Ralph Macchio: The Karate Kid on success in his 60s

“Wax on. Wax Off.”

“Sweep the leg.”

Trying to catch a fly with chopsticks.

In 1984, The Karate Kid, famed for the rigorous training endured by its headbanded hero Daniel LaRusso, was the UK’s sixth-biggest film.

It took more money than Romancing the Stone, Splash and Oscar best picture winner Terms Of Endearment. USA Today, The Bleacher Report and Vulture named it on lists of the greatest sports films of all time.

Speaking from his house on Long Island, only a couple of dojos from where he grew up, Ralph Macchio, who played Daniel, is sharing his theory of why the film is still so loved.

“The characters worked on a human level that spans space and time and generations,” he tells BBC Breakfast.

“Bullying, wish fulfilment, mentorship, overcoming obstacles, single parenting, starting a new life in a different town. These are all themes that still resonate today.”

Indeed, they have resonated even more than the sound made by his crane kick to Johnny Lawrence’s face at The Karate Kid’s climax.

The Miyagi-verse (named after Mr Miyagi, the Yoda-like mentor from the films) has continued to expand.

There was the original film trilogy, then a 1994 update which launched the career of Hilary Swank, a Jaden Smith reboot in 2010 and then in 2018 the arrival of Kobra Cai, the massively successful streaming series.

The show explores how the lives of the characters in the original films have turned out. In the first three days after series five launched on Netflix in September, it racked up 1.7 billion viewed minutes.

Thankfully, Macchio is a man absolutely at peace when it comes to understanding what people want from him.

Yes, he may have starred opposite Robert DeNiro on Broadway, been directed by Francis Ford Coppola in The Outsiders and beaten Will Smith to the role of Bill in the Oscar-winning My Cousin Vinny, but he is fully aware he will always be best known as The Karate Kid.

This is why, instead of a conventional autobiography, he opted to write a book exploring The Karate Kid’s legacy, its ongoing place in pop culture and the role it has played in his own life, which is a big one.

“It’s sort of the anti-memoir,” he laughs about the punningly titled Waxing On.

“It’s not the normal crash and burn, dropped down to the depths and build yourself back up to redemption story.

“It’s more a celebration of that film, what it’s meant for almost 40 years, what it’s been like to walk in those shoes through the ups and downs in there, the rich times and the dry times.”

And those dry times got drier than one of Mr Miyagi’s bonsai trees if it was left in the desert.

Macchio all but stopped getting acting work in the mid 90s, as the entertainment industry struggled to see him as anything other than Daniel LaRusso.

An extra problem was his youthful looks. People still find it hard to believe he was 22 when he made The Karate Kid. He is currently an astonishingly sprightly-looking 61.

“It’s a blessing and a curse that I’ve had my whole life. It’s not so much of a curse now as I’m north of 60,” he says.

“I blame my parents for the good genes. With both my grandmothers, everyone thought they were 10-15 years younger than they were.”

But in the mid-90s, Macchio must have been about the only Hollywood star actively wanting to look older than they were.

He also had a three-film Karate contract to fulfil, meaning he had to turn down the role in Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty, which secured River Phoenix an Oscar nomination.

“Once I graduated out of that, I could not get into the next class, if you will,” he says, without any bitterness.

Macchio now looks back on the lean years as a blessing, describing them as “beyond beautiful”, because they gave him to time to bring up his two children.

He also has that rarity of a successful showbiz marriage. He wed his childhood sweetheart Phyllis in 1987 (between Karate Kids II and III) and they are still together, even calling their son Daniel, although not entirely after the Karate Kid.

He explains: “My wife’s best friend growing up was called Daniel, so she always wanted to name a son Daniel.

“I was like whoa, whoa, whoa, it comes with a little bit of baggage. He’s now 27 and affectionately known as Dan, but has a great deal of pride carrying that name.”

Macchio also made the decision to never bad-mouth the Karate Kid films, even if he was frustrated with the direction his career had taken.

“I knew of the importance of that role to people’s lives. I’ve had people with tears almost brimming in their eyes, saying this movie gave me hope, it changed my life, or it was the film I watched with my grandfather every other weekend, or helped me to get through my parents’ divorce.”

This appreciation of just how much the Karate Kid meant to so many people served him well.

In a 2009 episode of the US sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Neil Patrick Harris’s character Barney Stinson explained how he always viewed The Karate Kid as a tragedy.

He said that as a kid, he was rooting for the opponent Johnny Lawrence, viewing Daniel as a bully whose crane kick was illegal.

This became a running gag, culminating in both Macchio and William Zabka (who played Johnny) appearing in an episode about Barney’s stag do.

The theory developed legs. Karate Kid fans started turning up at Comic Conventions wearing t-shirts demonstrating their support for Johnny.

Then in 2016, Macchio was approached by the writers behind US films Harold and Kumar and Hot Tub Time Machine. They asked if he would like to star in Cobra Kai, a series which would explore what it would look like for Johnny to experience redemption.

The actor was inspired to say yes, because of the movie Creed, part of the Rocky franchise, which had just come out.

“That was sort of like seeing the Rocky Balboa universe through the eyes of Apollo Creed’s son.”

The two film franchises had always been linked by John G Avildsen, who directed both the original Rocky and the Karate Kid trilogy.

There had even been an idea to make a mashup film featuring a fight between The Karate Kid’s son and Rocky’s son.

It swiftly, ahem, got the chop.

Cobra Kai appealed though.

‘Terrible title’
Macchio explains the show is about “the joy of tapping into the 80s and bringing that nostalgia along, but creating relevant stories for now”.

Two series were made for YouTube, before Netflix picked it up during the pandemic.

The most recent series has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and is described as “graduating to a black belt proficiency in heartfelt melodrama and sly humour”.

“It was challenging to play a version of Daniel that might not have been exactly what I would have written,” Macchio says. “He always had a kind of bravado and a little bit of a knee-jerk temper. But this was times 10 on Cobra Kai.”

It is hard to find anything he will voice displeasure at, but there is one thing he never liked – the title The Karate Kid.

He laughs: “I quote the film’s producer Jerry Weintraub, who said, ‘It’s a terrible title, which makes it a great title.’

“As a young actor you will want to be Olivier or De Niro. You want to have Shakespearean titles to your work. And I had a script called The Karate Kid.”

Thirty-eight years on he could not be happier that he did.

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