Ralph Macchio ducked into New York’s Baronet and Coronet Theatre for a sneak preview of Karate Kid on May 19, 1984. Though he played the title character in the John G. Avildsen film, Macchio made it to his seat “fairly unnoticed except for a few random audience members” who recognized him from his work in Francis Ford Coppola’s recent film The Outsiders.
By the time the movie ended and the last credit had rolled across the screen, anonymity essentially evaporated for Macchio, who, nearly forty years later, is still best known as Daniel LaRusso, a character close to his heart and one that has found new generations of fans thanks to the resurgence of Cobra Kai on Netflix.
“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,” Macchio writes, detailing the above screening experience in the opening of his just-published memoir, Waxing On: The Karate Kid and Me. Over 12 chapters and 241 pages, Macchio covers all things Karate Kid, serving up behind-the-scenes dish about the making of the film, warm remembrances of those he’s lost (everyone from “forever sensei” Pat Morita to franchise producer Jerry Weintraub) and lessons learned from a life in the public eye.
“I wanted to write a very specific memoir about what it’s been like to walk in these shoes,” Macchio tells The Hollywood Reporter of his ambitions for the tome, from Penguin Random House imprint Dutton. “I wanted to make it a conversation, and I think we achieved that with some really good, never-before-told stories about this 40-year journey that is still writing itself.”
How was the writing process?
I wanted to create a conversation and speak through the heart and soul of this amazing journey that has been the success of the Karate Kid Universe all the way through to Cobra Kai, generation after generation. A couple of years before Cobra Kai actually happened, I was approached by a few lit agents who asked, “Would you ever write about the experience of playing this character?” or “Would you ever write about what it was like making that first movie?” I think it sparked because Cary Elwes had success with his Princess Bride book [2016’s As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales From the Making of the Princess Bride].
At the time, it didn’t feel like something I would love to do. I didn’t feel I had all the pieces in place for a fully realized book, even though it had influenced my life. Then when Cobra Kai happened, the fandom inspired love for the original story and I started hearing more about how the film has affected people. It became about equal parts nostalgia and contemporary relevance and that’s what I set out to do [with this book]. That’s when it all clicked in my head because I had something to uncover that felt very now and very relevant, even though it’s still very much a living, breathing and changing experience.
There’s enough in here for the fans of the Karate Kid universe and for people who love Hollywood because you sprinkle in a lot of showbiz anecdotes. Specifically, you write about the original contract you signed for Karate Kid as a way to explain why you were locked in to three films …
Now, I say thank God I have health insurance because it helped make Cobra Kai last longer and longer. (Laughs.)
Speaking of that original success, you write in the book about successful producer Jerry Weintraub, who was such a larger-than-life personality. You mention how he introduced you as “the kid who bought me a couple of my houses.”
Yeah, and the way he said in that Bronx way. “The kid who bought me a couple of houses.” (Laughs.)
Producers in that era lived off backend deals and could buy multiple houses, go on vacations and have money for generations. Meanwhile, actors who entered a franchise at a young age and were relatively unknown at the time, often did not have such rich deals. Was it difficult to hear him say that, especially at times when maybe you were looking for your next job?
No, because I only heard that from him in recent years, maybe a couple of years before he passed [on July 6, 2015]. That was not something he introduced me as during the ’80s or ‘90s. When I first heard it, it might have been at the Karate Kid premiere in 2010. So, it wasn’t when I made my initial fee for the original Karate Kid, which was not a big check. But that’s not what it was about [for me]. Listen, I do touch on this in the book, I had those dry years and chunks of time after My Cousin Vinny where my name had come off studio lists for anything. Even for My Cousin Vinny, that was a tough part to get because I was not on those lists anymore, as one would say.
But I was able to somehow keep one foot in and one foot out. It’s all about balance, and I tie into that [in that chapter] with other life lessons from Karate Kid and how they can pertain to anyone’s life. For me, it was about how to string together some work and survive during some of those lean years. Some of it just had to do with my sensibilities and not spending too much of the money I was able to take in while also living modestly for a while. I still live fairly modestly, to be honest. That’s who I am and how I roll, for the most part.
I loved the chapter on balance and the themes it addresses. One that came up for me while reading was integrity. You could have easily said yes to resurrecting your character as an easy way to make money, but you kept saying no anytime an idea was brought your way. You’re clear about how protective you were, writing about how you “stonewalled” ideas as a way to protect Daniel LaRusso. How hard was that to do during those lean years?
My wife and I have been married for 35 years, and few people get the chance to say that out loud. She’s been with me through it all, and having her there by my side, there never was a day when the lights were about to get shut off or the car was going to get taken away. I’ve always been smart and lucky enough to have been comfortable enough to survive it.
Then, when we had our kids, I got to spend all that time with them when I wasn’t working so much, especially when they were young. I write about this in the book; it wasn’t by design that I decided to scale back when they were young, but when I look at it now, it was good timing. Especially with everything that’s happening with Cobra Kai and this groundswell of attention and fame and obviously making a nice salary, to say the least, it almost seems like I planned it perfectly.
At the same time, in those years, it was important for me to be creative. I jumped behind the camera and did some writing, some directing with short films, and I shared some of those short films with the Arthur Hillers, the John Avildsens, the Francis Ford Coppolas, people I got to work with coming up who were great inspirational tutors and mentors of storytelling. That fulfilled me in that respect. There were acting parts here and there, and I did some theater — which brought me closer to New York, where I’m from. That allowed me to keep stringing it together during those leaner years. But, you know, I would be lying or fibbing to say that there weren’t days where I was discouraged and wondered, “Is that it?”
But who knew this chapter would come, the one that is happening right now? It’s really beyond [my wildest dreams]. So, do you make your own luck? I don’t know. I wish I could say that, but do I put good in the world? I try. I’ve been pretty, pretty, pretty lucky. And integrity, thank you for bringing that up. It’s a nice one to always be attached to. It makes me feel that by taking the high road throughout and trying not to slide down that slippery slope, which was easy to do, certainly in Hollywood when you’re grasping to climb back up to the billboards.
I never got into that. I had my days and I could see how it could happen. But you know, I always remained grounded in my roots, thanks to my wife, my New York roots. I call myself the anti-E! True Hollywood Story. I think that’s maybe because my hockey team or my baseball team or my football team was doing well and I just wanted to be in New York for playoff games. That’s why I missed all the fun parties that might’ve led me down the wrong path.
You write about attending the 2015 World Series and the Stanley Cup playoffs to see your teams play in the big games, then having your face flashed on the Jumbotron. How do you manage being recognized everywhere you go?
With the recent success, it’s a little easier now to ask, “Hey, is there a suite available?” So it does happen. I just went to the Mets game and they did not play very well, but they won so that was great. We went down to the seats at the end of the suite and everyone was taking pictures from down below, and the funny thing is that it’s all kids now, 12- or 14-year-olds who are dressing like Hawk or Miguel or Robby and they yell out, “Sensei LaRusso!” It’s insane and puts a smile on your face. I like to be with the people in the crowd watching the games. As I’m getting older, and this is really going to age myself, but I do also enjoy sitting at home with a great 4K television with my socks and shoes off, and I don’t have to deal with anybody. With the technology they use to broadcast sporting events now, it’s spectacular and makes you almost feel like you’re at the game. Technology is not what it was in 1986 when you had four cameras at the World Series.
Going back to what you said about directing, you do write fondly of your experiences with your short films and going to Sundance. Any plans to direct a feature?
I would love to. It feels like there are less and less being made. While there is so much content, feature films have gotten to a weird place. If it isn’t a $100 million tentpole blockbuster, films have a harder time getting made. But, for me, it would be about finding something special that I feel l could accomplish with an original voice, one that could hopefully be a bigger calling card to the next. Directing has always been something that I’ve been totally into because it’s so results-oriented.
I would love to find the right project, and we’re working on a few things right now and in discussions on some things that I may or may not jump behind the camera for right now. The economics of the business usually dictate that, and if me directing something that I want to be in is going to help that project, great. If it’s not going to help that project and someone else’s name will, great. I always look at that and know that it’s about finding the right one.
Speaking of the right one, you also write about your short-lived foray into TV sitcoms with this series you did in 1994 with Andrew Dice Clay that never aired. Is there any chance that will ever be seen? Have you seen it?
I have seen it. I have a couple of VHS tapes in the basement that may have deteriorated by now. That came out of a development deal that I had in 1994, the same year Friends came out of Warner Bros. Initially, we wanted it to be a combination of say, Roseanne and Mad About You, but it fell more toward a less successful and not very well-executed TGIF sitcom. As much as this business is collaborative when it’s successful, when it doesn’t work, that’s also collaborative, so I’m not pointing fingers. I was part of that, too, and we all share responsibility for why it didn’t come together. But that was a weird time for me, and that’s why I wanted to write about it. I didn’t want to mention the name of it because it was more about sharing about what that time was like for me and where my head was at. Again, this goes back to balance with having one foot in and one foot out, if you will. Neither of my feet was planted very firmly at that time, and I alluded to the whole Miyagi-ism of, “Walk right side, safe. Walk left side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later, squish, just like a grape.” I was in the middle of what I wanted to do with no direction at that point. I wanted to take an iconic moment from the Karate Kid film and apply it toward telling that true story in my life.
I’m glad you mentioned Miyagi because no conversation about the book would be complete without mentioning Pat Morita and his influence on your life. You refer to him as your “forever sensei,” and while you list of all of the projects that have sprung from the Karate Kid universe, you say that one you would love to see happen is the Miyagi origin story. Is anyone working on that?
Yes, they are working on it. It’s in the discussion stages. Cobra Kai does such a good job of unveiling all the layers of these characters and exploring where they came from, their pasts and their backstories. And if you go on Twitter or social media, people ask about Miyagi, who, in essence, is the secret sauce of the film because of the character and [Pat Morita’s] performance. Who was that guy? What was he like as a teenager? What was he like when he first came to the United States? Who was he when he went to World War II? What happened after he loses his wife and child in the internment camps? How does this guy come from Okinawa to a place where he was working as a maintenance guy at an apartment building? What’s that full story? So, yeah, there are discussions, but that’s all I have. It’s a project that I’m cheering for personally, because Pat always wanted to do more with where Miyagi came from, so that would be wonderful to see that realized.
You write so lovingly about these guys, including Pat, John and Jerry, who are no longer here, and their legacies seem really important to you. What do you want your legacy to be?
Someone asked me this question: When did you go from, “Oh, God, not this again,” to fully embracing Karate Kid and its impact on your life? I never was like that, you know? I never didn’t want to talk about that movie. That’s ridiculous. I don’t know why actors don’t want to talk about their biggest hits, even if it’s because they’re trying to do something new now. For me, Daniel LaRusso has been such an inspiration to people of all ages. People come up to me with tears in their eyes, telling me how they watched the movie with their dad or their mom, or they tell me that they wish they had a Mr. Miyagi in their life. Moving forward, I just don’t want to take any of these moments for granted. I may not have done that 15 or 20 years ago. So, my legacy is to stop and really embrace all of that.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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