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Macchio at 27: The Man Who Lives Inside the ‘Kid’

The advertisements for “The Karate Kid Part III” promise that “the boy becomes a man” in the second sequel to the surprise 1984 hit. As a matter of fact, Ralph Macchio, who plays the boy in all three “Karate Kid” movies, hasn’t been a boy for nearly a decade.

Macchio, who portrays the engaging underdog Daniel LaRusso, is 27 and lives with his wife, a cardiac care nurse, at their home on Long Island. His “Karate Kid” alter ego is stuck in gear at age 17, he’s just been graduated from high school and he’s still finding his way with young women.

“On the set, (director) John Avildsen kept saying to me, ‘Yo, Ralph, remember: adolescence . Don’t figure your problems out so quickly,’ ” Macchio said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “When you play someone younger, it’s an advantage because you’ve experienced that age before. But when it starts being like 10 years ago, you sort of forget.”

In 1984, Columbia Pictures quietly released “The Karate Kid,” produced by a team of “Rocky” veterans headed by Avildsen. Macchio’s rousing portrayal of a 98-pound high school weakling turned bullybuster, combined with Pat Morita’s sage wisdom and fortune-cookie wit, awakened a summer sleeper that grossed $90 million.

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The 1986 sequel, “The Karate Kid Part II,” did even better and finished third at the box office that year, trailing only “Top Gun” and “ ‘Crocodile’ Dundee.”

“Karate Kid III” will place Macchio back in the summer spotlight. But it remains to be seen if the boy has become a man in the eyes of producers and casting directors.

“It’s difficult at times,” the actor said in his tempered New York accent. “You read a script for a 25-year-old and then the director says, ‘You know, I think you’re terrific, but you just physically look too young for this.’ It’s part of the game, and you have to accept it.”

Macchio was born and raised in Suffolk County, N.Y., where he took tap-dancing lessons for 15 years because “aerobics wasn’t around at the time.” His amateur dance career took second pedestal to his social life, however, until he landed an acting role in 1980 in the teen-age flick “Up the Academy.”

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When he was 21, Macchio’s easy acting style attracted critical attention as 16-year-old Johnny Cade in Francis Coppola’s 1983 adaptation of S. E. Hinton’s cult novel, “The Outsiders.” Besides Macchio, the film’s cast included C. Thomas Howell, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Tom Cruise.

“We all worked for a little above scale,” Macchio said. “Can you imagine what it would cost to bring that cast together today?”

But while his baby-face peers in “The Outsiders” graduated to more mature roles, Macchio’s bright, innocent eyes and gangly build suspended him in perpetual youth. He achieved national prominence and teen heart-throb status the next year in “The Karate Kid,” but his recurring role as Daniel LaRusso only compounded his casting dilemma.

“When people recognize me when I’m out, it’s usually like they’re seeing a friend,” Macchio said. “Because this character is, you know, he’s so sweet. You can get a cavity just watching this guy. I don’t know who can be that sweet.”

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The candy-coated rap didn’t prevent Macchio from exploring deeper, darker roles. The same year he played a troubled hood opposite tough-guy Nick Nolte in the black comedy “Teachers.” In 1986’s “Crossroads,” Macchio went soul-searching and dueled with the devil as a fledgling blues guitarist, and last year, in “Distant Thunder,” he starred opposite John Lithgow as the indignant son of a traumatized Vietnam War vet.

For the most part, Macchio was reviewed favorably in each movie, but none of them garnered him the popular attention he received for “The Karate Kid.”

“I guess the thing I want most is to be perceived as a versatile actor who does many things,” Macchio said. “The challenge is breaking through the mold of being the angelic, identifiable ‘Karate Kid’ character. It would be nice to be involved with another financially successful film to help offset the blockbuster success of ‘The Karate Kid’ films and that character.”

When Macchio’s beat-up and bruised LaRusso limps to the mat in “Karate Kid III” to defend his title as Tri-Valley karate champ, the actor said it will probably be the last time.

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“I signed a three-picture deal, so I was obligated to do I, II and II,” Macchio said. “I think we’ve maintained the integrity and the honesty through all these films, and they’ve never tried to be something more than what they are, which is a study of two friends.

“But right now my instinct is to move on to other things. I feel that I’ve closed a chapter in my life and also a chapter in Daniel’s life. Daniel is a part of me--a part I’d like to shake loose, although never completely lose. I can’t feasibly foresee myself just playing this kid getting beat up again and prevailing in the end.”


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