'The Karate Kid' is 30 years old this weekend. To celebrate, we caught up with Martin Kove, one of the film's stars, to help us delve into its history.
“None of us really knew what was going on, it was just magic,” says Martin Kove, sitting in his Philadelphia hotel. The actor, who played evil Cobra Kai instructor John Kreese in the first three ‘Karate Kid’ movies, is in between engagements at Wizard World, where he’s celebrating 30 years of the original classic movie alongside the fans.
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"As it was all cut together, then I think the actors knew [it was something special]. It’s like one big family even thirty years later.”
Kove has spent the last couple of days sharing the stage with Ralph Macchio, relishing the role which turned him into a pop culture icon (as anyone with a ‘Sweep The Leg’ T-shirt will tell you).
“Little kids come up to me in the supermarket, give me a punch on the hip and say, ‘you hurt Ralph!’” he continues. “[Kreese] is the kind of character the public enjoy hating.”
But Kove’s admission that initially no-one guessed this comparatively low-key movie, shot in 42 days around Los Angeles, would eventually gross more than a hundred million at the box office and become a phenomenon isn’t actually that hard to believe.
“The Karate Kid – what kind of lame title is that?”
You’d be forgiven for agreeing with Ralph Macchio, who thought those very words when he first showed up to audition for the lead role.
As it turned out, even Macchio couldn’t imagine the kind of franchise he’d help spawn. Three further sequels, launching the career of Hilary Swank and even a 2010 reboot featuring Will Smith’s son Jaden playing a young boy who – rather confusingly – goes to China and learns how to be a better person by doing kung fu.
But those kind of lofty dreams didn’t really figure when ‘Rocky’ director John G Avildsen gathered Macchio and a young Elisabeth Shue in his apartment to test their chemistry in what was then called ‘The Karate Kid Project’ (stuck for a name, writer Robert Mark Kamen took off the last word and challenged his bosses to come up with a better one. They couldn’t.)
“One was the strawberry shortcake and one was the cannoli,” Avildsen said, before sending the then-22-year-old actor over to Kamen’s house to see if he approved. Kamen thought he was obnoxious, which meant he was perfect. The writer had always wanted someone with a chip on his shoulder. The character’s name was quickly changed from Daniel Webber to Daniel LaRusso to reflect the star’s Italian heritage. Macchio ended up liking the first name so much, he called his son the same.
The other performers quickly slotted into place, though not without some consternation. William Zabka, who plays baddie Johnny Lawrence, physically grabbed Avildsen during his audition, something that’s a Hollywood no-no. His aggression probably got him the part.
Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita was second choice for Mr Miyagi. The studio suggested ‘Seven Samurai’ legend Toshiro Mifune, but whilst a brilliant actor, the filmmakers worried he was too scary. Morita was a stand-up comedian who was almost laughed out of the room, but his performance – including an emotional drunk scene that execs at the time thought should be cut – earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
Morita and “Ralphie” – as the older actor affectionately called him – got on like a house on fire, training under the tutelage of martial artist (and Chuck Norris acolyte) Pat Johnson and trying to convince the audience that “wax on, wax off” wasn’t a joke.
“I swear to God,” said Kamen later, “if I hear [that phrase] one more time, I will strangle the next person.”
For Macchio, it’s the crane kick – either fans asking him to do it or doing their version of it. “They all think they’re saying it for the first time,” he’s said.
The film culminates in the tournament, the opening tracking shot of which took more than 500 extras and 36 takes.
“When I say no mercy, wipe the blood from his nose, and Billy Zabka and I have a moment, I think that’s my favourite part,” says Kove.
The final kick is perhaps the movie’s most iconic moment. In the script, it was originally written that Daniel was supposed to stand on one leg, jump and kick with that same leg and then land on it. That quickly proved impossible, but the result remains a classic Hollywood moment.
Thirty years later, Kove only has one regret.
“’Karate Kid 3’ was written as a vehicle for me, but I couldn’t do it because I got a TV series,” he admits. “So they had to bring in a character who puts me on vacation because they couldn’t get me out of my contract. Everybody was heartbroken.”
Still, he has a plan for the next one.
“I’m so in love with Eva Green,” he says. “I’d love to do the next ‘Karate Kid’ with her. She could be my evil sensei any time.”
Things to look out for in ‘The Karate Kid’
- Steve McQueen’s son Chad plays one of the Cobra Kai.
- The fly that Daniel catches in his chopsticks is quite clearly on a string.
- The opening montage of Daniel and his mother crossing the country by car doesn’t actually feature Macchio or the actress who plays his mum.They’re actually doubles.
- It’s not Pat Morita doing the crane kick on the beach. It’s actually the Asian martial artist who gets to the semi-finals of the competition at the end of the film, shot in shadow.
- Watch Macchio’s discomfort at having to shill for Coca-Cola. When drinking a can of Sprite, he was supposed to show the name throughout the take, but did everything he could to avoid it.
- The actor still owns the canary yellow ’47 Ford convertible that he drives in the film.
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Photos: Press Association/Rex/Moviestore/Everett Collection/Sipa Press