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The Transformation Of William Zabka From The Karate Kid To Cobra Kai

If you know where the phrase "sweep the leg" originated, chances are that you know who William Zabka is — and you may have grown up wanting to fight him yourself. Zabka's first and most famous film role was as the bully Johnny Lawrence in the popular '80s movie "The Karate Kid." Following the success of the martial arts drama, he continued to play Lawrence in the two following franchise installments, "The Karate Kid Part II" and "The Karate Kid Part III," though his contributions were much smaller in the latter. Regardless, he's been a household name ever since.

Since his breakout role in "The Karate Kid," Zabka has been in tons of projects. He's made several guest appearances on TV shows, he's tried his hand at new genres, and he's currently reprising his iconic role in a successful TV series spin-off. From antagonist to antihero, here's just how much William Zabka has transformed since his start in the movie business.

He was type-cast for years

William Zabka's role as the bad guy in "The Karate Kid" was so convincing that he went on to be cast in similar roles for several years after. He played the bullying bodybuilder Greg Tolan in the 1985 teen comedy "Just One of the Guys," and in 1986's "Back to School," Zabka played another bully named Chas Osborne. 

When asked why he felt he was first pegged as the bad guy, Zabka confessed in a 2011 interview with GQ that he doesn't know. "It's beyond me," he said. "Prior to 'The Karate Kid,' I did commercials — Kool-Aid, Pepsi, milk — and I had always been cast as the all-American nice guy. The funny turn is that now what I'm known for are these a**holes.

While Zabka eventually branched out of that confining character trope, he did continue to play tough guys for a while longer, including Audrey Griswald's (Dana Barron) jock boyfriend Jack in "National Lampoon's European Vacation."

William Zabka debuted a short film at Sundance

Aside from acting, William Zabka has tried his hand at writing and producing. In 2003, he co-wrote and co-produced a short film with Bobby Garabedian ("Neverland") called "Most," also known as "The Bridge" in certain places. The Czech film centers on a man (played by Vladimír Javorský) who works as a railroad drawbridge worker. One day, he brings his young son to work and is soon faced with a horrible decision: to save his son, or save a train full of strangers. The heart-wrenching drama has other plotlines running throughout, and they eventually come together in the end. 

Zabka's writing and producing debut earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Live Action Short Film. "Most" also won a Dances With Films award, the Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland International Film Festival, and the Best of the Festival award at the Palm Springs International ShortFest. 

Zabka described the experience of winning accolades for "Most" as another peak of his career, saying, "That was like a whole other ride. ... 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" (via Icon vs. Icon).

William Zabka has made the most of his fame

Years after achieving fame from "The Karate Kid," William Zabka still gets recognized out in public — and oftentimes, people have trouble separating the man from the character he played. "For years, I had dads dragging their kids over to meet me just to point out the biggest bully on the planet," he explained to PEOPLE.

On the other hand, Zabka has enjoyed poking fun at himself. In 2007, he appeared in a No More Kings music video as a fictionalized version of himself, which features cameos by other "Karate Kid" stars. Additionally, Zabka famously appeared in a few episodes of "How I Met Your Mother," and has expressed gratitude to the show for letting him be a part of it. In a 2014 interview with Vulture, he explained, "It's a thrill to have a brand as an actor and a fun thing to spoof yourself. The great thing about 'HIMYM' is they dared to go into a part of me that has never been explored because of the way I've been cast. They went more into my comedy and me as a misunderstood nice guy, where a lot of the casting people want to keep me in a version of my old image." 

He enjoys all aspects of filmmaking

William Zabka continued branching out into other aspects of filmmaking in 2010, when he directed the country band Rascal Flatts in their music video for "Why Wait," followed by the video for their song "Yours if You Want It" in 2017. According to Taste of Country, Zabka and the members of Rascal Flatts had known each other for years before he directed their music videos. "I knew [bass guitarist] Jay [DeMarcus] back when he was in East to West before he was a Rascal Flatts," Zabka explained. "We're good friends, we're like brothers from another mother. I'm really thankful they called me up and gave me another shot to do video No. 2."

Zabka has also directed commercials for clients like Verizon and Little Tikes (via Entertainment Weekly). Speaking with Uproxx in June 2019, Zabka described his passion for all aspects of filmmaking, sharing that he enjoys being behind the camera even more than he does being in front of it. "My first love has always been behind the camera," he said. "I write, produce, direct, edit. I've always had a hand in one aspect or another, and I've been equally content and happy."

Cobra Kai lets William Zabka explore a new side of Johnny Lawrence

In the YouTube-Red-turned-Netflix series "Cobra Kai," fans meet up with Johnny Lawrence and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) 34 years after the events of "The Karate Kid." Johnny has been stripped of the wealth that empowered him in his youth, and has dedicated his time and energy to reforming the Cobra Kai dojo to help underprivileged youth defend themselves against their own bullies, which is a drastic shift in Johnny's character. Where he was once the bully, he's now the protector.

Zabka opened up to The Wrap about playing a more empathetic version of the former bad guy. "I love playing all of those levels," he gushed. "It's really, for me, taking a kernel of who Johnny Lawrence was at his core in 'Karate Kid,' that you only saw at the end when I hand him the trophy, or when [John] Kreese says, 'Sweep the leg,' and Johnny reluctantly goes out to sweep the leg — it's that little microfiber that lets me expand it into a full-blown character now." 

He continued, explaining how Johnny has evolved from an aggressive teenager to a more mature adult: "For me, I approach that as an actor going, 'This is a man I would love to play regardless if it was Johnny Lawrence from Karate Kid or anything else.' ... And he's still tough. He's rough around the edges, and he's got a lot to figure out. All that's colorful and makes for a really complex, fun character to play."

We can't wait to see how Johnny will continue to evolve as "Cobra Kai" enters its fourth season.