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Martin Kove Interview: The Karate Kid 35th Anniversary

Martin Kove is best known for his role as the Vietnam War hero turned Evil Karate Sensei for the Cobra Kai in the Karate Kid franchise. He is also known for his work in Rambo and will be playing a big role in the YouTube Red Series Cobra Kai season 2

Hey, thank you for meeting with me.

Martin Kove: Oh, no problem. It's fine to talk about these creative things.

Really excited  for your return to the series and the end of the first season of Cobra. Kai was great. Going back to the original trilogy, was there anything that you wanted expanded as far as your like story arc with your character, with John Kreese that, didn't really happen that you wish would have?

Martin Kove: How did you know?  I came in there with a with a backstory for John, you know John  was a champion and a in high school champion and a college champion  and in the army. And then when he went to Vietnam, he wasn't allowed to be triumphant at all.  You know, he was not allowed to win. So many of US soldiers would not aloud to win Vietnam. And he experienced, you know, that the frailty of the system. And basically he swore when he returned back to the states and he would open up his Dojo he would never lose again. And neither was his students would ever lose again. And they were they were basically reflect his feelings. So many times, you know, someone of Vietnam  would walk up and seek assistance from his platoon and this is all the backstory I created it And then the boy would be lined with grenades he blows grenades and ro and kill his platoon thats where no mercy came from. That's it. Just no mercy, you know. And uh, he was sort of indoctrinated in a very dark way, which is the way it was played through Karate kid one, two, and three. You know, it, you know, Robert came in did a great job of writing.  and it was kind of like nobody knew what we had. Yeah. Nobody knew we didn't even like the title, but he kind of thought it was a Bruce Lee movie.

That's very interesting. And you can really tell on screen the differences. So from what you said, it seems like you had a lot of creative freedom with creating John Kreese. You know, the director gave you a lot of creative freedom. Is there anything that he said that you couldn't do with the character that you wanted to do?

Martin Kove: He never wanted me to smile. Every time I play a lot of angry guys, before I was doing Cagney and Lacey at the time. Yeah. I was on hiatus. So I played a lot of bad guys and sometimes I like to play with it with a real smile. And there's two terrific bad guys like that Christoph Waltz from Inglourious and Django and Klaus Maria Brandauer, which is a German actor who was just brilliant. With that smile. But John would come up to me and every time I smile he would come up and say “Martin, I don't want that Marty Kove twinkle. I want, death in those eyes”

Yes. So when I was shooting Cobra Kai, I went out and you know, I had all the movies sent to me and I went through because we, you know, we were shooting and the writers are so prolific. This a terrific, yes. They wanted a lot of the body, the stance, the, the innuendos, everything from known receive to “sweep the leg” to, “finish him”  to all these lines I said in the movie, but they wanted the same body language and I had to look back and we'll looking back at the same body language of the different scenes of John crease in the films. I saw the attitude, but the attitude is what exactly John Abelson wanted with stoic. He was ice whether his kids won the tournament or they lost in the tournament. Yes. You know, in a sense within the tournament itself.  because he shows his call is when Johnny loses.

But the bottom line is it was a stoic  god and it was not as multi dimensional and people would never would come up to me on the street. And I've been with the Stalone a couple of times and yeah you know, people challenge him a lot. Challenge Rocky, they say you be that tough, you know, challenge and all these years. It's the only time I was ever challenged was a kid who, five year old kid  the market just punched me… and said “You hurt Ralph”well it's what happened. But the bottom line is I think the answer your question, I think that people love to hate him or hate to love it. Yeah. Well I hate to love him, but there is a passion there that people really enjoy this character a pure, and he's military and he's kind of like what we were back in the day when we were fighting against the English, you know, and we were Patriot patriot, but we had to leave our families to go off and do it the right way and get rid of these English towns who taxing us. You know, it's a very fine line between love and hate with the character.

So next question The themes and the story they've stood the test of time. Is there any themes that you feel like I'm still true today and themes that probably won't, don't translate well in today's culture?

Martin Kove: No these writers you know, they are just so profound. I mean they know more about our characters. I mean every time I've ever come up  meet with them at lunch and we had a meeting and say, “listen, I like to do this take the character in the background of Vietnam, bringing back from certain places. How do I get the name Cobra Kai? I bring up all things  in my notes because I met, I've met with army rangers. I've met with guys that John Cleese portrayed in real life. Yeah. Around my house. And we smoked cigars and you know, we talk about John crease. So they had all these notes in their heads already. They were a mile ahead of me. Yeah. A mile ahead of me. When you think about all the alternatives to what can develop, and they're very deep, they'll go, you know what you’re  going to seeing the show is just a sophisticated, a very sophisticated, and yet very pertinent story. Because we deal with a lot of young people and very pertinent show about today times and about the problems that exist out there that are highly identifiable, whether you're 10 or whether you're thirty.

And that's why this show works, I think it's because we missed seeing them all these  years. And when I grew up sitting around and watching Ed Sullivan show Because it was a little bit of everything for everybody. So every Sunday night you go down and you sat with mom, you sat dad and now kids don't do that. There are pretty occupied with God knows what and you know, but now there is this show  that I've gotten that reaction from all ages, everybody loves it. And it's the ham for the 40 year olds and 20 year old, a 10 year old, and they'll get around the TV screaming at themselves and they'll all be satisfied. And that's the great thing about this show is it's the writing that allows the audience to really participate. Even though you're not doing virtual reality, even though you're not, you know, creating  your own ending to a movie.

It's so rich and identifiable as Karate Kid was, you know, any sort of group shows we go to  and rather panels we do, people will always identify and love this movie for one of three reasons. Number one, back in 1984 they were a fish out of water. Number two, they are there. They were bullied.  And number three they had a romance that didn't work out. One of those three elements draws the people in to love that movie and to watch the show. It's just it's very rich. So in essence, there's something for everybody. And  it's written, it's sophisticated. The kids are so smart, so sophisticated when they go to the movies and unfortunately, you know, the marvel comic book movie kind of sophisticated in one way and they dull you down in another, Cobra Kai makes you think The karate kid makes you think and, and fall in love with whatever the passion that rings your bell. And you know, that's all I can say. Me, I, I watched it with my kids. Yeah. And they kept me running it, running it, and we're running, you know, the end scene and we running other things and can be looking at again, the singular other people. They just, they just, they're like Trekkies like Star Trek, yeah. That's the audience that's appreciating a movie  across the board. Yeah.

In part three you had a new character, Terry Silver come in. Was that the original plan or was that the original a story for that or were you supposed to be in more in the film in part three versus introducing Terry Silver?

Martin Kove: How do you know all that? That's very astute of you ,  I was actually, uh, it was a series called “Hard Time on Planet Earth”  Okay. And I had, I got the lead in that and my agent at the time said to me, don't worry about it. Don't worry about it. We'll get you out of the series to do the movie. And the movie was written for me.  I spoke to Robert and came in and he says, it's your vehicle. You're going to do a sting operation its John Kreese vehicle karate kid three. Okay. And what was really interesting was that I sat in the room with Jerry Weintraub and Mike Nathan was the head of business affairs and John Abelson and the AP. Yeah. And I sat there and I told, and Disney, it was a Disney show and I was the lead and it was a great show but it was happening at the same time and they wouldn't let me out of the series.. So the created a new character and did everything i was supposed to do.

There's also another spin off film with Hilary Swank were you ever in talks to return and reprise a role for that though?

Martin Kove: Yeah I met I think it was the Chris Caine and Jerry Weintraub and we all sat and talk and  it became an illogical because of the location. How could you increase, appear in the same place Miyagi is with Ralph or in this case Hillary.  it just seemed too much of a contrivance I remember, you know, really wanting to work with, with first came because he did Young Riders and I love Westerns and yeah. You know it was a thought and you know, I think, uh, I think people really liked the first dream more than that. Even though she's a, she's a lovely actress.. She was a good job no matter what she does.

Working with William for the first three films did you guys develop a fun dynamic that really helped you develop your characters as far as on screen?

Martin Kove: Well, it was a, you know, throughout Karate Kid one and certainly, I mean, you know, that Karate Kid two that opening scene was originally written to be the end of  karate kid one it was, the movie was supposed to end out in the parking lot. And then we've been waiting to shoot the movie and I practice, you know, pat was the working with  Pat Morita and Pat Johnson on the fight scene with Miyagi and we waited three hours. And then Jerry and John decided that, the movie they just struck, they just told us they wrapped and they decided that that scene would be the beginning of Karate Kid 2. And they wanted to end the movie in the tournament. So, you know, Billy came back and our relationship, the Cobra Kai was always as a strange relationship to John Kreese and they kept it that way.

John kept it that way. There were no, so there wasn't a socializing, you know, it was a respectful, how are you, you know, how was everything. But we kept that distance, we expected me. I was always rude  you know, I was always very, you know, it was like you heard the wonderful stories about Daniel Day Lewis becoming Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln never talking to anyone at staying in character for month. That's what I did because it was a necessity. He was a necessity more than  of volunteering you know, acting characteristic. I actually felt I needed to do that because, and we sort of brooding and dark. Yeah. You know, and I'm doing and you know Billy and I became friends after that and you know, we're still good. We still really good friends and, and uh, and you know, Ralph is on the east coast. So it's, it's, it's tough to see Ralph, you know, we all survived it all and be all, you know, the gift that keeps giving and we have such a good time. it just was really, really exciting to all work together in such intensity and a really good writing because I've been weaned on good writing.

If there is one thing that like when starting filming the original trilogy trilogy that you wanted fans to walk away with,  like as far as themes, what, what's the, what's the biggest thing you want to fans to walk away from like leaving the theater?

Martin Kove: I think that you know, my character approach karate   as a offensive sport. While Miyagi approached it as a defensive heart and I want students as much as John Cleese didn't want this Martin Kove wanted this. I wanted people to know that and kids that the, discipline of martial arts is, is just sensational for everything in your life and to go and visit when yourself to go work out in the Dojo. I remember taking my kids doing it and my daughter would run around. You haven't had the discipline to stay in the Dojo at a very young age. At Four. But they were running around the house doing Katas. They would just run around and do all these katas and late, every neighbor kept thinking, well you're she a black belt as he, because they look so real because they just paid attention to action movies when they were on television.

But the bottom line is what I wanted the kids to walk away with the date did they walk with knowing that you can be triumphant against all the odds. You know, it's like a rocky. Yeah. It's really that if you put your mind to it, and karate is a little more of a mind conscious, uh, exercise than training in boxing, you know, it requires, and the research, if any kid wants to read about the Samurai and read about the eastern religions and all that, that couples training in karate, and so you get a full spectrum of just how to be better in your life and how to cope with problems, insurmountable problems like Ralph had romance, fish out of water and trying to fight against a bunch of the Hitler youth. You know, it works. And it worked in that movie because there's logical.

I went to a spiritual study class last night and security had to let me in and I pressed the button to park on the ground and all of a sudden he said “ Come in No Mercy, the security guy. Okay. And I scream back “Sweep the Leg” and then he says “Mercy is for the weak”.  So I screamed, finish him. But the thing is that these lines that came and wrote have resonated for 35 years. And this is what I mean, how many other movies and its because it was a movie. It's not because someone wrote some code words. Yeah. It's because they're meaningful to the movies. “Play it again, Sam” Well, you know, that's Casa Blanca. My favorite movie. Old Time. Yeah. And you hear those lines. You hear from gone with the wind, you hear “Frankly scarlet, I don't give a damn” you know? Yeah. That comes back and I'm going to, you know, and then the dirty Harry one "You feel lucky, punk". But you know, if you think about maybe this six movies where the  dialog resonates years later. And that's because the movie was so poignant. Because the writer wrote with much care. We get a lot of memories over the years, is that that's what makes him series so watchable. And these men are big fans. I'm, I'm working for three fans. Bily, Ralph and I were working with three guys that are, you know, that live, eat and breathe this. This is their star wars. You know what it is and it, you know, you're lucky to do that, it's great. And the message can only be even bigger and better in the series then in the movies because it's something you can tune it over and over and over again. And it's changing all the time because it's 10 episodes. Yeah. You'll get to watch yourself graduate into a further sense of appreciation and love for these characters that you want to see over and over and over again. What happened to them? Like the same thing we tune in TV, you know we, we coming in to TV cause we like magnum we like that guy. They liked Cagney and Lacey, you know, they like MASH. That's the way you went to the people in your house and your little TV because he love them. Yeah  we're lucky enough to have both a big screen passion and passion on the small screens as well.

Yes. Well thank you so much. I am super excited for the next season and congratulations again on the 30 anniversary. I appreciate your taking your time to speak with me and I really enjoyed this. Thank you so much.

Martin Kove: It's because your questions are very astute. I appreciate that. That's good. Thank you.

More: Ralph Macchio Karate Kid Interview

The Karate Kid Fathom Event is taking place at more than 600 nationwide theaters this Sunday, March 31, and next Tuesday, April 2.

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