Actor Martin Kove explains how his classic character became more than a bad guy in Cobra Kai

click to enlarge Martin Kove (right) has played Karate Kid villain John Kreese in three films and three season's of Netflix's Cobra Kai. - Curtis Bonds Baker / Netflix
Curtis Bonds Baker / Netflix
Martin Kove (right) has played Karate Kid villain John Kreese in three films and three season's of Netflix's Cobra Kai.
The roster of movie villains from 1984 runs deep — from the title cyborg assassin in The Terminator to slasher Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street to Stripe, the leader of the mischievous monsters in Gremlins.

The most grounded of all the bad guys from that year, however, was John Kreese, the intimidating sensei at the center of The Karate Kid. In the movie, Kreese is a Vietnam War veteran who opens a dojo where he trains his students to fight with a bully mentality.

Over a 37-year stretch, actor Martin Kove has played Kreese in three films and in three seasons of Netflix’s Cobra Kai. He returned to reprise his role as the merciless karate teacher when the new series debuted in 2018.

The upcoming fourth season of Cobra Kai features Kreese joining forces with his old war buddy Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith) to lead his students into battle against a group of competitors merged into one team by Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka).

During an interview with the Current, Kove talked about his ties to Texas, what makes a classic movie and why he believes Kreese is more than a conventional villain in the Cobra Kai series. The new season of Cobra Kai debuted on Netflix Dec. 31.

I hear you have an interesting tie to San Antonio. What is it?
Oh, yeah, my birthday is on the same day that the Alamo fell: March 6. I have a metaphysical connection to Texas. I’m a big fan of the Old West, and Texas is where all the cowboys are from. Any time I can get down to Texas, especially San Antonio, is great.

You’ve shot a movie here, too, yes?
Yeah, I was in San Antonio when we shot The Gambler [V: Playing for Keeps] years ago. Anytime I’m there, I’ll have my driver stop at the Alamo. If I can take the tour or just walk around the outside, I’ll do it. I love San Antonio. To me, any part of Texas is just incredible.

Did Kreese’s background ever cross your mind when you made the original movie back in 1984? We’re learning a lot more about him in the Cobra Kai series.
Thirty-five years ago, I didn’t because I was lazy. Now, I create a backstory for every character I play. When we all signed up to do [Cobra Kai], I said sure, but I told [the production team] I wanted the character to have moments of vulnerability and texture. I wanted to explore what made [Kreese] so tough, not really a villain, but sort of a misunderstood character. They were very perceptive. They did all their homework.

There are plenty of protagonists to root for in Cobra Kai, whether it’s someone from Miyagi Do or the Eagle Fang dojo. Do you think anyone ever roots for Kreese?
Oh, yeah, I think so. Season 4 is really exciting. There are touches of vulnerability [in Kreese] that you wouldn’t expect. Kreese is not an evil villain. As Season 4 progresses, there will be a lot of surprises. People are learning to appreciate [Kreese] a lot more. All the characters [in Cobra Kai] aren’t written in black and white like they were in the movies. In the movies, it was written as the good guys versus the bad guys. We were the bad guys and [Daniel] and Miyagi were the good guys. Now, everybody’s a little gray.

What constitutes a great 1980s movie today?
I always lean toward Westerns. Pale Rider was great. The Outlaw Josey Wales was in 1976, but that was such a formative character. I think Clint Eastwood hit it out of the park with Unforgiven. To me, what constitutes a classic movie is when people are still saying the lines 35 years later like “May the force be with you” and “Wax on, wax off” and “Sweep the leg” and “No mercy.” These days, it’s hard to find a classic.

I grew up in the 1980s, so The Karate Kid is definitely a classic in my book.
Yeah, a classic is something that the whole family can appreciate — like Cobra Kai. Everyone gathers around the TV to watch it. It’s like The Ed Sullivan Show in that way. Every age group get something from Cobra Kai. That’s why it’s such a success.

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