Here’s how Ralph Macchio knows the “Netflix Effect” is real: Shopping in public has once again become a bit more of a challenge. “Outside of having a mask on, it’s tougher to get out to the grocery store,” he says. “I had a couple years where I could go in and out. Now it’s a little bit limited.” It’s not just at the corner store. Macchio recently found himself swarmed by a new generation of teenagers while attending a hockey game. But he’s not complaining — just the opposite. For Macchio, “The Karate Kid” franchise, reborn as “Cobra Kai,” is the “gift that keeps giving. I’m as privileged and lucky as you can get.”
Macchio first reprised his signature role as “The Karate Kid,” the now all-grown-up Daniel LaRusso, when “Cobra Kai” debuted on YouTube in 2018. Critics embraced the show and its smart take on what happened to Daniel and his former rival, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) — as did fans of the original 1980s franchise.
“Cobra Kai” became the most-watched series on YouTube’s subscription service, and a second season followed in 2019. But then YouTube got out of the scripted business — and producer Sony Pictures TV, which has a lengthy track record of keeping shows alive by moving them to other platforms (“Community” and “One Day at a Time” among them), saw a big opportunity in Netflix. The first two seasons of “Cobra Kai” moved to Netflix last year, followed by a third season that debuted on New Year’s Day 2021. Wax on: After that, “Cobra Kai” swept the leg.
I spoke to Macchio soon after he wrapped shooting Season 4 of “Cobra Kai” and was just emerging from that production bubble to experience the new wave of fandom that has enveloped the show.
“All credit to YouTube for being the first to give us the opportunity to make the show,” he says. “But it was sort of like, you get to play in the minor leagues and hone your game and then you’re at Yankee Stadium. [Netflix] is that big next step up. Having the global impact is also so cool.”
It’s been a long time coming for Macchio, who had already been seen on TV in “Eight Is Enough” and by moviegoers in “The Outsiders” when “The Karate Kid” opened in 1984 — and immediately became a phenomenon. That led to two sequels, as well as films such as “My Cousin Vinny.” When “Cobra Kai” came calling, Macchio had just started playing a crooked cop in David Simon’s HBO period drama “The Deuce.”
“Cobra Kai” could have been a cynical ploy to capitalize on 1980s nostalgia, but creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg gave the show a complicated, nuanced take on where Daniel and Johnny might be in middle age. And now, 37 years after first becoming Daniel LaRusso, the awards recognition that has so far eluded Macchio might happen this year. Both he and “Cobra Kai” are in the hunt for Emmy nominations — and could very well get there.
“This stuff, I’m all the richer for experiencing it and not taking it for granted,” Macchio says. “I’m really enjoying the opportunity to continue to tell the stories and make the show. A character that I co-created with great filmmakers back in 1983, for the ’84 release, that kid became a piece of pop culture, a piece of everyone’s childhood. And then having the opportunity decades later to peel back the onion and find the gray areas of this guy, to dive deeper, people seem to be embracing that.”