The actor: In the 1980s, no one was a bigger or better bully than William “Billy” Zabka, who set the gold standard for blonde assholes with his back-to-back turns in The Karate Kid, Just One Of The Guys, and Back To School, always playing the ripped, Aryan superman who preyed upon the weak and weird. After establishing himself as one of the most recognizable—and punchable—faces of the decade, Zabka moved quickly into a supporting turn on CBS’ The Equalizer, playing the son of Edward Woodward’s titular vigilante for several seasons. He worked more sporadically in the 1990s and beyond, though he found a steady career acting in mostly straight-to-video and SyFy Channel fare, often in roles that put his martial arts training to good use. In the last decade, he’s begun concentrating more and more on his work behind the camera, even earning an Oscar nomination in 2004 for writing and producing a short film, Most. Zabka’s most recent role was a cameo in Hot Tub Time Machine, which returns him to the familiar milieu of playing an ’80s bad guy. He can also be seen in the just-released Blu-ray of The Karate Kid.
The Karate Kid (1984)—“Johnny Lawrence”
The A.V. Club: What was the casting like for The Karate Kid? Did they put out a call sheet for “blonde assholes”?
William Zabka: [Laughs.] No, but there was sure a lot of them in the waiting room. I was actually with a commercial agent, and I was just starting out. I said, “I want to be in movies, maybe I can do some movies.” And they started sending me out on these auditions. One of them was at Columbia [Pictures] at the time—I forget the movie, but it was being cast by Pennie DuPont, who was one of the casting directors of The Karate Kid. I didn’t get that film, but I got a call that they wanted me to come in and read for a movie called The Karate Kid. I remember talking to my manager—I was actually at the gym, working out in my rainbow headband and tank top—and I said, “I don’t know karate.” He said, “Well, they still want to see you.” So I went down and I met with [casting directors] Caro Jones and Pennie DuPont, and we talked for a minute and they said, “You’re perfect for this.” They handed me a script—which was the first time I ever had a script. I went home and I read it, and then I really felt like I’m never going to be able to do this. I was like, “This guy’s like a champion martial artist. I don’t know any karate.”
But I connected with Johnny, that’s the for-sure thing. It was the first script I ever read where I thought, “Well, this is kind of easy. I don’t even have to act this.” Not that I’m a jerk, but I just get the guy. I went to the interview and pulled up in my dad’s 1971 red Volvo station wagon with Def Leppard playing in the car. I walked into the room, and there was a whole world of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Johnnies, and everybody seemed to be in character. I came from the commercial acting world, and that’s a little different, where everybody’s friendly. This was the more serious “thespian” world, so everybody was in character. I thought, “I’m just going to go sit in the car because nobody’s talking to me.”
And then they pulled me into the room and I read for John. I think I grabbed the guy’s shirt and then I left, and I didn’t expect to get a callback. Then a few weeks later I was back in there. I think the final audition for me was actually about three weeks into the martial arts training. They brought all the studio heads and [producer] Jerry Weintraub, and all the producers came into the karate room where I was training for me to do a flying sidekick—the one I do at the fence fight in the skeleton outfit. They wanted to see how my martial arts [training] was coming along. But in the meantime, they had five or six replacement Johnnies sitting on the floor.
Now, either they were going to replace me or they were going to double me, I don’t know what, but it felt like my last audition. So I was a little nervous, and I remember throwing this flying sidekick. Pat Johnson [a martial arts choreographer who played the film’s referee] had this big pad up next to Ralph Macchio’s head, and it was a really sloppy kick. The air went out of the room. Pat looked at me and said, “Focus. You can do this.” I went back and did another flying sidekick, and this one was perfect somehow. My heel actually went through the pad and punctured a hole in the drywall, so all the drywall kind of came down, and there was all this dust from behind the pad. Pat removed the pad, and there was a hole in the wall—it was almost like it was planned that way. Before the drywall cleared, everybody was out of the room. I guess I proved myself or something. That was the moment when I thought, “I’m actually going to get to play this character.”
AVC: How quickly did you have to learn martial arts? Was it a crash course?
WZ: Yeah, man. I was a wrestler in high school, so I was really limber already. But I also had a back injury when I was wrestling, and I was afraid that my back was going to act up. I was training four hours a day, five days a week for a month of just rehearsing and then throughout the two-month shoot. So I had about three months of training, every single day. I got worked, man. I walked home like spaghetti. My legs were falling out. My back was killing me. But Pat Johnson training me—he just knew what he was doing, and he got me into shape. And martial arts actually fixed my back. Ralph and I choreographed that final fight—and all the fights—every day until we fought the final fight in the movie.
AVC: Would you say you spent more time on learning how to fight than actually running lines?
WZ: It was pretty much right down the middle. We’d do the martial arts and then we’d roll that into the scene. So simultaneously my karate and my acting skills were being formed, and that was great. That’s really a testament to those guys. Pat Johnson really instilled in me the attitude and the confidence and the mentality of Johnny, just through training me how to think as a martial artist. Because I really came into it knowing nothing. I have to be honest, after I got the movie, I’d only read one scene for the audition, and I was really nervous that I wasn’t going to be able to pull off the rest of it. But the rehearsals and the practice and doing it over and over again—by the time the cameras were there and going, it was like the cameras weren’t even there.
AVC: You said you connected with Johnny when you read the script. Does that mean you sympathized with him?
WZ: I didn’t really sympathize with Johnny as much as the dialogue was just so friendly, and it was a scene that just flowed. I didn’t have to feel like I was acting, or that I had to put on a character. I came from stage in high school, and on stage you kind of overdo it a little bit. This was the first time where I was like, “Well, really I just get to kind of talk.” It just clicked. Sometimes you become a character and sometimes the character becomes you. In this one, the character kind of became me.
AVC: The reason I ask is that, watching that film as a kid, I always hated you—just like I was supposed to. But revisiting the film again as an adult, it’s easier to sympathize with Johnny. Here’s this guy who’s just broken up with his girlfriend—who looks like a young Elisabeth Shue, no less—and all of a sudden this little punk kid who looks like Ralph Macchio shows up and starts challenging him. Why wouldn’t he be pissed?
WZ: That’s right, you nailed it. Actually the movie really is about Johnny. It’s a coming-of-age film. [Laughs.] No, but that’s how I looked at it, and that’s really what gave Johnny his dimension, and I think that’s what’s great about the script. At the very end, Johnny has his light bulb go off when Kreese tells him to sweep the leg and he looks into his eyes, and suddenly something’s not right in Dodge. And he loses, and then hands Daniel the trophy and says, “You’re all right.” The core of Johnny—and why I really connected with him—is I’m the polar opposite of Johnny. In real life, I’m the guy at the end handing him the trophy right now.
So it’s fun to be able to play all the stuff he had to work through to get to that moment. The whole movie I got to hang onto that. I knew I could be as bad as I wanted to be and as scary as I wanted to be, because at the end I was going to have a moment of redemption for a second. That’s what’s great about the movie: It’s about a lot of people, and there’s a lot of dimension to it. It’s not just a two-dimensional villain versus a good guy. It’s got a lot of lessons in there, and there’s a lot of layers. Like yourself—you just discovered that recently, like “Hey, you know what? He’s not really that much of a jerk.” Although when you’re a kid, yeah, he looks like a jerk.
AVC: You directed and starred in a music video for No More Kings’ “Sweep The Leg,” which is sung from your character’s perspective. In the video, you play yourself as a guy who can’t seem to move past that role. How much truth is there to that? How much has Johnny dominated your life?
WZ: Oh, huge amounts. When they came to me with this music video, when the label came to me with the song, they actually wanted me to be in the video, and I really didn’t want to touch it. I just thought, “I don’t want to mess with the legacy of The Karate Kid—unless they want to do something really fun with it.” The video is a metaphor for my life. I’m doing my own thing, minding my own business, and the world is outside playing The Karate Kid, blasting it at my door, and I have to rise up and meet that head-on. And then, of course, I spoofed it and had fun with it, and made it like I’m watching the film every day in my trailer. It’s rare and it’s an honor when you do some work and you have a character that sticks with you and kind of shapes the perception of you. Of course, you have to always remind yourself who you really are and keep your feet on the ground.
AVC: When you’re out on the street, are people afraid of you?
WZ: [Laughs.] Not once they meet me. Maybe at first look, with all the memories of The Karate Kid that’s been burned into your mind. But after a few minutes that comes down. I’ve had some fun with it. It’s gotten me out of a ticket or two, and it’s gotten me through the security at the airport quicker.
AVC: Like you threatened the cops?
WZ: No, no. There was this one time when there were some young cops that pulled me over, and they were very cool to me. Well, they weren’t cool to me. They were cool to Johnny.
AVC: Your IMDb biography says that since the film you’ve become a black belt.
WZ: I don’t know how that’s on there. I’m actually a second green, which is one below red and then black. My training in martial arts was kind of a crash course in how to look like a black belt. I know the moves of a black belt—my kicks, and my stretches, and my punches and all that. I would spar at black-belt level, but you have to go through a whole bunch of classes in forms and disciplines to actually earn your black belt. So I got a second green belt. It’s a J.C. Penney’s, $4.99. [Laughs.]
AVC: After The Karate Kid, did you have a lot of people challenging you to fight in real life?
WZ: After the film there was a rumor—because I lived in the Valley where the film took place—that there was some karate gang looking for me. But I think that was just a rumor. I had a couple guys in the early days that were cocky and wanted to challenge me. I diffused that real quick and explained that I’m an actor, and if you want me to get my stunt choreographer here, I’d be happy to fight you. [Laughs.] That pretty much stopped everything. Any classic villain you watch in the movies, if you really believe that’s who they are, that’s your problem. We’re actors. We’re entertainers.
AVC: What do you think about the upcoming Karate Kid remake with Jackie Chan and Will Smith’s son?
WZ: At first it hit me funny: “What do you mean? I’m in a movie that’s old enough to be remade?” First there was more of that kind of reaction. But I hear it’s really good and it holds up and it looks great. What I think is great is that they didn’t actually remake it with Daniel and Johnny and Kreese and try to recreate all those characters, because I think that would have been really tough. They’ve chosen a new setting that I think is more kung-fu heavy and the themes are the same, but it’s more a re-imagining of the film than it is a remake. I think it’s going to be exciting and good for the next generation of kids that need The Karate Kid and have their own lessons to learn. You know, all The Karate Kid fans from the original are parents these days. I think it’s a cool thing. Plus what I think is great about it is it’s supporting opportunities like this to talk about the original, and for people to get a chance to reacquaint themselves with the original film. It’s rare when you have a classic like that. I just don’t know many films that I’m still talking about 25 years later.
AVC: Did you ever imagine a movie called The Karate Kid would still be talked about 25 years later?
WZ: [Laughs.] Yeah, Macchio used to joke around that it sounds like a Bruce Lee comedy. He was itching to get off the set at one point and go make his next movie—which was Teachers, I believe. Nobody had any idea that what we were doing was going to be so special, but that’s what made it special. Everybody was unaware of it and everybody just poured their hearts into the characters and into the story. And then you had great filmmakers behind the scenes, and people making it happen with the music and all that. And then you get a piece of film like this.
Just One Of The Guys (1985)—“Greg Tolan” / Back To School (1986)—“Chas”
AVC: Your role in Karate Kid set the standard for so many ’80s and ’90s movie bullies to follow—some of which you played yourself. Do you feel like you own that “bully” archetype now?
WZ: Yeah, I set the bar and then I played it a couple more times, apparently—Just One Of The Guys, Back To School, and [National Lampoon’s] European Vacation. And that all happened by accident. I didn’t set out to be a villain in film. I’m a character actor, and if my first movie was a comedy, I could have played a geek just as well. Then it would have been like, “That’s that guy from Revenge Of The Nerds. That’s that geek.” So I just played my character, who happened to be a bad guy. I tried to give him some dimension and not make him a two-dimensional jerk, but give him some kind of backstory and something that you love to hate about him. Not something that you hate to hate about him, like a typical bully. I tried to give him some depth. But these days, apparently I’m used a lot, like, “Do it like Johnny.” [Laughs.] It’s an honor to be thought of like that.
AVC: Don’t you think you’re a little too buff to have played a nerd?
WZ: [Laughs.] Yeah, but I’m an actor, man. I could have done it. Actually, when I did The Karate Kid I weighed like 135 or 140 pounds. I could have easily thrown on some glasses and shown my scrawny arms.
AVC: With such similar back-to-back roles in Just One Of The Guys and Back To School, were you concerned about slipping into typecasting?
WZ: I didn’t even think about the future in those days. It was just exciting. [Just One Of The Guys] was another Columbia film, and I didn’t even really audition for it. They called me in and I sat with the director and a producer and walked out with a script and a job. Next thing I knew, I was on an airplane to go to Arizona and make a movie. It was just fun to make films. When Back To School came around, that was the first time I thought, “Hey, wait a minute. This is starting to happen too much.”
I was actually doing The Equalizer with Edward Woodward in New York when I got Back To School. I remember talking to Edward Woodward, this beautiful English actor who just passed away last year. When I got the offer for Back To School, I told him, “This will be the third bad guy I play.” He said, “There’s three reasons you take a role. One, the script is so good you’d do it for free. Two, the money’s right. Or three, it’s people you want to work with.” It was really a combination of those that made me go do it, especially working with Rodney Dangerfield, Sam Kinison, Robert Downey Jr.—before he was huge. The cast was great and it was such a funny script. And I actually tried to have more fun with Chas, because I thought, “I’m going to be funny now. I really don’t want to just play a jerk.” So I actually put on a funny walk and I had a scarf a bunch of times. I made him way more funny than he actually turned out in the film. They cut out most of my funny. In fact, the director pulled me aside one day and said, “We need you to be more like the guy you did in The Karate Kid. You’re coming off too likable and funny.” And I was thinking, “Well, that’s kind of my plan.” But at the end of day Chas is Chas, and he gets the leg cramp, and he’s a little wuss.
AVC: By the way, your hair in Back To School was truly glorious.
WZ: Thank you. Yes, I worked very hard on that.
AVC: Did you really? Like taking prenatal vitamins or something?
WZ: [Laughs.] No, I don’t know why, though, but I started growing my hair around that time, and I just decided to go with it. It would be the Farrah Fawcett feather if I could have pulled it off.
AVC: Was the mood pretty loose on set, working around Rodney Dangerfield and Sam Kinison?
WZ: The whole thing was a party. We shot it in Madison, Wisconsin in a college town. Really, the movie lived when we were filming and even when we weren’t filming. We were out at the bars and the frat parties after shooting every day. That whole time was kind of like going to college without having to study. It was great. Rodney was funny. The first time I met Rodney was in an elevator in a Madison, Wisconsin hotel. I had my luggage with me because I was just coming from the airport, and he was standing there in a blue robe with his hair sticking up. It was early in the morning, and I’m like, “Hey, Rodney. I’m Billy Zabka. I’m playing Chas.” And he’s like [Impersonates Rodney Dangerfield], “Yeah, yeah. How ya doin’?” I’m like, “What are you doing in your robe?” He goes, “I gotta get in the sauna. I gotta get the pot out of my lungs.” [Laughs.] “You, you’re young. You can handle it, but me I gotta get it out.”
Guys like Rodney and Pat Morita, they’re comedians and really funny on the outside, but all of those guys have such tender hearts. We kind of became good friends. He’d tell me a lot of personal stuff. I remember at Christmas I gave him a Christmas card, and he was really touched. I put it in his motor home. At the wrap party, he came up and told me how much it meant to him that I thought of him at Christmas. He was a real sweet guy. It was fun. We’d go to the Comedy Store when Kinison and Rodney would go out and do their thing. It was just a great time. And I had fun with Robert Downey. We’d jam in his hotel room. He’d play his keyboard and I’d play my guitar, and we’d sit and watch movies and try to figure why Christopher Walken was so genius.
AVC: As opposed to Chas and even Johnny, your character in Just One Of The Guys just seems like an out-and-out tool. Did that make a difference in how you approached playing him?
WZ: Yeah, there was really nothing redeeming about that character at all. If you’re going to be a tool, play him to the max. I just threw on some weightlifting gloves and ate raisins and made him as much of a self-absorbed, narcissistic prick as I could, and just set him up for the final face-in-the-punchbowl scene. So I decided to find something interesting in each of the scenes to make him fun to watch. There’s nothing redeemable about him. He doesn’t really have a soft spot. The typical thing—the guys that lift weights have small whatevers, and there’s a line like that in the movie. So I kind of played that. He’s the guy that’s trying to compensate for his insecurities, really. Not just that way but across the board. And all of my bad-guy characters, I picture them as having no dad and no structure. I just kind of played that in subtext a little bit.
AVC: I’m glad you mentioned those gloves. Were they your idea?
WZ: Yeah. In those days, in the ’80s, being at the gym was the hot thing. It still is, but then it was like you’re super cool if you’re at the gym. There were tons of guys that were running with weightlifting gloves on. I just thought it was kind of silly. Until I started wearing them. [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you seen the parody commercial for “Billy Zabka’s Tough Guy Gloves” on YouTube?
WZ: No. [Laughs.] Really? I’ll have to check that out. Wow. Those gloves went the distance, man.
The Greatest American Hero (1983)—“Clarence Mortner Jr.”
WZ: The Greatest American Hero was really cool because I was in drama in high school, and my drama teacher offered me to be in Guys And Dolls in the theater, and I said, “Sure, as long as every now and then I can go off and audition, because I’m trying to become a professional actor.” She said, “No, you have to choose between the stage and your career.” I thought that was not too cool, and I was like, “Well, then it’s going to be my career.” So I didn’t do Guys And Dolls, and I kind of got out of the drama program. Then, fade out/fade up, The Greatest American Hero. I get a part in that, and it turns out they’re actually filming the scene that I’m in at my high school, in the drama department. They had to shut down Guys And Dolls to do The Greatest American Hero. So that was the best part of that: I had a trailer out in the parking lot at my old high school. We got to walk to the set past my old acting teacher, who was not the most supportive acting coach. That was fun. And I played a geek in it! I play a geek who created a science fair project that’s winning awards or something.
Gimme A Break! (1984)—“Jeffrey”
WZ: [Laughs.] I was Lara Jill Miller’s first kiss on that show.
AVC: Was that your first onscreen kiss, too?
WZ: I don’t remember, actually. Probably.
AVC: Do you remember anything else about doing the show?
WZ: Just that Joey Lawrence was 5-years-old and we hung out. I’d teach him karate; he was a Karate Kid fan. That’s way back in the archives. I don’t really have too much recollection of those days.
The Equalizer (1985-1989)—“Scott McCall”
AVC: Since you were playing father and son, did you and Edward Woodward do anything special to bond?
WZ: No, but that was school for me. At that point I had done all these teen films, and working with actors like Richard Jordan—and Robert Mitchum was in that, Shirley Knight, a lot of great cameos. I think Leonardo DiCaprio did an episode of that. [He didn’t, but it’s possible Zabka meant Vincent D’Onofrio, who did.—ed.] It just had great New York talent actors rolling through that show. It was really great acting, great writing. Coleman Luck wrote on that. Stewart Copeland from The Police did the music on it. It was just a really cool show. And with an actor like Edward Woodward, you can’t really not look good, because he’s so great that he brings you to his level. I really enjoyed being on that show, because I got to work with some really seasoned, old-school actors, who were really established. Just their attitude, how they approached their work, how they treated people on the set—it was really great. It was really like my acting school.
AVC: There have been rumors that The Equalizer is headed for a big-screen remake as well. How would you feel about that?
WZ: I’ve heard that rumor for the last five years. Sure, why not? I think it’s a great show. I think it would be great to have it back on the air as a series, though. Edward got sick during the last season. He had a heart attack on the third season, and he went one more season. During the fourth season, they were grooming me from being his estranged son—this violin and bass player—to become like his dad by the end of the fourth season. In my last episode, I went on my first mission and escaped the Bulgarian embassy and had this big breakout thing. They were kind of grooming me for a spin-off, from what I understood. But it never went another season to establish that, so my last episode was having my first encounter with vigilantism, and then walking down the street with Shirley Knight, who played my mom, and Edward Woodward, all of us headed into the sunset in slow motion. It faded out, and that was the end of my Equalizer days.
AVC: So you could have been Son Of The Equalizer?
WZ: Yeah, there was talk about that on the set. I think CBS was playing around with that idea, but they didn’t have time to establish it. I think they were starting to steer the ship that way, and then Edward had to pull out of the last season, because of his health. So it never had time to take root.
Dark Descent (2002)—“Marty”
AVC: This is an awkward connection, but you escaped from the Bulgarian embassy in The Equalizer, and then you shot this movie in Bulgaria with Dean Cain.
WZ: [Laughs.] Oh, Dark Descent. I just did a real cameo in that film. But I did a bunch of films in Bulgaria—Mindstorm with Judge Reinhold and a couple of films like that. Actually, I didn’t even work with Dean. His character was underground in some underwater tank, and I was above water, so all of our communication was through a video screen. So I did my stuff, and he did his stuff, and we were never actually in the same room.
AVC: What’s your impression of filmmaking in Bulgaria?
WZ: [Laughs.] Well, it’s the whole experience. It’s not just the filmmaking. It’s being on location in a place like Bulgaria, where a drink is 15 cents. It’s a fun place to make a movie, but it’s surely not your union guys doing it. The productions are not as great as American films. But they have some pretty cool crews down there, and they have a lot of talent. They’re all indie films that you don’t expect anybody’s ever really going to see. But you know, you’ve got to work.
Shootfighter: Fight To The Death (1992) and Shootfighter II (1995)—“Ruben”
WZ: That was Pat Johnson from Karate Kid who choreographed that. I was actually training hard with him those days, so he had a part for me to play. It’s kind of an underground—it’s almost like today’s MMA thing, except the fighting was to the death. It was one of those Bloodsport-type films. I had a ball doing that. I worked with some really great martial artists. The top guys in the world at that time: Hakim Alston, Earnest Hart, Michael Bernardo, Chris Casamassa—a bunch of guys who were just world-champion martial artists. So that was just a really great experience to stay in shape and learn some new martial arts.
What I liked about it was that I was playing a good guy. He’s a guy who gets seduced into this underground fighting world, because his karate dojo’s going under, and he needs to pay the bills. So he scoots off to Mexico and these illegal underground fights, starts making money, and gets hooked into the bigger show—which he doesn’t realize is bigger money but higher stakes. The highest stake is that finally, at the end of the fight, it’s to the death. By that point I’m in too deep, and I get seduced by the fighting and the money, and the character turns darker. At the end, when he’s supposed to kill somebody, he can’t do it.
AVC: So it’s almost like the ending of The Karate Kid, with that last-minute redemption.
WZ: Yeah, similar, but I wouldn’t even put them in the same category.
The Power Within (1995)—“Raymond Vonn”
WZ: Yeah, The Power Within, with Ted Jan Roberts, Keith Coogan, and Karen Valentine. It was about the power of these two rings that were twin rings, and they had power, and whoever had both of the rings had all the power in the world. There were two different rings, and I stole one of them, and I was trying to get the other one from this kid. I play this real typical evil villain-type character. Very dark, kind of mysterious. He had the long overcoat, long hair, and red glasses. Just real fun. More of a caricature of a movie villain.
AVC: You’re supposed to be trying to kill a 16-year-old kid, which is a little more evil than you normally are.
WZ: Yeah, but that kid was really wicked, man. He had some good karate moves.
National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985)—“Jack”
WZ: Amy Heckerling called me up and I had lunch with her. She wanted to do some photos and bring me to Europe, but not actually bring me to Europe. I was a huge fan of Vacation, a huge fan of Chevy Chase’s. I got to work with them in that backyard scene when they’re planning to go to Europe. That was just a ball, man. Chevy was funny, and I’m making out with his daughter in front of him. [Laughs.]
AVC: Chevy Chase has a reputation for being a dick to the people he works with. Did you pick up on that?
WZ: For sure not. I mean, I haven’t seen him in quite some time. But no, he was great. In fact, when I went to say goodbye to him after I shot that day, I walked into his motor home and said, “Hey, I just wanted to say nice working with you,” and he goes, “Yeah, you too.” I turned to walk out of the motor home, and I banged my head really hard against the door. He’s like, “Oh, are you okay?” And I said, “What?” He goes, “Didn’t you just bang your head?” I said [Mock innocently], “No, I don’t think I did.” He goes [Mock innocently], “No, I don’t think you did, either.” And that was it.
Then, a couple of years later I bumped into him on the set on the Warner Bros. lot—or whatever lot it was at the time—and he was doing Christmas Vacation. We had a good chat. He came up to the window and goes, “You know what? You need a good Western.” [Laughs.] Out of nowhere, you know? So no, Chevy was always great. He’s in Hot Tub Time Machine, too. I didn’t get to work with him on that, but you know, we did another film together.
AVC: In Vacation, you spend most of your time making out with Dana Hill. How long did you actually make out with her to do that scene?
WZ: Oh, all day long. [Laughs.] She was a sweetheart. She passed away [in 1996], you know. She had a kidney disease, I think. She was great. She was so sweet and fun.
CBS Schoolbreak Special (1984)—“Rick Peterson”
AVC: Something that you actually had in common with Dana Hill was that you guys both did a CBS Schoolbreak Special. Yours was Contract For Life: The S.A.D.D. Story. What do you remember about making that?
WZ: Not much. That was a Mothers Against Drunk Driving thing. That was the true story of a couple of high school or college hockey players that got killed in an accident. It was basically their life story. I think it was a big program in a lot of high schools, and they used it as a “don’t drink and drive”-type thing.
AVC: You weren’t drafted into that because of community service or anything, right?
WZ: [Laughs.] No. But in hindsight it seems like I might have had to. Just because it was an after-school special, and you don’t usually go from The Karate Kid to an after-school special.
E/R (1984-1985)—“Druggie Kid” and “Thief”
AVC: You did a two-episode stint playing two more “out-of-control kid” characters on that short-lived, early version of E/R with Elliott Gould. Do you remember anything about doing those?
WZ: No, except Jason Alexander from Seinfeld was on that, and he was a blast. He played one of the doctors or one of the nurses. I came in and held the hospital up for prescription drugs. [Sarcastically.] Another one of my good-guy roles.
AVC: Did you wear a headband?
WZ: No, I did not.
A Tiger’s Tale (1987)—“Randy”
AVC: Speaking of cautionary tales, you did this one with Ann-Margret and C. Thomas Howell about a high-school kid who falls in love with his friend’s mother.
WZ: That was a movie that never saw the light of day that really would have been great. It was Ann-Margret, Kelly Preston, who played my girlfriend, Tommy Howell, who I actually just worked with last week on this new film called Cross. But it was a fun little love story that took place in Texas. He falls in love with his ex-girlfriend’s mom, Ann-Margret. Tommy falls in love with her, and his girlfriend, Kelly Preston, kind of gets pushed off onto me. Actually, it would have been a cool film if it had come out and done well, because I played a really funny, good-guy football player. I was looking for that to be a turn into playing more good guys.
AVC: Did you get to talk to Ann-Margret very much? Seems like she would have a lot of good stories.
WZ: I did. I actually got to kiss Ann-Margret, which was amazing—just a little smooch when she pulled off into the sunset with C. Thomas Howell. She was a sweetheart.
AVC: So you and Elvis have both kissed the same woman.
WZ: [Laughs.] Yeah, right.
Python (2000) and Python 2 (2002)—“Greg Larson”
WZ: [Long pause.] Um, yeah, those were some sci-fi films.
AVC: Oddly enough, you worked with the original Audrey Griswold, Dana Barron, in Python.
WZ: Yeah, Dana Barron, sure. We also did an episode of The Equalizer together.
AVC: And had things gone differently, you could have spent all day making out with her.
WZ: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs.] They kept changing the kids in that.
AVC: So what do you remember about making Python and Python 2? The first one especially had a really unusual cast: Wil Wheaton, Jenny McCarthy, Robert Englund. Must have been some strange chemistry.
WZ: Yeah. Those are just fun sci-fi films.
AVC: This movie was apparently billed as Predator 3 for foreign distribution. Was there any indication that they were planning on packaging it as a Predator sequel?
WZ: No, I didn’t even know until just now.
AVC: Now you can say you were in the Predator franchise.
WZ: [Laughs.] Right, right.
AVC: This was another “fun sci-fi” movie. Did you make a conscious choice to go in that direction for a while?
WZ: I don’t know if it was a conscious choice. Sometimes your career chooses you. You just go where the work is. I picked up films as I could, and at the same time I was making films behind the scenes. I produced my short film [Most] that was nominated for an Oscar. Most of those films that I shot in Eastern Europe were after I ended up moving there for a few years and scouted all over Eastern Europe. I ended up writing a film and traveling all over and casting it and crewing it up and ended up turning it into a festival-winning film, and it ended up at the Academy Awards, which was what my whole goal was—not so much in the acting but in the filmmaking. As an actor, you take the roles that you can get along the way and pay your bills and hope that you get a good one. But they’re not all Karate Kid.
Ablaze (2001)—“Kurt Peters”
AVC: One of the Amazon reviews for this film says, “William Zabka continues to reign as the direct-to-video villain.” What do you think about that?
WZ: [Pauses.] I don’t think much of any of it, to be honest with you. What do you say about that?
AVC: Well, you beat out Malcolm McDowell, for one thing.
WZ: Yeah. Hey man, it’s good to be working, you know? In this town, in this climate, with the way the industry is, to have a job and be acting and be doing what you love to do, it’s all an honor, really. To get to do what you love to do. Sometimes you get a good film, and sometimes you get a film that’s not so great.
Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)—“Rick”
WZ: The last film I did was Hot Tub Time Machine, with [John] Cusack and Crispin Glover, and that’s out in theaters now. And that’s fun, because all of the sudden you have a studio film, and you feel the energy of what a good studio behind a film has. The production value and working with those guys was just a total blast.
AVC: How did they approach you about being in that movie?
WZ: The film was actually already filmed. They had already made it, and they were already testing it with audiences everywhere. They had a dip in the film, as far as the laughs go, and they basically wrote me in, and I got a phone call from the casting director saying, “We’d love to talk to you about Hot Tub Time Machine.” I went in, and they showed me some of the film in their private screening room. I talked with the director and the producers, and they offered me a role. So it happened really fast. Three weeks later I was shooting, and then a few months later it’s out in the theaters, so it happened fast. The première was fun. Tom Cruise was at our première, apparently. I don’t know what he was doing there, but it was kind of fun.
AVC: That film was sort of like an ’80s pop-culture museum. Did you almost feel like you were part of an exhibit?
WZ: Yeah, but what they didn’t do is have me play myself. I didn’t play myself or any of my other characters. It was just a new character that might have lived in the ’80s. That was fun. I played this new kind of character that you might run into if it was me, all grown-up in the ’80s. If you can find me in there, under that handlebar moustache.
AVC: It’s also one of the first comedies you’ve done since the ’80s. Is that something you’d like to get back into?
WZ: Oh, yeah. I’m actually more of a comedic actor. I’m actually more funny than I am anywhere near a villain.