To say Johnny Lawrence is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of role for Cobra Kai star William Zabka, would be an understatement. The actor reflected on how he started with the franchise with Entertainment Weekly on their Awardist podcast on what led to his original casting for the teenage rival Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) in the martial arts classic The Karate Kid. "The 18-year-old me is kicking himself on a beach somewhere," Zabka said. "It's so unbelievable."
Johnny, as the prized student of Cobra Kai ran by John Kreese (Martin Kove), spent the bulk of his time in the 1984 original bullying Daniel, who becomes the student of Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) and his Miyagi-do school. The climactic final in the All-Valley Karate Tournament at the conclusion of the film enshrined the film and subsequent franchise in the annuls of pop culture history. "When I read the Karate Kid script, as I turned the pages, I was like, 'I'm never getting this part. He's a black belt; I didn't know karate," Zabka said, "He's a motorcycle gang leader; I don't know how to ride a motorcycle. He's mean — the last thing I did was a milk commercial, maybe an M&Ms commercial. They're never gonna see me as this gang karate guy.'" While the actor reprised his role in 1986's Part II, he had mostly bit parts in film and TV with a memorable 12-episode stint on the CBS' The Equalizer in its original run in the 80s.
Prior to Cobra Kai, Zabka got higher profile work in the comedy classic The Hot Tub Time Machine (2010), parodied his Johnny Lawrence character on Robot Chicken in 2013 and Jimmy Kimmel Live! in 2011, and even played a fictional version of himself on CBS' How I Met Your Mother for seven episodes. Zabka made his serious return to the character in 2018 for the Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald-created series initially for YouTube Red before landing its new home on Netflix. Cobra Kai refocused the narrative of The Karate Kid to focus on both Johnny and Daniel as they lead their respective dojos against one another as sensei into a new generation. Season four is set to premiere in late 2021. All three seasons are available to stream on Netflix. For more on Zabka talking about the series and what he kept from the original 1984 set, you can head to EW.