Ron Thomas knows this better than most. As Bobby Brown, the Cobra Kai member instructed to put Daniel "out of commission," Thomas was there for all of it. The real-life sixth-degree black belt and two-time world champion still acts, but has devoted much of his adult life to motivational speaking and life coaching, training athletes and businesspeople on how to increase their sense of "self-mastery." Thomas spoke to us from Los Angeles about the past and present.
When you were shooting the film 26 years ago, did you think you'd still be talking about it today?
Not at all. Are you kidding? When we were making it, as the movie progressed and as we got close to finishing the film, we thought we had something special, but we had no idea. I'll tell you when I knew we had a hit though. On opening night, several of us went to see the movie in Westwood, CA, along with [director] John Avildsen just to see the general public's reaction. I was sitting next to John. At the end of the movie, several people in the front row jumped out of their seats and onto their chairs, screaming at the screen when Daniel kicks Johnny from the crane stance. The audience went crazy. John leaned over to me and said, "We got a hit!"
What is it about the story that you feel gave it its enduring appeal?
[Screenwriter] Robert Mark Kamen was a martial artist and wrote a brilliant script. He took some of the esoteric principles out of the martial arts and put them in Mr. Miyagi, this old master who gave Daniel not just karate lessons -- not just the bad guy versus the good guy -- but the esoteric training from the martial arts and instilling those ideas into Daniel was really the essence of it. It wasn't your normal martial arts movie; it had life lessons and meaning. Also, you can't get much better for that type of movie than John Avildsen. He was an editor before he was a director, so he had the whole movie edited in his mind before he even started shooting.
You were deep into martial arts before you ever heard of the film. Did that help you get the part?
It was weird because I was an actor and didn't want to be the next Chuck Norris. In Hollywood, if you're a martial artist, they look at you as a martial arts star and don't really take you seriously as as an actor. I tried to separate those two. My agent said, "Don't tell them you know any martial arts. They want good actors, so just go in and audition and shut up about it." They didn't catch on until about six weeks into training.
Did you have to hold back when the fight scenes were being choreographed?
I was. I didn't want to step on anybody's toes. I was just supposed to go along that I was just an actor and was there to be trained. But [fight choreographer] Pat Johnson came up to me when we were training and whispered in my ear, "You know more than you're letting on, don't you?" When we were shooting the tournament fight scenes, he was so busy, he let me choreograph some of my own stuff.
In 2007, rock group No More Kings released their video for 'Sweep the Leg' which features yourself and other actors in the film recreating the movie. Was that a reunion, or have you remained friendly with the other actors?
It was a reunion of sorts, but I still talk to Rob [Garrison, Cobra Kai's Tommy], Tony [O'Dell, Cobra Kai's Jimmy], Ralph [Macchio] and William [Zabka, Cobra Kai's Johnny Lawrence]. It was really surreal because they re-created the set and it transported everyone back in time. It feels like it happened yesterday. 'Karate Kid' was easily the most fun I ever had on a project. I mean, we got to ride motorcycles, play soccer and perform martial arts.
You took a backseat from acting to focus on life coaching. Is there any connection between your background in martial arts and life coaching?
Definitely. One of the many things that led me to what I'm doing now is that I recognized that there are a lot of people in this world that don't necessarily want to go into a dojo and learn how to fight, but they could certainly use some of the life skills, confidence and self-esteem that the martial arts gives people. I wanted to step out of the dojo and take that to the public at large. People have come up to me and said, "Man your life is so cool, mine's so boring. How did you get to do what you do?" So I recognized that there's a need for transformational life coaching and letting people understand their spirit, the power of their mind and who they really are.
You released one of the best-titled self-help books in recent memory: 'Positive Thinking is for Sissies.' Explain.
I never said positive thinking was bad. I just said it was for sissies. [Laughs] It's a feel-good strategy. It's like, Oh, there's a silver lining in every cloud and when one door closes, another one opens. All of those positive thoughts are good, but if that's your only strategy for getting through life, you're in trouble because it has nothing to do with self-mastering. You can think positive thoughts all day long and still struggle with your negative emotions. If you want to master yourself, you need to look in the mirror and be authentic and honest with yourself. That's for warriors. That's not for sissies. There are things you can't positive think your way out of.
Be honest: When was the last time you saw 'Karate Kid' in its entirety?
[Laughs] I couldn't tell you. It's been years.
Any favorite lines from the film?
One of my favorites was when Pat Morita says, "Daniel-san, karate here [touches his head], karate here [touches his chest], karate never here [touches his belt]." But of course I like when we chant, "Cobra Kai never die."