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‘Cobra Kai’ stars: ‘The show is about alphas bumping heads’

Updated January 7, 2022 - 7:11 am

You’re a 16-year-old kid working the night shift at Baskin-Robbins. A guy arrives late. The place is closed, but someone really wants his Rocky Road.

It doesn’t help that this man named Martin Kove — arguably the baddest bad guy on TV — has perfected the art of the stare. “The character of John Kreese just drops into my body if someone says, ‘No,’ ” says character actor Kove, 75, who stars on the wildly successful Netflix series “Cobra Kai.”

“If someone at an ice cream place says, ‘No, sorry, sir, we’re closed,’ then John Kreese just comes out and he wants to eat the glass,” says Kove, whose series returned for a fourth season on New Year’s Eve and is now streaming as one of Netflix’s most successful shows of all time.

“Thank you very much. Another day. Another dollar,” deadpans Kove, who did this interview with series star William Zabka, the actor who plays the out-of-his-decade sensei Johnny Lawrence. Both have reprised their roles from the classic “Karate Kid” movies.

Review-Journal: Is it satisfying being one of the baddest bad guys on TV?

Martin Kove: First, we have to understand that John Kreese is not a villain. He’s just misunderstood. You have to channel all that energy into the fact that John Kreese is always doing a service for mankind. My students at Cobra Kai just happen to be mankind.

Johnny Lawrence began in the “Karate Kid” movies as someone audiences adore because he’s so complex. What was it like coming back?

William Zabka: It has been a dream come true to come around, full circle. To bring 30 years of life with him and come back is the highlight of my career, especially this new season. We’re building up to something big with this one. I love the dysfunctional relationships we have as characters. The show is about alphas bumping heads. The whole thing is such a great ride.

Describe the training for this season.

Zabka: We have some of the best martial artists training us both on season and off. We go at it hardcore.

Kove: We have the luxury of training year-round, which is key if you really want to stay wicked.

Is Johnny Lawrence really the good guy?

Zabka: It’s interesting. When I first played him, Johnny was supposed to be the bad guy, but I always saw the goodness in him. I remember reading the first “Karate Kid” script all of those years ago and thinking he’s really not that bad. Even when Ralph kicks me in the face and wins, it’s Johnny who sincerely congratulates him and says, “You’re all right.” That’s not really bad-guy stuff. When I approached playing Johnny again for the series, I really held onto that ending because it was a redemptive moment. You put a few decades between that crane kick and now, you might just see it differently, too.

Is it true that many people over the years thought Johnny was the actual hero of “Karate Kid?”

Zabka: After “The Karate Kid” came out everyone was doing the crane kick in the parking lot. It took a minute for people to realize that was completely illegal. But back to your question: The thing that was great about the movie was that people keyed into the fact that Johnny was misguided. Someone steals your girl and douses you with a water hose … what are you going to do?

Cut to 2022’s Johnny, who is challenged in many ways.

Zabka: For starters, he’s out of touch with today’s technology and stuck in the past. It’s only ’80s music floating through his head. There is something refreshing about all of this for guys my age. It takes you back to a time when there was only rock ’n’ roll and Firebird cars and the music, man. So many guys my age are like, “I relate to him totally. Trans Ams! T-tops. Yeah!”

You don’t really listen to only ’80s music?

Zabka: Well, I do like REO Speedwagon. And I love that song that goes, “Here I go again on my own.”

Martin, how do you channel your inner John Kreese? And is it tough to get rid of him in real life?

Kove: Kreese is just there. He has been simmering for years. He’s part of me. As for getting rid of him, I’ve lost a lot of really good friends by becoming John Kreese again. That really has happened, and I have to take it down. Every year we wrap the show and I’m like, “Martin, take it down a notch.”

Have you ever been hurt on set?

Kove: I’m always getting my ass kicked, even when I’m supposed to win. These kids are very fast, so I have to be careful. The only time I ever got really hurt was in Season 3 when I was supposed to fly through a window. The stunt guy did the window. But after, we had to act on broken glass and I cut my feet up badly. You couldn’t complain, but you just had to play into the pain.

Tell us about your stint on “How I Met Your Mother?”

Zabka: I was a huge fan of the show. They teased along the way that Johnny was the real hero of “The Karate Kid.” So I tracked it all along during the nine seasons. At one point, they were going to put my poster up on the set, which was really exciting. Fade out to Season 9, and I got sent a script for me to play myself. The first episode I actually play a clown with a rubber nose and no lines. Then Ralph got on board and we had a lot of fun with it. Then, they gave me a big arc on Season 9. I was pinching myself asking, “How am I here, man?”

What are your post-“Cobra Kai” plans?

Zabka: When you’re working, you’re so deep into it. That’s why I don’t really think about what’s next. Something will come. If you have any ideas, send them to my agent.

Who should join “Cobra Kai” for the next season?

Zabka: Bill Murray is the first one who comes to mind.

What is your idea of a perfect Sunday?

Zabka: I have two kids, 7 and 12. Doing anything with them is the best day. Big Bear, sitting around a campfire with friends, also rates pretty high.

Kove: A good Sunday is an open ice cream store and time with my daughter.

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