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Ralph Macchio, William Zabka Cobra Kai Season 3 Interview
The thing about Cobra Kai is that it’s really good. The Netflix show picks up Karate Kid nearly 35 years after the crane kick that defined a generation. Ralph Macchio’s Daniel LaRusso is a family man with a string of successful car dealerships in southern California; William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence has an estranged son, a dependence on Coors Banquet, and a life in free fall—until he meets Miguel, a bullied teenager who inspires him to reopen Cobra Kai, the karate dojo famous for “no mercy.” When the lives of Daniel and Johnny collide again, you’re not sure whom to root for. With season three hitting Netflix on January 1, Esquire Zoomed with Macchio, 59, and Zabka, 55, from their homes on Long Island and in Los Angeles, respectively. Zabka arrived in—what else—shades fit for Johnny Lawrence.
Ralph Macchio: I’m seeing Zabka sideways. He comes in glasses first.
William Zabka: How come I’m sideways? What the hell?
RM: You on your phone, or are you on your computer?
WZ: I’m on my phone. I don’t have a computer. I’m not a nerd.
RM: Maybe it’s from all the Coors Banquet you’ve been drinking.
WZ: I’m going to try this this way. Hold on.
RM: Hey, look at that!
ESQ: There you are! How have you guys been holding up since March?
RM: I’ve been on Long Island, out in the ’burbs, just being as careful as I can. My whole family’s doing relatively well. My wife is a nurse practitioner. She’s been in the trenches.
WZ: I have two young kids. I’ve become more of a camp counselor and schoolteacher for them. I’m watching my six-year-old daughter learn how to read. I’m teaching my son complicated math. But there’s been something great about the home time.
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ESQ: It comes across in the show that you’re both fathers.
RM: The father figure was always ingrained in the original Karate Kid. And Cobra Kai is that. You have a guy who has a family that’s together, and you have another guy who is trying to put his family together.
WZ: Ralph has two adult kids who are beautiful, healthy young adults. And I also have a godson that I help raise. The paternal part of growing up and getting some years on you stretches your heart. That plays into the show.
ESQ: My favorite moment in the trilogy is when Mr. Miyagi’s father dies in Karate Kid II and Daniel tells him the story about his own father’s death. And he says, basically, “It’s just enough that I was there with him.”
RM: That’s one of my favorite scenes of the trilogy, too. Anytime you ground that connection of having that father figure in your life for a boy growing up is so important.
ESQ: Ralph, you went to Okinawa for season three. What was that like? You didn’t film there for Karate Kid II.
RM: That’s right. We shot part two in Hawaii. The stuff that took place there is really going to excite the fans. At the end of season two, Johnny and Daniel have to really take a look in the mirror.
ESQ: It introduces the idea that these guys would be better without karate, you know?
WZ: At the end of season two, I came home with a pit in my stomach. We didn’t know we’d have a third season, and I’m like, “If it ends here, I’m going to be a mess for a while.” Johnny feels a horrible sense of remorse and guilt—he feels responsible for all of it. So I don’t know if it’s karate itself that he’d be better off without. Maybe they should all learn how to play badminton.
Ralph Macchio and William Zabka in season three of Cobra Kai.
CURTIS BONDS BAKER/NETFLIX
ESQ: Is it true that you rekindled your friendship after Pat Morita’s death in 2005?
WZ: After the film, we were young, we went our different ways. We bumped into each other at a screening here and there. But I remember it being Pat’s funeral where we reconnected.
RM: After the movie, there was a long chunk of time. We connected through a little bit of work and a little bit of fandom. Billy would say, “Can we ever go back and bring these characters together?” He had ideas. And now we look really smart.
ESQ: It really does look like you haven’t missed a beat when you guys are together.
WZ: When we had our first scene at the dojo, it was the first time Johnny and Daniel—us in our characters—faced off. It’s not really acting. It’s existing. And as soon as that scene was over, I think we all knew it. This is on.
RM: It went beyond the expectation. There was a chemistry that we had, just by being connected to this movie that had become such a big part of pop culture. We’ve lived attached to these characters from different perspectives, and then you come into contact over the years. You’re adding layers onto that adolescent time. Life has happened for both of us, separately and together.
I’m on my phone. I don’t have a computer. I’m not a nerd.
ESQ: Was there a point since The Karate Kid that you guys felt exhausted by that universe?
WZ: It’s been the biggest gift, careerwise, in my life. Johnny Lawrence’s shadow is so big that it’s in front of me. It would be more like, “I want to do other things,” you know? Ralph, what do you say?
RM: Listen, 15 years ago I was pushing to find other avenues to pursue and fight the pigeonholing. Billy and I have that in common from two totally different perspectives. The hero and the villain. But look what’s happened now—the lines are so blurred.
ESQ: The Cobra Kai writers seem to have found this magic key: You can make all these non-PC jokes because it’s roasting this guy who never left the ’80s.
RM: What they did so well is lock this guy in the ’80s. He’s trying to find his way out. So when he’s doing that, you’re like, “Oh, he didn’t mean it.”
WZ: So many times, I read it and say, “I can’t say that!” What makes comedy work is the character’s blind obsession. He’s blind to himself, and that’s funny. But he’s trying to work himself through it, so that’s forgivable, you know?
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ESQ: For a whole generation of kids, this is probably their introduction to the ’80s.
WZ: I think the ’80s was just a special time. There’s a lot to discover in there—not to learn from it, but to know it. In the car, my kids will hear an Aerosmith song and my son’s like, “Crank it! This is the best song ever!” I love that.
RM: You play that stuff any day, whether it’s my kids or Billy’s kids, and they want to put the top down and open the windows. It’s that freedom. That feeling of joy. It was a simpler time, less compartmentalized, where we could all rock out together.
ESQ: It’s been all Journey in this apartment for the past week.
WZ: You know what it is today? It’s Halen, dude. Every station.
RM: I was just about to text you, man. Billy knew Eddie Van Halen. That’s such a loss, and I’m so sorry for all of us.
WZ: I went to the Hollywood Bowl in 2015 to see them play. I went in his dressing room. He handed me his guitar. His guitar! I play guitar, and I said, “I want to show you my version of ‘Ain’t Talkin’ ’Bout Love.’ ” And he’s like, “No, man! It’s much simpler than that.” He gets behind me and starts holding my fingers.
“He would love it. He’s shining down on us with a big smile,” Ralph Macchio says of what Pat Morita would think about Cobra Kai.
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ESQ: What would Pat Morita think of Cobra Kai?
RM: He would love it. He’s shining down on us with a big smile. On top of everything else, he’s our friend, you know? So he’s happy for his friends. Same thing with John Avildsen, our director. Without them, we’re not doing this.
WZ: He would be having a blast with this. He’s the soul of Miyagi-do, the wise Yoda that’s maybe not with us, but still with us. I can say just this, so let me get it out, just because I have it. Unless you have it, Ralph.
RM: No, go, go.
WZ: The whole experience has been kissed, really. The trajectory of the show from the beginning to now, and how the world’s responding to it. Ralph, maybe you have something wiser to say.
RM: [laughs]: No!
WZ: Wiser and more articulate.
RM: This journey has rebirthed itself and had a second rebirthing. Then, with the pandemic, we thought, There’s a shot that this is over. Now it’s the best medicine on television.
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