January 2017 - Let Us Entertain Us: William Zabka
On a chilly, Friday afternoon, I waited in my office to receive a call from a man that doesn’t like to think of himself as an iconic figure, but, without trying, has become one. William Zabka made a name for himself with his first major film gig as Johnny Lawrence in the memorable film, The Karate Kid. Zabka comes from a family of actors, directors,and producers, so it should be no surprise that the acting bug bit him at an early age. “I remember my dad put me in a documentary when I was like 5, and I remember this one moment when I was in my backyard in Fort Washington, New York, and my father was on top of the roof with a camera….I was doing a scene with a bunch of kids in the neighborhood and there was something, even at 5 years old, that made me feel that that was what I was going to be doing….When I was about 10, I starting doing commercials, and the funny thing about that [was] my parents asked me if I wanted to do commercials….I asked how—if [they] had enough money to be on television—and they said, ‘What do you mean? They pay you,’ and I said, ‘They pay you to be on television?!’ It was just something I love to do. It’s just been with me my whole life, and somehow, luckily, it’s became a career.”
After a stint of commercial gigs, Zabka was offered one of his biggest roles as karate bully, Johnny, in the 1984 classic The Karate Kid. The day he was given the news, he remembers vividly. “I was in my backyard playing the guitar in Woodland Hills in California, and I had a series of auditions and callbacks. The phone rang, and it was my agency screaming that I got the part. I said, ‘Which one?’ because there were five….[T]hey didn’t know which one, and they called back and said, ‘Johnny.’” The cast, majority of which were unknown, may not have realized what they stumbled on when creating the movie, but Zabka enjoyed every moment of the experience. “If no one ever saw the movie, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I was a part of an ensemble of actors, just a part of something that was full of amazing talent. Robert Kamen wrote an amazing screenplay; John Avildsen was directing; Jerry Winetroub was producing; Bill Conti did the music—they all knew what was coming. But as an actor you’re just playing your part, and sometimes you get lucky, I guess.”
Being the 80s buff that I am, I had to note my love of humor when it came to his roles in Just One of the Guys and Back to School. Zabka shared how comedy was not foreign to him, since it was everywhere in his family. “Comedy’s where I came from. All of my 8mm films that I made growing up were [comedies]. I was always a comedian. I was voted class clown. In fact, in high school I was in the drama club and voted Best Actor. Comedy resonates more with me—way more than drama—but I love ‘em both. But If I had to choose one it would possibly be comedy because I like to make people laugh. I think to get through the world you have to have a pretty good sense of humor.”
In over 30 years of acting, Zabka has played a variety of roles. When it came to which one was the most challenging, he replied, “Every role has its own challenges. I think The Equalizer, as an actor, was the most challenging, because I was working with such seasoned veterans—Robert Mitchum, Edward Woodward, Shirley Knight—and just some legends that were classically trained actors. Having to go toe-to-toe with them and work with them was a great workshop for me as an actor. As Johnny [Karate Kid], possibly because it was my first film—I had to learn karate and create a character, and I had absolutely no experience doing a film. So, that would be my biggest challenge, if I dial it all the way back.”
His roles have created a loyal fan base over the years, but while Zabka is glad to see he is making folks in the world happy with his work, he has never been comfortable with the term “fan.” “This is gonna sound kind of trite, maybe, but I’ve always had a problem with the term ‘fan.’ It just felt strange coming from where I came from to have somebody be a fan. But over the years I’ve gotten used to it because of the film, and I think people are more fans of the film and the emotional impact it had on them. I’ve learned to embrace that. I love the generations of fans. It goes from grandparents to little kids. You get to see these kids come up in their gi or hear stories of kids who have been bullied and they learned martial arts...I really like to consider my fans my friends. I don’t like to consider myself an icon or anything like that. I’m just Billy.”
As Zabka’s acting career grew, he had the opportunity to move to the other side of the camera to direct and produce his own projects. Zabka is no stranger to creating his own films; he has been doing it since he was in college. He shared which one was more formidable, acting or directing/producing. “Well, I was in film school when I got The Karate Kid...so I got pulled out of...my first semester of school and got thrown on a set….[T]hat became my education as a filmmaker and as an actor. So I got on-the-job training for both. They’re equally challenging; they’re just completely different challenges. One is kind of micro, and you’re looking at it through your character, trusting yourself to the people creating the story. The other, you’re kind of the conductor, overseeing everything. They’re equally challenging and equally rewarding. I could do either one of them and be completely fulfilled.”
Zabka’s famous role in The Karate Kid led to a theory—Daniel LaRusso is the real bully and Johnny Lawrence, the victim. This theory was played up on the television show How I Met Your Mother, where Zabka was a guest star with fellow actor Ralph Macchio, an experience that Zabka truly enjoyed. “They were the most welcoming, talented group of people across the board—from the cast, the director, the writers—I was just pinching myself the whole time I was there, and the fact they kept bringing me back for more and more episodes—it was awesome….The writing was great and it was so fun to have someone do a fun, fresh take on me and [to] get to do the comedy and chime in with such an oiled machine, a top show —so just to jump into that...it was an amazing experience.” After joking that he was glad to see his “theory was getting around,” Zabka shared his appreciation to still be in the minds and hearts of those who have fallen in love with his character to even have a theory like this come to pass.
Always working his craft, Zabka is excited about his upcoming projects, but they are still hush-hush. “Well I have some fun things in the pipeline that I’m not ready to announce yet, but stay tuned—I have some cool things in the works.”
After over 30 years in the business, creating some of the most memorable characters, Zabka reflected about what he wanted his legacy to be. “I love to be known as somebody who’s on time and is professional, good to work with and a team player...just that my work ethic is stronger. Since I’ve become a father of a three-year-old and a seven-year-old, my legacy to them is to be...a role model to them...and help them find their love and their passion and nurture them through that.” Zabka will forever be remembered as one of the ultimate bad boys in the 80s and is honored for the privilege to get to work in the field he loves every day. He will never scoff at that.
Join William Zabka at this year's Albuquerque Comic Con at The Albuquerque Convention Center on January 13th-15th. Purchase your tickets here.
\William Zabka's career in pictures