macchio says he’s at peace with forever being known as the face of one of the movies that defined the 1980s, “The Karate Kid.” But that doesn’t mean he’ll agree to every new idea of how to continue the franchise.
Macchio felt that his Daniel LaRusso character had run its course after starring in “Karate Kid” parts two and three. But he realised the hunger for the franchise would never go away, as he continued to get pitched offers over the decades, including a story arc in which the kids of LaRusso and Rocky Balboa would team up (more on that later) and a cameo in the 2010 Jackie Chan/Jaden Smith reboot.
Macchio always politely declined the offers, but that changed when Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald, and Hayden Schlossberg came to him with the idea for a show called “Cobra Kai.”
Set in the present day, “Cobra Kai” shifts the focus from LaRusso to Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), the bully whom LaRusso beat at the karate tournament at the end of the first movie. The first season of the show became an instant hit for YouTube by mixing a darkly comedic tone about midlife anxieties with nostalgic glimpses from the original movie. In it, we follow Lawrence, who brings back the Cobra Kai dojo while LaRusso, now the owner of a successful car dealership, catches on to what Lawrence is doing and tries to stop it.
Now there’s high anticipation for the launch of season two, starting Wednesday on YouTube, as a familiar face enters the Cobra Kai dojo: John Kreese (Martin Kove), the man who trained Lawrence in the first movie. Meanwhile, LaRusso has decided to start the Miyagi dojo, named after his sensei Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita), to combat what he believes is a negative way of doing karate that the Cobra Kai dojo promotes.
Business Insider chatted with Macchio about what finally sold him on coming back and playing LaRusso, the worst “The Karate Kid” sequel pitch he ever got, who he hung out with the most on the before-they-were-stars set of “The Outsiders,” and why everyone who made “The Karate Kid” thought the title was awful.
Jason Guerrasio: For years, people pitched you how to continue “The Karate Kid” franchise. Why did you say yes to “Cobra Kai”?
Ralph Macchio: Well, the credit goes to Jon, Josh, and Hayden, the creators. These guys really had a very well-thought-out pitch by coming in through the eyes of Johnny Lawrence – basically turning the prism view in the universe.
And they had such passion. It was an instinct that they wanted to make a show the fans wanted to see. I have said no for 30 years. I was definitely the last guy to come to the party. I was the piece, arguably, that they had to get.
Guerrasio: Don’t be humble.
Macchio: [Laughs.] But it was a combination of their passion, the belief that they wanted to pay respects and homage to the franchise, and they never wanted to trivialize it. They listened to the importance of the Miyagi element of the show and LaRusso’s life and how that needed to be there for me to even begin to have a conversation about it.
Also the timing. Only now do we have these platforms where you can take a five-hour movie and cut it up into half-hour parts. Because that’s what we did. We’re making these five-hour movies – that’s how we approach it. I don’t think “The Karate Kid” would have been made as a movie today. I think it would have been a series on one of these platforms.
Guerrasio: So out of all the pitches you’ve gotten over the years, which was the worst one?
Macchio: It’s my favourite. Everyone would come up with the pitch of “You have a kid, and you become the Miyagi to your kid.” Everyone thought that was the brilliant continuation. But an executive once came up to me and John Avildsen, the director of “Karate Kid,” and took it a step further. It was very off the cuff, but he said, “Hey, what if Rocky Balboa and LaRusso had kids and they are related in some way?” Because Avildsen directed “Rocky,” so that’s the connection.
This guy wanted to combine “Rocky” and “Karate Kid” in some way. Taking these two major hits – this guy thought it would be a huge movie. So the concept was to go back to the Balboa and LaRusso lineage in Italy and find that we were somehow related and that our kids would now team up in some way.
Guerrasio: Oh my God.
Macchio: It was never pitched fully, but just the concept of someone coming up with that, it was crazy.
Guerrasio: Did you even entertain the idea?
Macchio: No. Me and Avildsen just looked at each other and went to the guy: “Well, you get back to us.” But inside you’re like, “How is this even possible?”
Guerrasio: You’ve lived in the fandom of “The Karate Kid” almost your whole life, but was it even a shock for you when YouTube told you that over 50 million people had seen the first episode of season one?
Macchio: Um, I’ll say this much: It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility. Did it exceed expectations? Absolutely. Listen, I’ve walked in these shoes for 35 years. Everywhere I go there’s a great love for that movie and the franchise. Daniel LaRusso was that kind of character that represented the everykid. He had no business winning anything, so we all felt we could be him.
So I knew there was love for the movie, and then the pop-culture element of it elevated it. “Sweep the leg.” “Put him in a body bag.” But the question was would they come to the party? Would they come to the well and drink the water? And they didn’t just drink the water, they came back with buckets and buckets. That’s what was beyond expectations.
Guerrasio: What’s been interesting to watch with the LaRusso character – and it’s delved more in the second season – is the motives for Daniel. Does he want to be the Miyagi to a younger generation, or is this just a guy going through a midlife crisis? Have layers like that been fun to explore?
Macchio: That’s part of what we discussed going into season two and, hopefully, many seasons to come. We want to keep this ball in the air and have the characters evolve, as opposed to a quick one-off. It was important to have LaRusso be a little off balance and have to fill that void in his life.
But in doing that, you tap into what was important to him in his adolescence. He doesn’t have his father, and his father figure is dead, so what seems simple is not so easy. He has the knowledge, but can he teach it? And then there’s the balance of work and family. It creates some interesting hurdles for the character.
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Guerrasio: Has this all been a really weird time in your life? At some point years ago, you had to have pushed LaRusso aside and been ready to move on. Is it wild that it’s back in your life?
Macchio: It’s insane. [Laughs.] If you asked me 10 years ago, I would say no way. And it’s not that I buried the character; I live with him all the time. But the concept of going back, I was always “No, no, no.” Why touch that again? It has such a blessed light on it. Everything happened right. Pat Morita’s performance is treasured. Why would you go back and do that when everyone is trying to do that – and, for the most part, failing? Like, when they remade the movie, I told them, “Go make your movie. I’m not going to be involved.” I let that be its own thing.
Guerrasio: So you were asked to be in the 2010 Jackie Chan/Jaden Smith version of “The Karate Kid”?
Macchio: They wanted me to do a cameo or something in it, and I passed on that.
Guerrasio: But then you get work like HBO’s “The Deuce,” where you are a scene stealer and nothing like Daniel LaRusso. With something like that, you must have felt: “OK, I’ve moved on to the next chapter in my career.” Because I would suspect for years you probably didn’t get cast in stuff because directors could only see LaRusso when you walked in the door.
Macchio: Here’s how I feel about that: Yes, there is that part of it. And I’m sure there are people in the industry that see “Cobra Kai” and go, “OK, he’s doing that part that he does.” But I would say it’s the same character but a different person. You see him failing in lessons he should have learned by now. He’s struggling as an adult.
This is really the fan’s show. There’s so much joy and positive response from the world with this that to hold back and say, “I will only do other things – don’t think of me as that anymore,” that wouldn’t have been right. It’s become bigger than all of us.
And with “The Deuce,” I’m happy because my character gets to grow a little in season three.
Guerrasio: The crazy thing about your career is before “The Karate Kid” you already had a memorable role, playing Johnny in “The Outsiders.”
Macchio: I love that movie.
Guerrasio: The movie didn’t just launch your career but is directed by Francis Ford Coppola with a cast that includes Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, and Diane Lane before they all got hugely famous. It’s one of the best young casts ever. What was that like to experience?
Macchio: That was the dream-come-true role. I read that book when I was 12, and it was the first book I finished all by myself. It wasn’t my parents forcing me to read it. This one was just a page-turner.
And with the Johnny character, I could relate. I was the runt of the litter. I played sports, but I was never the guy you picked first. So I connected with him.
So I went in, I wanted that role more than anything, and I had to go through a few rounds to get it. But it’s still one of my treasured roles. It’s the one I will never forget. I still have 13- and 14-year-old kids coming up to me and asking me to sign the book.
Guerrasio: Who did you connect with the most on set out of that cast?
Macchio: Early on, I did a lot of stuff with C. Thomas Howell. Emilio. Me and Matt Dillon really connected because we are two New Yorkers. We all stayed in contact. Rob Lowe, I did his roast a year ago and had fun ripping him apart. But everyone wanted to be close to Diane Lane because she was amazing.
Guerrasio: Did you audition for “Karate Kid” while filming “The Outsiders,” or was it after?
Macchio: Yeah, “The Outsiders” was in theatres, and the “Karate Kid” audition came right after that.
Guerrasio: So you must have felt really good.
Macchio: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t know what “The Karate Kid” would be.
Guerrasio: But just being the lead in a movie.
Macchio: Yeah, that’s true. And my first reading with John Avildsen, I read it cold for the first time, and he turns off the camera and said, “I can’t guarantee anything, but I would start taking some karate lessons.” And I was like, wow. I’m skipping down the streets of New York. But I just kept thinking the title is so lame, and if it worked I would have to carry it for the rest of my life. [Laughs.]
Guerrasio: Crazy how things work out, huh?
Macchio: Yeah. And it wasn’t just me – a lot of people on set didn’t think the title was good. Jerry Weintraub, our producer, said, “It’s a terrible title, which makes it a great title.”
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