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Cobra Kai's Billy Zabka Reveals How He Really Got Cast In The Karate Kid

The 1980s were a different time for Hollywood villains. There were basically three varieties available, for any given movie: Ambiguously European terrorists, Paccino-adjacent cocaine enthusiasts, and jocks who wanted to squash some nerds. In the latter category, no antagonist shone more brightly, or swept legs more ambitiously, than Johnny Lawrence from The Karate Kid, played by William "Billy" Zabka.

William Zabka's career has been a roller coaster. A busy slate of projects in the eighties gave way to relative obscurity in the next two decades, including a pit stop playing himself on How I Met Your Mother's last two seasons. Then, along came the 2010s, and streaming services began the push for cultural necromancy: All that was old became new again, and nostalgia-soaked reboots and sequels became the new normal, zapping Zabka back into the public eye via Cobra Kai, the cynical continuation of the Karate Kid franchise. Johnny Lawrence was back, baby.

But how did Johnny Lawrence get here in the first place? For answers, we turn to a recent interview with Zabka from Hollywood Outbreak, where the 55-year-old actor outlined the way that he landed his breakout role in 1984's The Karate Kid. And for all of Johnny Lawrence's moaning about how Daniel LaRusso broke the rules by kicking him in the head during the All Valley Tournament, it seems like the actor who played him toed the line of acceptable behavior to get onscreen in the first place.

Billy Zabka swept up the competition

Ask any of your friends from college who are still trying to make it as actors, and they'll tell you that there are unwritten rules when you walk into an audition. "Arrive early," is one of them. "Don't touch anybody," is another. Finally, there's "Try your best not to make Ralph Macchio wet his pants."

But according to Zabka, those last two rules went out the window when he auditioned to play Johnny Lawrence. By his own recollection, Zabka didn't think that he was right for the part, but a gig's a gig. "It was the iciest room ever," he told Hollywood Outbreak. "There's like, 50 mes in there, and everybody's out-badassing the next guy."

Zabka recalls going back outside to wait in his car, overwhelmed by the experience of sitting in a room full of dudes trying to channel a martial arts bully. When his time finally came to audition, he says, this stress reached a fever pitch. "One of the rules of auditions, and I don't recommend it, is 'don't touch anybody,'" Zabka continued. "I grabbed John (Avildsen, the director) ... and I threw him down in his seat, and he's still filming."

After finishing his scene, Zabka says he walked back into the room and apologized, putting his behavior down to being too in-character. Apparently it all worked in his favor — at the end of a follow-up audition, he remembers waiting outside the building to find out what Ralph Macchio thought of his performance. "He goes, 'well, I told the director everybody was great, but you legitimately scared the s*** out of me.'"

And that's how you make it to the big time, kids. Terrify the future star of My Cousin Vinnie.