As you probably already know, there’s a splashy, new remake of The Karate Kid hitting theaters this weekend. But as someone who grew up with the 1984 original, I’m too old to fit into the target demographic for the thing — not that it looks like something I’d want to waste ten bucks on anyways. That said, I will watch the ’80s version any time it comes on TV. Why? Well, not because it’s a particularly great movie, and not because I have a particular fondness for the original Daniel-san, Ralph Macchio, or Mr. Miyagi’s stereotypical fortune-cookie wisdom. No, the reason The Karate Kid still has a hold on me 26 years later is because of its Aryan-by-way-of-SoCal villain, Cobra Kai’s head tool in charge Johnny Lawrence — played the one and only Billy Zabka.
If you were lucky enough to be a teenager during the Reagan/Bush era, the name Billy Zabka will not only ring a bell, but set off a blaring, four-alarm siren. He’s THAT GUY!! The classic preppy, rich-kid heavy in a string of wonderfully disposable teen movies that kicked off with the first Karate Kid and ran through the middle part of the decade with Just One of the Guys, European Vacation, Back to School, and Karate Kid II. He was a bully, a jerk, and an unrepentant jock a-hole. Sure, the characters were all the same — they lived to torment the outcast hero we were supposed to identify with. But Zabka, bless him, always delivered the goods with a sneer and a wink. No one was better at being bad. With his feathered blonde hair that looked like he’d spent way too much time secretly looking in a mirror, his short-fused temper, and his sour, lemon-sucking facial expression, Zabka symbolized the privileged popular kids during the waning days of their hammer-lock on power — deep down, they sensed that the social playing field was about to shift. That nerds were about to have their revenge and the geeks were about to inherit the earth in the slacker ’90s.
After his run on The Equalizer in the late ’80s, the juicier roles seemed to dry up for Zabka. He would pop up now and then on TV or in some straight-to-video cheapie before his slow fade into pop-culture oblivion. Then, in 2004, Zabka returned. Out of the blue, the mean kid who had made his bones “sweeping the leg” or putting helpless high schoolers into headlocks had quietly become a filmmaker in real life. And not just any filmmaker, but an Oscar-nominated writer/producer with a live-action short film called Most. Zabka didn’t win, but it hardly mattered. Seeing him in the news again was like bumping into an old rival at your high school reunion and finding out that he’d become a pretty good guy after all. Then, a few months ago, Zabka turned up again in the ’80s-themed Hot Tub Time Machine. It was as if John Cusack dusted off his old address book, randomly opened it to the letter ‘Z’, and decided to reach out to an old compadre from the teen-comedy celluloid trenches. Along with Bill Murray’s appearance in Zombieland, it was the best surprise cameo in years.
So, as Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan do their best this weekend to cash in on our wax-on/wax-off nostalgia, let’s all take a moment to remember the guy who really made The Karate Kid a classic in the first place. Here’s to you, Zabka…