William Zabka has been playing misunderstood bully Johnny Lawrence for over 30 years.
Zabka first rose to fame in 1984 as the motorcycle-riding black belt Johnny in “The Karate Kid,” facing off against the movie’s hero, new guy Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio).
Zabka also starred in CBS’ “The Equalizer” from 1986-89, got an Oscar nod in 2004 for co-writing and producing the short film “Most” and appeared on “How I Met Your Mother” in 2013.
His latest project “Cobra Kai,” currently on Netflix, revisits “The Karate Kid” franchise and catches up with Johnny and Daniel in the modern-day, where the former rivals are now middle-aged men who took vastly different paths in life. Daniel is wealthy and successful with entitled kids; Johnny is an unemployed, divorced drunk. Their paths soon collide again.
Zabka, 54, spoke to The Post about revisiting “The Karate Kid,” ’80s nostalgia, Johnny’s redemption and more.
What made you decide to do “Cobra Kai?”
I’ve been living with this character in some fashion since 1984, so I’ve had 30 years of it saturating the culture and taking root in me. I always thought there was something else to be said for “The Karate Kid” and Johnny. When [creators Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald] called me and said they had an idea for a new show, they hit me over the head with “Cobra Kai,” it was very surreal. It was like an old girlfriend came back and wanted to get back together.
What’s it been like to revisit Johnny years down the line?
It’s been an amazing reconnection. “The Karate Kid” has been a huge part of my life for all this time, and to give him more dimension and humanity has been thrilling. Johnny is the polar opposite of who I really am. But in the ending scene of ‘The Karate Kid’ film when he hands Danny the trophy…I thought he’s actually got a really good core. You’re a product of your upbringing, your environment and mentors. He’s had a rough go at life. He’s trying to figure things out and sort through his past and change and grow. That’s what’s so amazing to me about what the writers have done with the character. Johnny is on his path to his own version of redemption and recovery. The “Cobra Kai” series is really providing that long arc. It’s so satisfying as an actor to play someone who isn’t all good or bad.
Do fans come up to you a lot?
I’m older now so I don’t look exactly like the 18-year-old Johnny, but a lot of people would come up to me over the years, like, “Oh you’re that jerk; you’re that bad guy.” And I would defend Johnny.
What’s it been like to reunite with Ralph Macchio?
We’ve been friends over the years, we [appeared] together on “How I Met Your Mother.” The scene [in “Cobra Kai”] when Daniel walks into the dojo for the first time, we had not been on camera like that in character for so many years. There was an electricity and energy that was palpable. It’s been incredible to explore that again.
What do you think about the resurgence of ‘80s nostalgia?
I love it. “Bill and Ted” is coming back, I can’t wait for that. It’s comfort food in a sense. I think there’s a trick to doing it right where it’s fresh and original and doesn’t only lean on nostalgia. When they pitched me [“Cobra Kai”], they said, “This show could still exist without “The Karate Kid.” It would be like “Bad Sensei,” kind of like [2003 movie] “Bad Santa.” It wasn’t just grabbing the low-hanging fruit. I think there’s a real trick to rebooting something to keep it fresh and current so it relates to today.
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