Waxing On: The Karate Kid and Me
he movie’s release date was set.
June 22, 1984.
The calendar page had flipped past the middle of May, and by that point I had not seen a frame of the finished product—only limited pieces of a black-and-white work print a few months earlier, when I was called in to participate in post-production sound. I had been getting word that the “advance tracking was very good.” However, I had heard those types of phrases before, and most often they would lead to an underwhelming result. But in this case, what was about to happen to me was different. What would play out in front of me on a spring evening in New York City turned out to be, well . . . magic.
On May 19, 1984, at seven p.m., a sneak preview of Columbia Pictures’ The Karate Kid was happening in 1,100 theaters around the country. I’d be at the Baronet and Coronet Theatre on Third Avenue in Manhattan. There I would see the completed film for the first time, with a public audience. No private screening scenario with jaded executives and talent reps. This was a Saturday Evening Picture Show for paying customers. There was a long line of “regular people” of all ages stretching down Third and around the corner onto Fifty-Ninth Street.
As the audience filed into the theater, my girlfriend (now wife of thirty-five years) and I met up with the film’s director, John G. Avildsen (an Oscar winner for Rocky); its brilliant screenwriter, Robert Mark Kamen; and legendary film producer Jerry Weintraub. We sat in the last row of the packed auditorium. I slipped in fairly unnoticed except for a few random audience members who waved to me and referenced Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders, the film I had appeared in a year prior. Other than that, I was pretty civilian in an audience of real people. I was quite nervous and a bit skeptical but ultimately eager in anticipation of what lay ahead.
The lights went down. The audience began to quiet and settle. The butterflies increased in my stomach as Bill Conti’s sweeping music underscored the opening credits. On the screen, this “Karate Kid” took that green station-wagon ride with his widowed mom from Newark, New Jersey, to Reseda, California.
The movie was only a few minutes in when they arrived at the South Seas Apartments in the San Fernando Valley. However, it seemed like somehow everyone in that audience already had an understanding or some connection with this kid, this Daniel LaRusso. They related to this kid, they liked this kid, they laughed with him, they hurt with him, and ultimately, they cheered for him.
As this underdog story unfolded on the screen in front of me, the love affair with the theater’s audience seemed to build and heighten with each and every frame. Every laugh. Every ooh and aah. Every punch. Every kick. Every tear. Every cheer . . . it was all in concert. Four hundred people seemingly sharing one brain in one collective experience in the life of this kid . . . and this kid . . . was me. Holy crap. I mean, yeah, I was twenty-two years old at the time and LaRusso was only turning sixteen—more on that “yoot-ful” appearance later (a cheap My Cousin Vinny reference, sure, but I was in that one too, and after all, this is my story).
Now, I’m not saying that this feeling was unprecedented. There have been many film audiences, before and after, that I am sure have shared the same connection with a lead character. But from my point of view, in the humblest way—I mean, come on, I was just the Long Island guy who got the part—this was surreal. I had been in a few things, an ensemble TV series and a very cool Coppola film, but this was something else. I was in virtually every frame of this thing, and the response was extraordinary. Daniel LaRusso was being lifted to heroic proportions, and it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The Baronet Theatre was electric, and I was on the ride of a lifetime.
I have often described sitting in the back of that theater as like being in the back of the coolest roller coaster, witnessing everyone’s heads, shoulders, and arms moving in unison as the track took them on different turns, drops, and ascents.
The movie’s themes of bullying and mentorship connected on all cylinders. It was genuine wish fulfillment, as every setup was paying off to perfection. We followed a bullied teenager under the soulful tutelage of his martial arts master, a surrogate father figure and virtual human Yoda, Mr. Miyagi—portrayed in a brilliant, Oscar-nominated performance by my friend and screen partner the late, great Noriyuki “Pat” Morita. Miyagi’s unorthodox training techniques played out as a beautiful cinematic magic trick. Daniel LaRusso was the every-kid next door who had no business winning anything and a classic aspirational character who was overcoming the odds, heading toward the ultimate climax, where he represented a piece of all of us.
There, at the All Valley Karate Championship, against the villainous Cobra Kai, I would hear the now famous “Sweep the leg” and “Get him a body bag” (who knew?) for the first time as the anticipation of the crane kick loomed around the corner.
The swell of excitement was palpable. Conti’s music built. Avildsen’s edits elevated. LaRusso assumes the position. I could feel the dam about to burst. And then . . . the kick! The crescendo! Boom! A thunderous roar from the Baronet Theatre crowd as they leapt to their feet, cheering and hugging and high-fiving as if at a major-league sporting event. It was a thrilling rush of emotion and I was sucked into the vortex like I had just won the World Series, Super Bowl, and Stanley Cup at the same time! I don’t think I even remember the credits rolling.
This continued up the aisles of the theater, through the lobby, and back out onto Third Avenue. Suddenly, the actor who had been recognized by only a few at the start of the film now had to be ushered through the energized crowd, who were rushing to greet the “kid” they’d all just rooted for as if he were their own brother.
The crowd spilled out onto the sidewalk as I was guided by the filmmakers to a waiting car at the curb. I stopped and looked back at my “new friends,” with whom I had just spent 126 minutes. What I saw was an image I will never forget. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was doing the crane stance out by the street. Kids and adults, teenagers and grandparents, all doing their imitation, their own version of Mr. Miyagi’s winning crane kick.
I got into the back seat of the car and Kamen was wholeheartedly mocking me, jokingly acting like a fanatic pounding on the window as if I were the Beatles leaving Shea Stadium. Avildsen said earnestly of the film and my performance, “Congratulations! It’s really a terrific story.” And Weintraub, in his unmistakable Brooklyn accent, called out to me, “We’re gonna be makin’ a couple of these!”
My mind was racing as the car drove up Third Avenue. I was trying to make sense of everything I had just experienced. I laughed to myself at what Jerry had said. I mean, I knew what it meant, but at the same time, what did that really mean? “A couple of these.” Two is a couple, three is a crowd, four is too many?
To be honest, as I sit here today, I don’t think Jerry or anyone could have ever imagined that the legacy of The Karate Kid would still be going and growing for thirty-eight years, with no end in sight. The pop-culture relevance and staying power of the Karate Kid franchise never ceases to amaze me, and I am humbled at every chapter.
Let’s take a quick look at “a couple of these,” as Jerry Weintraub predicted. . . .
First, of course, there was the original. Then there was The Karate Kid Part II, released in 1986, followed by The Karate Kid Part III in 1989 (both starring yours truly). An animated series followed on NBC that same year. Then came The Next Karate Kid in 1994, which launched Hilary Swank’s career. But we’re not done yet. Let’s jump about sixteen years to the 2010 Karate Kid remake with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan, which was another box-office success at that time. I would say that constitutes “a couple of these.” Wouldn’t you?
But wait, there’s more! A Broadway musical adaptation of the original film is currently scheduled to hit the Great White Way in 2023. With a book by the original screenwriter, Kamen, and music by Tony Award–level composers and producers, The Karate Kid: The Musical is on the way! Of course it is. Why not?
And now . . . just to pour a little bit more relevance on top of what has already been highlighted: Currently, I am reprising the iconic role of Daniel LaRusso, thirty-eight years later, in the critically acclaimed, Emmy-nominated, worldwide-hit television series Cobra Kai, which co-stars William Zabka, who portrayed LaRusso’s nemesis, Johnny Lawrence, in the original Karate Kid film. It is a rivalry series that dives into the gray areas of both of these characters when their paths cross for the first time in decades.
The show originated on YouTube Premium in 2018 and was an instant hit, with fans and critics alike. The cherry on top is that the entire series was then licensed by Netflix, which relaunched the first two seasons to an even wider global audience in August 2020. It immediately became a smash hit. As I write this, I’ve just finished filming the fifth season of Cobra Kai. “A couple of these,” huh? Boy, if I knew then what we know now, I still wouldn’t have been prepared for this truly amazing voyage.
Lightning would strike in the summer of 1984, and it continues to strike and engage new fans around the world and across the generations. I knew I felt something magical that night at the Baronet in New York City. But I had no idea to what level. Daniel LaRusso was about to change my life. And that life . . . has been all the richer for it.
Becoming the Kid
Strawberry Shortcake and the Cannoli
The Zabka Experience
The Crane Takes Flight
The “Eighties” of It All
Frozen in Time
Theories and Debates (and the Birth of Cobra Kai )
Impact and Inspiration
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|Epub, PDF||October 20, 2022|