Did we put the ’80s greatest villain in a body bag?
I hadn’t seen him in more than 30 years. A fleeting reminder here and there, some old pics, a few videos. But not his jockish bravado, not his swagger nor unearned confidence, and certainly nothing of his maturity and personal growth.
He was perhaps the closest thing I had to a schoolyard bully, a villainous staple of my childhood. And then he vanished, as if he’d fallen down Baby Jessica’s well and never yelled for help.
But just like that, William Zabka popped back in my life. Our lives.
Cobra Kai, a new(ish) 10-part YouTube Red series, is one of the better reboots unleashed into our nostalgia-fueled streaming economy. The premise and its execution are genuinely clever: The Karate Kidimagined 34 years later, it plays with our ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, pairing up decent kids with aging heels, younger miscreants with our former heroes. But more than anything, what it’s accomplished is a resurrection—the series has raised the dead, crossing over ghosts back into the mortal realm.
The Karate Kid’s Johnny Lawrence. Just One of the Guys’ Greg Tolan. Back to School’s Chas Osborne. You could scrub IMDb for days and still not come up with a better three-year run of cinema villainy than Billy Zabka’s 1984-86.
Other rich blond preppy assholes came before him, but Zabka managed to perfect the archetype: Tormenter of Geeks, Persecutor of Dorks. His hyper-masculine, muscled characters defined and targeted otherness before woke society even knew what that meant. He was a one-man wrecking crew, with a snarl and demeanor that would inspire a justifiable revenge of the nerds.
His characters were always in service of the underdog delivering rightful comeuppance. And goddamn did Zabka play his part. In pro wrestling parlance, he sold the faces. His was a time before true cinematic nuance, before complicated origin stories. This was before we started rooting for anti-heroes like Tony Soprano and Walter White, and well before we started hearing out Erik Killmonger and the anti-anti-heroes.
Zabka was simply the Bad Guy. His characters were mainlined evil, plain and simple, with very few shades of gray (save for his own unexplored bullying by Sensei Kreese). We were never asked to appreciate what he brought to those roles, because back then we earnestly rooted for the LaRussos and Terris and Ricks and Melons of the world without a second thought.
Zabka was, essentially, too good at playing the asshole, a first-class jerk without any source material telling us to believe otherwise. He proudly accepted his place in the stories and sold his villains as best he could to make kids believe that good conquers all.
And he was never really rewarded for it. Sure, he acted in independent movies, and, sure, you can look him up on Wikipedia and see that a short film called Most he wrote and produced won festival awards and was nominated for an Oscar in 2004. But the level of success to which he’s entitled? We owe him.
Zabka was a teenager when he played Johnny Lawrence, and he played him so well that he put Ralph Macchio over the top. Zabka made Macchio a star for a decade, and in doing so relegated himself to the annals of ‘80s history as “that blond dick from Karate Kid.”
But Zabka was the ‘80s. He was one of the best of an entire era. Full stop. What Michael Douglas symbolized with Wall Street greed and Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver epitomized as working girls and Tom Cruise as fighter pilots and cocktail bartenders, this is what Zabka meant to zinc-nosed bullying. He’s a Hall of Famer, and admiration for his oeuvre should be handed down from generation to generation.
And now, finally, thanks to Cobra Kai and the modern wonders of Google, my man here’s getting some much-needed respect. No mercy.
Slade Sohmer will sweep the leg. Find him @slade.