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January 2017 - Cover Story: Ralph Macchio

Ralph Macchio

Ralph Macchio: The name, for many, will invoke some childhood memories or, perhaps, some more recent ones. For this writer, waiting for the phone to ring and knowing the Karate Kid would be on the other line was a butterflies-in-the-stomach moment. Macchio, who has a career in the arts spanning three decades, started at 18 when he made his first, on-screen appearance in 1980 in Up The Academy with Robert Downey Jr. and followed up with a recurring role on TV’s Eight is Enough. But Macchio looked further back to talk about where his love of acting came from. “I grew up at a time when my mother would watch ‘The Million Dollar Movie.’ Channel 11 would have these old-time, MGM musicals and movies like Casablanca and all that, and she would have these on all the time, and I would watch these movies...I sort of, you know, got a little taste of cinema and storytelling. So that was like the early stage of getting on stage. I took a few theater/dance classes...and I enjoyed it—I didn’t stink at it. So that’s my earliest memory of [performance] and diving into it.”

Macchio with Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevas and Patrick Swayze in The Outsiders (1983)

Macchio would go on to star with a slew of talented actors, who were unknowns at the time, in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders (1983). The film would be one of the big moments in Macchio’s career. S.E. Hinton’s book of the same name was published in 1967 to wide acclaim, but it still wasn’t known if the film would be loved as the novel was. “What’s interesting is I read that book when I was 12...cover to cover. The Outsiders was required it was a dream come true to be in that film and get that role. We all felt like we were in the coolest movie ever, and Francis [Ford Coppola], one of the greatest filmmakers of our time, was directing. We had a feeling that it would’ve been the greatest thing ever, but the film itself—it was well-received, but it didn’t open like Rouge One, that’s for sure. But over time, because of the book—the book feeds the movie, the movie feeds the book—as you witness at conventions, I get these ‘Outsiders kids’... these kids just falling in love with that book and that movie for the first time. It’s nice to be involved with something that reinvents itself with every generation and has that kind of lasting power, and I do not take that for granted….That role for me was like your first love, your first girlfriend, your first kiss—you never forget it, and Johnny Cade from The Outsiders gave that to me.”

The opportunity of working on the film was one Macchio did not fail to appreciate. He learned something every day he was on set. “A lot of it had to do with Francis and what he instilled in us as young actors. Rehearsal and preparation was a big part of what Francis brought to the table—a sort of theater atmosphere. Two weeks before we started shooting the movie, he wanted the guys to spend a lot of time together. The Greasers were separated from The Socs. The Socs had better rooms, better transportation, better script binders. We were given a composition notebook and a lower room in the hotel. We were driven around in a van, while The Socs drove around in nice Town Cars. He created that environment, and it was fun, but within 48 hours everyone was calling their agents,” Macchio said with a chuckle. “He [Francis] wasn’t necessarily The Godfather, but he was the one we looked up to. He was definitely leading the band.”

Macchio and Pat Morita in The Karate Kids (1984)

Macchio would follow up his role in The Outsiders with a film that would make him an icon. The Karate Kid (1984) was a true underdog story, one that would turn Macchio into the celebrated poster child of perseverance in the face of adversity. He reflected on the moment that he learned he would be playing Daniel LaRusso. “I was always in first position, but they were putting me through so many hoops, and I was the only one around. I knew that Charlie Sheen was a backup candidate. I knew Robert Downey Jr. at the time was. But it was always me and whoever else they were looking at for the other role, so I felt pretty good. So when I got the call, maybe I was a little cocky, like, ‘Of course.’”

The Karate Kid was the seminal movie in Macchio’s career. When asked about the moment he realized the impact this film was going to have on both the cinematic and his personal worlds, Macchio started his answer with, “To the best of my memory,” since it has been 31 years since the movie was released. “I distinctly remember seeing the film for the first time in its entirety in the Baronet & Coronet Theaters on Third Avenue on the Upper East Side. It was a sneak preview, end of May, roughly four weeks before the movie was to come out on June 22. The director was there, the producer, and writer, and it was a packed house for a sneak preview. Seeing the movie and seeing the audience respond to this guy who’s just essentially me who showed up to read the lines—it was so ‘out-of-body experience’ for me to sort of be caught up in the audience being with this story every step...and then certainly with the climax of the movie and everyone jumping up and hugging each other and cheering. I can’t say there’s ever [again] been a moment that I walked in and then everything was different when I walked out. And then everyone on Third Avenue is doing the Crane Kick, whether they were 6 years old or 60 years old, and that’s when the producer leaned over and said, ‘We’re gonna be making a couple of these.’”

Ralph Macchio with Nico Bustamante in A Room of My Own. Photo: Ben Strothmann. (2016)

Macchio’s career continued like a freight train, working with heavyweights like Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny (1992), an experience that Macchio remembered as a fond one, but not without challenge. “My Cousin Vinny was odd for me with Joe because I knew Joe. Marisa was obviously fresh and new on the scene….What a turn that was for her—it was wonderful. But Joe I knew because I was on Broadway in a play called Cuba and His Teddy Bear with Robert DeNiro, and we played father and son….Joe would come by the theater occasionally, and that was a couple of years before My Cousin Vinny. The toughest part with My Cousin Vinny was I was isolated, because most of my scenes were in the first act, and then it was all the courtroom stuff. I had a great time. It really is a can’t stop watching.” As those roles grew, the challenges grew, as well, and Macchio was excited to take them on. “The Outsiders wasn’t difficult to play, but I put a lot into was work. There’s a role I play...for television called The Last POW? The Bobby Garwood Story [that] I did with Martin Sheen….That was a real challenging role, and the shooting schedule was challenging. They all come with their moments of ease and...of difficulty. You just have to trust it. Some days you go home smiling. Other days you go home saying, ‘I just blew it!’ You just have to move past it.”

While Macchio is known for big and small screen, he has also made his mark on the stage theater circuit. When it comes to which platform he enjoys most, Macchio say there is a benefit to both. “There’s a beauty to theater because you’re presenting the entire piece, and you are experiencing it communally together. You give this gift of this story you’re telling, this character you’re portraying, and you receive this gift of acceptance from the audience. [There’s] something that’s irreplaceable about that. But I do also enjoy the exacting of film and film for television—those pieces that connect the fabric of a full performance for film... and then it being preserved. There’s something nice about when you do get it right and nail it and you have something forever. But with theater, it might be there Tuesday, and (on) Wednesday, it’s just not the same, and Thursday might be better than Tuesday, but you don’t know that on Wednesday.”

Macchio with partner Karina Smirnoff on Dancing with the Stars (2011). Courtesy of ABC.

As a child, Macchio looked up to Gene Kelly, enamored with his style and grace. “I found him such a masculine kind of actor, dancer—handsome, good looking.” So, it shouldn’t be a surprise when he chose to participate in the dance competition Dancing with the Stars, but even Macchio himself hesitated to take part. “At first I felt like Gilligan on Gilligan’s Island, ‘I’m not gonna wear a dress, I’m not gonna wear a dress,’ and then you cut, and there’s Gilligan in a dress. I said I would never do that show. It was not my cup of tea at first, but it was just the right time. I did well enough. How you represent yourself is a big part of the experience of that show...I’m an alumni and I’m proud of it.”

Those who have seen Macchio work can see he truly embraces the character he is presented with, and he has taken meaning and a lesson from each performance. “You learn from each. Any time you’re making a film or an original play or a television series, if you feel that you have it figured out, then I think you’re fooling yourself. Because, truthfully, everyone is making the movie for the first time...everyone on that cast is creating that world for the first time. So really try to learn from it and embrace all the curveballs, because if you don’t, you’re striking out a lot. But that takes years to figure out, and even when you figure it out, you still don’t have it all figured out.

Macchio has close to three decades of being an icon in the industry. When it comes to what he wants his legacy to be, he says, “That I embraced it wholeheartedly. I was genuine, and tried to be as true as I can to the work and understanding and never taking for granted what I learned from it.” Ralph Macchio is blessed for the opportunities his talents have brought him. He shows no signs of stopping, recently working on The Deuce, in which he appears in five of the eight episodes. His continued energy and vigor to enhance his craft will have us not only reminiscing about the roles that we remember from our youths, but looking forward to his projects that are yet to come.

Join Ralph Macchio at this year's Albuquerque Comic Con at The Albuquerque Convention Center on January 13th-15th. Purchase your tickets here.

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