Interview: Martin Kove (John Kreese) from Karate Kid and Cobra Kai

Martin Kove talks Cobra Kai and his character John Kreese.

Martin Kove (John Kreese) was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1947. Starting out as most actors do, he had bit parts in movies. One of his first was with his friend Sylvester Stallone in the film Death Race 2000 as the villain Nero the Hero. Kove would later work with Stallone in Rambo First Blood: Part 2 as Ericson.

With over 200 credits to his name, Kove and his excellent portrayal of John Kreese in the Karate Kid may be best known. The slogan “Strike first, strike hard, no mercy sir” is iconic even today. We see it in Cobra Kai as Johnny Lawrence has continued that motto strategy. However, as we discussed, there is an excellent side to Kreese, and maybe his look on life is wrong, but perhaps his intentions are good.

Also, how is Kreese now translated to the small screen? As we have seen, Cobra Kai could do without Kreese, but why would they? Kove also converses about why Cobra Kai reaches the younger audience as well as those that grew up on the Karate Kid franchise. He also touches base with Pat Morita who played the iconic Mr. Miyagi.

Kove has a lot more in the works so look for him on several different projects. Including television and movies.

Hidden Remote: Hello Mr. Kove. How are you, sir?

Martin Kove: I’m here in New York and uh, just doing a lot of very interesting interviews and I’m going to see Denzel Washington tonight in The Iceman Cometh and tomorrow we’ll go see My Fair Lady. So we’re good. We’re good. Yeah. Did you enjoy the series on television?

Hidden Remote: Oh yes, absolutely. Just growing up on, the Karate Kid alone. I didn’t go in with high expectations, but I was just blown away by the production, and the acting, and the story, and just everything. I mean every episode is wonderful. 

MK: Oh good, good. I’m glad. I thought it was brilliant writing and the great arch to all the characters and sort of bled great involvement into the younger generation of kids who, you know, are under 20 who really need to see a TV show, like that and sort of take the place of the Avengers and a variety of shows that don’t really have all that human context, you know?

Hidden Remote: Yeah, exactly. It’s more, more down to life, more real. We can’t all become the Incredible Hulk or Iron Man for that matter. Kids need to see how to defend yourself and doing things the right way. Disciplining yourself should be very important to kids. That was one of the questions I have for you. What is the draw for someone that’s a millennial, to watch Cobra Kai? 

MK: The kids have been told about this movie by the parents they have watched it on DVD and they’ve had a touch of it and you see it occasionally on television, whether you own a DVD or not. And you know, it’s a good movie. It’s iconic to the adults, but what creates the iconic outlook and the iconic draw is the fact that we have other characters in the series so well structured with great parts.

So these kids, whether they’re, you know, five, 10, 20, the children of the people who saw the film in 84 who experienced it as a religious experience because they were either bullied, or they were fish out of water, or they had a romance that did work out. That’s usually one of the three reasons everybody loved Karate Kid back in that period of time.

Now, these kids can identify with the younger kids in the show and I think it aided the attendance of the show. It aided in being so triumphant to all ages because we dabbled with John Kreese we dabbled with Ralph (Macchio) and we dabbled with Billy (Zabka) and everybody’s written so fully. The young, they were also structured so that these young kids their age could really identify with the problems.

Hidden Remote: I wanted to touch base on your, on your character, and the message of “strike first strike hard,” which I think is something that we all should live by. I mean, those two phrases alone are our examples. Why does Kreese need to add the “no mercy?”

MK: Well, you’ve got to remember the backstory of Kreese, which of course never comes out. And in the movie I created a backstory for, for John Kreese where he was, you know, as a student in elementary school, junior high, high school, college, he was always a winner, always a champion.

Then when he went to Vietnam, he wasn’t allowed to win like so many of our soldiers and our boys, they weren’t allowed to win there. A very complicated political issue and so he vowed when he came back here that he would open up the dojos and students would never lose.

He never wanted them to experience the emotional trauma that he had in Vietnam. That’s how all this militaristic character and he is a patriot. He’s definitely a patriot. The bottom line was my students will never endure the pain I had where I could not be a champion and out in Vietnam just couldn’t be a champion. We had so many complications out there. Couldn’t operate as a free spirit. You know, or even as a soldier under orders. It was so complicated there.

Never wanted his kids to experience losing. And under any circumstances, they must win and he bent the rules, created no mercy to answer your question. Because strike first strike hard should be right. Strike first strike hard. You almost can win, but no mercy meaning continue. whatever’s going on in the tournament,  continue the pressure, you know, go after your opponents to the extreme where there’s no mercy until your hands is held up and you’ve got the points and you win.

Hidden Remote: Kreese is known as the bad guy, but what kind of qualities do you find in him that are good?

MK: Well, he does have a devotion to his students. He does care about his students. And if you look at Billy (Johnny Lawrence) Billy’s got a bunch of misfits there and his compassion, his compassion level in the series is a lot more than Kreese.

Kreese could never focus on that many people who are losers, you know, when they come in there and they’re bullied, he, he wouldn’t have that kind of compassion. He does love his kids and he does want to protect,  he does teach karate at the level he teachers at the time, as you say, the No mercy level. He teaches it with a great deal of strictness and a great deal of discipline because he doesn’t want his students to ever change from the condition of being triumphant, being winners ever receed into losing.

Part of his emotional outlook is that he cares a great deal about the concept of winning and you know, even for himself and he went into a tournament, he could never live with himself unless he was triumphant, It’s like a child being abused by her father and who was a drinker, you know, and, and you could never indulge in being a drinker yourself in do what, your, your abusive father did to you, you would never do it to your kid. It would come out in another way. He does care about the kid, but he also must indulge in being a winner at any cost.

Hidden Remote: Yes. Well said. Thank you. What other characteristics that you may have about Kreese that other people may not know?

MK: It intrigues me what they have planned for this character. Where has he been for the last 30 years? And I always ask people, you know, what they told me, I couldn’t say anything from September all the way to May second, you know, I would say Cobra Kai can happen without John Kreese and where have you been for 30 years? I’d say, well, I’m going to work for the KGB. I could’ve worked for the CIA. I coulda been tending horses in Will Rogers state park or I could be in prison, you know? I love bad guys who turn good in movies. I love that, you know-

Hidden Remote: Kreese was on his way in becoming good. Unfortunately, he had to meet-up with his friend Terry Silver. I think he became just more confused, after things didnt work out again. I think that sometimes that also leads to where he may be, tending horses, or he could be in jail, you know, he’s that kind of character, at least in my eyes. Do you see the same thing as I’m seeing them or do you, see it differently?

MK: No, I see what you’re saying. I, I’m in agreement with what you’re saying. the unknown. I’ve asked these questions to the writers and it’s kind of good that it’s unknown. Research and development of a character is important to me as the event of acting.

I think that the more color they give me if they tell me he wasn’t in prison, that he was working for the CIA, working with revolutionaries in third world nations. Well maybe he went there after Terry Silver, you know, I was supposed to do everything Terry Silver did in Karate Kid three.

There was no Terry Silver. They had to rewrite it all to bring in Terry Silver because I got a TV show. So I was the one. I was, I was the one creating a sting on, on both kids, you know, on Ralph (Daniel Larusso). It was all my vehicle and there was to me. So, you know, it’s kind of the unknown.

It’s interesting now once they give me a hook. I can go create and go. It was chatting with mercenaries, whether it’s, you know, going in prison, chatting with, you know, variety of wardens or whatever you get. And when I find out boom, Ill rush into developing the same way I developed in between lines, the in-between character development of John Kreese that was never really talked about in scripts.

Kreese

Courtesy: Bryan David Hall

Hidden Remote: What was it about the vehicle that, that drew you into wanting to step into being Kreese again?

MK: Its the writing these characters live, eat and breathe Karate Kid for years. Josh Heald (writer/director) and John Hurwitz (writer/director) and Hayden Schlossberg (writer/director). They wrote a Hot Tub Time Machine and Harold and Kumar, but besides being successful pictures, they sat down with Julie. Ralph and I at different times and sold us on how well they were going to create X, Y, and Z, this show. They sold it so well and they are so smart. As you can see, there isn’t an area that’s underdeveloped in the show.

All the characters have full arch on all the kids, my introduction for so brilliantly stated, you know, I had a little dream that it was something like that, but their idea was even better than I.dreamt.  was waiting outside the dojo and, and waiting for Ralph and Billy and in this case it was only Billy and I had a cigar in my dream and they had a cigar in their interpretation. It was all cool. So I just think the prowess and the good writing and they’re able to predict commitment to the character’s sold us all jump on it.

Hidden Remote: It’s amazing how well those characters are still fresh in my mind. I’m just speechless right now thinking about it because it’s done so well.

MK: Yeah, I have. I just got a text today from an agent of mine and he’s very tight-lipped and he doesn’t get emotional about anything and he wrote me: “It’s always been an honor to work with you guys were close, but there’s only one word and just show.” And he said, “perfect.” He wrote perfect in capital letters and he ended his texts like that and it’s just how everybody feels. Let me tell you, these cats are going to have a rough time writing season two because they’ve created perfection. They’ve, they’ve created Casablanca on television, perfect cinematic experience, and they created it on television. I hope they can just rock and roll. And if it’s a good season, one will be on forever.

Hidden Remote: One last question, what was like to work with Mr. Morita and Mr. Stallone?

MK: Pat Morita was easy, you know, we had a couple of scenes together and when I screen tested three times, Pat Morita was right there for me and we did that scene in the Dojo, you know, “you’re a pushy little bastard, but like that. I like that.”

Sly and I’ve done movies. No, we had an old clockmaker here in New York and in the seventies, he would get Sly jobs as an usher in the Baronet theater, and get me a job as Santa Claus in Abraham and Straus, a department store. We became friends and we hooked up again back in Hollywood We did a movie called Capone together with Ben Gazzara and Susan Blakely. Then we did Death Race 2000 together.

We were on the set one day and doing this, Death Race 2000. We just were in Hollywood all one year, you know, and he had this script in front of him and I said, “what is that?” And he said that it is a “boxing movie, I’m trying to get made.” I said, “oh, I wish the best.”

So that was February of 1975, and then, sure enough, come September. I’ve been invited to several screenings and unfortunately I was doing a series called Code R and it was long hours and I couldn’t get. I really wanted to go to the screenings because people were saying this was this “Rocky” movie, was a big deal and a lot of fun to watch and put them on the map is great. I was so happy for him and ended up working for John Avildsen, you know, seven years later, creating the same kind of like iconic experience.

We did Rambo, we had a lot of fun in Acapulco where we shot it and you know, he’s a good guy. We, we bumped into each other, you know, every few months and we get a haircut done by the same guy and you know, so he, you know, he, he’s terrific. He’s very creative, extremely funny. When you’re one on one with Sly, you’re laughing all the time.

Hidden Remote: I know you probably have a very busy day ahead, so please have a nice day

MK: Sure! Have a great time and nice chatting with you.

Cobra Kai is on Youtube Red

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