Martin Kove Explains How John Kreese's Vietnam Backstory Led To 'Cobra Kai' [Interview]

The one returning Karate Kid cast member we didn't get to interview during the lead-up to season one of Cobra Kai was Martin Kove. That's because he was a surprise in the very last scene of the season finale. Now that he's a regular for season two, Kove was available to talk about Cobra Kai and the Karate Kid legacy.The return of John Kreese was just as surprising to Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka), who believed that Kreese was dead. Now season two can explore how Johnny can turn Cobra Kai around when the worst influence of all returns to exert his chokehold over the dojo.Kove spoke with /Film by phone before the season premiere of Cobra Kai. All 10 episodes of Cobra Kai season two premiere on YouTube Premium on Wednesday, April 24.Have you enjoyed all the benefits of the Cobra Kai revival even having only done one scene in the first season?Unquestionably. It's the gift that keeps giving. The association I guess with the fans is the most rewarding thing, that the movie meant so much to so many people for so long. Through conventions and all kinds of different PR events over the years, you see that the movie was so well written, it meant so much to so many people in one of three ways. You were either bullied back in 1984, you had a romance that didn't work in 1984 or they were a fish out of water, moving around, father was in the military or whatever. The true identification with the movie is everlasting. The fact that Robert Kamen wrote such great material is a gift. We can name how many movies we remember words from. "Play it again, Sam" from Casablanca. "May The Force be with you." There's probably 10 movies in all of cinematic history that we remember lines. Wherever I go, "Sweep the leg," "No mercy." I went into a study class the other day and the security guard, who I didn't know, it was totally electronic and he goes, "No mercy." I screamed back, "Sweep the leg" so he could scream back, "Mercy is for the weak." You just realize that so many people receive pleasure and knowledge from this bit of literature. It's wonderful to be associated with it.You mentioned Robert Mark Kamen. Did Jon, Josh and Hayden get Kreese's voice right?Well, Kamen had a sensei. I talked to him every so often and he had a sensei, hard to believe, worse than John Kreese. In the Marines, he had a sensei worse than John Kreese. So I think he drew upon that. He drew a lot from personal experiences when he created this thing. Frank Price was his mentor at the time of this assignment, the head of Columbia at the time, just gave him a blanket statement with a little article and boom, he just used his own personal experiences and created a voice of John Kreese and a voice of Miyagi and a voice of Larusso. These things, you can never predict it. You can never predict the success of anything in this business.You did three movies that Kamen wrote. This is the first time Jon, Josh and Hayden wrote for Kreese. Was there any adjustment to make sure they got Kreese right?To be perfectly honest, they know more about our characters than we do. That's what sold us on this. I sat in a room a year and a half ago. They said, "You're going to come in in episode 10." I said, "Why can't I come in episode six?" They said, "No, you're going to come in episode 10 and set up season two." Everything they said came through and the fact that they not only were persuasive, but they had such an elaborate knowledge, it was also enchanting. An enchanting knowledge of these characters and I brought them information for season two, research I had done with Army Rangers and how we named Cobra Kai Cobra Kai. We sat down for lunch again six months later and they were ahead of me. They said, "No, we got this. We're going to work on why John Kreese is such a bully and was he bullied?" All of this Vietnam background, it's just amazing. I've done five television series and I've never had show runners that are, number one, as enthusiastic as these people. Number two, who are as big a fan of the concept of the show as they are. And number three, they're straight shooters. There's no talking out of the side of your mouth. They're smart. They're so smart so what they say is so valid and you can count on it, where in Hollywood, it's always tricky to count on information you get from people.Kreese's war history came up in Karate Kid III. Was this season a nice way to go further into his military background?Yeah, that was sort of a bittersweet experience where Robert Kamen wrote that whole piece for me. I was to do that sting operation that Terry Silver did but I got a TV series called Hard Time on Planet Earth on CBS. My agent at the time always said he could get me out of it and never could. So it had to be restructured for Karate Kid III, making it another so-called Vietnam buddy to do a sting on Ralph and training Mike Barnes and do everything that Terry Silver did, and put me on vacation. In actuality, going back into Vietnam, I have great notes about it, what I would like to do. Why he constantly visits no mercy, because his experience back in Vietnam in my backstory was extremely lethal. Our boys weren't allowed to win so John Kreese created the Cobra Kai and my students are never going to lose. He did that because as a champion, he lost in Vietnam because our soldiers were never really allowed to win. And he came back with that complex. He was a champion before in high school and college and in the Army in Karate. So, the bottom line is, truly Vietnam will answer a lot of questions on why he's so merciless. A small boy walking up to his platoon looking for food and all of a sudden five men are standing around him and the kid presses this button and blows them up. He learned from those experiences and John Kreese will never allow his students to lose based on what he's lost in life. So it's quite interesting. Vietnam will be, I think, a big part in season three hopefully.I never knew Terry Silver was supposed to be Kreese. Was it still a great role to show how far Kreese had fallen in that film?Even though I couldn't do what was written for me? Well, it's interesting to play a homeless character and trusting my Vietnam buddy would do that. It was interesting to play but it was very frustrating because I thought in that period of time, I was doing a Disney show, and I got on the phone with Jeff Katzenberg asking him can we move dates and things like that. And he would say, "Well, you're the only star we have and we have an air date. We've got to meet the air date." So in my heart, I felt I was letting down John Avildsen and Jerry Weintraub and all those people, but my agent couldn't get me out of the series. I think I was in the same state of mind as the character was. I was feeling quite sad and loved the role that Robert wrote for me and I couldn't do it. The AD was brilliant. He was the same AD from my favorite movie, The Wild Bunch, a man named Cliff Coleman. He said to John at this meeting, we all sat around with Jerry and John and business affairs, "We can make this work. We just shoot him out on the weekends." And John didn't want to do that. I understand why. My role equalled Ralph and Pat's role in size so it would've been hard. So I was emotionally distraught, the character was emotionally distraught and I think it worked for the piece.We understand why John never wants his students to lose and he feels the generation of kids in the dojo have gotten soft so he's pushing them extra hard. At this point in his life, where has that attitude gotten John Kreese?My daughter was a soccer player and she worked very hard. I don't think she ever cried except one time she broke her collar bone, in all the years from the age of five to 25 and she was a major player. I remember in AYSO, it was terrific that kids would get trophies for participation, but deep down inside, you work harder to get to first place and second place. You don't work very hard emotionally and physically if you know you're going to get a trophy anyway. This is what John Kreese is rebelling against. He felt 30 years ago when he disappeared and went into his state where he became a mercenary or whatever. I can't give all that away, but he goes into a place where he disappeared to after Karate Kid III, the world's changed and he believes the world has gotten softer. Society is basically, as we say, giving trophies away for participation. That doesn't hold with him today. I don't think it holds with me to be perfectly honest. I think you've got to earn what you get. At the same time, there's that part of me that if kids can't perform as well as others, they should be given something for their attempt, for their efforts. So it's a very thin line to travel. It's an extremely thin line. It goes in many areas besides sports and all. Myself, I'm not very good with the computer. For a grown man to be as inept with the computer as I am, maybe I should be given a little piece of paper saying you're doing better. It's really a tricky thing to follow in our society. It's a road that's not less traveled. It's a road that's more traveled and I believe that it's quite individualistic. Every story is different. Should you get a trophy for participating or should you not? That's a question in life I think only the individual and the parents of children can answer in their own case.I would agree participation trophies are coddling, but are the extremes of John Kreese also dangerous for kids? You might end up like John Kreese.You've got to remember you've got to travel that road a bit. It's always been the difference for me in all these years, Pat Morita basically spoke of Karate as a defensive art where then Kreese professed Karate as an offensive sport. That's just how it's approached. In the episodes we often talk about the difference of Miyagi Do basically you get the point to win the point, it's over. Kreese in Cobra Kai is make sure your opponent stays down after you get the point. So there's a little bit of good and a little bit of bad in all that. Again, it's the same thing with the participation trophy. I personally think that "mercy is for the weak" is flawed, but there are certain situations where it's not. It's really a thin line to travel with the question of have kids become too soft and are they coddled and all of that. Can they follow the line of no mercy if they had to? I believe we in America can. I believe we in America can follow that line if we had to because we're just a terrific nation of people. I think that if we had to restructure ourselves in that area for certain purposes, we could and we would.How has it been working with Billy Zabka more as equals where you're both grownups and senseis now?My favorite scenes are when Billy and I really get into the drama of it all. Billy should've gotten an Emmy last year for his performance. Hopefully YouTube will get behind him and project something this year. So it's always fun to play these roles because these are the roles that have such background. I was his father image. I was Johnny Lawrence's father that he didn't have and then all of a sudden, in Karate Kid II I break his trophy and really choke him and basically drive him to the wall about the relationship. All of a sudden he's quite emotionally unhappy and carries it through the years until what you saw in episode one of season one. Years later, he just carried that with him. Kreese always felt that Johnny was his best student and that Johnny was his adopted son, but what is more important to John Kreese is the integrity of Cobra Kai. So acting with Billy is great. It's terrific playing sensei opposite sensei. The values are the motivation that we as actors enjoy playing because it's real and everybody understands that we don't have to push too hard for people to get the difference between Miyagi Do and Cobra Kai. Having a failed relationship with Johnny Lawrence is terrific to resurrect, terrific to act. It's great material. It's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, To Kill a Mockingbird and all these wonderful plays, it's what all these great pieces of made of, that kind of confrontation, that conflict. Coming out of New York and the world of drama, sometimes I miss that out here. Sometimes you miss that immediate conflict on stage and in rehearsal we get it because we play. That's what is exciting for me and exciting for Billy, working that relationship and all the dynamics that come along with it.Is it hard for Kreese to see Johnny as an equal?Well, that was a dream of Kreese's. It was a dream that he could cultivate Johnny Lawrence into being as good as he is, but nobody holds Cobra Kai in higher esteem than John Kreese. This is an extension of what he couldn't do in Vietnam. This is a level of being triumphant and always winning, what he couldn't do back in Vietnam. So I don't think it ever was a matter of Johnny being better than I was as a martial artist, but it always was the issue, could he maintain Cobra Kai at the level that I needed it to be maintained. And I can't say much more than that because it'll be a spoiler.Obviously The Karate Kid was never going to end with Daniel losing, but in theory do you think Johnny could have won if he hadn't been ordered to sweep the leg and fought a fair fight?Unquestionably. He was really a better fighter. In the shows coming up, we talk about that. He was really a better fighter and a funny little video that goes around, Billy was being bullied and the real bully was Ralph Macchio, Daniel Larusso. It's just kind of fun to hear that, that people analyze the movie to the point of insanity. Honestly, Johnny Lawrence was my top student. He unquestionably could've beaten Ralph, unquestionably. It's that ego. It's that fear. I believe it was a combination of fear and ego that drove John Kreese to give the order to sweep the leg, and that wonderful order to Bobby where I say, "I don't want him beaten. I want him out of commission." In other words, there's always the possibility that he could've caused the problem in the finals. I also loathe Mr. Miyagi. He represents everything that I experienced in Vietnam through a variety of soldiers that didn't want to fight, of Asians that were two faced and caused problems for me and maybe were spies. There's a lot of motivation on why that happened. A lot of it had to do with Mr. Miyagi. Most of it had to do with the fact that I needed to protect Cobra Kai from losing. I don't think John Kreese even thought that he was breaking a rule by telling Bobby to put Ralph out of commission. It's just the way the mane thinks. It's just the warrior's code of basically there is no honor in warfare. There is very little honor in warfare unfortunately. There was probably more honor in warfare hundreds of years ago when the British would walk with their bayonets across the field in a straight line. But then again you couldn't trust the British, imperialistically, to make an agreement with you. What is honor? It's a great word to define.Does Kreese enjoy that Daniel is still scared of him after all these years even when he's an adult?He revels in it. There's many episodes coming up, he revels in it and there's a lot of playtime between Ralph and my character where he mentions Miyagi. He revels in it is all I can say. As you watch the shows, you'll see there's a lot of comedy that comes out of that, but I think Kreese feels that he should've killed Mr. Miyagi a long time ago. There's a lot of humor that these wonderful writers have put into that concept that you'll see in the series.You weren't in The Next Karate Kid. Would John Kreese have any opinion about Julie learning Karate?To be totally honest, I don't think it would get to that level. I don't think back in the day of when that movie was made, I don't think he considered females martial artists. Not that they were inferior. I just feel that John Kreese came from a world where it was so difficult on that battlefield, to incorporate someone who might not be as physically strong as a male would be difficult to bring into the dojo and train. I think that he considered that it wasn't a woman's place in his mind to die in the battlefield. Therefore he equates death with the tournament scene. It isn't a woman's place to be there because she could really get hurt and may not be able to sustain the pain. That was I think one of those interesting questions, one of those things I believe he thinks about now in the series. Back then it was an open and shut book. I don't want to endanger women. There's not a place for them in the battlefield and my dojo is a goddamn battlefield. A tournament is the war. That's how he thought. That's how he thinks.