Ralph Macchio had been approached several times over the years with various ideas to revive his “Karate Kid” character, Daniel LaRusso. But the pitch from writers Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg was different.
Heald was behind “Hot Tub Time Machine,” while Hurwitz and Schlossberg were the brains behind the “Harold & Kumar” franchise. “So I knew they had their finger on the pulse of R-rated comedies for the young generation,” Macchio told IndieWire’s TURN IT ON podcast. “I thought that was interesting to have guys who had success in that world take on something iconic and nostalgic. It turns out they’re big ass ‘Karate Kid’ fans. It’s ‘Star Wars’ to them.”
What they came up with was “Cobra Kai,” which the trio first had to convince Sony, and stars Macchio and William Zabka, to consider. Once the studio was on board, they pitched it to YouTube Red (now YouTube Premium), which bought the pitch in the room.
Macchio was particularly interested in the idea of giving the relationship between Daniel and his one-time rival Johnny (Zabka) more depth. In 2018, Johnny is washed-up and estranged from his kid, while Daniel is a family man and the owner of a successful car dealership.
Johnny tries to get his life together by opening a new Cobra Kai karate dojo, much to the chagrin of Daniel. But this isn’t about them switching roles — both men still have demons, but both are also trying to do what they believe is the right thing.
“The ‘Karate Kid’ film was very black and white and Miyagi/Daniel good, Cobra Kai/Johnny bad,” Macchio said. “It was good over evil. ‘Cobra Kai’ the series, and this is what won me over, they wanted to explore the grey areas of these characters as men. And where your allegiance would alternate.”
IndieWire’s TURN IT ON podcast recently sat down with Macchio to discuss how he’s learned to embrace his signature role over the years, and how “Cobra Kai” offers up a more complicated portrait of both Daniel and his longtime rival Johnny, as played by William Zabka. We began by discussing the critical acclaim the show has received. Listen below!
Fans of “Karate Kid” will recognize plenty of the original film (and threads from its two sequels) as references and Easter eggs throughout the ten half-hour episodes of “Cobra Kai.” That also includes footage — some never seen before — from the original film shoot.
“The cool thing is they have the ability to go to Sony, and get footage, the dailies from the scenes shot in 1983 and recut scenes that we know and that are famous but shifts the focus,” Macchio said. “They do that in the first episode with the crane kick and leading up to it.
“They did a substantial and excellent job of picking and choosing and peppering those moments that would have the most impact. ”
In particular, Episode 5, ‘Counterbalance,’ is a tribute to Mr. Miyagi, played by the late Pat Morita. “It’s the midseason moment where LaRusso, who has gone off the path of focus in his life, it’s what leads him to find his balance again,” Macchio said. “The Miyagi influence of hitting rock bottom. I needed to have this in the show.
Finding that footage, it’s pitch perfect what they were able to do.
“It was important for me to thread throughout the series and hopefully many seasons to come, the influence of Miyagi on LaRusso’s life, especially at the point where he even as an adult needs to find his balance again,” he added. “Those were early discussions of what would enrich this idea as opposed to this being a one-off. It couldn’t be that linear.”
Macchio said the three writers managed to keep each other in check and not overdo the classic references, however.
“People are waiting to hear ‘You’re the Best Around’ and that’s one it’s so easy to go there and they chose not to,” he said. “Maybe you hear it in Season 2 on the radio as a John Mayer acoustic version. It’s become already pop culture within the pop culture of ‘Cobra Kai.'”
As for the relationship between Daniel and Johnny, Macchio appreciated the scenes where viewers might realize that these two are actually more similar than they realize. “You believe that these guys if they could just shake all the stuff and see clearly through their jaded lenses, they’re fairly similar. We can see it clearer than they can as the audience.”
Macchio said he and Zabka have gotten to know each other better over the years as they’ve attended various “Karate Kid” reunion events, and even poked fun at their characters and the film on “How I Met Your Mother.”
“He was always a fan of the idea to go back to it, I was always hesitant,” Macchio said. “If you miss, you’re tainting a legacy. I seem real intelligent right now because the show is doing so well. We’re at that pinching ourselves theory that can this possibly happen twice with one franchise? For whatever the reason, there’s some light on it in a way that this doesn’t happen very often.”
Macchio said it was surreal to return in front of the cameras as Daniel and Johnny, particularly since the very first scene they shot was from Episode 2, when the two characters have a stare-off on the Cobra Kai dojo mat.
“Outside of a couple wrinkles and the hairline receding it felt like yesterday. But felt full of life,” he said. “That could have been a game changer if we walked in the room and were 275 pounds and balding. It does take a lot more stretching and prep work every time we land a kick or a punch!”
Macchio is on a streak, having also appeared in a supporting role on HBO’s “The Deuce” this past season.
“There were a couple of lean years, to say the least, so it’s kind of nice to be on a hit HBO show and leading into what Cobra Kai is now,” he said. “I’ve always embraced the fact that I was lucky to be the guy to play Daniel LaRusso.”
IndieWire’s “TURN IT ON with Michael Schneider” is a weekly dive into what’s new and what’s now on TV — no matter what you’re watching or where you’re watching it. With an enormous amount of choices overwhelming even the most sophisticated viewer, “TURN IT ON” is a must-listen for TV fans looking to make sense of what to watch and where to watch it.
Special thanks to KROQ’s DJ Omar Khan for the new theme song!