Ralph Macchio on life after the Karate Kid

Ralph Macchio on life after the Karate Kid

For 30 years and more, whenever the American actor Ralph Macchio attends a sports event, the chances are that a live image of his face will flash up on the arena’s big screen. Macchio’s name will appear, always accompanied by a three-word explanation of who he used to be. “Guys, remember the Karate Kid from the 1980s? He’s here, he’s alive, he watches baseball, too!” Macchio is a fan of standup comedy. But if he sits in the audience at a show he must always be prepared to be singled out. “Hey Ralph, didn’t I see you waxing on and waxing off at a car wash? You guys might know Macchio from The Karate Kid trilogy. And if you don’t know him from those movies, then you don’t know him at all…”

A natural sweetheart, this 60-year-old has spent most of his life taking such indignities with good grace. In 2018, after decades of scant employment, existing in the public mind as a where-are-they-now curiosity, Macchio found his professional stoicism rewarded. He made a comeback, taking part in a TV show called Cobra Kai that successfully revived the Karate Kid story for a new generation of viewers on YouTube, then on Netflix. As recently as 2016, Macchio was able to mock himself at a charity event, revealing his secret to looking so young in middle age: “Not working.”

These days he has been working quite a lot. He is sent scripts. He won a part in a David Simon drama, The Deuce, for HBO. Soon he will publish an autobiography, Waxing On, that tells the story of his fast rise in the 1980s, his long, lean spell from the 1990s onwards, before his abrupt reinstatement to pop-culture relevance a few years ago. “It’s extraordinary how things come around,” Macchio says, cheerfully, when he joins me on a video call one day in September.

He wasn’t kidding about looking young: the man has scarcely a wrinkle and whenever the digital feed turns slightly fuzzy, it occurs to me he could pass for someone half his age. He is sitting in front of a computer in his family home on Long Island in New York, using a room that used to be his study, he says, before he stripped it of movie posters and made it a guest room for his ageing in-laws. He chats with a pleasing, throaty, New York accent, tipping about excitedly in an office chair and making its hinges squeak when he gets into a conversational flow. He wears the T-shirt of a California vineyard, gifted to him by one of his best friends, Stan, who was Macchio’s body double on The Karate Kid all those years ago.

I had two cultural lodestars when I was a child in the 1980s – Back to the Future and The Karate Kid – and both of these films taught me lessons about friendship, mentorship, bullying and romance. Macchio might have starred in both, had his tentative discussions with Back to the Future’s creators led down a different path. As it was, he only got the part in The Karate Kid. Through the success of that 1984 movie he entered cinema legend as Daniel LaRusso, a weedy, east-coast teenager who moves to California, there meeting the girl of his dreams (Elisabeth Shue’s Ali Mills), the bully of his nightmares (William Zabka’s Johnny Lawrence) as well as the sagest, sweetest, most secretly violent mentor Hollywood had put on screen since Yoda, Pat Morita’s Mr Miyagi.

It is a strange thing to chat to avatars of cool from your childhood, these teenagers who modelled so much for you, both by design and by accident. I end up spilling my guts to Macchio about an aspect of The Karate Kid story that confused me when I was small. Somehow, between the first and second movies, a rift forms between Daniel and his girlfriend Ali. I didn’t know it at the time, but Karate Kid’s producers had it in mind to make their hero a James Bond type, with a new love interest in each instalment; and Elisabeth Shue was written out of the franchise with a single, curt sentence. This absolutely winded me when I was young, I tell Macchio, who hears me out, wincing. He says that for years he didn’t give Shue’s dismissal much thought. “I never looked at it from the perspective of Ali’s character or from the perspective of Elisabeth as an actor.” Macchio was writing a draft of what would become his memoir when he began to have qualms. “As an older person, there was a recognition of missteps, of things I should have done differently.”

He regrets not calling Shue at the time, to see how she felt about being let loose. He regrets not standing up to the producers or at least asking them tougher questions. “I dunno. They probably would have said to me, ‘Get outside, Macchio, and start practising your karate kicks…’ Today, I think, there would be a different conversation.” This was the 1980s, though. “Women in movies were often thought to be disposable. I see that now. Then? I didn’t see it. It was a case of youth being wasted on the young. I was swept up in everything that was happening in my life.”

Macchio was born in Long Island, second son of an Italian-American family who ran laundromats and a trucking business. While his older brother, Steven, joined the family firm, Macchio, who’d loved watching musicals with his mum, began acting. By the time he was out of his teens he’d been in adverts for bubblegum, one movie and a season of the US sitcom Eight is Enough. He briefly moved to Los Angeles, getting a break when Francis Ford Coppola cast him as one of the main characters in 1983’s The Outsiders. He was interviewed for teen magazines, “Boxers-or-briefs kind of questions”, he remembers. His mum bought copies and kept them in a crate. Many years later, Macchio’s own son would come across this crate by chance. Grabbing up a handful of Teen Beats, running through the house to tell his sister of his discovery, he shouted: “Dad was huge! And we missed it.”

Macchio had already met his future wife, Phyllis, before he left Long Island for LA. The couple first locked eyes over a bowl of Tootsie Roll sweets at a birthday party in someone’s grandma’s basement. By the time he was competing for the lead role in The Karate Kid in 1982, he had moved back to Long Island, in part because his relationship with Phyllis had become serious. They married young and they’ve been together ever since. “It gets deeper,” Macchio says about 35 years of marriage, “it does get deeper. There are silent conversations now. There’s a shorthand. Marriage is work. A relationship is always work. But having someone to take the journey with? Be understood by, at the deepest level? The totality of that is special.”

He remembers sitting on a fake-leather bean-bag, surrounded by vinyl records and shag carpet, when his phone rang about an audition for The Karate Kid. That title made him cringe from the start, but the Hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub later told him: it’s a terrible title that makes a great title. Weintraub was instrumental in bringing this movie together, hiring John G Avildsen, the director of Rocky, to realise Robert Mark Kamen’s script. Though delighted to win the part, Macchio was still squeamish about telling anyone what he was making. Friends would sometimes mishear. “You’re starring in something called The Cruddy Kid?” He had signed a contract to take part in a possible trilogy.

When filming began in California, Macchio and the actor who played his tormentor, William Zabka, never fully warmed to one another. There was an accident during the filming of the Halloween fight that ended with Macchio being knocked out cold. This simmering tension fed usefully into the movie. When a cut was ready to be shown to a test audience in 1984, Macchio was invited along. The audience loved it.

The film made $180m at the box office. Macchio, now a global star, appeared in a Broadway play with Robert De Niro. He went to Japan to shoot The Karate Kid Part II. Within a couple of years there was a third movie under way, as well as a Saturday-morning Karate Kid cartoon in which Daniel LaRusso rode around the major European capitals on a motorbike, leaping from buildings and fighting evil magicians. For a few years, Macchio understood that his name was on “the List”; that is, the list of admired young actors, desirable to casting agents. With horrible speed he felt himself slip down the List, then off it, apparently never to return.

It’s hard to mark the beginnings of these declines with precision. Macchio tends to mark the start of “my dry spell… my lean years” as coming after his appearance in the well-liked comedy My Cousin Vinny in 1992. Actually, he might have been knocked off course much earlier than that. Mildly, and with careful respect to all other parties involved, Macchio allows himself to wonder about an alternate history in which he was cast by Sidney Lumet in 1988’s Running on Empty. He couldn’t take part in Lumet’s drama because of his contractual obligation to make a Karate Kid sequel. River Phoenix did the movie, winning an Oscar nomination for his contribution.

There were other near-misses. In 1994, Macchio was under contract to make television for NBC. He filmed several episodes of a show that was never broadcast. That same summer, NBC created a sitcom about six close pals in New York, and a drama about a hospital emergency room in Chicago. Macchio exhales. “I was on an overall deal with the studio that was casting both Friends and ER. And somehow I wasn’t put in either of them. But do you want to know the truth of it? From where I’m sitting now? It was the best thing. The right people get the right parts.”

I put a counter-proposal to Macchio: that it is thrusting people, more forceful people, who benefit most from opportunities. In other words, maybe being nice has not always served his interests. “Huh. That’s interesting. Maybe I did undercut myself. I’m thinking this through now – this is a new thought in my mind. What happens is, it’s very hard not to become desperate when you want to find work that isn’t there. There was a section of time when that was happening to me. That’s often when actors go off the deep end or down a dark path. Because it’s such a seductive thing, success.” He kept out of trouble, he guesses, because he was always more interested in his Long Island life than his Hollywood one. He was nice.

“Taking risks, being more kneejerk with decisions, with your lifestyle,” he says, “that probably does create more opportunity. I get that. But it wasn’t me.”

Macchio has a guiding professional motto: one foot in showbiz, one foot out. “And there was nothing to stand on with that other foot for a while! There was nowhere to put it on the career side in the 1990s and 2000s. Nothing was taking me away from home. Instead, I got to be hands-on with my kids throughout both of their childhoods. I was there. My kids are in their 20s now. We are very, very close. I think it has led to a richer experience overall.”

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