'Cobra Kai' Stars Detail 'Karate Kid' TV Return (and Why They Signed On)

Ralph Macchio and William Zabka talk with reporters about YouTube Red's upcoming 10-episode comedy series.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The Karate Kid rivalry between Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence is alive and well — and will now feature a new generation.

Hours after The Hollywood Reporter exclusively broke news of YouTube Red's 10-episode Karate Kid straight-to-series sequel Cobra Kai, stars Ralph Macchio (Daniel) and William Zabka (Johnny) met the press after making a surprise appearance Friday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour.

The actors, who have remained friends in the 30 years since The Karate Kid became a pop culture staple, briefly appeared onstage in a faux pre-fight press conference face-off and spoke with reporters, including THR, at the conclusion of YouTube's time in front of press.

Macchio revealed that the concept for the series — which picks up 30 years after Daniel topped Johnny in the All Valley Karate Tournament to find both running rival dojos — is relevant today and speaks to a new generation. He gave credit to concept writers Josh Heald (Hot Tub Time Machine) as well as duo Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg (Harold and Kumar) delivered in their initial pitch for Cobra Kai.

"What made me say yes after all these years — and I've been very protective of the franchise and where Daniel LaRusso sits in the world 30 years later — these guys, Josh, Hayden and Jon had such a smart and fresh angle in. It was relevant today yet had all the pop culture — they had the perfect marriage and angle in bringing it from the Johnny Lawrence [point of view]," he said. "It's not unlike how Creed was a film that was about Apollo Creed's son but you had Rocky Balboa in it in a certain way. [Cobra Kai] is not the first time anyone looks at a fresh angle from the villain's point of view, but it was just smart to go that way and to cover these dual lives and do a rivalry series in a smart and funny way, and on top of that infuse the high school world — which is a big part of the show as well — for the new generation."

Cobra Kai, which will debut in 2018, will explore Daniel as a father who is drawn back to the dojo when Johnny reopens Cobra Kai.

"Johnny befriends one [of Daniel's kids], and that is how it connects that world into our own rivalry world," Macchio said. "There's a tremendous amount of heart and kick-ass action sequences and martial arts, but the inherent humor comes from the fact that these are two guys who are in their 50s and still have an ax to grind. It goes back to those places where you just can't let go and you're still a teenager at heart and yet balancing your adult life — it's like the rise of the Cobra Kai. It's the worst nightmare for someone like Daniel LaRusso."

The actor — who has had multiple offers to step back into the dojo as Daniel over the years — said the absence of mentor Mr. Miyagi (the late Pat Morita) will be central to the show, which has both comedic and dramatic moments.

"In the early stages of us pitching to the networks, it was really important to me to have that element and that void that's in Daniel's life right now," he said of the series, which landed at subscription service YouTube Red after a multiple-network bidding war that included Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and others. "He used to train his oldest daughter when she was a kid, but now she's at the age where it's not as cool to hang out with dad. So there's a real void in his life when he doesn't have that. Mr. Miyagi is the human Yoda to young Luke Skywalker. So as an adult and a parent — my kids are in their 20s now — I would love to have had Mr. Miyagi's wisdom many times in raising my own kids. There's a piece of that void in his life that is going to resonate on the dramatic side of the show and where martial arts, [which] was such a piece of his adolescence and young adulthood, is now brought back by the nemesis raising the banner on the Cobra Kai. And now Daniel can't sit and let that happen."

To hear Zabka and Macchio tell it, both actors had trepidation about stepping back into the roles that defined their careers at a young age. But both commended the script, timing of the project and its straight-to-series model on YouTube Red, which will allow a new generation to experience the magic of The Karate Kid.

"It was not easy to get me to do it. I've been asked and pitched many times over the years. This was a smart and fresh angle, and I believe things happen at a certain time for a certain reason, and this was just the right time," Macchio said. "If this was a broadcast television pilot and then wait and see? This is the way to do it. Audiences now gravitate to this type of platform for entertainment. It was timing and the angle that these guys had with the story."

The formal Cobra Kai announcement drew top brass from producers Sony Pictures Television Studios, including new presidents Jeff Frost and Jason Clodfelter as well as Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and CEO Tony Vinciquerra. Cobra Kai is the first sale from the independent studio to YouTube Red. The digital platform's head of originals, Susanne Daniels, also noted that she knew Cobra Kai was something she wanted as the platform looks to age up its scripted originals from 18-34 to the more advertiser-coveted 18-49. The concept of the show, she noted, will appeal to both adults and a new generation, with Macchio and Zabka revealing that Cobra Kai would explore how Daniel and Johnny changed over the years as well as the new challenges they face.

"He's become very successful and maybe has lost a little bit of touch — he needs to have flaws, and he had flaws as a kid and he will have them as an adult. His heart is always in the right place," Macchio said. "As I've done at 50-something years old, there comes a time where part of your life creates some challenges: raising teenagers, trying to handle your successful business and having your nemesis come back 30 years later [that] keep you up at night just because of the importance of carrying on the Miyagi legacy. Then how Daniel's wife will embrace or not embrace this new chapter of him now going back to the dojo. I'm looking forward to that evolution."

Added Zabka: "They've gone on with their lives, but that rivalry is always still there. It's like a football game you lost in high school but the whole world saw it. It's always there: 'If only I just did this…'"

Zabka also noted that Cobra Kai — titled because it is less Daniel's story and more about both he and Johnny — would explore Johnny's backstory as well.

"Through this show, you get to see who he was and where he came from. I never saw Johnny as a bad guy; I always saw him as the antagonist but at his core, he had a good heart," Zabka told THR. "At the beginning of the first movie, he said he had one year to make it all work and that's what he wanted to do. He was an ex-degenerate. Then LaRusso comes in town and turns his world upside down. At the very end, he hands him a trophy and says, 'You're all right, LaRusso.' He has a good heart and they tap into that in the show. You're going to empathize with him. He's still tough and rough around the edges, but it's a really smart and fun take on it and I think it'll be really entertaining."

All told, Zabka summed up what it feels like to reunite with Macchio on Cobra Kai: "It's like getting reacquainted with an old friend. We have our peace to make between the two of us." 

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