What does a movie star do when he can’t escape the role that made him famous? For Ralph Macchio, the answer is: Embrace it.
Despite appearing in Francis Ford Coppola’s teen drama “The Outsiders” (1983) and the now-classic comedy “My Cousin Vinny" (1992), the eternally youthful-looking actor from Dix Hills is still best remembered as Daniel LaRusso, the scrawny hero of 1984’s “The Karate Kid.” Co-starring Pat Morita as martial-arts master Mr. Miyagi and William Zabka as high school bully Johnny Lawrence, the movie was an instant crowd-pleaser that racked up $130 million at the box office and spawned three sequels. Decades later, a 2010 remake with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan became a hit all over again. Meantime, however, Macchio struggled to find work.
That changed with the 2018 debut of “Cobra Kai,” a scrappy series on YouTube Red that recast Macchio as a middle-aged LaRusso and Zabka as his still-bitter nemesis. The show became a surprise success, driven largely by nostalgia but aided by a diverse young cast that pulled in a new generation of fans. “Cobra Kai” migrated to Netflix and earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series; it’s now in its fifth season.
And there’s more: Macchio, 60, has written a memoir, “Waxing On," due in stores Oct. 18. Subtitled "The Karate Kid and Me," the book covers the making of the original film, how it impacted Macchio’s career and how Daniel LaRusso eventually became the gift that keeps on giving. The author's book tour will make a stop Oct. 17 at Madison Theatre at Molloy University in Rockville Centre (the event is sold out).
“You have one life,” Macchio told Newsday during a recent Zoom call, “and I’ve been blessed with the opportunity of this one role that means something to people.” Below is an edited version of the conversation.
Tell me about the book. Was this your idea or did someone suggest it?
Before “Cobra Kai” hit, I had a couple of publishing houses and/or lit agents that I wasn’t necessarily working with, but they said, “Hey, do you ever think of telling the story of the making of ‘The Karate Kid?’” I think Cary Elwes had a big success with his book about “The Princess Bride,” and that was a New York Times bestseller. So, since this is a business, someone probably said, “Hmmm, Cary Elwes, ‘Princess Bride’ … who else might write a book?” So that came to me once or twice, and I started thinking about it.
This is not your typical sex-and-drugs Hollywood memoir, is it?
I’m the reverse of the “crash-and-burn-to-redemption.” But there were dry spells, and I write about it in some of the chapters. Even “My Cousin Vinny” was a very tough part to get, because in the eyes of the industry I was the Karate Kid and that’s that. Most of these [memoirs], it’s: “I lost who I was, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and I spent all my money.” Fortunately for me, that didn’t happen. Some of that is my upbringing, some of that is the woman I was blessed to find as my partner in my life, and my kids being a great part of the roots and foundation of who I am.
Am I right that you’ve lived on Long Island throughout your entire career?
I’m still there! Despite the traffic and the stupid taxes and the insanity, it’s home. I love New York City, I love Long Island. My parents are still there and my wife’s mom is still with us. It’s my roots.
I wonder if that helped keep you grounded while other young actors were out in L.A.
I write about keeping one foot in [the movie industry] and one foot out. I probably lost some opportunities by not being in it all the time. When I was out of work and struggling as an actor and our kids were really young, I wanted to be in a better spot career-wise. But I may not have had the amount of time that I had with my kids and my family. So it seems perfectly orchestrated! But by happenstance and by accident, I got lucky.
Even when you were in a dry spell, you didn’t jump at every “Karate Kid” spinoff that came your way. Why not?
I always wanted to protect it, and I’m still this way. I’m this way with the writers on “Cobra Kai,” sometimes we butt heads on things. But they care so much about the original films, that’s why “Cobra Kai” is so great. I always want to protect the legacy of that film and what it’s meant to people around the world.
What do you think when you hear other actors complain about being identified so strongly with one role?
There were times when I was frustrated about being locked into the option deal of having to do the third “Karate Kid.” But would I ever go on a talk show and say, “I don’t want to talk about that?” I don’t get that. There’s such a great affinity for that character and that film and that series. Maybe he got someone through a tough time, it’s the one movie they watched with their dad, or someone didn’t have a Mr. Miyagi in their life — or maybe they did have a Mr. Miyagi in their life. When I get that feedback, the concept of me saying “I don’t want to talk about it” is just silly.
Tell us a good story that didn’t make it into the book.
I was working with Robert De Niro on [the 1986 stage play] “Cuba and His Teddy Bear.” In the theater, every night is different, but I was playing it the same as when I had a great night the night before. And he was trying to tell me, “Just play off me, let’s see where it goes.” There was one time when I was really tired and I didn’t sleep the night before. I came offstage and he said, “What was going on for you today?” I said I was tired, I didn’t sleep, life was getting in the way. He said, “Good! Be tired more often.” And he walked away. I took it as an insult! Then I said, “I know what he’s trying to tell me: Get out of my head and not think too much.” I still to this day try to do that. You’re always learning.
MACCHIO COULD'VE BEEN MCFLY Ralph Macchio’s memoir “Waxing On” focuses mostly on the making of “The Karate Kid” and its spinoff series, “Cobra Kai,” but it also touches on several what-if moments from the actor’s career. Here are excerpts from Macchio’s account of his attempt to convince Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis that he could play Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” in the fall of 1984:
"The concern was that I had a New York accent that would need to be curbed for the character and a distinct East Coast ethnicity. McFly was apple pie, and as I mentioned in chapter 3 of this book, I came up more cannoli. From that point on during the encounter, I did my best to try to cover my New York-ness and be optimistic that I could shed the accent and seem more mainstream mid-America. I didn't have a real read on whether this was effective in the moment, but still, I attempted to annunciate and slow down my speech cadence. I would love to have video playback of what I was doing. I imagine it came off as a hilarious train wreck.
The wonderful irony to all of this is that the All-American, apple-pie role of Marty McFly was eventually awarded to the perfectly cast, but Canadian, Michael J. Fox. And this was after the role was initially given to Eric Stoltz (a wonderful actor whom I later worked with in the early nineties on a film titled "Naked in New York"). At the end of the day, whether it's Molly Ringwald in "Pretty in Pink," Matthew Broderick in "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off," Michael J. Fox in "Back to the Future," or, dare I be this bold, Ralph Macchio in "The Karate Kid" — I said it before and I'll say it again … the right actor got the right part."