Under 30

I can't complain but sometimes I still do

Sunday, February 12, 2006

New blog feature: Who's that again? William "Billy" Zabka

The new blog feature "Who's That Again?" pays tribute to the character actors we recognize but don't know by name. These stalwart professionals might not be movie stars, but they have distinguished themselves in the history of cinema with their workmanlike chops and ability to randomly pop up in crappy yet endlessly entertaining movies.

Let's say you were making a teen movie in the mid 1980s and you needed a preppie-looking guy to play the a-hole of the school. You would look no further than William "Billy" Zabka, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed and black-hearted master of acting like a grade-A teenaged jerk. Zabka made his name as the sociopathic Johnny in "The Karate Kid" (along with another Under 30 favorite, Martin Kove), and continued his bully hit streak in "Back to School" and "Just One of the Guys." After that, he fell of the map (reapparing in 2003 as a screenwriter for the Oscar-nominated short film "Most"), but like James Dean, he created such an iconic image in three films that people still remember him today. For instance, Zabka ranked No. 97 on VH1's recent top 100 list of the top teen stars of all-time.

A textbook Aryan straight out of Hitler's wettest dreams, Zabka was handsome the same way high school soccer players and college frat boys are handsome. (Zabka actually is an accomplished wrestler, according to IMDB.com.) Beneath the All-American facade was a monster capable of any number of weasly acts, whether it was intimidating recent transplants from New Jersey or destroying Elizabeth Shue's boombox with his motorcycle. (Zabka means "little frog" in Czech.)

What's noteworthy about Zabka is how well he embodied the rich, stupid, sadistic jocks everybody hates and yet still consider popular. Only James Spader can summon such a potent rush of instant dislike in an audience by merely leaning up against an expensive car and smirking.

And yet, Zabka is not without nuance. Take the emotional climax of "The Karate Kid" when Daniel-san kicks Johnny in the face and wins the tournament. Most of us remember Daniel-san being lifted up by the ecstatic crowd and held in a freeze-frame. But right before that happens, Zabka's Johnny makes it a point to hand Daniel-san the trophy, a wholly unexpected sign of good sportsmanship. And, could it be that Zabka is actually shedding a tear in this scene? He is! With that brilliantly subtle acting touch, Zabka gives Johnny the soul screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen and director John G. Avildsen denied him for two hours. It's the actor's gift to make the audience empathize with those we cannot otherwise empathize. Zabka, you humanized the seemingly soulless jock. For that, we recognize you. Take a bow, Billy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

very enjoyable. i like this new feature.

he hands him the trophy eh? and wasn't it supposed to be a death match? or was that karate kid 2.. - m

1:06 PM  
Blogger paul said...


1:24 PM  

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