An Oral History of Cobra Kai With Ralph Macchio and William Zabka

On June 22, 36 years have passed since the release of The Karate Kid, the story of an underdog, who explores a life unfamiliar to him, and who — with the help of a grumpy old man — raises himself up to be a champion. The 1984 film, directed by John Avildsen and written by Robert Kamen, had a lasting influence on the movie experience — future sports films would measure their stories against the tenacity and resolve on display in The Karate Kid, and Ralph Macchio, Pat Morita, and William Zabka would enjoy a bright moment in the Hollywood sun.

That sunlight faded after a time, as new heroes rose — mutants and aliens boasting super-human powers — and now, as their sweet summer dims, Macchio and Zabka have been coaxed back into the open to revisit their beloved characters of  Daniel LaRusso and  Johnny Lawrence in YouTube Premium series Cobra Kai, now available on Netflix.

Season 1 was a Certified Fresh hit. All 43 critics that reviewed the season gave it a Fresh rating, landing Cobra Kai — the unlikely streaming TV revival of a slumbering monster film franchise — in our prestigious 100% TV season club. The series also brought back other familiar faces from the original movie, including Martin Kove, who played the Cobra Kai dojo’s original alpha-male sensei Kreese in the film, and heartwarming tributes to the humble handyman and teacher Miyagi, played by Morita, who died in 2005.

With Season 1 and 2 now on Netflix, with a third Cobra Kai season set to premiere in 2021, we sat down with Macchio and Zabka to talk about what got them back to the dojo, and paying homage to Morita.

ALSO WATCH: ORAL HISTORY OF THE KARATE KID WITH RALPH MACCHIO AND WILLIAM ZABKA

“It became part of the American lexicon at some point.”

Ralph Macchio: “I mean, certainly in the earlier years, from the ’80s into the early ’90s, you had all those images of the crane kick, or the lines like, ‘Get him a body bag’ or ‘Sweep the leg.’ ‘Wax on, wax off.’ [The Karate Kid] became part of the American lexicon at some point. But I think the internet, if you will, or the ability for everyone to be able to talk and spread their voice, really is where it amped up to that other level.

And then you have the How I Met Your Mother of it all, which was a show that always teed up from Barney Stinson’s perspective of the real Karate Kid. And then that became this whole pop culture thing, and then other videos made. And that set the stage for, I think, the series Cobra Kai fan base coming to the table all amped up for decades of discussion. And it’s cool that it all collided in such a good big way.”

“We have to go convince Ralph Macchio.”

(Photo by YouTube Premium)

So we go in and go and sit at this back table, and the chips come, and they’re telling the waiters to leave, and then it was just spitfire, like the three-headed dragon, just a machine gun of information. Like, ‘OK, so here it is. We’re huge fans of Karate Kid. We love your work. We want to do this. It’s called Cobra Kai. We got the rights of Karate Kid. You’re Johnny Lawrence. You’re like bad sensei, you’re like Walter Matthau in Bad News Bears. You’re gonna be the anti-hero.’ And I was like, ‘What? You can’t just go do this.’

I’ve had a lot of ideas presented. I’ve thought my own self, like, ‘What can I do more in a satire type of way?’ Because I never could imagine getting the rights to do Johnny Lawrence again. And after The Karate Kid with Jaden Smith came out, I felt like it was really all over. Like, ‘It’s moved on.’ … This, it just felt right. And I said, ‘What’s the next step?’ They said, ‘Well, we have to go convince Ralph Macchio.’ I said, ‘OK.’”

“Oh, crap, I hope this works.”

Macchio: “They flew to New York. We met down in Tribeca area, and we spent more than a couple hours. They led off with talking about the themes. They were very focused. I could tell they were nervous, but Hayden, he started right away, and says, ‘Bullying.’ I would love to have the footage of their pitch to Billy, to convince him, and their pitch to me, because they were different. They didn’t start off saying, ‘We want to do the Johnny Lawrence story about Cobra Kai and make him the hero of the story.’ They started talking about themes, so credit them. They did a great job. They were also very well-versed in what they wanted to do, the angle. And they did tell me the title of the show. They weren’t trying to say, ‘Oh, it’s not gonna be that.’ I knew what it was.

My biggest question was they were pitching it as a comedy. I said, ‘Well, where’s the funny? What’s the tone?’ That was the main question, and where’s the Miyagi-isms, and how is that going to be woven into it? Because if it’s not, then I’m not interested. I need for it to have balance, if you will, across the board of the Karate Kid universe, even though the angle in from the Johnny Lawrence story is super smart.

(Photo by YouTube Premium)

I felt that they were the guys. I knew from Hot Tub Time Machine and Harold and Kumar that they knew [the humor]. I believed they could write for a young generation and humor and great teen dialogue, which I felt was really important for the show to have that. That’s really shedding light in going to season 2 and beyond, because we have this great young cast. I needed to digest it all, but I believed that they were the guys. They wanted to make the show the fans wanted to see, because they were those kids.

And then timing: 15 [or] 10 years ago there was no YouTube or Netflix, or a place where you could take a five, six-hour movie and cut it up into parts. We shoot this show and each season is like a full-on movie that you just cut up. You allow the characters to breathe and delve into gray areas, and it’s not just so black-and-white and leading to one big quick climax two hours later. All those things together got me to the place of saying, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ But not without me closing my eyes, holding my breath, and saying, ‘Oh, crap, I hope this works.’ Now we seem like the two smartest guys in the world.”

“We hadn’t done this for 35-some years … all of sudden, he walks in and it was just on.”

Zabka: “My first scene was with Ed Asner, so how’s that for day 1 on a show: working with a legend? It’s the scene when I walk in and Ed Asner’s in my refrigerator. So they just started me at full speed, and it was great, and he was great — I mean really great. What an honor. It felt like he kissed the show in a way, and he blessed it in a way, by his presence being there. It just felt like wow, we’re way up here.”

(Photo by YouTube Premium)

Macchio: “Our first scene together is still one of my favorites in the Cobra Kai series. The first scene I shot was at the end of episode 2, where LaRusso comes into the Cobra Kai dojo and it’s a little stare-down, and they question each other, and it just sets up the entire series. That scene was magic, man. We worked together in a film 30-plus years ago, and we’ve been friends for years. But that level of chemistry that we have, I didn’t know that it was there at the level that it’s now turned out to be. It’s just a reminder that this project, be it The Karate Kid and Cobra Kai, has some element that the bar just gets raised and we deliver. I’m proud of it.”

Zabka: “We hadn’t done this for 35-some years now, right? And all of sudden, he walks in and it was just on, and everything else was gone, and it was these two characters exist again in this setting. We walked away. We’re like, ‘Wow, there’s something really happening.’”

“It’s warm and wonderful and bittersweet. Pat would’ve loved this.”

Macchio: “All the time, I think about Pat and his performance. Listen, we’re not making the show without Pat Morita’s performance as Mr. Miyagi, because that’s one of the things that elevated that film to what it is today. They’re big shoes to fill. I mean, LaRusso has a line like that early in season 2 — he looks at a picture of Miyagi and says, ‘Boy, I’ve got big shoes to fill.’

He learns very soon that just because you have knowledge of a subject doesn’t necessarily mean you can teach it. And Mr. Miyagi was a magical type character who had a special touch, and LaRusso is learning that he might not have that — or he has to find his own.

They’ve rebuilt the Miyagi house and the backyard, and it’s a big set piece throughout the second season. Day one of shooting there was very nostalgic for me and quite emotional for a few reasons. One, the years have gone by, and that’s not my life anymore, but yet it’s a part of who I am by being associated and connected to the film. Now I’m the old guy trying to shed light on the young students. It’s warm and wonderful and bittersweet. Pat would’ve loved this. He would’ve been — what a cheerleader. We miss him. His daughter came to visit one day and surprised me on set. We were doing a scene in episode four of season 2, and it was a scene that had a little Miyagi magic element to it. His daughter Aly came on the set, and we took a picture together. I put it on Instagram, probably has the most views of anything I’ve ever put up. It was nice to share that moment.”

“There he is, really, the king cobra stepping into Johnny’s Cobra Kai.”

Zabka: “The way we went into it [with the Kove character] was this dysfunctional father/son relationship, mentor/student. But now Johnny’s not a kid anymore, he’s a sensei, so it was more seeing eye to eye, toe to toe. That first moment when he walks into the dojo in a similar way with Ralph and I, when he walked into the dojo, it was a different type of electricity that happened. And he’s evoking all this negative emotion out of me, and he’s the guy that tried to kill me in the parking lot, and he trained me, and all these things.

(Photo by YouTube Premium)

There’s a lot of conflict going on in Johnny, and there he is, really, the king cobra stepping into Johnny’s Cobra Kai. There’s a lot going on. Marty’s great, and it was like two dogs scrapping in a park and just getting it out. It’s an emotional fight, it’s not just a physical fight, and that’s great.”

“There’s a whole canon of Karate Kid that can be drawn from any time.”

Zabka: “The creators always say there’s a whole canon of Karate Kid that can be drawn from for any time. Whoever’s right for the moment that’s honest in this show we’re excited about.”

Macchio: “As long as it works organically into the story. In season 1, I had Randee Heller, who plays LaRusso’s mom. It’s wonderful to have her back, and it’s a big embrace from the fans that see that. And there’s some other [cameos from film cast members] in season 2 and beyond, we hope.”

ALSO WATCH: ORAL HISTORY OF THE KARATE KID WITH RALPH MACCHIO AND WILLIAM ZABKA

Cobra Kai seasons 1 and 2 are now available on Netflix. Season 3 will arrive on the streaming service in 2021.

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