When filming began, Ralph Macchio knew he did not paint this house, did not paint this fence, sand this floor, wax on this car or wax off the other one. He was in Atlanta, too, not the San Fernando Valley. But it still felt familiar, like he was picking up right where he left off with an old friend.
“It’s Miyagi World, it really has that feel,” Macchio, 57, told Polygon about the rebuilt home of Daniel LaRusso’s mentor, which serves as the headquarters for the Miyagi-do Karate dojo in Season Two of Cobra Kai, premiering next month on YouTube Premium.
Parts of the set aren’t the same as the original, Macchio acknowledged; the koi pond got a wooden balancing pad that figures into his young charges’ training, for example (as seen in last week’s teaser trailer for year two). The back yard is shaped a little differently as well. Prop masters had to rent several classic cars to complete Miyagi’s old fleet lining its wall. But on the whole, it still felt like the same place where Daniel bonded with Miyagi, and Macchio bonded with the late Pat Morita, and where their affection and chemistry made The Karate Kid the timeless feel-good hit it will always be for generations.
“Walking into the Miyagi house this season for the first time, we were just lining up some shots, and then I went back to my dressing room, and a wave of emotion just hit me,” Macchio said, with a pause. Morita died in 2005, producer Jerry Weintraub died in 2015 and director John Avildsen died in 2017.
“It was beyond nostalgia, it was very bittersweet,” he said. “That was where the magic happened, that’s where I got to know Pat Morita, and without him it doesn’t happen.”
Cobra Kai’s first season sang to so many thanks to the very personal performances put in by Macchio and William Zabka, whose Johnny Lawrence emerges as a conflicted, redeemed villain after rebuilding the show’s namesake dojo. Zabka seems to struggle with being a one-hit wonder as both himself and Johnny — both proud of yet cursed by their long-gone successes. Macchio portrays a Daniel who is very well-to-do now, but is still mostly known for his get-the-girl triumph at the All-Valley Karate Championships 35 years before. In a very arresting moment before the finale, he beams with genuine pride at the banner commemorating his 1984 title. All of this adds a layer of believability to the conceit that the world of the Karate Kid has gone on alongside ours.
The sense of place and time that the show delivers helps that tremendously, too. Though principally shot in Atlanta, key scenes are filmed in the Los Angeles area. One of them, in season one’s ninth episode, took Daniel and Johnny back to Daniel’s homely, very cheap (and very SoCal) South Seas apartment building in Reseda.
“Wow, this is ... mind blowing, crazy insane being back here,” Daniel says in the show. Macchio said that’s actually how he felt when shooting the scene.
“It was an amazing time warp,” he said. “I think my dialogue at the opening of that scene, it felt exactly like that. I remembered being there and some of my earlier scenes in that film; it really resonates in my performance, I think.”
So it is for Miyagi House 3.0. The original, somewhere in the San Fernando Valley, was sold after The Karate Kid wrapped and was later torn down. When Weintraub realized he had a hit — The Karate Kid was a turning point for both the producer’s larger-than-life career and Macchio’s — Miyagi’s home was rebuilt on Columbia Pictures’ back lot “ranch” for the next two movies, and that was ultimately demolished.
Macchio is unreservedly sentimental about his movies, holding keepsakes from all of them, like Johnny Cade’s shoes from 1983’s The Outsiders (donated to The Outsiders House Museum in Tulsa, Okla.) or the can of tuna that started so much trouble in 1992’s My Cousin Vinny. (“No, I don’t open it,” he joked.) His mementoes provided plenty of fan service in Cobra Kai’s first season, and will again in year two. That includes the yellow 1947 Ford Super Deluxe, which Miyagi gave to Daniel for his 16th birthday. In real life, Weintraub gave it to Macchio after 1986’s The Karate Kid Part II premiered.
In Cobra Kai season two, mini-spoiler alert, the story calls for the car to be vandalized. We won’t say why or by whom. “I stood there while they spray painted it,” Macchio laughed. “They told me it’s this removable stuff, if you take it off in two hours. I was like ‘Can we try try this on a couple of other cars first?’ I was really watching the clock.” He made sure the scenes where he discovers the crime didn’t need extra takes.
But Cobra Kai’s second season will be more about its younger core of characters, as opposed to the first season, which spent more time reconnecting the audience to Johnny and Daniel (and Johnny and Daniel to their martial arts). “That’s partly by design,” Macchio said. “You never know when you cast young actors, you never know if they will have breakout performances. But with Miguel (Xolo Mariduena), Robby (Tanner Buchanan) and Samantha (Mary Mouser), and plus guys like Gianni (Decenzo) as Demetri and Hawk (Jacob Bertrand) all of a sudden we had this fully populated world of characters.”
Creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg “coming out of Hot Tub Time Machine and Harold & Kumar, they’re very good with that kind of teen dialogue,” Macchio said. Indeed, the kids’ byplay is humorously profane and the show is still unafraid to skewer mainstream sensitivities. “It’s always been that Johnny and Daniel would be the center and the crux, but the rest can be invested in so many other stories and not just hang on to them. It’s a karate soap opera. It’s the Montagues and Capulets, Romeo and Juliet in a religious battle, almost. It can be silly, but that’s what makes it so entertaining.”
Cobra Kai season two premieres April 24 on YouTube Premium; it showed the first two episodes at South by Southwest last week, and I’ve seen the whole thing. While the show does go deep into the teenage drama of the competing dojos, it’s still leavened with callbacks and reminders for older viewers like myself.
Randee Heller, for example, comes back again as Daniel’s mother (she was also in season one) and they share some very poignant memories of their past before moving to California. Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love,” the adult contemporary/dentist-waiting-room anthem from The Karate Kid Part II even shows up. And there’s a dual cliffhanger, which Macchio admitted may have been written in not only to cajole YouTube into greenlighting a third season, but also to convince another familiar face to come home, too.
“We’re waiting for the official news, but they’re already in talks,” Macchio said of a third season. “I imagine fans would revolt if this is the end of it, it would be so unsatisfying.
“One of the things about this season is it has all of the comfort food of season one, and yet it takes you in a completely different direction,” Macchio said. “You have no idea how you landed there.”