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"SWEEP THE LEG!"
THE BILLY ZABKA INTERVIEW

You can't talk about great movie "bad guys" without mentioning Billy Zabka's excellent portrayal of Johnny Lawrence in The Karate Kid. As Cobra Kai's champ du jour, Zabka was able to create an all time classic jerk that was complex enough to make you feel sorry for him. It was Zabka's first film role and he went on to play more legendary assholes in Just One Of The Guys and Back To School. Keeping busy through the '80s and '90s, he made a short film, Most in 2003, which was a film festival darling that ended up getting an Academy Award nomination. Johnny may not have won the All Valley Karate Championship in 1984, but decades later he's soaking up acclaim for his film work, never having to revisit that troubled dojo again.

 
CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE "SWEEP THE LEG" VIDEO
DO YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH THAT?

That is, until he created a brilliant video for newcomer rockers No More Kings for their song "Sweep The Leg" which reunites the Cobra Kai gang, 20 years later. With nearly every living player from the original film making an appearance, it's a hilarious and kickass video and brilliant tribute to the beloved film. What if Johnny had a second chance? What if, indeed...

Billy talked with us about the video, and indulged our fanboy questions in an exclusive interview that we're honored to share with you.

So how did the "Sweep The Leg" video come about?

The artist from the label and I just hit it off and started hanging out. Next thing he's talking to the guy who owns the label, we're driving, we know the guy who owns Astonish Adam DeGraide, he freaks out that I'm in the car with him and says, "No way my other band just wrote a song today, I just got it on my desk, my email, on "Sweep The Leg", I gotta talk to this guy." So he showed me the song and sent it to me, I got a little kick out of it, but that was pretty much it, but I wasn't really planning on doing anything until I started sitting down with the artist and heard all their music and got to know the label. You know The Karate Kid is kind of a sacred thing, maybe better left untouched. But I got an idea that if we do something a little fun and retro hip and cool, not take it seriously I think we could have a good time with it. So that's how it came about.

Originally they just wanted me in the video, and I was just gonna do it, but kind of threw out that if it goes the right way, I threw out I was pretty sure I could get some of the guys involved, but I said if it goes the right way and we get the right vision executed, I'm pretty sure I could get some of the guys involved. I'm sure I could get the Cobra Kais involved, Marty Kove, maybe Ralph even. You know, Ralph would be the last one to jump on board...but it kind of grew from there. I wrote a treatment for them, and the label loved it, got my team together, next thing I know, I got everybody.

How hard was it to assemble the old gang again for the video? Have you guys kept in touch or was this a long overdue reunion?

Ralph and I connected last year over Pat's (Morita) memorial service, you know Miyagi died last year. We reconnected there and exchanged information and everything.  The Cobra Kai guys and I have been on and off buddies throughout the years. We've kept in touch individually, not as a pack...we were all friends, it was a really tight group we had on that film. The times we shared, it was a pretty cool thing, so we kept in touch. It wasn't too hard, everyone got excited. At first it was a little tentative to dish up that part of our lives, and bring it back to the surface, after we were handling it in a comedic way, everyone dug it and jumped on.

It's a pretty faithful recreation of that final scene at the end, I was surprised at how seamless it looked when compared to the original movie.

It felt like it, honestly, when we were on the set. My art department was amazing. As soon as Marty Kove showed up, and then Pat Johnson who was the referee in the film...for the two hours that we filmed on that soundstage, it was really electric. The crowd was amazing, and you know it was just really...it just felt liked it looked, like we were just back in time somehow...then the set got torn down and it didn't exist anymore. It was really fun.

I've read some message boards where people were talking about the video and they were saying like "Well...that's the Karate Kid sequel we wanted to see!"

That's the Karate Kid sequel that Johnny wanted to see, that's the end of Karate Kid 1 he wanted.

Exactly

So, you know, it's a fun alternate ending. But yeah, it could be the Karate Kid 5.

Why do you think Johnny Lawrence is such a fan favorite, why does that character endear to people after all this time?

I don't know, honestly, I think it's just kind of beyond me. But Johnny kind of embodies the dark side of all of us in a way. He wasn't really a bad guy. He wasn't Darth Vader. He was just kind of a misled character. It gave him a little license to be a bad-ass. But why it stuck so much? I don't know, I mean cool marches on. Johnny seems to be cooler today and more liked today than he was when the film came out.

The thing is about Johnny's character is that he wasn't really wrong in his point of view. He had a legitimate reason for going after his character (Danny). He took his girlfriend and he used the tools that he knew. So he wasn't all bad. That makes him kind of special. He's human.

You mentioned being at Pat Morita's funeral last year. How great was it to work with him during that movie?

Oh man, he was just the sweetest, funniest, most generous person you'd ever want to meet. A really beautiful guy. That was my first film, so he really held my hand through that. I remember when I first got the role I said, 'This is my first movie, if you see anything that I do wrong, anything that I can do better, please just jump in and tell me.' And I remember when we were doing the fence fight scene when he just jumps down and beats us all up, we were rehearsing that, and I was just kind of doing it half motion, not really intense in rehearsal. He pulled me aside and said, "Billy, Billy, Billy, when you go in there and do the rehearsals, you've got to give 150% cause then when the cameras are rolling, you're like bread and butter, you're right there!" So he really helped me. A lot of the intensity was in the actual footage came from all the hours of rehearsing and we were really amped up. So he was great to work with. Just professional, a beautiful guy.

Pat and I kept in touch the most over the years. In fact a couple years ago before he passed away last year, we talked on the phone and he was talking about wanting to do another Karate Kid, he actually wanted to a sequel where Miyagi dies and they have a proper Okinawan burial for him where they send him out to the ocean with all of these flowers on a raft.

Wow

Yeah, so he wasn't done with Miyagi. He really wanted to do another sequel. When I cast Mr. Belding Dennis Haskins in this video, Dennis worked with Pat and knew him really well, and the one thing that made me really want to use Dennis was that he really wanted to do a fun tribute to Pat in this because he was a really good friend. So it was kind of neat to have someone in there representing Pat, in this video. But anyway, he was just a loveable guy. He was the real deal.

Now another great comedian you got to work with was Rodney Dangerfield. Did you have special experiences working with him in Back to School?

Oh yeah, Rodney was hysterical. The day I met Rodney it was in Madison, Wisconsin and we were on the campus ready to film all the school stuff. I remember getting on an elevator, getting ready to go to my hotel, and as I'm going up he's going down and he's wearing this robe and I said, "Hey Rodney, I'm Billy Zabka and I'm working with you on the film!" and he said, "Yeah yeah...I know who you are, how're ya doin?" And I said, "What are you doing in the robe?" and he said, "Hey, I'm going to the sauna, I gotta get the pot out of my lungs!" (laughs) That was the first thing he said.

And at the end when he does that triple lindy on the diving board, of course they had a diving double come in, so they had this prosthetic on the double that looked exactly like Rodney Dangerfield...this 4 inch thick padding, and Rodney was just freaking out, "Hey...I don't look like that! I'm ugly but I'm not that ugly!" Just a great guy. Really sweet guy and a lot of fun. I'm gonna miss him a lot.

We used to go to all of his stand up stuff, too. We used to go and watch him at The Comedy Store and Laugh Factory and all that. Just a good guy.

Your short film Most was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004, can you tell me a little about the movie?

We filmed it in Europe. It was shot in Prague and in Poland. It's 30 minutes long. We left right after 9/11 to make this film. It was kind of a shock of what happened...and we wanted to make a movie that showed the value of life. So we went and this story in mind, my partner Bobby Garabedian and I who directed it, we got on an airplane and went to Europe with just an idea of this movie we wanted to make. But we didn't have a script or any money. We had no locations, we just knew it was out there somewhere. So we went on a 2 month tour through Europe and traveled through 8 countries until we landed in Prague, and then we wrote it, and cast it, and the money came last. It was really a miracle making the movie. The next thing we know we're premiering it at Sundance and this big festival tour, we won all of these festivals. Next thing we know we're walking the red carpet at The Oscars. It was pretty awesome.

What's it like hearing your film read off as a nominee right before the winner is announced? That's just got to be like nothing else.

It's very surreal. It's amazing. We were up until 5 in the morning watching The Academy online announcing the nominees. Just seeing your name there makes it all worth it. It was 2 years to make that film, and we invested in it ourselves. It was a lot of pride and a lot of fun....pretty cool.

You can check the movie out if you want to get it at MOSTTHEMOVIE.com.

Your father was working in Hollywood when you were growing up. I saw that he did the original Johnny Carson's Tonight Show theme?

Yeah. You know my Mom and Dad actually met on the Johnny Carson show back in New York. My Mom was Johnny Carson's brother's assistant and my Dad was the Associate Director of The Tonight Show...so I was raised pretty much in entertainment. My Dad worked at NBC studios, he's an Emmy Award winning director of soap operas. As a kid we moved out to California and he started working with Clint Eastwood in Any Which Way But Loose...those kind of movies. He did Midnight Run with DeNiro as an Assistant Director and Unit Production Manager. So I was pretty much raised in show business.

At what point did you decide that the acting business was for you?

I started doing commercials when I was 10. All my Dad's friends had kids and they were all in commercials, so it was like the thing to do. My Dad said, "Whatever you do, don't take it seriously. If it gets to be too serious, just go play football or something, don't let it run your life." So I always had that "hold it loosely" perspective, and I always had fun with it. It's something I loved to do.

In fact, I remember when my parents first asked me if I wanted to be in commercials, I asked them if we had enough money to be on TV, because I thought you had to pay...that's how much I loved doing it. When I found ought you got paid, I was like, "You're kidding me! This is like the greatest job in the world."

Were you ever approached to be in any of the other Karate Kid sequels? Or was that never going to be a part of the storylines in any kind of way?

Well, the opening of The Karate Kid 2 is the original ending of the first one.

Right

And when Kreese breaks my trophy in the parking lot, that's actually in the script of the first one. But we never filmed that because John Avildsen, the director, felt like he had his movie and he didn't want to shoot the scene. So the only thing I did was that opening scene of Part 2, which was the ending scene of Part 1. After that, they switched out everybody except Ralph and Pat.

Now that's kind of an urban legend you just dispelled there because that opening of Karate Kid 2 was not leftover footage from the first movie, that was actually all new shot for Part 2?

Yeah, that was all re-shot for the sequel.

What's the secret to playing a great bully.  Does it just come naturally? Or is there something special you do to get in character?

A lot of people, when they approach a bully role, they think, "I'm the bad guy", but I think the key to being a good bad guy is to look at yourself as the hero. So where if the movie was told from your point of view, you'd actually be the good guy.

That actually makes a lot of sense, like the character of Johnny, especially, he was Ali's boyfriend before Danny comes around so he obviously wasn't a complete jerk. He has that bit of redemption at the end of the movie, as well.

Exactly. You kind of justify your character's actions in his own world. This is how Johnny would be. Make the character three dimensional. Give him a back story. Give him something in your subconscious that's below the radar that's human and broken. And I think somehow, somewhere that comes out in a look, in a moment, and that character goes from being a two dimensional asshole into a three dimensional person that you can love to hate. There's a fine line between hating somebody and really enjoying to hate somebody (laughs).

Well that's a lot of depth to add to a character for what was your first movie role. How did you even get that kind of preparation when you're 18 years old?

Well it's so funny, because I'm known for my bad guys, but I'm the complete polar opposite of anything I've ever played before. For Johnny, I really was surprised that I got the part, because I didn't know Karate. I never rode a motor cycle. The last thing I did before The Karate Kid was a milk commercial. I was just this nice young American kid.

When I was training for The Karate Kid I had an amazing Karate instructor taught me the right way to learn Karate and the wrong way to learn Karate. Really my martial arts training built in this attitude that I got to bring to the role. So I kind of already had the good guy in me, and he kind of just got layers heaped on top of him. At the core of Johnny, he's really just a rightful guy. What he did was kind of screwed up, but I think you'd like to hang out with him.

What can you tell me about your upcoming films Cake and The Man In The Silo?

Man In The Silo is a short film I did for a buddy of mine that directed that, Phil Donlon, with Ernie Hudson. It's kind of a psychological thriller short film. Cake was another friend's (film), Will Wallace directed it. That's about a wedding that goes wrong. I'm the ex-boyfriend of the bride that runs away from the wedding.

I did a cameo in a movie that's out right now that I didn't take a credit on called Smiley Face with Anna Faris. That just premiered at Sundance, and it'll be out...I don't know when. So those are the two most recent ones I've shot and I've got a few films in development right now that I'm looking to write and direct.

You're certainly keeping busy there, that's for sure.

Yeah, you know. Gotta keep the wheels turning.

Was it frustrating to have your character lose to Ralph Macchio's character, knowing you could mop up the floor with him in real life?

(laughs) Yeah...it was real frustrating. I actually won that tournament it's actually just the way they edited it that made me look like I lost. (laughs) No, you know...no...you don't feel like that. It's acting and that was the pivotal moment of the whole movie. If that final kick didn't work, the whole movie didn't work. The crane kick. We rehearsed that fight scene for three months. Four hours a day, five days a week, it was just like clockwork so we could make that last moment, that crane kick, pay off. So him winning, was me winning, you know? If that kick worked, then the movie worked, then we're all gravy.

It's a great moment, that's for sure.

Well thanks again for taking the time to talk to us. Just to remind people that they can check out your film Most if they go to MOSTTHEMOVIE.com. And you even have a MySpace page, I understand?

Yeah, you can go to Cobra Kai Never Die on MySpace.com and join the fun.

Best of luck to you with all you have going on.

Best of luck to you and your website.

Thanks, Billy!

-Robert Berry
rberry@retrocrush.com

HEAD'S UP!: We'll shortly have an interview up with No More Kings lead singer Pete Mitchell about the "Sweep The Leg" song and his other music.  Plus on our next podcast, you can hear the audio of both interviews in their entirety!

 

 

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