Ralph Macchio may be best known for his role as Daniel LaRusso in the “Karate Kid” film series, as well as “Cobra Kai,” its spin-off Netflix TV series. However, many fans may not know that although “The Karate Kid” may have jump-stated Macchio’s film career, the famous actor was actually in a number of recognizable roles before the 1984 film.
In 1983, Macchio and a number of other young actors starred as a young gang of “greasers” in Francis Ford Coppola’s coming-of-age drama, “The Outsiders.” Macchio plays Johnny Cade, who is similar in spirit to Daniel, though the latter did not have to go through anywhere near the amount of trials and tribulations that the young gangster did. It very well may have been because of this dynamic role that Macchio was soon after able to land the lead as Daniel LaRusso.
Warning: if you do not want to read any spoilers for “The Outsiders,” you are best advised not to read ahead.
Here’s what you need to know about Ralph Macchio’s performance as Johnny Cade in the 1983 film, “The Outsiders.”
In ‘The Outsiders,’ Ralph Macchio’s Character Had To Kill
Although “The Outsiders,” which was shot while Macchio was 20, was not the actor’s first on-screen role – his first film role was in a 1980 film called “Up the Academy,” and he also appeared in a recurring role as Jeremy Andretti in ABC’s “Eight Is Enough” – it did make him a recognizable face, and was likely what secured him the role as Daniel LaRusso. “The Karate Kid” casting director Bonnie Timmermann said in a 2018 Sports Illustrated interview that she “brought Ralph in because I remembered the work he did with Francis Coppola in ‘The Outsiders’.”
Elisabeth Shue, who played Ali Mills in “The Karate Kid,” said, “Ralph was a big star compared to the rest of us. We were all like, ‘Woah, he has a manager’.”
Although Daniel LaRusso was well-known for his skill in hand-to-hand combat, he never went so far as to having to kill anyone. Most of the plot in “The Outsiders,” however, revolves around the fallout from Macchio’s character Johnny Cade stabbing a rival gangster to death in defense of his friend, Ponyboy, played by C. Thomas Howell (although the actual death is not shown on-screen, you can watch the scene above).
Later in the film, while Johnny is on the run for a possible manslaughter charge, he, Ponyboy and Dallas Winston (Matt Dillon) stumble upon a fire in a church where the former two had been taking refuge, though there are now children in need of rescue inside. The three do indeed rescue the children, but Johnny suffers a broken back and severe burns, later dying from his injuries in a heartbreaking scene in the hospital.
Although Daniel was never driven to such extreme acts as Johnny, the empathy and care for loved ones exhibited by the character is effectively portrayed similarly to that of Macchio’s other lead role.
There Are Other Well-Known Faces From the Film
The film, which was based on the 1967 novel of the same name by S. E. Hinton (a female high school student), is legendary for a number of reasons, not least of which being its cast. The main cast consisted what WBUR would later call the “Brat Pack”: a group of young actors who would all grow up to be big-name stars. In “The Outsiders,” Macchio starred alongside a 15-year-old C. Thomas Howell, 18-year-old Matt Dillon, 30-year-old Patrick Swayze, 18-year-old Rob Lowe, 19-year-old Emilio Esteves (older brother of actor Charlie Sheen), and a 19-year-old Tom Cruise.
It was partly for this reason that Macchio described himself years later as an “outsider” during production. In 2017, Macchio told Parade Magazine that he didn’t know many people there, given that most of the actors had lived in California and he had just come from New York. “I felt very much ‘the outsider’ in this audition,” he said, “which is interesting. That’s the first time I’ve ever said this. I really feel now that I look back at it that I had to step up to make myself heard because I felt that I was not being recognized.”
In a 2020 Rolling Stone interview, Macchio referenced the strong connection he had to his character, given how intimately he knew the novel:
I was confident I wanted that particular part, and I didn’t want to read for another part. I just wanted that. But Coppola wanted everybody to read for a different role. I said, “I just want this part.” I had the b***s to say that … I connected to The Outsiders when I was 12 years old, and when they were doing the movie I had to be in it, and I had to play that part.
Macchio also spoke of how playing Johnny influenced his portrayal of Daniel in “The Karate Kid.” “I did have, and probably still do have, a little defiance and cockiness, and that’s bled into LaRusso and that makes him entertaining,” Macchio said. “A guy who has such knowledge about balance and inner peace and all those Miyagi-isms and philosophies, but when the wrong guy rubs him, he goes to his childhood ways — that makes him entertaining.”
Be sure to catch Ralph Macchio continue his role as Daniel LaRusso in season 4 of “Cobra Kai,” set to be released on Netflix December 31.