In 1984, the story of leg-sweeping bully Johnny Lawrence seemed to have come to an end with a devastating Crane kick to the chin. In one day, he lost the All-Valley Karate Tournament, his girl and his mojo when 15-year-old Daniel LaRusso beat him on the mat. Now thirty-four years after the events of The Karate Kid, Johnny finally gets his turn in the spotlight in YouTube’s hit series Cobra Kai.
Garnering 55 million viewers for the first episode, YouTube is set to premiere the second season of the series, as Johnny takes on his old rival Daniel with competing dojos.
After a stellar first season, the towheaded former bully continues his path towards redemption through his new dojo and through his relationship with his estranged son, Robby. However, it’s a difficult road to atonement as figures from his past come back to haunt him.
Played by William Zabka, the quintessential bad boy of many an ’80s film, Johnny’s trials and tribulations have discovered both a new audience and a new appreciation for the character as Johnny continues his journey towards being a better person. Well, a slightly better person.
At WonderCon 2019, Zabka chatted about stepping back into the role of Johnny and what it was like to return to the iconic role.
“When they approached me about doing Cobra Kai season one, my mind was blown at the idea of rebirthing the Johnny Lawrence tale,” said Zabka. “So the whole idea of even doing it was very cathartic, it took a long time for me to process it and king of accept that they were going to do this. But they wrote it right.”
“It was fun and challenging to get back into the character of Johnny, especially the way they wrote it with Johnny being a degenerate, sipping a beer and isolated in his apartment. He’s not the Johnny I would have imagined being today. I would have though him a doctor or running a camp somewhere.”
“They made him an underdog in a way and I love that. And I love that Johnny has a chance to intervene in this child’s life and form a bond. He goes ahead and opens up Cobra Kai again in season two.”
“By opening up Cobra Kai again he basically opens Pandora’s Box. This is the snake that bit him. This is his past. But his intentions are to do it right and change things. So at the end of the first season you see him lead his cavalry to victory but there is a conflict because they are using tactics on his own son that he certainly doesn’t agree with,” said Zabka. “Enter Sensei Kreese in his world, a man that taught him everything about this, and now he has his father figure/sensei/mentor stepping back into his life, which complicates things even more.”
“I love telling the story of Johnny. I love doing deep within him and telling his backstory and how he is stuck in his past. It’s a thrilling time to play him in this modern day.”
Zabra recognized that the opportunity wasn’t just a chance to reprise a classic role, but to grow on the character in a way that movie couldn’t.
“In a movie you have two hours to button it all it up, and in the Karate Kid formula there is a victory at the end. You feel good and the bad guy is down. In a show like this that can go on and on, it is long form and they can really explore many levels and depths. I love what they are writing to. The write to my strengths, the action, the comedy and to the drama. It’s a like a great buffet of writing they do for me and I am thankful for,” said Zabka.
And with this new growth in character, fans of the Karate Kid legacy and the new show have rallied behind this new and improved Johnny.
“I got Karate Kid fans my entire life that we like, ‘I hated you! You were the biggest asshole.’ But then you got some guys who were he yahoos on my side that were like, ‘Cobra Kai, dude! You should have killed him!’ Those guys missed the point of the movie, ” joked Zabka. “I imagine from the outside it’s like running into your high school bully 30 years later and seeing that he’s having a tough time and actually he’s not that bad of a guy. You grew up and realize maybe he wasn’t all bad. I think getting to know Johnny is therapy in a way. You don’t have to be afraid of him. I don’t have to hate him He’s not perfect for sure. He’s working out his inner demons out in front of everybody. But the response to the character has been very favorable. A lot of young adults, especially from men mostly, relate to him. They might still trying to work things out in their apartments, eating baloney and drinking beer, trying to figure out what when wrong. And to see Johnny try to do something right…I think there is something about living vicariously through a character that can inspire you in real life. People say to me, ‘That’s me man, that’s me.’ And I love that.”
“I never saw him as the bad guy. Yes he was the antagonist and the villain in a sense,’ said Zabka. “If as the end of the movie after Daniel kicked him in the face, if Johnny came out with a baseball bat he would have been un-redeemable. But I saw he had a conscience. And because of that I was able to play up to his other colors and find his own story. He felt justified in everything he did because he was trained a certain way, to respond a certain way. In his point of view, here is a stranger from out of town who gets in his business, takes his girlfriend, and then takes his title. He wipes out his identity.”
“For me as the actor, this was a story of a kid waking up a little bit. That Crane kick actually liberated Johnny Lawrence and opened him up. But then all his foundation for those 18 years goes out the window. So he’s been a lost soul for many years and now he’s getting back to make some changes and grow up. There is something to that people relate to.”
Cobra Kai season two will premiere on YouTube on April 24.