Do you remember 'Karate Kid' jerk, Billy Zabka?

Credit: Everett Collection

As you probably already know, there’s a splashy, new remake of The Karate Kid hitting theaters this weekend. But as someone who grew up with the 1984 original, I’m too old to fit into the target demographic for the thing — not that it looks like something I’d want to waste ten bucks on anyways. That said, I will watch the ’80s version any time it comes on TV. Why? Well, not because it’s a particularly great movie, and not because I have a particular fondness for the original Daniel-san, Ralph Macchio, or Mr. Miyagi’s stereotypical fortune-cookie wisdom. No, the reason The Karate Kid still has a hold on me 26 years later is because of its Aryan-by-way-of-SoCal villain, Cobra Kai’s head tool in charge Johnny Lawrence — played the one and only Billy Zabka.

If you were lucky enough to be a teenager during the Reagan/Bush era, the name Billy Zabka will not only ring a bell, but set off a blaring, four-alarm siren. He’s THAT GUY!! The classic preppy, rich-kid heavy in a string of wonderfully disposable teen movies that kicked off with the first Karate Kid and ran through the middle part of the decade with Just One of the Guys, European Vacation, Back to School, and Karate Kid II. He was a bully, a jerk, and an unrepentant jock a-hole. Sure, the characters were all the same — they lived to torment the outcast hero we were supposed to identify with. But Zabka, bless him, always delivered the goods with a sneer and a wink. No one was better at being bad. With his feathered blonde hair that looked like he’d spent way too much time secretly looking in a mirror, his short-fused temper, and his sour, lemon-sucking facial expression, Zabka symbolized the privileged popular kids during the waning days of their hammer-lock on power — deep down, they sensed that the social playing field was about to shift. That nerds were about to have their revenge and the geeks were about to inherit the earth in the slacker ’90s.

After his run on The Equalizer in the late ’80s, the juicier roles seemed to dry up for Zabka. He would pop up now and then on TV or in some straight-to-video cheapie before his slow fade into pop-culture oblivion. Then, in 2004, Zabka returned. Out of the blue, the mean kid who had made his bones “sweeping the leg” or putting helpless high schoolers into headlocks had quietly become a filmmaker in real life. And not just any filmmaker, but an Oscar-nominated writer/producer with a live-action short film called Most. Zabka didn’t win, but it hardly mattered. Seeing him in the news again was like bumping into an old rival at your high school reunion and finding out that he’d become a pretty good guy after all. Then, a few months ago, Zabka turned up again in the ’80s-themed Hot Tub Time Machine. It was as if John Cusack dusted off his old address book, randomly opened it to the letter ‘Z’, and decided to reach out to an old compadre from the teen-comedy celluloid trenches. Along with Bill Murray’s appearance in Zombieland, it was the best surprise cameo in years.

So, as Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan do their best this weekend to cash in on our wax-on/wax-off nostalgia, let’s all take a moment to remember the guy who really made The Karate Kid a classic in the first place. Here’s to you, Zabka…

Comments (54 total) Add your comment
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  • DM

    Love it! Nice little piece. It’s this kind of random reporting that makes me like EW.

    • Matt

      Yeah I liked this piece as well.

  • J

    He played a great teen villain, and I have to say, his trilogy is the greatest film trilogy of all.

    • Courtney

      You should watch the no more kings’ ” sweep the leg” video. It has to be his best work. If not it’s entertaing.

      • pastafarian

        ^ This. I’m glad someone posted this. Can’t have this article without a mention of that music video.

  • Elizabeth

    I caught the original Karate Kid on tv last night and my first thought was “what ever happened to that guy? he was an awesome bad guy!”. Thanks for the update!

  • Cam

    I think I liked his hair best in Karate Kid

  • Crystal

    This is so awesome. I kindof adore the fact that someone already had a youtube video made. Very cool that he was an Oscar nominee.

  • butters

    You forgot about his bully roles in My Bodyguard and the loaded diaper that was 18 Again.

    • Ford

      He was not in “My Bodyguard”!Matt Dillon was the bully in that awesome,overlooked movie.Adam Baldwin played the big kid who became the bodyguard!

  • jordan

    You should reconsider seeing the 2010 version it has the intensity, emotion and action to satisfy adults as well. I am 36 and I loved the original along with the two other versions, but don’t keep yourself from enjoying because you think you’re too old.

    • Tania

      Plus Zabka’s counterpart in the remake scared me, and he was only 12!

      • Kay

        Yeah, that kid was intense and still only looked ten or so.

  • jdtv1313

    To bad he didn’t age as well. I saw Ralph Macchio on TV at the new Karate Kid movie and they said he was 48 (Eyes pop wide open!) What!! 48! He looks like he never aged.

    • aleksa

      Seriously, it is almost indecent how well he has aged.

  • Zoe

    “This must be where they sacrificed virgins. …God, I miss Jack!” Zabka was a small but valuable part of European Vacation!

    • Yuji

      Uh . . . yeah, I totally feel treahtened by some kid who’s arrogant because his accomplishments are based on pure nepotism. But hey, if you’re impressed by that kind of shallow success, that’s your problem. Don’t project your middle school puppy love onto other people.And it’s not jealous much. It’s intelligent much. Try it sometimes. You might even be able to come up with a better screen name and learn how to spell simple words correctly.

  • Kimberly

    I just came from seeing the new Karate Kid I took my son and 10 of his friends, I was not expecting much being old school Karate Kid age, but was I ever surprised the movie was GREAT the acting was way better than the original. I loved it!

  • impsicle

    he looks like Draco Malfoy’s older (American) brother!!

    • JRE

      LMBO, when I saw Draco I imediately thought “Johnny” should be cast to be his dad.

  • Brian

    He was the quintessential villain in many 80’s movies—loved to hate him!

    • Ames

      I wish he was the villain in Pretty in Pink instead of James Spader. Then Zabka would be the quintessentail pretty villain with no competition.

    • wg

      Yup – he was awesome. Met him once many years back – he was a really nice guy.

  • Chris

    That jacket-vest thing kills me lol oh the 80’s..

  • pastafarian

    He woulda prolly made a great Draco Malfoy as a kid. He was ahead of his time.

  • Shelnate

    The Karate Kid was great many years ago and it is great today too. I’ve seen both movies. Friday I went to the movies and I got a very nice surprise. The movie was really good. I just had to see it again on Saturday. The theater was packed. By the end of the movie, everyone was standing up and cheering and clapping. Don’t miss this movie, no matter how old you are. It is just as good , if not better than the original.

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