"Daniel LaRusso felt like someone I knew": Ralph Macchio on the eternal appeal of "The Karate Kid"

Ralph Macchio opens up about making "Cobra Kai" and the "soulful magic" of the movie that changed his life

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 2, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

Ralph Macchio (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ralph Macchio (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

What do you do when you're a successful performer well into his AARP years, and the defining role of your career was as a "kid"? You lean in.

In his new memoir, "Waxing On: The Karate Kid and Me," actor ("The Outsiders," "My Cousin Vinny"), director and producer Ralph Macchio explores the ways in which becoming Daniel LaRusso — from his first audition for the 1984 sleeper hit "The Karate Kid" right through the current season of Netflix's "Cobra Kai" — transformed his life. And yes, he reminisces on four decades of a show business career and the actors and directors who've impacted his life. But it's also a loving tribute to an underdog story that still resonates, generation after generation, and what it's like to be the custodian of that iconic legacy.

Macchio joined me recently for a candid "Salon Talks" conversation about his hopes for the future of the franchise, his secrets of eternal youth, and the enduring power of waxing on.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Publishers Weekly just called the book a "feel-good hit." Yet another feel-good hit under your belt, Ralph. Welcome.

It's really nice to be back on Salon. I remember this was one of the stops for season one of "Cobra Kai." Everyone had a little piece of this new resurgence into what has exploded on Netflix, and led me to dive into what it's been like for 38 years walking in the shoes of a character that's so inspirational and impactful. 

I started writing the proposal for the book right when we went into lockdown. The question has come to me over the past ten years or so: "Would you ever write about this seminal character in pop culture?" So, it was out there. The timing never felt right. Timing's big for me. 

You could have written a much more straightforward memoir and not done it through the lens of this franchise and this character. You could have written a book like, "Daniel LaRusso's Guide to Life," but you didn't. You chose for it to be a memoir, but with this particular throughline. Why write it at all, and why write it in that particular way?

It was the same with "Cobra Kai." I said no for 30 years to everyone who had their "Karate Kid" reboot concepts. I'm very lucky and look way smarter than I actually am in making those choices and waiting for the right time. But there was a pure uniqueness with a character that's that inspirational to a generation back in 1984, '83, when I made the movie. That has never gone away, through the decades, and now is so contemporarily relevant. You have nostalgia and relevance and the same throughline. To me, there's not a lot of examples of that. 

"The Miyagi character is the magic, as I write in the book, the soulful magic of what separates 'The Karate Kid' from another '80s teen story."

To share what it was like for me going on that rollercoaster ride with the ascents and the descent and the dry, slow periods and the head-snapping fast periods, I started breaking down chapters and talking about areas that got me excited, and also got me a little emotional, because there's certainly a lot of these folks [who] are no longer with us, so I miss them. [Them] being Pat Morita and John Avildsen and Jerry Weintraub, who were part of the filmmakers and my acting partner in that film and this franchise. None of what we have today would be there without them. Part of it then became about me proudly honoring them. It's history.

I never liked history in school. Why teach me about something 30 years ago or 20 years ago? Now, there's a little bit of history in this book because I am saying, "What you have now is because of this and this has been the journey and my perspective." At the end, it's a celebration of it all. 

You start the book at a preview of the movie, in this moment where it instantly became something over a summer when other incredible movies were breaking — one of the "Raiders" films, "Ghostbusters." Then you go back to when you auditioned. You say in the book to watch the clip [of it] on YouTube. I do whatever you tell me, Ralph, so I watched your audition. You are locked in immediately. You are fully present. You've bloomed fully as the character Daniel LaRusso. What was that like for you when you read the script? What is it about this character that you immediately had this affinity with?

Robert Mark Kamen's script deserves an incredible amount of credit, and the Miyagi character is the soulful magic of what separates the "Karate Kid" from another '80s teen story, this sort of human Yoda, if you will. 

But Daniel LaRusso felt like someone I knew, even though he was more up in it than I would be. I always say if I got my ass kicked by five guys on motorcycles and they were martial artists, I probably would've found another way to walk to school. He had this East Coast bravado about him, and I had a little bit of that. It was my defense mechanism to looking young for my age, for being one of the smallest in the class. 

I understood how to have a little bit of a front. I had nothing to back it up with, but I went in with a little of that cockiness, but sweetness, I believe, and goodness, because I've always tried to put that forward. I think I have that genuine feeling. I try to put that forward always. As you navigate life, you get the armor and all the hard edges that happen when you deal with society. But I think at the core, that goodness is who LaRusso is, with this little East Coast bravado. I didn't think very hard about, "OK, I have to do this, I have to do that." That just came. I read the words and they just came out of my mouth that way.

It's interesting you mentioned the YouTube video and why I love mentioning that in the book. I didn't realize until John Avildsen put that video up years later. When I watched it, I was like, "Wow, that's kind of the kid." It wasn't like, "Oh, he auditioned with this and then they got the character to that." You could see it, and with Pat Morita as well. There were the right actors in the right parts and all the components came together, and it's followed me ever since.

The other part of the secret sauce of this is Noriyuki "Pat" Morita. He is one of the people you dedicate this book to. He is a very real and alive presence in the book and in "Cobra Kai." 

"He had this East Coast bravado about him, and I had a little bit of that. It was my defense mechanism to looking young for my age, for being one of the smallest in the class."

100 percent.

Talk to me about that relationship that you had with him.

It's interesting because he was so easy to work with. It was effortless. I think that's due in part to the text and the words and the writing, but it was elevated by this palpable chemistry and affinity for each other, and a give-and-take that was so natural. I didn't know we had great chemistry. I just knew it was really easy and then you would hear about it when we were shooting. "You guys are coming across great, it's just magic on screen." I'm sure you hear that all the time, but witnessing it and seeing it, there was a special bond there. You cared about both of these characters deeply to the point that you were just rooting for them to succeed.

Pat was a comic at heart, so he loved cracking me up in between scenes. He'd do a dramatic moment and then come out of it and throw a few fart jokes and crosseyed zingers and ba dum bumps, and that was just him. That was part of the comic's need for attention. There was just an unconditional love that just was there. 

People probably want to believe we had sushi together every day and went to the movies together. We didn't. We went on with our lives in between films, but when we would see each other or when he'd give me a call or vice versa, it was just — "affinity" is the word. Affinity, friendship, knowing that there is some connection there. It was even unspoken. So it was very important that he be part of "Cobra Kai." The guys who write the show do an extraordinary job of keeping that spirit throughout the show, and it's pretty awesome.

You talk about the ways in which people still root for these characters, care about that movie, care about that original dynamic from almost 40 years ago. You also acknowledge in the book that there has been a little revisionist history around it.  Thanks to "How I Met Your Mother" and YouTube, there is some dispute about who the real hero is and whether that crane kick was legal or not. How does that make you approach this character who you're still playing?

I've always said, "If they're still talking about a movie you made 20, 30 years ago, regardless of what they're saying, it's awesome, because that means you made a difference." 

I think when you look back at "The Karate Kid," there's clearly a protagonist and an antagonist. Does every teenager do everything perfectly? No. Does Mr. Miyagi steal a black belt so Daniel could fight in the tournament? Yeah. Is that what you want your coach to do? Probably not, but we're making a movie. Was the kick legal? I've been on the "Tonight Show" and other places, and I always talk about how he was defending himself from an attack and the guy ran into his foot. It's all awesome at this point. I don't believe anyone was not rooting for Daniel LaRusso in 1984.

Except maybe Barney Stinson, right?

Except for Barney Stinson, and he probably just watched it on VHS. He probably wasn't around in 1984, so that doesn't even count. He wasn't in the movie theater. But it's pretty wonderful to have that, and very creative and clever. It has given birth to, "Let's look at the perspective from here." 

"This was about character nuances, and then flipping the script a little bit."

One of the things "Cobra Kai" does so well, certainly with Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso, is these guys have good intentions. They're not bad guys. There is "no such thing as bad student, only a bad teacher." That's a Miyagism. In essence, they're not too different. If LaRusso ran into John Kreese and Johnny Lawrence was hooked up with Mr. Miyagi, would they have swapped roles? Maybe not completely, but life would've been different, and that's what "Cobra Kai" does so well, diving into the gray areas of these characters. 

You talk in the book about some really terrible pitches that you got and some really awful reinterpretations. What was it about this show and the way that it is updated and the way that you're tackling many of the same issues — bullying, mentorship, survival in a tougher world — that drew you to it? What are you proud of and excited about?

The guys who create the show are massive "Karate Kid" fans, and they care so much and know every nook and cranny and thread in the fabric of the "Karate Kid" universe, more than I do. It's insane. I genuinely felt that they wanted to make the show the fans would want to see, and they had the angle in through Johnny Lawrence's eyes. Whatever happened to the bully, and has anyone ever explored that? What makes a bully? That was an interesting angle. 

The movie "Creed" had just come out. I had seen the Apollo Creed's son [story] in the Rocky Balboa world without making "Rocky VII" or wherever they're up to. That informed me that maybe coming in from a different perspective into a universe, now it's whatever prism you're looking through. It changes the perspective and now you can enhance the story. 

The other thing is, they had a pretty well drawn out next-generation cast the Miguel, the Robbie, the Samantha characters in "Cobra Kai" that now have blossomed so much in the five seasons. I had no idea we'd be going five seasons, and hopefully six. We're just waiting for word on that. 

Those were the elements. And the streaming service — it was YouTube at the time, and now it's Netflix — you could make a five-hour, five-and-a-half-hour movie, and cut it up into ten half-hour, 35-minute parts. Ten, 15 years ago, you would need a big two-hour blockbuster movie with a big fight at the end and a multiverse and all this. This was about character nuances, and then flipping the script a little bit, where LaRusso is without his mentor and loses his balance and has to find it. Johnny Lawrence keeps skinning his knees as he's trying to reconnect with his own son, but has his relationship with his student and deals with and manages all that. Those are great themes and great positions to tell a story. 

It took a little longer than I expected to get to the LaRusso that wasn't just the jerk to Johnny Lawrence in season one-ish. I'm glad that's how we launched, and now we are in a place where I get to dive deeper into a man in his midlife crisis and losing a grip on certain things and needing the people around him to have his back, just like Mr. Miyagi did. Season five felt a little like that. It felt his presence through the others that held him up to be the protagonist that he originally was, and that was really wonderful.

For those of us who watch the show, it feels like there's still so much to explore. But as you say, you are a person who has a very unique role in pop culture history. There aren't too many other people who have walked in those shoes. Jamie Lee Curtis just allegedly hung up [her "Halloween" role] Laurie Strode. Do you see the end of LaRusso?

I don't right now. I think for the guys who write "Cobra Kai" and even Robert Mark Kamen, who's still writing screenplays, it's become the "Karate Kid" cinematic universe. Whenever "Cobra Kai" proper comes in for a landing, meaning that series, I think there's a potential spinoff. I don't know where it is. I don't know what characters it would be, if it's a younger generation, or is there a prequel concept? Is there a Miyagi origin story, which I would love to see and I've spoken about? Who was this guy before Daniel LaRusso knocked on his maintenance door and said, "Can you fix the faucet?" I think there's a wonderful dramatic story there. Is there a place for LaRusso to come in and out of stories in years to come?

As far as hanging up that character, I think if it was "Karate Kid 6," there comes a time when I'm definitely the Karate Man — and the Karate Not As Young Man. You don't want to overstay that welcome. [But] look at Mark Hamill in the "Mandalorian" and the "Star Wars," just even a scene here or there. Never say never. If you would've told me I'd be having this conversation in 2022, about a show that is one of the top shows on Netflix and get to write about it in a memoir, people are embracing, I would've said, "What, are you crazy?" 

You've got a few crane kicks left in you. 

I don't know how good those crane kicks are, but I got a few something left in there.

My producer and I were just looking at the cover of your book and saying, "This dude ages backwards." You say you're not the Karate Kid anymore, but you still are. What is secret of eternal youth, Ralph Macchio? Because if you don't know it, I don't know who does.

It's the weirdest subject for me to talk about. "I blame it on my parents" is my go-to line because it is from my family. My parents look young for their age, and my grandmothers looked incredibly young for their ages and their spirit. They had a youthful energy about them and so I have that. It's not only a young look. Sometimes I watch my interviews and I'm like, "Relax, Macchio. Just sit back like a guy your age. Stop bouncing around so much." But that's kind of who I am. Considering the alternative, I'll take it. 

As I'm getting older, it's a little tougher to defend it. I'm a bit of a freak of nature, but a little hair dye does help. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Books Cobra Kai Memoir Ralph Macchio Salon Talks The Karate Kid