Original Karate Kid Ralph Macchio on roles before and after the crane kick
More Random Roles
- James Urbaniak on Venture Bros.’ return and Hal Hartley’s Lord Of The Rings
- Jon Cryer on Charlie Sheen’s work ethic and correcting Gene Hackman
- Ricky Schroder on public puberty, NYPD Blue, and re-watching his child-actor roles
- Mark Boone Junior on Sons Of Anarchy, Christopher Nolan, and playing a dirty cop
- John C. McGinley on 42, Oliver Stone, and missing the Oscars to watch the NCAA championship
Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: During the ’80s and ’90s, Ralph Macchio seemed to be an almost ubiquitous presence on the silver screen, thanks to films like The Outsiders, the Karate Kid trilogy, and My Cousin Vinny. Although his box-office fortunes soon declined, Macchio has continued to work steadily on the small screen in recent years, with an arc on Ugly Betty and memorable appearances on Entourage and Dancing With The Stars. Currently, Macchio can be found behind the camera, as executive producer on the new National Geographic series American Gypsies.
American Gypsies (2012)—executive producer
The A.V. Club: You’ve done a little writing and a little directing, but what about this project inspired you to step behind the camera and produce?
Ralph Macchio: I’ve always been interested in working behind the camera, and I’ve directed short films, and—well, let’s just say I’ve developed a lot of scripted programming as well as docu-series projects, but none of them got the go-ahead. So this is my first real time on the production side. For this, though, a friend of mine’s son and his friend were film students who were doing a graduate documentary project on this gypsy family in New York, and I saw this footage and instantly became fascinated with this subculture. Not just the fact that it existed and that I’d never seen anything like it before, but the characters were just popping off the screen. I mean, just dynamic, passionate, exciting… It reminded me at times of my own cousins and brothers. I was in development on another project with Stick Figure Productions, and I just felt they were the perfect place and the perfect team to shape a series for this. So I brought the limited amount of footage into their office, we sat and looked at it together, and everyone just said, “This needs to be a show. At the least, this needs to be a documentary, but this really needs to be a show.” That began the process, so that’s how I got into helping put it together. You always wish for the network that sees it, buys it, and wants to support it, and we have that in National Geographic. It’s a very exciting time.
AVC: With a lot of celebrity executive producers, you see their name on the credits, but you never see them out doing any of the heavy lifting to promote the project. But you’re here at the Television Critics Association press tour, doing the panel for the show and unabashedly helping get the word out.
RM: Well, it’s exciting for me, because it’s taken a long time, as is often the case with these things. I’ve yet to have that fast-tracked project where you say it, and two weeks later, you’re in production.
AVC: When did you first start working on this?
RM: Oh, a couple of years ago. But mainly from the aspect of being able to even get the footage, because it’s authentic. A good part of these types of shows are very manipulated insofar as what is really being captured and what is formulated. So at the genesis of this, it was clearly capturing these moments, but to cut together the presentation of what it is took a little time. It’s not something that can be done overnight. But as far as being on the panel, it’s nice to see you can work this hard for this long and that it’ll pay off. I’m proud of that. Plus, it’s nice for me to have this different title, and I’m proud of that, too.
AVC: A few years ago, FX had a series called The Riches, starring Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver, which was about a family of gypsies, but that was decidedly fictional. What can viewers expect to see from the people on American Gypsies?
RM: Well, they talk about the word “gypsies” in the series. They call themselves Romani people, and it’s a culture—a secret culture—that’s been going on for thousands and thousands of years. “Gypsy” is sort of what we, the outsiders—or the gaje, as they call us—have labeled them. But they understand that that’s what they’re considered. What this goes into is their culture, their lifestyle, their—well, “ancient” isn’t a great word—but the traditions and customs that have been carried on for years and the interesting element of them wanting the American dream for their children and the next generation. They’re at a crossroads. The patriarch of the Johns family, Bob, has five sons, and he’s at the point where he feels he doesn’t want these traditions to be lost.
The follow-up question is always, “If this is a secret society, then why are we getting in?” They want to show themselves and be recognized as a minority people, as opposed to these stereotypes of lying, cheating, scamming, and all the negative connotations that go along with the slang word “gypsy.” So we go into how they school their children, how they run their businesses, how they settle their disputes. They have their own court system called the Kris, where, if there’s a dispute with opposing gypsy families, it will be heard by the elders of both sides, and a decision will be made. It’s really fascinating. And then there’s the psychic shops and tarot-card readings, which is a big part of their business, at least this family. They’re in other businesses as well, though, including scrap metal. For me, coming from an Italian/Greek background, there’s elements that are like my family picnic in the summertime. That’s what is relatable and human about it. And the love of family is at the core, regardless of whether you agree or disagree with their customs and unorthodox ways.
AVC: How aware are they of popular culture? Were they like, “Hey look, it’s Ralph Macchio”?
RM: Totally. There was a lot of “Hey, Ralph Macchio!” I was privileged to go to a wedding. Steve Kanter, who’s the head of Stick Figure Productions, myself, and a couple of others were invited to one of the weddings, but we couldn’t go in ’til it was time, and there are some members of the community that are not that open to this concept, because they’re protected from the outsiders in their culture. But once we were allowed to walk in, there were just tons and tons of people dressed to the nines. It was like the Oscars. Even the kids are dressed up. It’s a big event. And they had that Mediterranean look, so you look at me, I fit right into that wheelhouse. But when I came in, people just started coming over to me, and I felt like it was 1985 all over again. So yeah, they’ve watched the movies, and the women that are in their 30s and 40s remember having a few of those pictures up on the wall, and… okay, that’s kind of fun, I admit. [Laughs.] But I feel like it also adds an energy to them for this project happening, as involved and supportive as I am, because that brush-with-celebrity stuff—I mean, you know, it’s foolish, but people still get excited about it. And I feel like that actually kind of helped in this case.
AVC: In January, the family appeared with you to help promote the show at the TCA press tour. How has it been for them to suddenly be in the public eye like this?
RM: That was their first time in front of the press, but I think they did pretty good. They get a little wordy, a little rambly, a little overexcited, but I don’t know, we’ll see. I’m going to see them tonight at the première, and they’ve got a big-ass 70-foot billboard in Times Square. I’m jealous of them. I don’t think any of my movies ever got a billboard that big. National Geographic’s really pulling out all the stops and bringing attention and a presence to the show. Which is awesome, when you’ve worked this hard on a show, to see the network getting behind it. So we’ll see how they do tonight, but I think they’re getting a little more used to it. And hopefully it’s for a while. Hopefully people will connect with the show, because I think it has a lot to offer as a window into that world, and it’s entertaining as well as relatable from a family aspect, even though they’re a little… unorthodox. To say the least.
Up The Academy (1980)—“Chooch”
RM: Wow, you’re going way back. [Laughs.] Chooch, that was my first role. Robert Downey, Sr. directed that movie. Robert Downey, Jr. was, like, 13 at the time. But yeah, Chooch Bambalazi, that was my first part and my first big audition. I got the part, and I just overacted like I’m some young Italian Mafia guy. Thick accent. Hey, listen, it got me the next job! And there were some interesting people in that movie. Hutch Parker, who wound up running 20th Century Fox for years. His older brother is Parker Stevenson, Kirstie Alley’s ex? How ’bout that? I am a wealth of information! [Laughs.] The pearls I give you!
AVC: Were you surprised when Ron Leibman demanded to have his name removed from the credits and all the promotional materials for the film?
RM: Oh, you know that, huh? Yeah, that was really interesting. But listen, I was as green as you get. That was my first part. I think I did maybe one Bubble Yum commercial before then.
AVC: Yeah, it’s on YouTube. We’ll be linking to that.
RM: [Laughs.] Isn’t that funny? People love that. I’ve even Tweeted that out. I mean, look at me! I’ve got the squeakiest voice, and I’m dancing around like I’m a Mouseketeer or something. See, now I’ve forgotten what your question was.
AVC: Just about Ron Leibman, and if his actions surprised you.
RM: [Hesitates.] I don’t know why he did the movie. He was very good in it, but making that movie, it was a very weird dynamic. As I say, I was so young and green, and there was a lot of… It just wasn’t a happy set from the adult standpoint. Us kids, we had a good time, but there were problems with production, I think, on that movie.
“Wax On, Fuck Off” (2010)—“Ralph Macchio”
AVC: Did Funny Or Die come to you and ask you to do something, or did you pitch it yourself?
RM: No, I pitched that. I walked in and I was trying to sell another project, but wasn’t fortunate enough to find a network that was in love with it, so I was disappointed that I didn’t have a project at the time that the Karate Kid remake was coming out. I said, “I can’t just sit here and watch this movie come out. I have to be doing something!” Because it was difficult for me. I carried that legacy for so long. It would be a weird time for me to be sitting at home watching that movie come out and not be busy. So I was able to figure out a way to make fun of myself on every level, skew the media, who are always, like, “If you’re not doing something bad, you’re not a story,” and do every one-liner that I’ve had over the years on my own terms… And that includes the crane kick. Which I’ve only ever done once before, and that was on film.
I went to Todd Holland, who’s a very good friend of mine and a fantastic director. We had a scripted project that we were developing that, once again, almost made it but never did. So I said, “Okay, you wanna do something? Here’s my concept. What if my family is doing an intervention on me because I’m just too fucking nice? They’re like, ‘Are you sure you haven’t slept with anybody besides Mom? Do something!’ And they treat it like I’ve got an addiction to being nice.” And I assure you, I’m not that nice. My kids watch it, and they’re like, “Have they really met you?” But let’s just say I’m responsible. Anyway, the thing just blew up on the Internet. I released it at just the right time. I walked in to Mike Farah, and I said, “Okay, here’s the title: ‘Wax On, Fuck—’” I didn’t even finish saying the “off.” He’s like, “Where and when?” And honestly, it is the greatest title ever. But I get to pretend to be a badass, and the more I try, the more I sink myself. Todd and his team of editors did a spectacular job. That really informed Dancing With The Stars for me, believe it or not. I just saw that we had, like, 500,000 hits by noon, and when that word came in, I was like, “Okay, maybe this is the time.” Because unless you’re in the Super Bowl, there aren’t really many other platforms that provide the exposure Dancing With The Stars gives you. I could sit here and give you a laundry list of things I don’t like about the show, but it does give you exposure, and in a good way.
Entourage (2005)—“Ralph Macchio”
Head Case (2007)—“Ralph Macchio”
AVC: The Funny Or Die video wasn’t the first time you poked fun at your celebrity. You’ve also turned up on Entourage and Head Case.
RM: Right, yeah! I really liked the Head Case appearance. [Alexandra Wentworth] is really smart and funny. To me, if it’s smart, I think it only flatters and puts you in a good light. What I haven’t done, and I get offered all the time, is, “Do you want to poke fun at the whole Karate Kid/’80s thing?” And I don’t, because that’s a one-off joke. With the Funny Or Die video, it was based on the theme of a comeback. As opposed to, say, how every year I’ll get three or four sitcoms who want me to play myself, and if it’s not respectful of the legacy—I know, “legacy” is a big word, but I guess you could call it that when you look at The Outsiders, Karate Kid, My Cousin Vinny. I look at those movies, and I do put them on a certain level. They’re not just one-hit wonders of a time. They’re films that really do stand the test. My Cousin Vinny is an excellent comedy. The Outsiders was a classic novel, and I got to play one of the best parts in the movie. So I do protect that. But Entourage was the first time I ever poked fun like that. Because I knew Kevin [Dillon] through his brother, Matt, it just seemed like the concept of him and me, back in the day, being at the [Playboy] Mansion and tossing back shots of Cuervo, that was a good bit. If you look back at those times that I have played myself and poked fun, they’re good ones. A lot of times, you see actors do that, and it becomes old news really fast, so I’m glad I’ve only peppered those out and didn’t do them too heavily. And I’m probably done doing it. “Wax On, Fuck Off” was kind of the culmination, the best of the best.
The Three Wishes Of Billy Grier (1984)—“Billy Grier”
RM: Laura Dern! I did two films with Laura. One was Teachers, the other was The Three Wishes Of Billy Grier. The irony of that one, though, is that I played a character who had an aging disorder where he aged aggressively quickly, whereas one could argue that I have the antithesis of that disease. [Laughs.] I just turned 50, and I can’t hide it, because you guys could look it up, but I look… a little younger than that. Some would say freakishly so. I always say I’m a man-child. But considering the alternative, I’ll take it.
That film was on ABC, and that’s when the networks, everybody had a disease-of-the-week movie, or the affliction of the week. It was written by Corey Blechman, who wrote this movie called Bill. Mickey Rooney was in it, and I think he might even have won an Emmy for it, so the pedigree of the writer and everything, it just felt like it was something. It was weird, though, because the original Karate Kid was just hitting, so there was a big question of, “Should we do a television movie?” Because those days were much different from now, where the best writing is arguably on television. But we felt like it was such a stretching kind of role for me. [Hesitates.] There are moments in it that are really good, like the makeup, Mike Westmore was doing that. But to have me as a little boy who looks like he’s 90, that was kind of weird. But it was of the times.
I think that premise, done as a fully realized film, not just as a TV movie they just sort of threw together, could be really fascinating. I think it would be more fascinating if it was done in a docu-style, though, because the truth of those people who actually have that disease, it’s disturbing, and it’s not very attractive. Whereas with me, they were making me into someone who was aging, but was still a halfway decent-looking guy. So no, it wasn’t true to reality, but it was a job at the time, and it was a good role. And what a stretch for an actor, to try to play that. From a pop-culture standpoint, it’s hilarious that I had an affliction that makes someone age aggressively quickly. [Laughs.] The irony’s kind of ridiculous.
Crossroads (1986)—“Eugene Martone”
RM: That was directed by Walter Hill, and I remember he asked me to name that character. It was written with a different name, but Walter said, “Give yourself your own name! I always like actors to be able to choose their name.” And I went back and forth, like, “What am I going to name this guy?” I don’t know where “Eugene” came from, but I knew “Martone” just sounded kind of cool for a musical name, because he was a guitarist. That film was arguably one of the better-looking films I’ve ever been in, and some of the coolest music ever, including probably one of the greatest guitar duels ever to come out of Hollywood, between Steve Vai and myself, although it wasn’t me. [Laughs.] I was faking it all the way. But it’s still a very cool project. Joe Seneca was phenomenal in that movie, Jami Gertz. And I’ll run into people left and right who’ll go, “Dude, Crossroads!” I was introduced to Sean Lennon, who did the score for this one film I did, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Undead, and he just went on and on about how he tried to emulate the guitar duel from Crossroads, and all his guitar friends were obsessed with it.
AVC: Did you know anything about the Robert Johnson legend before going into the movie?
RM: No, but I studied all that stuff, the 30 songs, the missing song, and all that. Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones did covers of his stuff. And Robert Johnson, since that, has become… I mean, they’ve released box sets and lots of great stuff since then.
AVC: That was kind of an outside-the-box choice of film for you at the time.
RM: Well, it was a Columbia film, and I was doing the Karate Kid films with them, and since that was pretty successful, they were trying to keep me in the family, at least for a little while. Our biggest concern was that it was still mentor-student, and we wanted to not necessarily stay on that path. But the film is very different in tone, and Walter Hill was a filmmaker who’d made his mark with The Warriors and 48 Hrs., and he was shooting Streets Of Fire right before then. We just sort of hit it off and figured we’d go down this path with that film.
Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Undead (2009)—“Bobby Bianchi”
RM: Yeah, Bobby Bianchi was a fun character. I remember meeting with Jordan Galland, who was the director, and he was good friends with Sean, like I just mentioned, but he was also friends with Jake Hoffman, who’s Dustin Hoffman’s son. Sometimes I felt like I was the only one who didn’t have an icon for a parent! But that character, when I read it, I was like, “This is more of a Vinnie Pastore character.” He was a big, burly guy. But they said anytime they looked at actors that were too character-y, they wouldn’t believe he would have a hot girl. So I took that as a compliment. [Laughs.] And then we adjusted it a bit, and it was fun. It was one of those movies that was made for a very small budget. It’s quirky, it only required a couple of days, and if you see a filmmaker that has something you think you can help out by loaning your name or your talent to it… It was a good cast, too.
AVC: Yeah, talking about people with famous parents, Bijou Phillips was in the film as well.
RM: I’m telling you! It was like I was the only one! [Laughs.]
My Cousin Vinny (1992)—“Bill Gambini”
RM: We all knew it was a funny script, and obviously Joe Pesci was at a peak there, with Goodfellas and everything going on. And Marisa [Tomei]… Who knew she would be the spectacular talent she is? I mean, we knew when we saw her, but who knew that was going to be an Oscar-winning performance? And Fred Gwynne… The whole cast was great. I had the part that was the least funny, but I had to be in the movie. And I got to say “the two yoots.” [Laughs.] People yell that out to me. I could walk down the street today, and someone could yell that out. That, and “I shot the clerk.” But it’s great to have a couple of those. My Cousin Vinny, The Outsiders, The Karate Kid… When I look back at that time, any one of those, you’d be happy with. So I got pretty lucky.
The Ties That Bind (1994)—“Michael”
AVC: It’s so obscure, it isn’t even listed on IMDB, so I can’t confirm the character’s name, but—
RM: Wow. Yeah, that’s obscure, all right. It was a half-hour comedy—the first time I ever did a multi-camera show—that I did for Warner Bros. that never got on the air, even though we shot six episodes. I played… geez, I don’t remember the guy’s name, either! I want to say it was Michael. But it was one of those half-hours that didn’t work for a bunch of reasons. It was developed for me, but… I don’t know, I always wanted the show to be, like, Roseanne About You, because at that time I wanted it to have the edge of Roseanne, but also be like Mad About You. But it turned more toward a softer, not-as-good version of Full House, without any edge whatsoever. I’m not exactly sure what happened. But they did bring in Andrew “The Non-Dice” Clay to play my cousin, I think it was. He came in on the second episode, and they were trying to infuse a little bit of ballsy comedy. And he got another show out of it, and I went off the air. So that was a little bit of a dip in my career at that point. [Laughs.] But now it’s bouncing back, so it’s all good.
Beer League (2006)—“Maz”
RM: That was a movie I turned down, like, three times. [Laughs.] And then finally we just made it work. I got to play softball with Artie Lange, and he’s so funny. I’m a big Artie fan, and I found him very likeable and loveable amid all his Howard Stern stories, and obviously, the demons he wrestles with and all the stuff that’s happened with him in recent times. I haven’t heard first-hand, but I’ve heard he’s on the rebound, which is great to hear. So yeah, it was fun. We played softball in Jersey in a movie that was made for under $2 million or about that, and I got to be the voice of reason, the only guy in the group of Beer League softball players that orders egg whites and toast with no butter and grapefruit juice. I loved that scene in the diner. It’s really funny. Again, it’s at my expense, being the guy who’s a little whipped by his wife, but he does provide the logic to all the crazy guys.
Eight Is Enough (1980-81)—“Jeremy Andretti”
RM: I remember auditioning for that part for ABC. I was coming right off Up The Academy, and I auditioned for that part, got the network test, and I was on the set of Eight Is Enough in, like, 24 hours. I was just like, “Wow!” And then the actors went on strike for three months that day. I’ll never forget that. But yeah, I played Betty Buckley’s nephew, and I was the… I guess at the time, it was like, “Let’s get a Scott Baio type and infuse some youth into the cast of this show in its fifth season.”
AVC: I was just about to say you were kind of the Cousin Oliver of Eight Is Enough, but it’s apparently more appropriate to call you the Chachi of the show.
RM: Yeah, that’s me. My joke was that, with me, it was Nine Is Too Many, and that was the end of that. [Laughs.] But I had a great time. I was on 21 episodes, and it was a great training ground. Plus I was the guy who taught little Nicholas how to smoke. In 2012, you’d only see a scene like that on Showtime, late at night.
The Outsiders (1983)—“Johnny Cade”
RM: Ah, that’s the best. I mean, Johnny and The Outsiders is an ingrained part of me, right next to Daniel LaRusso, you could argue. I read that book when I was 12 years old, I got to be in the movie I’d dreamed to be in, and I got to play the part I wanted. So it holds a special place for me. And all those guys in the cast, S.E. Hinton, Francis Ford Coppola… There’s just a kindred spirit around that group. It was awesome. Plus, I got to say, “Stay gold,” and then die. [Laughs.] It doesn’t get better than that in cinema.
AVC: You also got a lot of people to “do it for Johnny.”
RM: Well, that was Matt’s line. But, yeah, it was all about me. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s hard to look at the ensemble of young actors in that film and not find it staggering how many of them went on to substantial careers.
RM: Yeah, we were all just coming up at that point. I guess Matt Dillon had My Bodyguard and a couple of others in the can. Leif Garrett was probably the biggest star in the movie at that point. [Laughs.] But [Tom] Cruise had just come out of Taps with Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn. Yeah, it’s amazing. Any time I see any of those guys, Rob [Lowe] or Emilio [Estevez] or C. Thomas Howell, it’s like you’re seeing a brother or a cousin. It’s just instant. You’ve got a bond.
Ugly Betty (2008-09)—“Archie Rodriguez”
RM: That was a nice arc, because that character was just supposed to be—literally, he was just going to be two episodes. And I ended up getting 11 episodes out of it. I credit Silvio Horta, who created that show, for being open to Hilda dating a good, upstanding congressman. [Laughs.] As opposed to all the bad boys she chased. Of course, she ends up with the bad boy in the end, because it’s a Latin soap opera, basically. But I got to stick around for a while, and Ana Ortiz is a terrific actress. It was really nice to play. The character got a little two-dimensional in the arc of the show, which was dealing with, like, 50 different characters. Plus, the show was not doing as well at that point, so they were trying to find a method for its survival. But the fact that I got 11 episodes out of something that was just supposed to be a two-episode arc was nice. ABC has always been a very friendly network to me.
The Outer Limits (1999)—“Dr. Neal Eberhardt”
RM: Oh my God. This is like This Is Your Life. [Laughs.] You’re standing there, you got the big book open… Yeah, it’s The Outer Limits. Everybody does one. You go up to Vancouver, you shoot an Outer Limits. That’s the law. I’m not a sci-fi guy—I know people who are nuts about the genre, but I don’t really get it, it’s not my thing—but it wasn’t really sci-fi or gross horror or anything. It was more scientific. And it was something different. So you bang it out in a couple of days, then it ends up on TV, and you hope it comes out okay.
Hitchcock (2013)—“Joe Stefano”
RM: Oh, I’m really excited about this film. Joe Stefano is the screenwriter who wrote the film Psycho, and the movie stars Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Jessica Biel… I mean, the cast is just insane, so I’m thrilled to be part of the company. I don’t have a gigantic role, and who knows when they cut it all together, how much will make it? You never know how much they’re gonna leave when they finish cutting it. But I had a terrific scene with Anthony Hopkins and Toni Collette. He’s a feisty young writer, a New York guy. Hitchcock was at an odd place in his life and was putting up his own money to make this movie no one wanted to make, and then here comes this young cocky writer that stands toe to toe with him, defiantly, and is just unfazed by Hitchcock’s aura. I think Hitchcock found that amusing, and that’s why he gave him the job.
The Karate Kid (1984) / The Karate Kid, Part II (1986) / The Karate Kid, Part III (1989)—“Daniel LaRusso”
RM: Yeah, I don’t know anything about that guy. [Laughs.] Daniel LaRusso, talk about an ingrained part. It becomes your alter ego: People think that’s actually my name, they think I grew up in Newark, they think I actually know martial arts. I keep fooling them into believing it’s true, but… That character, he’s become part of popular culture, a relatable underdog that hopefully will continue to entertain generations. He really was the everykid next door that we all believed we could be. He had no business winning anything, but in the end, he was victorious. It’s a great coming-of-age story, and, well, what can I say? Almost 30 years later, and people are still reciting lines to me to this day.
AVC: Did any of your Karate Kid successors ever seek you out for advice?
RM: Oh, you mean, like, Hilary Swank and Jaden Smith? I know, I’m like the Obi-Wan Kenobi for them, right? Miyagi would be the Yoda in that equation, I guess, but I’m the Obi-Wan to their Skywalker. Yeah, I’ve connected with them, and we always smile and laugh if we see each other. But you know how it is: Of the bunch, I’m always gonna say that Daniel LaRusso is the best. [Laugh.]