In September 2016, William Zabka – best known for portraying quintessential 1980s teen movie villain Johnny Lawrence in the original The Karate Kid – was summoned to his favorite Mexican restaurant in L.A. The reason: A mysterious meeting with three young comedy writers who had found big success in recent years with the Hot Tub Time Machine and Harold and Kumar franchises. He had absolutely no idea what they wanted. "We must have finished four or five baskets of chips and salsa," says Zabka. "But they kept pushing away the waiter from taking our order so they could tell me their idea."
The elaborate plan they unveiled left the 52-year-old actor in a state of absolute shock: They wanted to bring back The Karate Kid as a serialized television series. "I said to them, 'This sounds too good to be true,'" says Zabka. "'To do something like this you'd need to get everybody to sign on it, including [rights holders] Sony, [Will Smith's production company] Overbrook [Entertainment] and [the estate of late Karate Kid producer] Jerry Weintraub.' They said, 'Everybody is in. The next step is to get Ralph Macchio.' I said, 'All right, just make sure at his lunch they serve broccolini. That's the secret to his youth.'" When the long meal ended, Zabka walked out and drafted a text to the guys that he was ultimately too embarrassed to send: "The Johnny in me just opened one crusty eye."
The lunch meeting was just one memorable stop on the long, wild road that Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald took in creating Cobra Kai, which debuts May 2nd on YouTube Red. It began when the three childhood friends saw the original movie in 1984. "I was about six years old," says Hurwitz. "I fell in love with the underdog story and learning about the concept of bullying and overcoming adversity. There were also the father-son scenes and all this kick-ass karate. It was the perfect mix for a young boy. I saw it over and over."
For Heald, the movie was even more personal. "I was a chunky little kid," he says. "I wasn't aggressively bullied but I had my moments, and there was something fascinating about this kid going to a brand-new world and kind of figuring it out and winning. When we got a VCR, it was the first tape we illegally made and then we bought it for real. I still have that copy. It's just a movie that never left me."
Schlossberg missed it in the theater but saw it on VHS at a cousin's house. "It was an underdog story like Rocky," he says. "It's no coincidence they have the same director [John G. Avildsen]. There's this simplicity you can really relate to as a kid, but as you get older you really appreciate the storytelling and richness of the characters."
The initial seed of Cobra Kai first came to them years back when a new DVD of The Karate Kid came out and they sat down to watch all the special features. "We talked at length about how much fun it would be to play in that universe," says Hurwitz. "We all have this fascination with Johnny Lawrence and the Cobra Kais. One thing that was always so interesting to us is that Johnny was conflicted in the tournament, and at the end he gives Daniel the trophy. We started talking about a movie where you'd see events from Johnny's perspective, but with the realities of the film business it didn't seem like something that could happen."
The idea sat on the back burner for years, but the huge success of Netflix's Fuller House led to a stream of nostalgic revivals like Will and Grace, The X-Files and Roseanne. Star Wars: The Force Awakens proved that bringing in characters from long-dormant franchises and teaming them with young protégés is a potent formula. Streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime also dramatically increased the number of homes for big-budget television shows, even ones with niche audiences.
This perfect confluence of events caused the three friends to start thinking about Cobra Kai as a TV show. After hammering out a detailed outline for the first season, roping in the various rights holders and Zabka, they flew to New York for a lunch with Ralph Macchio. It was a significant risk since he'd turned down many offers in the past to revive his Karate Kid character. "I must have been approached over a 1,000 times," he says. "It's always a variation of the 'Karate Man' concept. They say, 'Hey, you have a kid who is in trouble and you have to train him.' Others have come to me with, 'A distant relative of Miyagi takes you under his wing.' It never felt exciting to me. I felt the legacy stood on its own."
But after a few minutes with Hurwitz, Schlossberg and Heald, he knew this was something different. "They pitched not only the pilot, but the entire first season and what could be going on in the second and third," he says. "They were passionate, focused and they had something they believed fans would want to see if they were able to dream up a show. What interested me the most was the younger characters. They were so fleshed out. They took the high school world and addressed bullying in the present day. That is what hooked me."
He was also intrigued by fixing so much attention onto Johnny Lawrence's character. The story they wanted to tell begins with a bitter, broken Johnny that is unable to cope with the pain of losing the All Valley Karate Tournament to a crane kick he believes was illegal. Early episodes are seen largely through his eyes. "We need to show you where he is at and earn him some sympathy," says Heald. "We needed to set the table with people not hating him."
With everyone signed on, Hurwitz, Schlossberg and Heald took Macchio and Zabka – who reconnected at Pat Morita's funeral in 2005 and have appeared together at a number of fan conventions – to meetings at TV networks and streaming services all over Hollywood and Silicon Valley. "I remember we were in the lobby of one and [Breaking Bad star] Aaron Paul was there for another meeting," says Heald. "He did a triple take when he saw those guys. It's amazing to be part of that parade. We knew that there was something special about putting these two back together. It was nice to feel that feeling before we signed anything."
In meeting after meeting, Hurwitz, Schlossberg and Heald emphasized that despite their backgrounds in comedy, the tone of Cobra Kai would match the original movies. This would not be a spoof or goofy, self-aware nostalgia trip. "We explained to everyone that even though the subject matter could easily turn this into a Funny or Die sketch, we really wanted it to be a continuation of the movies," says Schlossberg. "As much as we feel comfortable with outrageous comedy, we also understand how The Karate Kid works. There was going to be comedy, but it would never be joke-joke-joke. The comedy comes from a natural role reversal and a fish-out-of-water generational thing. We want to create goosebumps just like the original did."
The very first meeting they took was with YouTube Red, which is just now ramping up its slate of original programing to paid subscribers. "We had a lot of interest around town," says Heald. "But at the end of the day there was something about being this bigger fish in this new market. We really felt it could shine there, and it can become the star that sends other ships to this island." YouTube Red ordered a full 10-episode season.
The shoot was a surreal experience for everyone involved since Zabka and Macchio hadn't played these characters since the 1980s – and the creative team finally got to see their childhood heroes come to life. "The imagery of the movie is so powerful," says Heald. "This series was the first time I directed, and the first shot involved Daniel wearing a gi. Seeing that in 3D never got old. It only got cooler. I felt like we were at Karate Kid fantasy camp."
Without giving too much away, the plot of Season One involves Lawrence training a new generation of Cobra Kai fighters and getting entangled back into the life of Daniel LaRusso, who is now a wealthy, successful businessman struggling to raise a defiant teenage daughter. Once old tensions resurface, LaRusso finds himself once again up against a rising Cobra Kai dojo. Much attention is paid to the young fighters and their struggles in high school. "It's kind of a continuation of the original film," says Macchio. "It has this heightened reality, and the comedy is based on the fact that these two guys in their fifties will not let it go."
For Zabka, it was a great opportunity to flesh out his character. "I had high hopes for Johnny," says Zabka. "The first movie was a coming-of-age story, even for him. He was waking up and seeing the error of his sensei's ways. He has an epiphany that this might not be the right thing and he even handed Daniel the trophy at the end. It left a lot open to the imagination about where he might go."
The long shoot provided a lot of stressful moments for the Cobra Kai creators, but they all say the pain was more than worth it. "I'll never forget that I spent my 40th birthday in the middle of the wilderness with Daniel LaRusso doing kata in nature," says Hurwitz. "I never would have imagined growing up that that's how I would spend my 40th. As stressful as it was and hard as it was at times, it was always fun. We basically were getting to do fan fiction with our favorite characters."
The trailer and initial episodes screened to critics reveal no characters from the original movie beyond Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence. Nobody is willing to say whether any others make appearances. "We knew early on that the way that this show succeeds is not forcing everything back into this world right away," says Hurwitz. "So the vague answer [to whether or not any other faces from the original return] is all these characters loom large in our show. But we also know that including a lot of those characters early on in the series doesn't give us as much runway to go as the show evolves. If we brought back everybody right away, it would've overwhelmed a lot of the stories we were telling right now."
That said, if YouTube Red orders a second season, anybody from Martin Kove (John Kreese), Rob Garrison (Tommy), Daniel's mother Lucille (Randee Heller) and even Ali Mills (Elizabeth Shue) could theoretically appear. "As long as actors are alive, it's possible," says Schlossberg. "And as we see with some of the Star Wars movies, even posthumous performances are possible these days. So people can dream and hope, and there's reason to."
Zabka is certainly hoping and dreaming that Johnny and Daniel will live to battle in another season. "The first season is just the beginning of the story," he says. "It's been so much fun that it really calls for more. This is just the tip of the iceberg."