By any objective measure, The Karate Kid Part III is a terrible movie. The 1989 box-office flop centers around a demented toxic-waste mogul, Terry Silver, who decides to rig a teenage karate tournament and torment Mr. Miyagi and a college-age Daniel La Russo for no coherent reason. “The Karate Kid Part III is one film too many,” read the L.A. Times review in a typical pan. “It is a disaster of the most uninspired contrivances.”
When the franchise was resurrected in 2018 with the streaming series Cobra Kai, the focus was largely on characters from the original 1984 movie along with a new generation of teenage karate enthusiasts. But as the series moved from YouTube Red to Netflix in 2020, picking up an enormous audience of nearly 75 million households along the way, characters and events from The Karate Kid Part II worked their way into the story. It seemed like only a matter of time before Terry Silver returned as well.
Now, it’s finally happening, when the fourth season of Cobra Kai premieres on Dec. 31 with Terry Silver back in the mix as Daniel La Russo’s chief antagonist — more than 30 years after his last appearance in the franchise. “We’ve been talking about this since Season One,” says Josh Heald, who co-created Cobra Kai with longtime collaborators Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. “Terry Silver has always been looming.”
Nobody is more surprised by this turn of events than Thomas Ian Griffith, who played Silver in The Karate Kid Part III and returns to the role in this new season of Cobra Kai. “This was something none of us could have predicted when we made Karate Kid Part III,” he says. “But here we are as grown men, back in this world. It’s been incredibly fulfilling. Until we started shooting, I hadn’t seen Ralph Macchio in over 30 years.”
Griffith was a struggling stage actor with a background in martial arts when The Karate Kid Part III was casting back in the late Eighties. He figured the Terry Silver role was out of reach because he was 28 at the time and the character was a Vietnam War veteran about two decades his senior. And since Macchio, then 29, had to somehow play a convincing teenager, casting someone younger than him as Daniel’s older antagonist seemed simply insane. Griffith presumed he had a better shot of being cast as “Bad Boy” Mike Barnes, a karate champion who fights La Russo in the climactic scene.
But director John Avildsen saw something in Griffith during the auditions and asked him to come back for a screen test. “I was like, ‘What role am I?’” remembers Griffith. “‘Am I the bad boy or Silver?’ One is 45 and the other is a 17-year-old kid. I was like, ‘What am I doing?’” Once he got the role, Griffith says, he remembers sitting on the karate mat during filming, looking at Macchio and thinking, “‘He’s playing one end of the [age] spectrum and I’m playing another.’ We used to laugh about it.”
Age issues were only a small part of the problem with Karate Kid III. The original script called for Martin Kove’s character of John Kreese to pose as a good guy and train La Russo for another karate tournament, while secretly setting him up for a painful humiliation and loss to avenge the events of the first movie. But Kove had committed to the CBS show Hard Times on Planet Earth and couldn’t fit the shoot into his schedule. The creative team cooked up the idea for his longtime buddy to mess with with La Russo in his absence, but they wrote Silver as absolute psycho who literally cackled with delight every time he found a new way to create chaos.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Why does his world come to a stop so he can torture a few teenagers?'” Griffith recalls. “But that was fun for me. I was like, ‘Let’s commit to what I’m doing and make this work.'” Occasionally, Griffith says, he worried the character was too over-the-top. But Avildsen told him to play up the crazy: “John was like, ‘Just go with your instincts. Let’s have every kid in America kicking you in the shins when this movie comes out.'”
Three of those kids were Heald, Hurwitz, and Schlossberg. “We were not discerning film critics at the time,” says Schlossberg. “We just accepted it as the new chapter in the franchise, and we saw the Terry Silver character as this really scary Bond villain out to destroy this teenager’s life. As adults and writers now, we understand the issues with that story, and yet we’re drawn to it and have a connection to it nostalgically. Our goal with Cobra Kai was to take the things we liked about that character and infuse that into more modern storytelling.”
The season begins with a now gray-haired Silver playing the piano in his oceanfront mansion, and ignoring an urgent call from John Kreese. La Russo and his longtime rival Johnny Lawrence had teamed up the prior season to take on Kreese and Cobra Kai, and Kreese, it seems, desperately needs Silver to step in and stop them. But Silver has softened with age, and now spends his time eating tofu and sipping martinis with his liberal friends. He scoffs when Kreese suggests he get involved with Cobra Kai again.
“Back in the Eighties, I thought I could conquer the world,” Silver tells Kreese. “I was so hopped up on cocaine and revenge that I spent months terrorizing a teenager over a high-school karate tournament. It sounds insane just talking about it.”
“We figured he had this Charlie Sheen kind of Wall Street-like lifestyle back in the Eighties,” says Heald. “We threw in that cocaine line in to help explain that maniacal behavior when he’s laughing like a crazy person or hiding up a chimney or behind walls. These are things that a normal person, or normal billionaire, probably wouldn’t do, so we figured the cocaine probably helped out a little bit.”
Needless to say, even an older, wiser Terry Silver cannot resist the lure of Cobra Kai. By the third episode, he’s tying his hair back into the iconic ponytail from The Karate Kid Part III and plotting against La Russo and his karate students. “Because of the pandemic, I hadn’t gotten my hair cut for a year,” says Griffith. “They were like, ‘Don’t cut your hair. Leave your hair.’ Hayden was really obsessed with that whole thing: ‘Is his ponytail long enough?’ He wanted it to be perfect.”
“I’ve always said that hair is a crucial component to these characters,” explains Schlossberg. “Johnny’s blonde hair is a defining characteristic. For Terry, it’s the ponytail, and we really leaned into the ponytail in Season Four. In some ways, it defines a little bit of that old Terry.”
The season builds to another All Valley Karate Tournament that pits La Russo’s karate students against Cobra Kai. La Russo’s daughter, Samantha, is one of the fighters, and her entire high school is consumed by the tournament and the various rivalries going into it. Buying into a world where teens would rather train for a karate tournament than create TikTok videos or play video games requires a minor suspension of disbelief.
“We’ve said from the beginning of making Episode One, the buy-in for this show and this universe is that karate in the Valley is like football in Texas,” says Heald. “When you look at it on paper, it looks more ridiculous than it does when you put it up on the screen, because everyone is coming to appreciate the big stakes of the tournament with the same gravity. For the kids, it feels like this is tied into their futures and their families and personal relationships and romantic relationships. For the adults, you feel the wounds of the past and it becomes about something more than karate. It becomes about Daniel’s relationship with Mr. Miyagi and Daniel’s regret not only [about] the past, but for bringing Cobra Kia back into the Valley at all. Even though it’s about karate, it becomes about these other things.”
The show has become such a giant hit for Netflix that the streamer ordered a fifth season long before the fourth was even done. Griffith was in Atlanta filming the final few episodes when we spoke, but everyone is tight-lipped on the plot and which characters from the old movies might reappear. “Anyone who has ever appeared in the Karate Kid universe, we call it the Miyagi-verse, they exist in our cannon and our world,” says Hurwitz. “We’ve talked about every character, including the minor people that just had one line.”
Does that include Mike Barnes, played in The Karate Kid Part III by Sean Kanan? “His name has been thrown around the writers’ room from the very beginning,” says Hurwitz. “We didn’t want to bring him in like, ‘OK, we have Terry Silver. Let’s just bring in Mike Barnes in the same kind of context.’ We wanted to find a fresh and interesting way to bring Barnes into the story, and perhaps at some point we’ll do so.”
And then there’s Hillary Swank’s character of Julie Pierce from 1994’s The Next Karate Kid. Might she enter the storyline in a future season? “It’s definitely possible at some point,” says Heald. “I can’t say whether or not we’ve gone in that direction with our story, but we have acknowledged from the earliest season that The Next Karate Kid is very much in our universe. Julie Pierce does exist. Any movie from the original franchise that does encompass Mr. Miyagi’s life, we respect as the history of things that actually happened. Julie is very much on the table.”
In the meantime, Griffith, who has spent the past few years as a writer on shows like Grimm and Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, has been stunned to see the online reaction to Terry Silver’s return. “It’s been crazy,” he says. “Netflix put out a little promo that showed the character for a second. I thought, ‘This will be fun. Let’s see who remembers me.’ And it blew up. They had over a million views. I was like, ‘What?!’ I guess that character really did have an impact.”