The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Ralph Macchio
By Mother Brain
In an industry that is driven by youth, many child and teen stars in Hollywood succeed because of their charm and their looks. But once they reach adulthood, that appeal wears off and only a rare few (i.e. Leonardo DiCaprio) evolve into bonafide movie stars. Yet, there are those like Ralph Macchio who struggle to be taken seriously because their boyish looks donâ€™t change much. The star of the original Karate Kid films had to prove his worth as an actor outside the series while Hollywood tried to pigeonhole him in teen roles. Being that this writeup coincides with Macchioâ€™s appearance on the current new season of ABCâ€™s Dancing with the Stars, I will look at not only what made Macchio so special in the original 1984 Karate Kid movie but also take a look at the other films that are often overlooked.
The Long Island native who was born in 1961 got his start in TV commercials for Bubble Yum and Dr. Pepper. At age 18, Macchio landed his first movie role in the Animal House-meets-Police Academy comedy, Up the Academy, which was directed by Robert Downey Jr.â€™s father (and the future Iron Man star also had a brief role in it). But Macchio first came to national attention in 1980 as Jeremy Andretti on the controversial ABC dramedy, Eight is Enough. The troubled young kid is taken custody by the Bradford family following the death of Abby Bradfordâ€™s sister who was Jeremyâ€™s mother. Macchioâ€™s character goes though all kinds of craziness during the show from nearly falling into a bad crowd to girl problems to even finding a skull in a garden. Macchioâ€™s stint on the show, however, was short lived as the series ended in May 1981.
In 1983, Macchio appeared in the film that brought good luck to his career as well as his castmates. Francis Ford Coppolaâ€™s adaptation of S.E. Hintonâ€™s The Outsiders would become famous for its cast of 60s-born actors who went on to become the megastars of the 80s and early 90s: C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillion, Rob Lowe, the late great Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, and Diane Lane. But Macchio would arguably be the heart of the picture in his portrayal of the Tulsa Greaser, Johnny Cade. For a film that depicted the macho men in the 1960s, Macchio and co-star Howell as Ponyboy Curtis broke the stereotype of a greaser and create many touching moments in the film that punctuate their gentle side as well as their yearning for survival in an unbalanced world. The audience immediately roots for Macchioâ€™s character even when he kills a member of the Socs to save Ponyboy from a brutal beating. But it was Macchioâ€™s death scene in the hospital where he tellâ€™s Ponyboy to â€œstay goldâ€ thatâ€™s really a true tearjerker.
If The Outsiders had Macchio play the tragic underdog, The Karate Kid would be his portrayal of a triumphant one. The general plot appears to be paper thin at first: Daniel LaRusso and his single mom move from New Jersey to L.A. where Daniel gets bullied by a gang of karate students because of his interest in a girl and he winds up learning karate from an unlikely sensei. But itâ€™s so much more than that. While Macchio naturally plays the bullied teen who gains self-confidence, itâ€™s the father-son dynamic between him and Pat Morita as the iconic Mr. Miyagi that becomes the heart of the picture. Their chemistry on screen is so wonderful and their performances elevate the story from a by the numbers underdog movie to a movie about a boy learning to train and balance his inner spirit through martial arts. The little karate movie from Rocky director, John Avildsen, became one of the top five highest grossing films of 1984, spawned 3 sequels and a 2010 remake, toys, video games, and a saturday morning cartoon. Macchio would become an 80s icon.
Hot off the success of Karate Kid, Macchio was immediately in demand. He would appear in the made-for-TV movie, Three Wishes of Billy Grier, as a teenager with a rare degenerative disease that speeds up the aging process and looks to make the most out of his life in the time he has left. On the big screen, Macchio played another troubled teen in Arthur Hillerâ€™s high school satire, Teachers. In the film about the flawed public school system, Macchio stood out as Eddie Pilikian, a class-cutting troublemaker from a bad home who gets taken under the wing of a veteran Social Studies teacher played by Nick Nolte who inspires him to become a better student. Macchio would also rehash his Karate Kid persona in Walter Hillâ€™s blues drama, Crossroads (not the 2002 Brittney Spears flick) where he plays a gifted guitar player who pairs up with a legendary blues musician played by Joe Seneca. Together, they seek out a missing Robert Johnson song which leads to a final â€œbattleâ€ in Mississippi where Macchio has to save Senecaâ€™s soul from the devil by performing a guitar duel against the devilâ€™s ringer guitarist played by the legendary Steve Vai.
As Macchio began to push into his 30s, good roles were getting harder to come by. It was not helping that even as he was getting older and slightly heavier, Macchio could not shake his boyish looks and his face would be slapped on the covers of Tiger Beat and 16 magazine on a routine basis. He would still be playing the Karate Kid role even after getting married and having children while bold acting efforts in films like Distant Thunder and The Last P.O.W.: The Bobby Garwood Story went completely unnoticed.
After the Karate Kid franchise initially ended on a whimper following the disappointing release of Karate Kid Part III in 1989, Macchio would not have another hit movie until he was cast as a wrongly convicted killer being defended by his goomba cousin in Joe Pesciâ€™s smash hit comedy, My Cousin Vinny. While the film placed most emphasis on the title character and his Brooklyn girlfriend played by Marisa Tomei in her Oscar winning performance, the casting of Macchio was no accident. Director Jonathan Lynn claims in the DVD commentary that he wanted Vinnyâ€™s cousin to be played by someone that the audience would care about instantly and Macchio was the man. Even though he looked noticeably older with little facial hair, audiences could still not shake the Daniel LaRusso image by looking at him.
Macchio would work very low-key throughout the rest of the 1990s, appearing sporadically in low budget movies and off-broadway productions. In 2002, he made his writer/director debut with the short film, Love Thy Brother, which played at the Sundance Film Festival. The following year, Macchio took a bold turn in teaming up with Ally Sheedy as a pair of sibling assassins in A Good Night to Die. The Pulp Fiction-style crime drama was a dramatic turn for Macchio who was not only playing a killer but also had the kind of chemistry with Sheedy that had subtle hints of incest. There was also the baseball comedy, Beer League, where he was paired up with Artie Lange as part of a loser ball team struggling to not get kicked out of their local league.
In more recent years, Macchio has been able to poke fun at himself with such ease. He would get back in the public spotlight by playing himself on such hit shows as Entourage and Head Case. He also appears briefly in the music video to No More Kingsâ€™s Karate Kid tribute song, Sweep the Leg, which was directed by William Zabka who played Cobra Kai leader Johnny Lawrence in the original film. Macchio would really turn heads when he appeared in the Funny or Die online short, â€œWax On, F*ck Offâ€, where he pokes fun at his squeaky clean image by attempting to turn to drugs, alcohol, and beating up random people with karate moves all in an attempt to resurrect his career. The highlight of the short was Macchio reacting to a movie poster of the Karate Kid remake. In reality, despite giving his blessing to the new star Jaden Smith, Macchio has gone out publicly in expressing the lack of magic the remake has in contrast to the original film.
Turning 50 later this year, itâ€™s very difficult to believe that Macchio never became a bigger star past the Karate Kid movies. Unfortunately, his boyish looks worked against him over time. But he is still loved by audiences all over the world and his quality as an actor is so special and controversy-free. One can only hope that his run on Dancing with the Stars will re-energize his career and bring about some new opportunities to freshen up his career. If guys like Eric Stoltz can shred their boyish looks to take on new challenges as actors, Macchio can definitely do the same and be equally as dynamite.