Back in summer of 1984, The Karate Kid captured the heart and imagination of anyone who had ever been bullied or been made to feel less than. It was the ultimate story of the underdog, self-confidence, and friendship. Yet, of course, with every protagonist there must be an antagonist, and fitting the bill perfectly for The Karate Kid was John Kreese. A Vietnam War Vet turned martial art sensei leading Cobra Kai dojo, John Kreese was a gruff, mean man living by the motto of ‘no mercy.’ A character impossible to forget, with the new Cobra Kai series taking off on YouTube in 2018, Kreese returned as a cliffhanger at the end of season one, set to become a big player for season two.
Bringing back seasoned Actor Martin Kove to reprise the role, Kove brings a new dimension to Kreese, adding shades of gray, yet can anyone ever truly trust this oh so complex character? Gracious for the chance to add more color to the canvas of the Cobra Kai story, Kove recently sat down to chat about his impressive résumé in film/television, his thoughts on bringing new life to John Kreese, plus much more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in acting professionally over four decades now starring in a list of films and television series. Before going any further, briefly tell us, what inspired you to pursue a career in acting?
Martin Kove – It’s a simple story, I was in a play in PS161 in Brooklyn called The Golden Goose, I just liked it so much and I loved making people laugh. It was that simple, I just knew I wanted to be an actor from the fourth grade and I participated in many plays.
There was a period of time when I was in Queensborough Community College. Their Drama department was very limited, so I would go around to different universities who had good Drama departments and I would audition for their plays, even though I was not an attendant of the school. Sometimes I would get the role, and sometimes they would find me out. It was exciting to sometimes get the role, but I remember at Hofstra University there the play Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw and I got the lead. They realized I wasn’t an attendant, I went to the first rehearsal, there was a big black mark right through my name, and I was heartbroken, they told me, “Son, you have to be an attendant of this school to participate in the communal activities of theater and art.”
I didn’t really do anything other than community theater until I was about 23 when I went to class. I didn’t take the gamble until one day I was accepted to the NYU School of the Arts when I was in my 5th or 6th year of college. At the time I was standing in for Sean Connrey in a movie called The Anderson Tapes (1971) and I was confused what I should do; should I go at it professionally or continue with school? I will never forget what he said to me, he called it a dilemma, he said, “Young man, if you can do Antigone, you can do anything.” That was it, so I joined the classical stage company in Manhattan, gave up school, and went for it.
Cryptic Rock – It is very interesting to here how it all developed for you. For a good portion of your career you did a lot of TV before going on to more feature films. How would you compare working in television opposed to movies?
Martin Kove – In those days you have an interview, they liked you, you read for them, and it was over. Now everything is done via telephone, technology, selfies, and all that. It was a lot more personable back in those days, I enjoyed that more; I enjoyed talking on the phone to someone opposed to just emailing them.
I just played a ‘Heavy’ a lot and then one day I got this television series called Code R. It was very exciting, the series only lasted one season, but then I walked into this Comedy a couple of months later called We’ve Got Each Other. I sort of lucked into working in the series world early.
Comparing television to movies, movies just take a little longer to shoot. There is a little more time per scene and fewer pages a day to do. I give the most credit to people who do daytime television, they do 20-30 pages a day! With a studio movie you will do 3 pages a day, an independent movie you will 7-8. To go and do 20-30 pages a day, and learn all your lines, those people are master and I tip my hat to all those actors to do that. It’s basically hit your mark, say your lines, and you don’t have time to create the moment.
In Cobra Kai the writers are terrific, they direct all the shows, and they just shoot until they get what they want. Since they wrote it, they know exactly how the moment should speak to the audience. When we are working, we are working fast, but we’re making a movie because the writers are the directors and they truly know what they want out of the scene; if you hit what they want, you move on.
In short, television and film are two different worlds, but the acting is still the same, the realities are still the same, you still have to feed a backstory.
Cryptic Rock – Right, it is all about the story. You mention Cobra Kai, which is currently in their second season on YouTube and quite popular. You were brought back to reprise your The Karate Kid film character John Kreese at the end of the first season and became a regular on season two. What were your thoughts when they approached you to reprise the role?
Martin Kove – I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to be another stoic ‘Heavy.’ I wanted to make sure he wasn’t going to be one-dimensional as John Kreese was in all three movies I did. I wanted to play him with great versatility and vulnerability. They told me they were going to write that and I was going be introduced, create the cliffhanger, and I was a regular in season two.
They recruited Billy and Ralph months before, and they came to me. The writers knew who they were better than anybody I talked to, and they were not interested in making a sequel. They weren’t interested in making The Karate Kid part 4, they were interested in having stories of these people as they were thirty years later. It was quite enchanting, so I signed up.
Cryptic Rock – You have done a great job with the character. As you said, John Kreese is much more three-dimensional in Cobra Kai. You get to know him a little better, and at times, John Kreese is a bit sympathetic. Where do you see his character going for season two?
Martin Kove – The good question is where does Billy’s character go from here. I don’t know where Johnny Lawrence goes. They don’t tell us, they are working on it, but there is a lot that Kreese is going to do I’ve been informed. But how? They don’t tell us.
I didn’t know I was taking over the dojo until maybe two or three weeks before. You try and get the scripts as early as you can, but they were just given the third season go ahead recently. They are still throwing around ideas. That’s how they work, and the three writers are brilliant. They are really smart, they grew up on The Karate Kid, saw it the first time when they were six years old and loved it.
The bottom line is they come up with the scripts and maybe we get to see it two to three weeks before we shoot it. I don’t know the answer to your question. It seems like Elizabeth Shue is coming back, but I don’t know, I just get the sense that she is. That would be interesting drama for Billy and Ralph to play as Daniel Larusso and Johnny Lawrence. I don’t know what happens with my character though, I don’t know who I play against or what happens to me. Does Johnny side with Daniel and go against Cobra Kai? I have no idea.
I know what I would like to happen. I would have to like this character to run into emotional trouble again and then come out of it. I would like there to be a woman in his life from somewhere. I certainly would like the story from Vietnam and the how the name Cobra Kai is revealed and how it got its start. A lot of John Kreese is based on the backstory of what he experienced in Vietnam.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely, and you see more of that in season two of Cobra Kai. The second season of the series really played out in a shocking manner, so it will be fun to see where it goes from here. You work alongside a lot of talented young actors with the show. What is it like working with them?
Martin Kove – They’re very much in the moment. When I first got to the set, and Billy had the same problem, they were always chatting and becoming de-focused from the work. That was only in the beginning, then things changed, they became very comfortable to work with.
We were all on a panel at WonderCon in Anaheim and the same question was asked of me. I said, “These actors are very adapt at what they do, there’s no intimidation that they experience, at least it’s not an overt one, I never sense it.” I enjoy that because god knows when you make a television series at the pace we go at, you can’t take time to baby them. You can time to work on the moment and embellish it, make it richer, change it around, and play with it.
When I was coming up in Cagney & Lacey I should have really spent more time behind the camera. I was too busy getting on the phone making The Karate Kid, doing Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Steele Justice (1987). I was doing all these movies trying to become a film star more than just concentrate on the good work. Becoming a good actor is really a full-time job. I had made my mistakes years ago doing movies where I felt I could improve the picture by doing a good performance because the script wasn’t there.
As a young actor your work is never going to end if you are working. My definition of an actor is an actor is a yo-yo on a golden string, we experience the highs and lows. I think these young actors are mature enough to take it for granted that this show is hot right now, but it’s not going to stay hot forever. They are going to have to move on and keep the same level of integrity to their acting. Right now they are an absolute pleasure to work with and I like them, I really do. The three writers of Cobra Kai cast some really good talent.
Cryptic Rock – The balance between the elder guard and the younger cast members is wonderful. Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship between Johnny Lawrence and John Kreese. In the second season of Cobra Kai, we get a little more in-depth look into the backstory of their relationship.
Martin Kove – John Kreese loves Cobra Kai and he loves Johnny Lawrence as a son, because it was his best student ever. He had enormous potential to become just like John Kreese. As far as John Kreese is concerned, Johnny made a mistake in season two, and the only thing more important to John Kreese is Cobra Kai. To him what is important is the integrity of Cobra Kai, what it means to his soul, and what it means to him physically.
You can’t replace that to John Kreese, maybe you can replace a student that had enormous potential like Johnny Lawrence, as he said to Johnny in season two, “You were my best student. I always was there for you and I was your biggest fan.” John Kreese has a huge affection for Johnny Lawrence, but a larger affection for the integrity of Cobra Kai. Cobra Kai became a way of life for John Kreese, it’s what kept him going while being a prisoner of war in Vietnam. You might learn some of this in season three, hopefully they will write some of that interesting backstory. It’s kind of fascinating to envision the depth of their relationship from this point on.
The writers are so astute, they’ll find a happy medium. I wish I could tell you more about the writing, because that would mean I know more. Billy and I discuss it going to work everyday, you just have to trust them. A lot of the times neither one of us like what we’re doing in a scene, but then all of a sudden they put it together and looks terrific. Sometimes it’s based on the workload that day, and what we find to be most important in the work for the day, is not what they find as a priority.
It’s a very collaborative experience and a phenomenon that the three of us are back there, and it’s never been done before. They took on Mash for eleven years, but nobody from Mash was in the movie. I remember my favorite movie, Casablanca, David Soul tried to remake that into a series and it didn’t quite work. It takes a lot to make a series work that was a hit movie, especially 3 hit movies, and especially with the same characters 35 later.
Cryptic Rock – Exactly, that is a challenge, but it is working very well. That is very special.
Martin Kove – Yes, and it’s the writing. These characters are gray, they all have rich arches. There are no white hats or black hats. That’s what life is about, it’s not all sweet, there are times when it’s sweet and times it’s painful, it’s being real. When you look at it objectively, you say to yourself, you wish you were a little kid in mom’s arms, but life is never like that. When you reach being a teenager you start to have problems like an adult, it’s part of life.
Cobra Kai represents that part of growing up and these writers capture that element of growing up. Maybe Johnny Lawrence and John Kreese haven’t really grown up. Maybe Daniel Larusso has with having a family, etc. Even though what they have been through for thirty years, Johnny Lawrence and John Kreese just haven’t gravitated yet to being adults. I think that’s where the high level of emotions come from with both these characters.
Cryptic Rock – That is a very compelling take. It will be exciting to see what happens with season three! Last question. You have been in some Horror movies over the years, in fact one of your first films was Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972). That in mind, what are some of your favorite Horror or Sci-Fi films that you have done?
Martin Kove – The film I just finish is a Horror/Action movie called V.F.W. It was with such a wonderful cast that I had such a good time with; William Sadler, Stephen Lang, and David Patrick Kelly. Collectively, all of us have done about 500 movies and it was the director’s third film. It was a great movie where the director and producer took good care of us. It was a small movie, Stephen Lang is going off to Avatar 2, I’m going off to do Cobra Kai, and Sadler was going off to do something in New York.
We did this little movie together and something about it rang true, it was the camaraderie these characters had in the script. It’s violent too, far more violent than The Last House on the Left, Death Race 2000 (1975), or even the Sci-Fi film I did, Project: Shadowchaser (1992). I haven’t done very many Horror movies, but this one is by far the most violent and this cast is probably the most exciting cast I’ve worked with since Cagney & Lacey; because we did nothing but laugh and have a good time, and at the same moment puncturing brains. (Laughs) It was bizarre, but it was fun.