Judging by his eternally youthful looks, it’s hard to believe it’s been 38 years since Ralph Macchio crane-kicked his way into our hearts. It was the summer of 1984 when The Karate Kid introduced us to Daniel LaRusso, a role that earned Macchio a three-picture deal that would catapult him to super stardom. But playing the role of the titular underdog in the hugely successful film franchise also cast a shadow that Macchio could never quite escape—for better or worse.
In his new memoir, Waxing On: The Karate Kid And Me, Macchio reflects on that typecasting and other career frustrations he faced after taking on the life-changing role, and reveals how found himself back in the dojo spotlight, reprising the role of LaRusso in the hit Netflix series Cobra Kai—a new wave of success he could’ve never imagined.
The original Karate Kid recently talked to The A.V. Club about the legacy of the franchise and how he has re-embraced the role. Macchio also shares his thoughts on the potential for spin-offs within the “Miyagiverse,” whether or not Hilary Swank will reprise the role of Julie Pierce and join the party that is Cobra Kai, and what he might be doing as an alternate career path if The Karate Kid never happened.
The A.V. Club: Writing a memoir can be a daunting, emotional experience because you have to reexamine the not-so-good parts of your life. Like you say in your book, this isn’t a “crash-and-burn-to redemption story” because you had a good work-life balance and steered clear of flagrant misbehavior. So was this a joyous experience, to go back and relive all these Karate Kid memories?
Ralph Macchio: Yeah, I mean, listen, there was plenty of joy in writing it, plenty of inspiration, and a few victory dances here and there. But there was also plenty of nostalgic emotion. A lot of the folks involved with [The Karate Kid] are no longer with us and youth is no longer with me. I mentioned a Bruce Springsteen show where he talked about having the blank page and how that’s the thing he misses the most at this point of his life. He doesn’t have the blank page anymore. And I understand that, so there was some nostalgic emotion there. But what’s so unique about it is the contemporary relevance on the flip side of the nostalgia. With the Cobra Kai series, Daniel LaRusso is still living and breathing in the stories being written. So this book is less a crash-and-burn redemption story and more about the past, the present, and the future.
AVC: Your memoirs are mostly focused on your life as the Karate Kid, but we do get the occasional morsels about The Outsiders, Crossroads, and My Cousin Vinny. But stuff like your stint on Dancing With The Stars isn’t mentioned at all. Surely these 240 pages can’t be all the life stories you have. Do you think you might put out another book one day?
RM: I think it’s interesting because I realized that after the manuscript was locked. I said, “Boy, I never even mentioned Dancing With The Stars.” I mentioned the bigger pieces like My Cousin Vinny and The Outsiders and being on Broadway with Robert DeNiro and stuff like that. But it was always about Daniel LaRusso and The Karate Kid journey of it all. Because, first of all, it’s so relevant now and it deserves that attention because it’s so unique of a role. It was a movie that came out when you were 6 years old, and there are 6- and 8-year-olds right now who are just backing themselves into it for the first time. So is there another memoir? I would think potentially down the line. I’m looking at some other areas in writing, but it depends on how we do. I haven’t gotten the news yet, but I think there’s a lot of interest in the book and it’s being very well received. So that feels great. Whether a children’s book might be something or something for young adults—you know, The Outsiders was a book I read that had a massive influence on my life and I got to be in the movie. So I think I’m open to all of it because you never know what tomorrow brings.
AVC: You talk about how you wanted the Daniel LaRusso role so bad, all the hoops you had to jump through to get it, and how you beat out people like Charlie Sheen and Kyle Eastwood. If this whole acting thing hadn’t worked out, what might you be doing as an alternate career?
RM: That’s a great question. I got to say, thankfully it worked out because I didn’t know what my plan B was. As a kid, I was a daydreamer. I was a slightly below-average student. I mean, I passed, but my head was out the window. I used to watch all the afternoon movies with my mom: Gene Kelly, Casablanca or Singing in the Rain, all the musicals and old movies. So I always had that desire to tell stories, to be on stage. How I made a living at it and had this magic happen is just the universe. Someone had a plan for me, thankfully. But what would I be doing? I think if anything else it would have been the same very high plateau, tall order. Well, I could always be an accountant. Fortunately, I fell into what I was able to pull off.
AVC: There are several points in the book where you talk about the frustrations that followed the role, such as pigeonholing and typecasting. The Karate Kid was both a blessing and a curse—it kickstarted your career, but cast a shadow you couldn’t escape. But you ultimately came full circle and it led to this present-day Karate Kid/Cobra Kai resurgence you’re experiencing now. So ultimately, it ended up being a good thing. Is that how you see it?
RM: Well, that’s how I see it now. Certainly, there were tough days when The Karate Kid of it all would get in the way of other opportunities as an actor. So I’d be lying to say that some of those days weren’t frustrating. Like, if I couldn’t get into the room because someone was like, “Nah, I wouldn’t want the Karate Kid in this,” even though I had The Outsiders and My Cousin Vinny in the bank. You get pigeonholed in that way. I never certainly for any length of time would be like, “God, I wish I never did [The Karate Kid].” Because the fans would approach me with how much it meant to them, how much the character meant to them, or how much the character meant to them and their dad, their mom, their sister, or brother—or how they had a Mr. Miyagi in their life—or how they never had a Mr. Miyagi in their life. They had this movie and it helped them get through some form of bullying and made them feel empowered. That character, Daniel LaRusso, had no business winning anything, but he represented a piece of all of us and a little bit of the human Yoda and magic of Mr. Miyagi. That’s what has kept me putting one foot in front of the other and embracing the film and being associated with that role, even though at times it was challenging.
AVC: Speaking of Mr. Miyagi, you mention the “Miyagiverse” quite a bit and it sounds like you think this franchise has potential to carry on, like the Rocky movies. Rocky led to Creed, which featured Sylvester Stallone, but now Creed’s on his own in Creed III. Do you want to see this new crop of Karate Kids get their own spin-offs?
RM: Listen, it has become a cinematic universe of its own. The Karate Kid Cinematic Universe? Yeah. I mean—what characters would I like to see get spin-offs? Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald, and Hayden Schlossberg, who created the Cobra Kai series along with their writing staff, are the best of the best at understanding this world and where they see it going. But there’s so many wonderful young actors. They’re all turning into big stars now, but they’re all still good kids and I’m proud of them—and they don’t take it for granted that they’ve had this launchpad that was set up decades before they were born. It could go anywhere and I’m excited to see where it’s going to go. You mentioned Creed, which is a great example. That was a big part of what led me to say yes to the Cobra Kai concept, because I had just seen the original Creed and I said, “This is a smart way to revisit the Rocky Balboa universe without making Rocky 7, and in essence, that’s what Cobra Kai was able to do.
AVC: You guys do such a good job with bringing back old characters from the sequels. One character we have not seen return is Hillary Swank’s Julie Pierce. Now, I know you weren’t involved in The Next Karate Kid—and in the book you even say you’ve never watched it “curtain to curtain.” But Daniel and Julie were both students of Miyagi. So have you all chatted about trying to bring her into the mix somehow?
RM: Oh, absolutely. They both knew Mr. Miyagi. That makes total sense and that falls right within the Cobra Kai universe. There’s a whole history you could have with those two characters. And I’m sure John, Josh, and Hayden are all over that. We’ve had very peripheral conversations about that because we don’t officially have a season six yet, which we’re hopeful about. So I don’t know, as far as Hilary Swank goes, what’s going on in her life, career, and where it would fit. They’re very good at figuring it out like they did with Elisabeth Shue, Tamlyn Tomita, and Thomas Ian Griffith. And Yuji Okamoto, who’s so brilliant as Chozen Taguchi. We’re a fun party, so hopefully we get to keep it going.
AVC: You mentioned having a particular interest in a Mr. Miyagi origin story. If that does happen, would you like to be creatively involved? And if so, who do you think should play the young Mr. Miyagi?
RM: Would I’d like to be involved creatively? Yes, of course. I would love to at least have some input there just because I love the concept of who this man was as a teenager. So we’ll see. Those cards have yet to be laid out. And who could play the part? I don’t know. I don’t know yet. Let’s see if they’re going to make it first, then we’ll figure out casting.
AVC: What are your thoughts on Jackie Chan’s version of that character and the other changes made in the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid?
RM: The remake of The Karate Kid was an example of how you can tell a pretty close, exact same story and make a completely and totally different movie. And it only enhanced the legacy of the original. I was at the premiere, actually, and I thought Jackie Chan did a wonderful job in that portrayal of that character—who didn’t feel like Mr. Miyagi in any way to me.
AVC: You’ve often mentioned your displeasure with The Karate Kid III, but are there any things you actually like about it? And now that we’re seeing the return of some of the characters from the third movie in Cobra Kai, are you looking back on it and appreciating it more?
RM: I still feel the same way about that chapter. Some of it had to do with the Daniel LaRusso of it all and the way he was written for that movie. I felt we didn’t forward the character or enhance the story. My biggest problem was I felt that The Karate Kid Part II storylines about Miyagi’s love interest and LaRusso’s love interest were abandoned. It was just like it never happened. And all of a sudden, we’re back doing another version of The Karate Kid part one without the magic. But what it did have is great actors. It had a heightened reality, and it is giving birth and bearing fruit in the world of Cobra Kai with the wonderful Thomas Griffith and Robin Lively coming back—and Shawn Kanan coming back as Mike Barnes—and the fans are coming out of their shoes. And so it’s a way to be more nuanced and take what was there and build upon it. And the guys who write the show do a beautiful job of that.
AVC: You also got to redeem Elizabeth Shue’s Ali Mills character and give her a proper send-off. But have we seen the last of her?
RM: I think there’s no door that’s ever closed. These guys keep these doors swinging like saloon doors. You never know who’s coming back in and out.
AVC: There was recent talk about a new Karate Kid movie. I know you spoke about it recently and said you don’t know what’s going on with it, but has that changed? If not, can you tell me about your hopes for the project and if you want it to be connected to the Miyagiverse?
RM: It’s too early to tell. It’s really interesting. I mean, there’s a musical that’s coming to Broadway written by Robert Kaman, who wrote the original screenplay. I saw it in their out-of-town run in St. Louis, and it’s really quite amazing. I am amazed at every chapter. What would I like to see in a Karate Kid motion picture? For anyone involved to care as much as the other people who have touched this universe. That’s the main thing for me. That it enhances the story going forward, whatever it might be. And whether I’m involved with it or not, it’s too early to tell, but it’s fun to see this Karate Kid universe and fandom continue to grow through the roof. That’s precisely why I wrote this book—to explain what it’s like from my perspective—and it’s been a joy.