Martin Kove is best known for his role as John Kreese, the cold-blooded sensei behind the Cobra Kai dojo in the Karate Kid movies. He’s back in that role again in the YouTube original series Cobra Kai, which brings us back in touch with all those old characters (and their ongoing rivalry) in the present day. Martin brings not only new depth, but also his love of cigars, to the role.
Can you remember the first cigar you ever had?
Of course. I tried my first cigar when I arrived in L.A.; it was a Royal Jamaican. But my cigar history really began years later when I was doing a movie in Canada and experienced Cuban Hoyo de Monterrey cigars. The prop guy would literally give me the Cubans and cut them in thirds for continuity, you know? You’ve got to match the size every take. Well, it was such a crime to cut up these cigars. And so I went and I got a box of cheap Dominican cigars and I traded the prop guy. That was my first experience having my own box of cigars. They were the greatest cigars. Just sensational. I smoke mostly Cuban cigars now.
Do you have any go-to non-Cuban brands?
I smoke Arturo Fuente Short Stories. I also smoke Camachos. And when I’m on the set of Cobra Kai, they buy me La Gloria Cubana. That’s what I smoke.
Have you had relationships or connections on set made deeper by cigars?
John Milius (screenwriter, director and producer known for films like Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now, The Wind and the Lion, Conan the Barbarian, among others) is a friend; I got married to the soundtrack of The Wind and the Lion. We used to go trap shooting. With John, it’s all about pizza, art, music, movies and cigars.
When I first started working with him, we were doing The Twilight Zone. John wrote and directed a Twilight Zone story. While they were setting the camera up for a different angle, we would stroll around with our cigars. You need 20 minutes or half an hour to set up, but we’d end up taking an hour and a half as we smoked. They had to have a production assistant watch us with a walkie talkie. “They’re turning down on street P. Now they’re turning down on street C. I’ve got them. Don’t worry about it. I got John and Marty.”
All this government crackdown on cigars and there you were creating a new job just by smoking! How important is it to have cigars you enjoy on set when they’re props?
Nothing’s worse than smoking a cheap cigar on a movie set that they just buy because they don’t know shit. If they buy a bad cigar, all of a sudden you’re dizzy and get a headache. So it just has to be a quality cigar.
Let’s talk Cobra Kai. What’s your experience been like reviving characters on YouTube who so many people first met in the ‘80s in movie theaters?
The writers didn’t treat this as a sequel. What they’re doing is picking up our characters 35 later. In my character’s case, John Kreese hasn’t changed; they don’t know where he’s been for 30 years. They don’t tell you where he’s been. He makes up stories and he’s not told the truth about where he’s been except a little bit to Johnny Lawrence. So they treat my character as still the villain.
The public treats us the same, you know? But the fact that they’re able to put us in your living room and not just on the big screen, it puts us in their living room as their pals on a web series. It’s really interesting, especially since the show includes teenagers now. Everybody loves it.
Aside from all the characters from the original movie, there are also new high school aged characters. What’s it like picking up these classic characters’ stories and involving kids who might not have grown up on these movies and experienced that phenomenon for themselves?
I was with my cousin and her 10-year-old girl watching a YouTube press event two of these kids on the cast were doing — Peyton List and Jacob Bertrand. They were previously Disney kids. It was interesting because there wasn’t a lot of depth in regard to the, the source material of what they’re participating in. They’re good. They just get up and do it. But do they spend time in the histrionics of it? I mean, Karate Kid is a religious experience. It’s sacred to a lot of people. And these kids don’t have a sense of the religion that (Cobra Kai) came from.
It’s not negative, though. They’re really good actors. Mary Mouser is terrific as Daniel’s daughter Samantha. She’s great and you know, Peyton and Jacob are great. Xolo Maridueña is great.
I just wonder if kids today will remember the great moments of yesteryear in the cinema, you know?
Pat Morita, who played Mr. Miyagi, died in 2005. But Mr. Miyagi still plays a role here in a way. I think it’s something that’s pulled off really nicely on the show.
The heritage there never leaves. He’s a mentor even though he’s not alive anymore because they make reference to his picture on the wall at various times and Ralph makes reference to Miyagi quite frequently. They went into what they call the salt mines, where they went and got uptakes — basically scenes that were in the movie but cuts that weren’t used. They were takes that the public didn’t see in the movies, and now they’re used to bring back Mr. Miyagi in different moments. They’ll do that maybe once every other episode. So his memory is always brought in from the three movies.
In Cobra Kai, we see sides of your character that didn’t really show much in the Karate Kid movies. Talk about what it was like for you all these years later to have an opportunity to bring all of this depth to John Kreese.
I asked for that straight up. I said, “I really don’t want to play a stoic bad guy. I just don’t want to play a one-dimensional bad guy and I would like you guys to write vulnerability and versatility.” They promised they would and they did. You know, he had that first episode where he brings back the trophy and then the fourth where Johnny follows him to a homeless shelter.
I like to be very emotional as an actor. I’m coming out with this movie called VFW. It’s basically The Expendables in a bar. The camaraderie is so rich and at the end there’s a great deal of courage and vulnerability there and I liked playing that. That sort of role is a lot more fun than just playing a tough ass.
So I know you like for your characters to smoke on camera. But what role does smoking cigars play in your process for developing the characters and preparing for roles?
There’s a whole heritage about cigars. There’s an elegance and a nobility to smoking a cigar that does not exist with a cigarette, does not exist with a pipe. A good cigar is heaven. I think that’s the bottom line. The pages of a book or a script read much richer when I’ve got a cigar in my fingertips.