How I Sorta, Kinda, Maybe, Came Up With the Idea for William Zabka’s Hit Show
The Cobra Kai and Karate Kid star waxes on (and off)
Back when I was on How I Met Your Mother, I had the idea that Barney would be obsessed with The Karate Kid, and earnestly believe that Johnny Lawrence, the blond, bully-ish villain, was the true hero of the franchise — despite the fact that the character is one of the most iconic movie bad guys of the 1980s. I shared the Johnny-was-the-hero idea with our show’s producers, and lo and behold, the brilliant actor who played him, the one and only William Zabka (I call him Billy), became a recurring guest from season 8 onwards. Well, call me a prescient prophet, because a few years later, Cobra Kai (which recently wrapped its fifth season) debuted, and Johnny morphed from malevolent martial artist to the ultimate antihero. What’s more, legend has it that the Cobra Kai creators were inspired by our HIMYM subplot to come up with the premise of the show! Barney was ahead of the curve! Read on as Billy and I wax nostalgic about wax on, wax off, and more.
Neil Patrick Harris: Congratulations on season 5 of Cobra Kai wrapping recently. What can we expect in season 6?
William Zabka: Thanks, buddy! Season 6 was just announced by Netflix as our final season. It’s bittersweet knowing this chapter is coming to an end, but we’re preparing to make this final season the most badass and satisfying installment yet. The writers’ room is open…so stay tuned!
NPH: So be honest: how much do we owe the existence of Cobra Kai to the running storyline between our characters in HIMYM?
WZ: I think we owe a lot to that. I get this question from HIMYM fans all the time, so clearly it had an impact. The shows aren’t directly related, but it absolutely energized the Karate Kid fandom.
Barney Stinson’s views of Johnny Lawrence, which carried over to his endearing, blind affection for me, were so funny and infectious. After decades of being cemented in pop culture as the ‘80s “bad guy,” fans were suddenly sympathizing with me, and even rooting for me. All the love and goodwill I felt from that has continued to this day and certainly added fuel to the Cobra Kai fire!
I had so much fun with all of you on HIMYM. It was a career highlight for me. Forever grateful! I hope Barney’s enjoying the show in some amazingly twisted parallel universe. Bro hug!
NPH: Hugging you right back! Cobra Kai addresses some of those character misconceptions about Johnny Lawrence you just noted. But what’s the biggest misconception about Billy Zabka?
WZ: I think the biggest misconception might be that I’m similar to Johnny in real life. To set the record straight, I don’t drink Coors Banquet and I know the difference between bananas and plantains. Lol. I have a lot of fun with the image though, especially when meeting kids who might need a confidence boost. At the core of me, I’m a husband, a dad and a family man. I love my work and try to leave it all on the mat — so maybe Johnny and I aren’t so far apart.
NPH: More than just The Karate Kid and Johnny, you played heels and “mean” guys throughout the 1980s. Back to School. Just One of the Guys. Hot Tub Time Machine (made in 2010 but set in the ‘80s)…. Be honest: was it typecasting, or were you just a dick?
WZ: When you do something that works in this industry, they want more of it. So for sure I was typecast, but I always tried to bring something fun and unique to the roles and make them more dimensional and add layers to keep it fresh for me as an actor.
The irony is, to do that, I had to see those characters as misunderstood heroes, which I did, 100%, with my whole heart. So, dammit, maybe it was the latter!
NPH: The first step towards healing is admitting your problem, Billy. Seriously, though, you were able to move on to more complex characters, even some “nice” guys. Which is more fun to play, mean or nice?
WZ: Villains are so much fun to play. You get to paint outside of the box and add colorful notes to an underlying narrative. In some ways it feels safer to play a villain because the weight of the show isn’t entirely on your back.
That said, I’ve enjoyed the challenge of playing “nice” and being somewhat of a grounding wire. On a longform episodic show it requires a new set of tricks, which I’ve had fun navigating. As for the fanfare of it all, let’s just say it’s a lot more fun and rewarding to have people “love you” than “love to hate” you.
I have a question for you: While we were working together on HIMYM, you were simultaneously preparing to host the Tonys and star in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I’ve always wondered, how many NPHs are there?? There has to be more than just one!
NPH: Just the one. But it’s one who knows that loading up with caffeine and sugar — a strict diet of sugar-free Red Bulls and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups — can get you through almost anything. At least that’s what my doctor tells me.
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