Published on April 21st, 2019 | by Darren Paltrowitz0
“Cobra Kai” Star William Zabka On Career Advice, The Show’s Excellent Critical Reviews & More
Written and executive produced by Josh Heald (Hot Tub Time Machine), Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (Harold & Kumar, American Reunion), Cobra Kai was one of the surprise hits of 2018.
A continuation of the Karate Kid series, Cobra Kai picks up decades after the original film starring Ralph Macchio and William Zabka ends. The second season of Cobra Kai — which scored a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — is set to premiere via YouTube Premium on April 24th.
I had the pleasure of interviewing William Zabka — an Oscar-nominated director, producer and actor who you also may remember from his roles within How I Met Your Mother, Back To School, National Lampoon’s European Vacation and Just One Of The Guys — by phone about Cobra Kai and more. Text of a few minutes from that chat is transcribed below, while the audio of the full interview with Zabka will be broadcast next month via the Paltrocast With Darren Paltrowitz podcast.
Cobra Kai I think it opened up a lot of people’s eyes as to how awesome Johnny Lawrence was. People who liked “bad guy” characters always loved Johnny Lawrence, but once the YouTube video and things of that nature came out, people definitely got a perspective change. But I’m curious when you first found out about the backstory of Johnny Lawrence.
William Zabka: Well as we know it in the Cobra Kai show, the creators really wrote in and kind of detailed what I carried from the first film, when I did The Karate Kid. There wasn’t much about his parents, about family life, but I surmised that Johnny didn’t have a good family home and in that [Coach] Kreese was very much somewhat of a father figure. The details of that has been shown in Cobra Kai and that’s sort the imagination and the genius of Jon [Hurwitz] and Josh [Heald] and Hayden [Schlossberg]… But they, I think, they saw a video that I did on the 20th anniversary DVD of The Karate Kid where I talked a little bit about how I knew Johnny and how I stepped into the character and didn’t see him as a bad guy, even though he was the antagonist, I saw him having a little more dimension and they picked up on that. That was one of the seeds of their inspiration for the show, to flesh out what what Johnny is about…
Behind every bully is a victim, and in a way people turn into things… The behavior that people have when treating each other badly is typically downloaded from somewhere, a sibling or a social environment school or whatever. For the most part people aren’t all bad. So they really wanted to turn him inside out and create a platform for him to be more dimensional and human. That was something that I said when I went into it, from the very beginning that I didn’t have any interest in being set up to take a fall or to turn into the ultimate villain of all-time. That in order for this to work, that he’d have to be deep and wide and have a lot of perspective. They serve that up for me in the writing and that was a lot of fun to play.
The reviews on the show, as far as I’ve seen, are just excellent across the board. A lot of people were anticipating “Oh it’s another reboot, Full House even got a reboot.” But were you surprised when the reviews came across as so positive? And that people are focusing as such a strong lead in any way? Was that surprising?
William Zabka: Sure, it’s always surprising. We had no idea what what the response was going to be. I could just tell you that when we did the film, we never could have anticipated that it would become so beloved in this many years later. 35 years later, still we’ll be touching people, and we could never see that coming. But the show, to see how it’s taken off and and the feedback and the reviews, they’re flattering… They’re very humbling… fantastic and exciting to read.
But it’s more about touching people, and I love to hear what the fans have to say about the kids that are getting into martial arts and young men that tell me, “Hey man, I relate so much to Johnny. I just went through this kind of trainwreck in my life and I’ve been down on my luck. Johnny pulled himself up from the bootstraps and tried to make it work again in spite of himself, and all of his shortcomings giving me hope.” That’s the stuff that I get excited.
I’m thrilled that the character has dimension and he’s not the same guy from the film just 30 years older. He’s got 30 years of life from then to now and he’s really in many ways a whole new character. But that’s just the backstory of The Karate Kid, so that’s the kind of round answer. But you know we’re thrilled that people are responding to it positively. And that’s the best, really cool.
So in closing, any last words for the kids?
William Zabka: I think this show is a great example demonstration of relationships and parenting and mentorship. While looking for somebody to lead us and to get us through this world, hopefully we can bump into somebody that has a positive influence on us. I’ve been down that road before, so I would say choose your mentors wisely and ask a lot of questions and go for it. I would say to kids when I meet them, “Dream big because anything can happen.”
I remember being 10 years old, moving to California and I started doing commercials. When I was 12 years old was my first commercial. I always had a dream in my heart that I would do that someday, that I would be an actor someday, it would be my life… I met people like Chuck Norris… I remember him crashing through a door on a set sometime and the way he came up and kind of patted my head and it just touched me.
I did as a movie when I was 14, I was a stand-in on the movie called The Island with Michael Caine and David Warner. I remember these mega-stars who I look up to just taking the time to be nice and talk to me. And I always dreamed that maybe one day that will be me… Stick to your dreams and and don’t be afraid to take chances and don’t be afraid to fail and and and have some faith…
I always say, “The river somehow knows where it’s going.” So choose your your people wisely, choose your friends wisely, people that you look up to wisely and and it goes fast. Before you know it you’re an adult and then you’re “that guy.” So good luck and I’m rooting for you.