Sweep the Leg! Interview with the real Johnny, William Zabka
by Lori Ann White
Love it or hate it, THE KARATE KID gave a generation of Americans its first exposure to martial arts of any kind, and changed the lives of several young actors who appeared in it. Ralph Macchio became a Teen Beat heartthrob, and William (then Billy) Zabka turned into everyone's favorite California golden boy, of the bad variety.
With his perfectly feathered blond hair, his red motorcycle leathers, and his obsessive jealousy over his ex-girlfriend (played by Elizabeth Shue), Zabka's Johnny Lawrence was easy to hate. Yet there was something pathetic about his devotion to his sensei, played by Martin Kove. You just knew his dad was never home and his mom drank her lunch. Johnny Lawrence was the anti-Daniel Larusso (Macchio): like Daniel, following the martial arts as a path to adulthood, but led astray by a corrupt teacher. There but for the grace of our sifus-
Since his heyday as a high school villain, Zabka has pursued a rather low-key Hollywood career, doing some TV work and acting in mainly independent films. He's proven himself behind the camera as well, with an Oscar nomination for writing and producing the short film MOST. And then there's that music video....
With the release of a new Blu-Ray version of KARATE KID for which Zabka provides commentary - not to mention the upcoming release of THE KARATE KID with Jackie Chan - people are once again telling him to "Sweep the leg, Johnny!"
LW: I thought I would start with asking you a couple of questions about your martial arts background. I understand before Karate Kid you were a wrestler, but then studied Tang Soo Do.
WZ: Yeah, I was a high school wrestler, I was an athlete growing up. I played all sports and in high school I wanted to play football but I was too small. I got on the wrestling team and I did really well in wrestling and I was very limber when I finished high school.
When I got cast in THE KARATE KID I actually hadn't known any martial arts at that point. Thankfully, due to my conditioning from wrestling, I was able to slide into martial arts training. It was kind of a nice fit.
LW: Did you keep up with it afterwards?
WZ: I did. For about five years afterward I trained with Pat Johnson (martial arts choreographer, THE KARATE KID I, II, and III -LW) and Roger Lacombe at Thousand Oaks Tang Soo Do Karate, and I got up to my second green, and trained with Pat here and there privately. I did a couple of other martial arts films with Pat that he choreographed called SHOOTFIGHTER, which was actually a bunch of really great martial artists - Michael Bernardo, Hakim Alston, Earnest Hart, Chris Cassamassa, who was also in MORTAL KOMBAT - a bunch of guys were in it.
Anyway, I trained for five years on and off and then I stopped my training for a while and then I picked it up here and there.
LW: I don't know if you're getting kind of tired of "Sweep the leg, Johnny" yet-
WZ: Oh, come on, it's part of my life (laughs).
LW: But I noticed in watching that music video, that there were some really nice little touches - references to iconic martial arts scenes in classic movies, like the flying kick that goes on forever. Are you a big martial arts movie fan?
WZ: Oh, sure, I love martial arts films, CROUCHING TIGER-type films, I'm into those. My video is obviously a parody of myself and the KARATE KID. We tried to do something kind of retro with it - a lot of tips to the '80s, a lot of tips to KARATE KID and to pop culture, and then take it a step further, and try to work wires and ropes, which is what I did when I came flying through that front door. Which is quite ambitious (laughs) and difficult, and I have a whole new respect for the guys who fly around the roofs, because all the outtakes of me being pulled up on top of the bus are pretty funny. We did a little tribute to THE MATRIX at the end, too.
But yeah, I'm a huge fan of martial arts films, and I have a total respect for the art. I'm actually a big MMA fan right now, and I just love watching all the different forms come together. It's an amazing way of life. It's a great discipline.
LW: Do you have a favorite fighter that you watch?
WZ: Fedor (Emelianenko) I think is my favorite to watch. But they're all good. I just watched the Machida (Lyoto Machida) fight the other night. They call him "the Karate Kid" because he's the Karate guy and I was rooting for him.
There's amazing talent out there. Some of it's brutal, and I'm not into the blood and brutality of it, but I love to watch the forms and the art, and the technique is incredible. The conditioning ... really, there's nothing like it. There's no sport like it. There's no art like it.
LW: As a wrestler, have you ever taken an interest in Brazilian jujitsu?
WZ: No, I haven't. Tang Soo Do. Ron Thomas (Bobby in KARATE KID) did jujitsu, and I worked out with him a couple of times, but I never really got into all the training of all the different styles.
LW: You have an Academy Award nomination, for pete's sake. I think a lot of people would look at that and say, "What?"
WZ: (Laughs) I know. I know. I was hoping to win just so I could get up and throw a shout-out to the Cobra Kais (Johnny's KARATE KID dojo). And my speech was actually going to be - because I wrote and produced the film that was nominated, I was going to say, "You know, it's nice to be nominated as a producer and a writer, but what I really want to be is an actor." But it didn't happen.
Before getting into acting I went to film school and I always wanted to be a filmmaker. From the time I was ten years old I had an 8mm camera in my hand and made films my whole life and videos and dabbled in commercials. THE KARATE KID was really just a "right place at the right time" kind of a blessing. Then my acting career was born. I'm acting still but I'm also directing and producing and behind the camera, which is really what I set out to do from the beginning, and I'm really excited about that.
The Academy nomination was incredible.
LW: You looked pretty happy in some of those photos.
WZ: (Laughs) Yeah. It was a short film I did called MOST, and it was a Czech film, we shot it in Eastern Europe, in Prague and in Poland, and that was my next milestone.
I think THE KARATE KID was the one staple of my life that defined my career and myself and then my short film was the second time I felt that kind of excitement and that high. But the difference between the two is - when you're an actor in a film, you show up on a set and you work out and you do your lines and you work for maybe two months and then everybody else gets to work for six months and you watch it and you're a part of it.
When you're producing and you're putting it together, you know every detail and every frame of that film and what it took to get it in there, so I was more aware at the Oscars of how I got there. When I did THE KARATE KID, I had to keep pinching myself because I just went on an audition and next thing I'm having the time of my life learning karate and making the film and then it slowly became a hit and over the years it's become a classic. And my participation in that was just a few months.
But you have all these great - the director and the music and the producers and the other stars and everybody surrounding you and you're just a part of that. You kind of watch it in amazement and wonder, how did that happen?
But when you actually put something together with your own hands, you have more of a sense of how you got there. So it was even more exciting, I think, than being an actor.
LW: Can you tell us a bit more about what you're doing now?
WZ: The last film I acted in was HOT TUB TIME MACHINE, with John Cusack and Rob Corddry and Craig Robinson, and that was a fun tribute to the '80s. I'm attached to a few projects to direct and one of them is THE SCIENCE OF COOL, but it's still coming together - the financing, the packaging and all that, but we're hoping to get it up and running in the near future.
LW: I have to admit I didn't see HOT TUB TIME MACHINE. All the '80s fashions and styles in the preview was too much of a flashback. It scared me too much.
WZ: (Laughter) Yeah. It's so funny, though, it really is so funny, and Crispin Glover from BACK TO THE FUTURE is hysterical in it. It was really fun. They actually finished the film - the movie was shot by the time they called me to be in it and they were testing the film and the audience review and feedback were great, but they had a part in the middle that they wanted to punch up a little bit so they actually wrote me a part. It was very déjà vu being on the set because everybody was in '80s wardrobe. It was actually like a scene I did in BACK TO SCHOOL with Rodney Dangerfield. I'm in a bar scene and it felt almost like I was waiting for Rodney to walk through the door. The lighting, and the smoke they had going on in there and the hairdos and everything - it was really fun. It's a funny, funny film, and I don't think you need to be afraid of it.
LW: Any other upcoming projects?
WZ: I am doing a film right now called CROSS, with Brian Austin Green and Michael Clarke Duncan who was in THE GREEN MILE, and it's kind of a futuristic, almost superhero type of film. It's an independent film, but it's a lot of fun. I'm shooting that right now.
LW: Any wire work in that one?
WZ: No, no wire work. But I get to play the bad guy again, which I'm still excited about (laughs). I told the director I was doing an interview with you today and he said, "Plug CROSS, plug CROSS!" I said, "Only if you let me win and I get the girl at the end." But here I am, plugging it anyway.
I do a lot of music videos. SWEEP THE LEG was my first one. I do a lot of breakout, brand-new artists that are trying to get on the map, so I kind of shape the vibe and the style of different bands from country to hard rock to pop. I also just produced and edited a really beautiful documentary on Uganda. It's called MZUNGU - that's the Swahili word for "white wanderer." It follows four college kids through Uganda trying to make a difference, and as they go through Uganda the social tragedies and humanitarian crises overwhelm them. By the end of the movie they're pretty defeated and they come home wondering how they're ever going to help the world.
The twist of it is, the lady who was directing the film - who was shooting it - at the end of the movie becomes the subject of the film. She ends up staying there. And the movie she intended to make about these four guys she ended up putting in storage and she ended up setting up an NGO there and living in Uganda. And now she has orphanages and taxi services and she bought a farm, and she's on the ground there and she's teaching the Ugandans how to be self-sufficient and how to have businesses, and she sets up all these micro-businesses. So the end of the movie is this amazing thing - these four guys who went out to make a difference and came home defeated ended up blazing a trail for these 300, 400, 500 new college kids who are actually living there now.
So it’s a really beautiful, touching documentary about the American culture crossing with the African culture and what we have to learn from each other and the correct ways of helping impoverished nations.
A lot of people think we just give money to the World Fund and we've given I don't know how many billions or trillions of dollars in the last 10, 20 years, but it hasn't reached the people. There are a lot of people on the ground there who know how to make that money work, and this lady's one of them.
So that's a really neat film. I just premiered it last week for a small screening and it'll be available pretty soon.
So I do a little bit of everything: editing and producing and filmmaking and documentaries. I'm just a filmmaker and an actor, really.
LW: Out of all the different types of film you work on, do you have a favorite?
WZ: My favorite is just something I believe in, it's just a message or a story I want to tell. That could be in a music video - I'm just as passionate about that as I would be about telling the Uganda story or putting together the SWEEP THE LEG video or producing my short films. They're all the same for me. It's the same kind of high - they're just wrapped differently.
But I suppose if I had to do just one thing, I'd be writing and producing and directing feature films. And acting.
I really love it all, but for acting it would really have to be the right role and it would have to be really fun. There's more muscles you use for making a film and directing the creative part. With acting you're playing one instrument in an orchestra, but you're the conductor if you're producing and directing.
I really love the edit room. That's where the real magic happens: in a closed room with a cup of coffee and a computer and music and good people around and inspiration. That's really fun for me.
LW: Were you approached to do any commentary for the Blu-Ray of THE KARATE KID.
WZ: I'm on the Blu-Ray. Ralph and I both did picture-in-picture interviews. I actually just received my copy today so I haven't seen it. We comment on some trivia behind the making of some of the scenes and the psychology of the characters. From what I hear it's got a pretty cool featurette on the making of the Blu-Ray. Which I also hear looks amazing. I can't wait to watch it. I literally just got it. FedEx just dropped it off about half an hour ago. It's almost a video diary of my memoirs.
LW: Do you still keep in touch with any of them?
WZ: I do. I keep in touch with all of them. Sadly, Pat Morita passed away a few years back and that's where I reconnected with Ralph. We went to his memorial and bumped into each other there. Actually, Ralph and I are probably better friends now than we ever were. In fact, I just saw him about a week and a half ago. Marty Kove, who played Kreese, and Ralph and I all went down to have a meeting and some coffee at The Coffee Bean in Hollywood. We stay in good touch.
And of course of my guys, the Cobra Kais, those guys are like my brothers. We've been close over the years. Ron Thomas and Ron Garrison and Tony O'Dell. Chad I haven't talked to for a while - Chad McQueen. But everybody else - we're pretty close. It's kind of like a fraternity. Or similar to your high school friends - the kind of guys who are always there. You pick up the phone after a little while and it's the same as it was yesterday.
LW: Do you know much about the upcoming KARATE KID?
WZ: All I've heard about the new one is that it looks great. I don't know anybody who's seen it front to back. I think it's going to be fun for the new generation of kids to have their new Karate Kid. All the kids who grew up on our film are parents now, so why not? I think it should be fun. And it's more a reimagining of the same kind of themes of the story, and I think that's a smart way to go. I really can't comment on it any more because I haven't seen it, but the buzz I hear on it is pretty good.
LW: When you were young and in the original, there was no way to imagine the impact the movie would have; but looking back on it now, what about the story do you think has made it so popular?
WZ: I think it's a combination of the story, and having a director like John Avildson and actors like Ralph and Pat and music like Bill Conti and a producer like Jerry Weintraub and a studio like Sony/Columbia behind it. But it's a morality play. All the characters are on their journeys. Johnny isn't really a bad guy. He's misled by his instructor. And then you have the story of a young boy who needs direction, who needs a father, and Miyagi teaches him the ways of life, and I think we all can learn from Miyagi.
As funny as "wax on, wax off" is today and how they've turned into little sound bites, "Walk on the right side of the road, you're okay, walk on the left side of the road, you're okay, walk in the middle of the road, you get squished like a grape" - there's just some great jewels.
And also, of course, Robert Kamen who wrote it - he comes from such a great martial arts background and he's such an amazing screenwriter.
It's just one of those stories and scripts that really work. And then you mix in a little bit of '80s music and some hip pop culture and age it for 25 years and it just turns into a classic, I guess.
We all need direction, I think. We live vicariously though Daniel, who's the underdog and has all odds against him and has a victory in the end that we all look for in our own lives. We all hope for that moment in our own lives, I think. THE KARATE KID kind of gives us a little bit of hope for that moment in our own lives.
LW: But I'd like to see where Johnny is now.
WZ: Just watch SWEEP THE LEG. He's in his trailer, and he's watching reruns of the moving and wondering what the heck happened. How did he lose? That's exactly where Johnny is now.
LW: Oh. Okay.
WZ: Either that, or he's a doctor.
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Written by Lori Ann White for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM