John Kreese, portrayed by Martin Kove, is well known for being the primary antagonist in both The Karate Kid and the Karate Kid Part III. He also returns to the franchise as an antagonist for seasons 2 and 3 of Cobra Kai.
The character is notorious for his merciless and unethical teaching habits. In The Karate Kid he instructs his student Bobby (Ron Thomas) to intentionally injure Daniel (Ralph Macchio) in order to knock him out of the tournament. When Bobby’s cheap shot fails to put Daniel out of commission, Kreese instructs Johnny (William Zabka) to “sweep the leg” and target his injury.
In Cobra Kai Kreese has slowly corrupted Johnny’s students, teaching them to be more ruthless and treating them like foot-soldiers instead of children. He kicks students out of the dojo for being weak and recruits more violent and aggressive pupils. Kreese even plants a live snake in Daniel LaRusso’s car dealership when he finds out that Daniel and his wife attempted to get him evicted.
Despite all of Kreese’s misdeeds Martin Kove revealed in an interview with USA Today that he does not see Kreese as a villain. “John Kreese is not a villain. John Kreese is just a misunderstood character,” Kove says.
Kove Thinks That Kreese Has a Lot of ‘Baggage’
Kove says that he thought Cobra Kai season 3 was important in shaping the character’s origin story. “I had a lot of ideas about (Kreese) in Vietnam and wanted to prove a little more vulnerability to this character,” says Kove. He wanted “justifications for this character’s psychology, for this character’s baggage, for his values.”
Kreese’s backstory was elaborated upon during season 3 through a series of flashbacks to his time before and during the army. Viewers see that Kreese was violently bullied and had to stand up for himself and fight in order to put the bullying to an end. Viewers then see some of Kreese’s time in the military, learning Karate, and eventually killing his commanding officer.
Most importantly, however, the audience finds out that Kreese was in love, and that his girlfriend died while he was overseas. According to Kove, the backstory shown in season 3 was meant to elaborate on “why John Kreese is the way he is.”
Sometimes Kove Finds Himself Lost in the Character
In the same interview with USA Today Kove explained that he has formed a very deep connection to the character, and sometimes it is hard to disconnect. Apparently in response to a violation or betrayal Kove can sometimes “find myself not forgiving. I find myself, over the last couple of years, really becoming John Kreese,” he says. “I think it’s come up more intensely since we’re doing [Cobra Kai] than from ‘The Karate Kid’ movies.”
Kove says that getting stuck with certain parts of your character is normal for actors “depending on how much homework they did, how much backstory they created for their character, it determines how much sticks with them in everyday life.” For Kove, “there’s a darkness that comes up, and it comes up right through my eyes,” he says. “It’s really hard to shake. You gotta give yourself a few months of being Marty Kove back from John Kreese.”
Actors do sometimes find themselves so deep into a character that it changes their personality off camera, so Kove is not alone in his effort to differentiate himself from Kreese. In his opinion, however, Kreese is no villain, just a misunderstood man.