Forever immortalized on film as Johnny Lawrence in ‘The Karate Kid,’ Billy Zabka played the role of bully in many films in the 80’s and boy did he play it well. So well in fact, he had to work hard to convince people he really wasn’t like that in his day to day life. The truth is, Billy’s personality is far removed from Johnny’s and he could not be a nicer guy. Billy’s career in the entertainment industry has spanned an astonishing twenty six years. Aside from acting in films, Billy has become a successful writer/producer and has even been nominated for an Oscar for his short film, ‘Most.’ Of course how can we forget about his recent performance in No More King’s music video for ‘Sweep the Leg’, in which he was also the writer and director. An avid guitar player, Billy is also involved in his family’s music company, Big Island Music, Inc. It certainly seems that Cobra Kai’s never really die. Billy Zabka recently sat down with Icon vs. Icon’s Steve Johnson to discuss his experiences while on the set of ‘The Karate Kid,’ what it was like to work with Rodney Dangerfield, Sam Kinison, and Robert Downey Jr. on the set of ‘Back to School’, his career as an award winning producer/director, and the role music has played in his life. Now pay attention or he just might have to sweep the leg! Do you have a problem with that?
Where did you grow up?
I was born in New York City. I lived in Long Island for ten years. I moved to California when I was about ten or eleven. So I’d say I was raised in New York, but grew up in L.A.
When did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in film?
Oh man, I first got the bug when I was five because my dad was a staff director at NBC Studios in New York. He was actually the ‘Tonight Show’ associate director for Johnny Carson for twenty years. My mom was Johnny Carson’s brother’s assistant, which is where they met, on the Carson show. I was on trains with my dad in New York City when I was five years old, walking around on the sets. I was always fascinated by it. As far as when I actually chose to pursue it, it was kind of like a gradual thing over time. We moved to California, my dad started working at NBC here and then started doing films and stuff. Just on the side as a hobby, I started doing commercials. I played basketball and played football and went out on a couple of commercial auditions, but it was kind of all the same. It was just something I was doing. Ever since I was ten, I’ve been actually making 8mm films. I had an 8mm film camera and I was the youngest film student in this 8mm film club. I’ve been cutting little 8mm films since I was ten or eleven years old. I always loved film, it was always something I really enjoyed. Actually, when I got into commercials, I remember my parents saying, “Do you want to do TV commercials?” I asked them, “Do we have enough money for that?” They were like, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well don’t you have to pay to be on television?” They were like, “No, they pay you.” I’m like, “Oh!” I thought it was something so fun to do, I was thinking that I paid to do it. [laughs] So it’s kind of like a gradual thing. When I graduated high school, by that point I had done like twenty commercials. I was an English major in high school, but I was really into the film stuff and all of the TV development programs. So I went to college to study film to be a film director and writer. I kept auditioning on the side. While I was in college going to film school, I had an audition for ‘The Karate Kid’. The next thing I know, I’m cast in a film and now I am an actor.
Did you have any influences, be it other actors or otherwise?
Oh man! I think I fell in love with Jeff Spicoli really early on. [laughs] I’ve always loved Sean Penn’s work, from the early days. ‘The Falcon and the Snowman’ and some of the older films. ‘At Close Range’ with Christopher Walken. Dude, you’ve got to see that., it’s an amazing, amazing film. Christopher Walken plays Sean Penn’s estranged dad and his brother Chris is in it too. Influences, I think everybody was my influence. Anybody that was doing it.
You’ve had roles in motion pictures and on television series. Which format do you prefer?
They’re both equally exciting in their own way. There’s something about getting into a film. It’s kind of like a circus. You kind of set up a tent, you go on location, you shoot it for a few months, you get into that world, then you leave it. There’s something kind of fun about that. You do a project and you move to the next one. In television, you’re pretty much playing the same character over and over again. Aesthetically, as an artist, I think film is more of my natural kind of genre of what I like to do.
What is the biggest misconception about yourself?
[laughs] Ummmm… I don’t think it’s this way anymore, but back in the day, right after I played all of those bad guys, people thought I was really like that. People realize with so much time gone by, that I am an actor. When the movies are out in the theaters, people believe you’re that character. It happens to every actor. So I think in those days I spent a lot of time convincing people that I wasn’t a dick. [laughs] Funny enough, I am actually a character actor. The last thing I ever expected to be cast as was a bully. In all the commercials I did, I was the all-American. I did the milk commercials, the Pepsi commercials, and I was like, “Hey, eat Totinos pizza!” Johnny in ‘The Karate Kid’ was probably the farthest from who I really am of anybody I have ever played.
Johnny Lawrence from ‘The Karate Kid’ is indeed your most memorable character. Did you have any input into the development of the character or was it laid out for you in the script?
The whole script was really well laid out. I think I brought something. Every actor brings something unique to the character. Any actor is a part of the development of their character for sure. As far as what the whole movie, no. That’s all in the hands of the director. John Avildsen had his vision and he cut around the stuff I did that he didn’t like and he kept the stuff I did that he liked. He made his piece. As far as the character goes, I had a lot of help with my karate training. I didn’t know martial arts before that so I was trained. My instructor Pat Johnson trained me five days a week, four hours a day for that movie. He brought out that martial arts dude in me. I think the one piece that I hit the most on was at the very end of the movie, when I hand him the trophy and say ‘You’re alright’ and when Kreese tells me to sweep the leg. There’s that moment where you see for a minute a glimmer of decency in Johnny. So the whole time I did the movie, I always had that in the back of my mind. This isn’t really an evil character, he’s just kind of a misdirected guy with the wrong teacher. I held on to that the whole time and I think Johnny becomes three dimensional because of that. Is that because of me, because of the script, or the director, or the cast? I think it’s a combination of it all.
Was learning martial arts the biggest challenge while making the film or was there something else that was more challenging?
No way. The martial arts was the most fun in the film. I was really athletic, it was really natural for me to express myself physically. It was my first film and I auditioned for one scene and I did that one scene on every audition over and over again. Then I got the part and I’m wondering if I am going to be able to do the rest of the movie. I knew I could do that one scene. It was more like, am I going to be able to pull the rest of this off? So my biggest challenge was if I was going to be able to hold it all together and act every single scene. When you’ve never acted in front of a camera, acting and playing a character from first frame to last frame, it’s an intimidating thing to jump into. I actually told Pat Morita on the day I started, “If you ever see something I’m doing wrong or something I can do better, please don’t hesitate to jump in and tell me.”
What has it been like being a part of ‘The Karate Kid’ saga?
It’s been amazing, just that it’s had the legs that it has and that it’s still popular today. That’s just mind blowing. It’s like playing a football game in high school that everybody still watches every now and then on The Disney Channel. [laughs] Who knew what a life changer it would be? I didn’t. It’s been fun.
What do you attribute to ‘The Karate Kid’ staying relevant for 25 years?
Well, I don’t know. It’s just a story where there’s a morality play and I think that never goes away. It’s right and wrong and not to fight, rather than fight. Just the themes in the movie are universal and they’ll last forever. It’s definitely the screenplay that lasts forever in this one and the story itself. There was something about the 80’s and that moment. The DNA of all of the characters and everything that happened. The movie, with the music and everything, it was just something special that you can’t create or reproduce. It either happens or it doesn’t. You watch it happen and you can’t believe it yourself. I wouldn’t even know ultimately what to attribute it to, but it’s probably a combination of all of that.
How was life on the set of ‘The Karate Kid’? Did you form any lasting bonds?
Oh yeah! They’re all really some of my best friends, all of the guys. We just had so much fun with it, all of the Cobra Kai’s. We hung out all of the time, went to lunch and dinner, and hung out on weekends. We kind of lived the parts. You kind of tend to do that, especially when you are younger. You just kind of get really into it and take it home with you. I’d go home and try my kicks out on my girlfriend or my friends and show them my new round kick. [laughs] They are some of my best friends today. It was just a bunch of good people. Everybody was really serious about what they were doing and their craft and taking it seriously and putting their best in. There were no egos. When we made that movie it wasn’t a hit yet, so everybody was kind of coming from the same place, just wanting to do good work. There were no real movie stars in it, even though Ralph was in ‘The Outsiders’. It was exciting thing to be on the set. It’s kind of like the high school or college experience, where you don’t even realize how good it is until you leave and then you look back and go, man we were so innocent then. You want to hang on to those friendships.
When you started the project, did you think that we would be sitting here 25 years later discussing the impact it had on fans around the world?
Absolutely not! [laughs] Absolutely not! No way man. I couldn’t even see past next summer when I made the movie. You can never guess that. I have done a number of films and I did a number of films in those days and I had the same feeling about all of them. I would never see talking about it 25 years later and for most of them I am not, but for some reason this one I am.
Do you have any fond memories of Pat Morita?
He was gold man. I used to call him my “Uncle Pat” and he called me “B.Z.” He was great. He really took me under his wing on the shoot. When we did the press junket for that, we both went on different tours around the country. We’d talk in our hotel rooms at night and see how it was going and everything. We stayed in touch all the way up until the time he passed. We talked every Christmas and Thanksgiving. There are a couple of things I remember: one moment on the set that I remember really clearly was when we were doing the fence fight scene in the skeleton outfits. We shot that scene for a week. It took a week to get that all done. I remember rehearsing it and just kind of going through the motions and not really putting one hundred percent into it. He pulled me aside and said, “B.Z., B.Z.!” He goes, “When you rehearse you’ve got to put in one hundred percent or two hundred percent, that way when you go and the cameras are rolling, it’s like bread and butter man, it’s like gravy.” So he got me on the right track with that. A couple of years back, he was talking about how much he wanted to do another ‘Karate Kid’ and have Miyagi die and actually have a proper burial for him in Okinowan style in the film. I know he was talking about that. He’s Arnold man. He was like Arnold from ‘Happy Days’. He was just so funny and sweet, a comedian. Just a beautiful guy man. Just a great guy.
Did you keep an memorabilia from the film?
Yeah! I am actually wearing my red leather jacket and headband right now! [laughs] Actually, I have that, I found my red leather jacket in storage. I lived in Europe for a little while and put everything in storage. I came back and brought it all out and out comes my red leather jacket. It shrunk down a couple of sizes. Either that or I beefed up a couple. I dunno. [laughs] I have some black t-shirts that were handed out to the crowd in the original ‘Karate Kid’ that said ‘The Karate Kid’ on it, 1984. Original ones that are faded and everything. I have one of my gis from the dojo. My favorite thing is my red leather jacket with the Cobra Kai patch on it. I wear that as much as possible, just doing errands and things like that. [laughs]
How often do people come up to you and tell you to sweep the leg? Do you get tired of it at all?
Right now my gardener is hanging from a tree because he just asked me to do that. [laughs] Yeah. “Sweep the Leg,” “Cobra Kai Never Die.” Every now and then. The “Sweep the Leg” song, I don’t know if you ramp it up to the video. The next thing I know I am hearing it in a song and they’re asking me to be in a music video about it. That’s when it started to dawn on me that there’s some new burst of it or it’s sticking or it’s made some impact on people that I never really was aware of. It happens. It happens quite a lot. Not so much in L.A. because everybody in L.A. is an actor and everybody is used to seeing people. If I go to the mid-west or the south, in certain situations it can be quite comical. [laughs]
You shared screen time in ‘Back to School’ with three legends of the entertainment business, Rodney Dangerfield, Robert Downey, Jr., and Sam Kinison. What was it like being on set with those guys?
All of them are great. Rodney, what a character. I met Rodney in an elevator in Madison, Wisconsin when I went to shoot that. I was cast in the movie, but I hadn’t met him yet. I was just getting to the hotel and he’s sitting there with his hair sticking straight up, eyes bloodshot, in this big blue robe. I said, “Hey Rodney. I’m Billy Zabka. I’m playing Chas.” He goes, “Yeah, yeah, I know who you are.” I said, “What are you doing in your robe?” He goes, “I got to get to the sauna. I’ve got to get the pot out of my lungs.” [laughs] He goes, “You, you’re young, you can handle it.” That was our first connection. [laughs] He was great man, just a blast. When they did the triple lindy at the end of that movie he had his stunt double out there in this big prosthetic. There was a guy that was really a diver in this big rubber suit. He’s like, “Look at this guy. He doesn’t look like me. I’m ugly, but I’m not that ugly.” Working with Rodney was like being at his stand up act, but everywhere you go. All of these comedians, even Pat Morita, most of the best comedians come from some tragic backgrounds, so there’s always a hidden soft spot. Actually with that, with Rodney, we kind of connected in a cool way. Kinison, I didn’t really work with him directly, although he was on the set. I went and watched him. He and Rodney would do stand up at the Comedy Store and we would all go out and watch them and stuff. He was just Sam Kinison. He almost didn’t know you were there, he was just so on all of the time. Downey was just awesome. We had a good time. We’d hang out in the room and play guitar and he’d play his piano and stuff. This was just when he was first starting out. We were both trying to figure everything out. He’s the same way his is now, just funny and cool, super-intelligent, and sharp. Overall a sweet, cool guy. I’m so happy to see what’s going on with his career right now because he went through a lot of hard times. He’s on top and it’s awesome to see that. A good guy. All of them are just great, it’s an honor to have worked with them all.
In 2007, you starred in No More Kings’ music video for “Sweep The Leg.” How did you get involved with that project?
In 2003 I produced a short film in the Czech Republic and Prague called ‘Most.’ I was on tour with it and I was doing screenings and stuff. I ended up bumping into the head of the label for this new band No More Kings. He said, “This band just wrote a song about you, you’ve got to be in this music video.” They played me the song and my knee jerk reaction was to jump as far away as I could. Then I met the band and started to get to know the guys. I kind of liked them. Originally they just wanted me to be in the music video. I said, “If you let me direct it and write it and have creative control over what the video is, I’ll try to get as many of the guys back from ‘The Karate Kid’ that I can. It has to be a certain thing. I’m just not going to jump around in a gi and a headband in a stupid music video.” They said, “Sure!” I wrote the treatment, the label approved it, and the next thing I was on the phone with all my old boys. I hit the speed dial and got the Cobra Kai’s on the line. [laughs] Next thing we’re making the video. It was a slow evolution. I kind of stepped into it slowly, but once it came all together, it felt like being back on the set of ‘The Karate Kid’ for a second.
What was that experience like, writing and directing the video, and how different from acting was that?
Totally different. When you’re acting and directing, you’re objective more than just diving into a character. It’s a music video, it wasn’t a whole movie. It was fun. I don’t know what more to say about it. It was great to be able to frame it in a way that had to be really tongue-in-cheek and funny. That’s why we live in a trailer. I’ve got a mustache. The flying singer and the chop sticks. Flying through the door and all that stuff. It was just a blast to make. I had a great team around me. I had a great production team, a lot of cameras, and a lot of help. It just went like clockwork. It was two and a half days for the shoot for that video.
Do you prefer acting or directing/producing?
That’s the million dollar question. I love it all equally. Which ever one pops up at which ever time, I am going to do it. I am a storyteller by nature and I’ll tell a story through a character as an actor. I have to say that when I wrote and produced ‘Most’ and wrote and directed the video and everything, there’s a whole other muscle that gets used that’s really fun. I dig being behind the scenes and watching a vision come to life. I’m kind of more back to where I started when I went film school. I love making films, but if the right role shows up and it makes sense and the people are great to work with, then I equally enjoy being on the set and not having all of the responsibility.
What was it like working with Ralph Macchio, Martin Kove, and much of your fellow Cobra Kai’s again?
That was like an old frat reunion, it was just really fun. The scene in the trailer where we’re just sitting there chatting at the beginning of it, that wasn’t even all scripted out yet. We all just went outside and ad-libbed and came up with some funny stuff. It was great working with them. As friends it was great, but even professionally we all just fired again together. Seeing Ralph again was awesome. Not to sound all mushy about it, but it was like a bunch of old brothers and old friends getting up and doing the same old thing again.
What are your feelings on the semi-remake of ‘The Karate Kid’ starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith?
I have total mixed feelings. I’ve been thinking a lot about it because there are certain things you can’t remake. There’s certain songs you can’t redo. You can’t really remake “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Stairway to Heaven.” There are certain songs you can never copy because there’s something about the DNA of where that came from and who was involved in making that. As far as trying to copy something or remake something, it’s a tall order. The story itself of a kid that needs a mentor and that can overcome his obstacle, that can stick. It’s like the same way I felt about all of the sequels of ‘The Karate Kid.’ There’s really only one ‘Karate Kid’ and the rest are all in some form or another some kind of sequel. This really should just be the ‘Next Karate Kid’ or ‘The Next, Next Karate Kid.’ To call it ‘The Karate Kid,’ I dunno. What’s more important than what I think, is how the fans feel about it. It’s no longer really my movie, it’s the world’s movie, the fans’ movie. I’m not the best judge of that, I’m too close to it. It’s like your first girlfriend getting married. How do you feel about that? It’s like, well, we’re not together anymore, but I think the guy is cool. [laughs] That’s my call on that one.
How do you feel about the latest trend in Hollywood of remaking older films?
I’d love to see more fresh, original stuff, but it’s a numbers game. It’s showbiz and the business part of it unfortunately kind of comes in and says we can do the math on this and it makes sense, we know we are going to make this much money. Most of the movies are made that way. It’s all a numbers game. It wasn’t like that so much back then. I’m fond of the original movies, I’d hate to see a ‘Back to the Future’ remake. Most of the remakes right now are horror films. I don’t think it has the same kind of culture impact as it did in those days. There was something unique about it. You see it now, scary guy, it’s bloodier, it’s gorier, the music sounds bigger. There’s something about the original styles. I think we need to keep making new, fresh ideas. There needs to be more fresh things coming out of Hollywood, otherwise it dumbs down audiences and you’re feeding them cheeseburgers when they’re craving steaks. I’m not a fan of all of the remakes, unless there is a reason to make a remake. Really the only reason to make a remake is to make money and I think people can sense that and smell it. Then the people go, “Why are they making all of these remakes?” The audience is smart. Give us something new. Give us something fun.
What can you tell us about the short film ‘Most’, which you wrote and produced in 2003?
It was shot in Prague and in Poland, it’s a Czech language film and it’s thirty three minutes long. It has an all-star European cast and a couple of American actors. It was scored by John Debney who did the music for ‘The Passion of the Christ’ and ‘Bruce Almighty.’ It’s a powerful little short film. We left to make it a couple of weeks after 9/11 and finished it in 2003. It went on a festival tour and got nominated. It’s kind of one of those art pieces. I had done a bunch of stupid movies, lower budget movies in Eastern Europe and stuff. After doing some stuff where you are just getting a paycheck, you just want to do something that means something. This movie has a really powerful kind of punch to it and kind of a deep message. It’s the story of a father who brings his son to a drawbridge in the winter in Prague or Poland, wherever, it was shot in both places. The boy is playing around by the gearbox as a train is coming off course while the bridge is up and the boy falls in the gearbox. The father sees this and the father has to make a decision. If he closes the bridge it’s going to kill his son and if he leaves the bridge open, all of the passengers on the train are going to go into the water and die. It’s a story of a moral dilemma and sacrifice and redemption. It’s a story about, in a sense, how we’re all sort of on the same train in life. We kind of get to know all of these characters that are on the train, so you have a stake in who they are and what would happen if they crashed and everything. It kind of leaves you open to figure out the ending yourself and to project on it what it means for you. It has pretty much silenced crowds. We opened in Sundance and it was the closing movie of all the short films every night. You’d have four hundred people just all knotted up. It’s a good film.
The film won several awards and was nominated for an Oscar. What was that experience like?
Oh man! That was like a whole other ride. It was kind of like the second peak of my career in a way. The 80’s happened so fast. You show up on a set one day and the next thing you’re in a hit movie. There was like a year in between that where they edited it and you weren’t really a part of the process so it was kind of weird. When you’re producing a film from ground up, raising the money, writing the script, casting, the locations, post production, and then walking it through all of the festivals, and then finally walking down the red carpet, you feel a sense of accomplishment because you were there every step of the way. So I really had my feet on the ground and said, “Wow, I’m really here my own merit. I did that.” It was cool. That was the year of ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ and all that. Actually, a lot of our movie was shot on ‘Lord of the Rings’ film stock. They had left over film and we bought it. We shot a lot of our film on their same film.
Do you have any other film projects are in your immediate future?
I do have something that I would love to talk to you about in probably a couple of months. I’m not allowed to talk about it right now, but it’s something that kind of ties up everything we just talked about in a really fun way.
You and your family own Big Island Music, Inc. What can you tell us about the company?
My dad is a composer, he wrote the original ‘Tonight Show Theme.’ He wrote a famous Christmas song, he did a bunch of movie of the week themes and things like that. We have music publishing, we develop projects, films, television, children shows. My brother is an A&R rep in Nashville, he’s also an award winning writer for music. We kind of develop different properties and license different musics and things like that.
Has music played an important role in your life?
Absolutely, yeah. I started playing guitar when I was ten years old and that’s my secret passion.
Is there any chance that you would put an album together or anything like that?
Not in this lifetime. [laughs] No.
Do you have any favorite bands or singers/songwriters?
Yeah man. Gosh, I love them all. I’d have to go through my list. My iTunes has got thousands and thousands of songs. I like all kinds of music. Good Charlotte and U2, there’s a band called MGMT I like them. I love Phish. Of course my favorite band, Van Halen, ‘1984.’
Is there any chance you would hit the convention circuit to meet you fans?
You know what, I’ve actually been invited to one this year. I forgot the name of it. It’s in Pennsylvania I think. I’ve been invited to them before and I never really have. I do a lot of things where I do public appearances and stuff. I’ll throw a baseball pitch at a game or a hockey puck at a game or something like that. So yeah, I would definitely do it. In the old days I would tend to steer away from it. I love connecting with the fans, that’s been really fun. Especially since the music video for “Sweep the Leg.” All of the Cobra Kai’s that have basketball teams and bowling teams and knitting clubs all over the country, all of a sudden they’re out of the wood works. I didn’t realize how many fans were out there. Knowing now what I know and having experience from the video and all of the emails and all the radio interviews and things like that that have been really cool, I would love to get in the karate stance and pose with some of my Cobra Kai’s.
Do you have an advice for anyone who would like to get involved in the film or music industries?
Yeah. Stick to college and don’t. [laughs] Get a real job. [laughs] You kind of have to be a masochist to be in this business. It’s like having a girlfriend that will never marry you in a way. You have to be really, really called to it. My advice would be that if you believe in yourself and it’s in you, go for it. There’s no combination that’s going to make or break you. Everybody is equal until somebody ends up in a good movie. Actors are all different colors, everybody has their own special thing that is unique to them. It’s just a matter of the right director and the right producer wanting to put that color in their film or their project. The next thing you know, you have a career. You have to be really called to it. You have to do it because you love doing it and not because you want to be rich and famous because if that is your goal, you are going to be disappointed. I encourage anybody that is an artist to follow their dreams. Make sure you keep a good balance in your life of your friends and family and things that you love to do that have nothing to do with that pursuit. I’m a river raft guy, I love to river raft. That’s where I find my peace. I’ll go up and bring my guitar and go rafting or something like that. You’ve got to get as much joy out of that as would by getting cast in your dream movie. You’ve got to keep a balance. A lot of people take all their eggs and put them in one basket and if they don’t make it, it breaks them and then they kind of lose themselves. Education is huge, life experience is huge. Everything you go through, you’re going to end up bringing to your work, it only makes you more interesting as an artist. A good, well rounded diet of life will help you get ahead. The casting director or director can tell when you walk in a room if you are starving and you’re desperate and you’re hungry and you’re too hungry for the wrong reasons. You want to come in with something that they want. They mostly want real people. That’s what happens to a lot of celebrities, they get detached from what is real and become a caricature of themselves in a way.
Do you have any last words?
Cobra Kai never die! [laughs]