Ralph Macchio, Karate Kid: ‘Here I am, toe to toe with De Niro every night’

The actor battled to break free of the role that made him famous. Ultimately, though, as he writes in his memoir Waxing On, he had to make peace with it

Playing Daniel LaRusso in The Karate Kid made Ralph Macchio famous for life. For decades, people have been telling him where they were when they saw the 1984 popcorn flick or how its underdog story affected them.

Such all-encompassing fame, however, came with a downside.

As he tried to move on in his acting career, he couldn’t quite leave the role behind. Sometimes, he says, he even felt stifled by it, no longer the freewheeling but vulnerable 22-year-old whose character in the movie learned the importance of balance, in life and in martial arts.

Nearly four decades later, he has written a memoir, Waxing On: The Karate Kid and Me, about the making of the movie, and how it has shaped – and continues to shape – his life.

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The book is reassuringly free of scandal or self-destructive behaviour, but there’s a palpable ambivalence that runs through its 241 pages, though ultimately the tone bends toward optimism.

Having wrapped his fifth season reprising the role in Cobra Kai, Netflix’s surprisingly popular sequel series, Macchio seems to have made peace with, and even embraced, what he calls “the wonderful gift”.

Looking back, he writes, the original film is “a prime example of when Hollywood gets it all right. It teaches and inspires through pure entertainment”.

On a sunny rooftop terrace in lower Manhattan, Macchio – a not at all 60-looking 60, even with his sunglasses off – displays the natural relatability that has been a hallmark of his career. It’s something he shares with Daniel LaRusso, “the every-kid next door”, he explains, who “had no business winning anything”.

I recall connecting to the father-and-son elements and heart in the story right off the bat,” Macchio writes of his first reading of the screenplay

Growing up on Long Island, Macchio would watch MGM movie musicals with his mother. Soon enough, he was taking tap-dancing lessons in between Little League games and working Saturdays with his dad. (His brother took more to the family laundromat and pump-truck businesses.)

Along with roles in school plays and dance recitals, Macchio started auditioning for advertisements. After his first movie, Up the Academy, and a one-season stint on US TV network ABC’s Eight Is Enough, he landed the career-changing role of the “lost puppy” Johnny Cade, opposite his fellow teen idols C Thomas Howell and Matt Dillon, in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders.

Back home, Macchio, then 21 years old, got called for another audition. The screenplay was based on an article about a bullied kid who learned martial arts for self-defence. It was set to be directed by John G Avildsen, who had made the underdog classic Rocky.

“I recall connecting to the father-and-son elements and heart in the story right off the bat,” Macchio writes of his first reading of the screenplay. But he “found some of the high school storyline characters a bit corny and stereotyped”.

One other thing bothered him: the title. He thought it sounded ridiculous. “I mean, can you imagine?” he writes. “If I ever did get this part and the movie hit, I would have to carry this label for the rest of my life!”

To Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the movie’s screenplay, Macchio was the natural choice: He mixed a “pugnacious attitude” with emotional vulnerability.

“He was sharp. He was smart,” Kamen says in a phone interview. “And if he got in a fight, he had nothing to back it up but being a wise guy. It was exactly who the character was.”

Then the 1980s started tilting toward the 1990s. Macchio felt he was ageing out of the character, but the character wasn’t ageing out of him – at least as far as the entertainment industry was concerned.

In 1986, with The Karate Kid Part II in theatres and a third movie on the horizon, Macchio got a chance to stretch, as the struggling son of the drug dealer played by Robert De Niro in the Broadway drama Cuba and His Teddy Bear.

“It was all moving pretty fast,” he recalls. “I just wish I soaked it in a little more. Here I am, toe to toe with De Niro every night.”

In a phone interview, De Niro says he admired Macchio’s level-headedness and work ethic. It was “easy to like him personally, and then also relate to him in what we were doing”, he says. “We had something already to work off.”

But behind the scenes, Macchio’s personal frustrations were mounting – moments that are among the book’s most revealing.

One night the famed film director Sidney Lumet was in the audience. Backstage after the performance, Lumet said he was planning a film to be called Running on Empty, and was interested in him playing “a significant role” in it, Macchio recalls in the book.

The future was looming and unknown, and the unknown was daunting to me

The problem was that the time Lumet was slated to shoot Running on Empty for one studio directly conflicted with the production schedule for The Karate Kid Part III at another.

“The Running on Empty ship was set to sail,” Macchio writes, “and I was consigned back to my original port of call.” (River Phoenix was nominated for an Oscar in the part.)

On another night, Warren Beatty was the surprise visitor to Macchio’s dressingroom. The young actor shared his frustrations; Beatty counselled him, suggesting he find balance between his commercial successes and his other ambitions. “Don’t look down on those movies,” Macchio writes, recalling what Beatty said. “You need that as much as you want this (meaning the De Niro play).”

One bright spot was his being cast in 1992’s My Cousin Vinny, alongside Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei. Macchio’s daughter was born that same year, and his son would arrive three years later.

Still, he writes of the 1990s, when “planning the growth of our family on Long Island… my career had little to no growth of its own. The future was looming and unknown, and the unknown was daunting to me.”

His agents floated the idea of doing a television series, but the development deal only led to a few episodes, never to be aired. Macchio then turned to making short films and writing screenplays.

If the show bombed and tanked, I’d probably say, you know, I was right

“I would draw from the lessons that I had learned from the Avildsens and Coppolas of the world,” he writes. “I kept myself creatively fulfilled and thriving during those leaner acting years. I was finding the balance in work and family.”

Then, in 2018, came Cobra Kai, the vision of the creators Jon Hurwitz, Josh Heald and Hayden Schlossberg.

Macchio would play Daniel LaRusso once again, except this time he’d be a middle-aged family man, though still open to a rivalry with Johnny Lawrence and the Cobra Kai dojo, albeit one with a bit more complexity this time. Signing Macchio on took some persuading.

“I understood where I fit in the construct of Cobra Kai and the storytelling,” he says. “If the show bombed and tanked, I’d probably say, you know, I was right. I was worried about that… But everything happened right.”

The new series, he says, understands what made The Karate Kid such a favourite: “Fathers and sons, bullying, redemption, overcoming the obstacles, finding your way, falling forward, skinning your knees, scraping your hands, getting up, figuring it out.”

In the book, Macchio acknowledges that in Cobra Kai “the tone at times is different”, but “a common ground it shares with the movie is in its heart”. It’s that kind of emotional openness the screenwriter, Kamen, saw in the actor decades ago.

When the interview is over, Macchio steps into the elevator, heading to the building’s lobby. Others got in as well. One recognises him, and asked for a picture.

“I’m just the elevator guy,” he says, with a grin. - This article originally appeared in The New York Times.