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William Zabka -
My Tribute to an Underappreciated Star of the 80's

posted by Dave on 6/19/01

I must admit that I have wanted to write this article for quite some time; I just was always putting it off because I was always worried that I would not be able to do the man justice. You see, when people ask me what my favorite movie trilogy is (and as owner and writer for the best pop culture oriented webzine out there... I get this question at least three or four times a day).. one of the answers at the top of my list, is a trilogy that most people don't think of too often when it comes to movie trilogies. I'm talking about:

The William Zabka: Complete 80's Asshole Trilogy

The Karate Kid, Just One of the Guys, and Back to School are all great movies... but in my opinion they wouldn't be nearly as effective or entertaining if they didn't have William Zabka playing the "villain". He, in essence, was so damn good at portraying the upper middle class, good looking, popular, white male in a negative light... that this type of antithesis for the underdog hero is still a staple in teen movies to this very day.

Let's take a look at the three movies involved in this trilogy... and what Mr. Zabka brought to his characters in each respective one.

The Movie: Back to School 1986
The Character: Chas Osborn

Back to School was, in reality, a Rodney Dangerfield vehicle with his character, Thornton Melon, being the main focus...  but at the same time, it also had the underlying teen plot of Thornton's son, Jason, trying to gain acceptance on the school diving team and trying to win the girl of his dreams... Valerie Desmond.

What could possibly stand in Jason's way? Why...none other than, Chas Osborn... diver extraordinaire. Not only was Chas a star athlete... but as Robert Downey Jr.'s character, Derek Lutz, gleefully called him to his face... Chas was also "an elitist fraternity scumbag". A frat guy and an athlete... in 80's movies, that meant that this man just had to be simply evil.

Out of the three movies in the trilogy, this one had Zabka playing his character the most one-dimensionally. It also was the least realistic "losing the girl to the underdog", quite possibly in movie history. Jason Melon ending up with Valerie Desmond is about as realistic as Chris Klein ending up with Katie Holmes in real life. No, wait...

Vintage Zabka Moment of the Movie:

Right before Jason is set to make his first dive as an official member of the diving team (Towel boy no more!)... Chas insinuates to him that the only reason that he made the diving team is because Jason's father paid off the diving coach. This causes Jason to screw up his dive and costs the team the match. This isn't the vintage Zabka moment however. This is simply the brilliant lead in to it. For you see, later in the evening at Thornton Melon's big dorm party... Jason is distraught and when Osborn arrives with Valerie, he purposely goads Jason into taking a swing at him. That my friends is a textbook move. If you are in fact the bully... the best way to not look like a bully in front of the girl that you and the underdog are vying for... is to make the other guy look like the asshole. Take the punch... and do the "job" as professional wrestling lingo dictates. Now the underdog is both unattractive and an asshole... while you still are an asshole.. but at least have your looks. Make sense? Nah.. I'm just reaching here. Or am I? (cue the mysterious music)

Writer's Note: in the past month and a half I've lost my apartment... my job... and at this exact moment... my mind!! (cue the carnival music)

Best Zabka Line:

Now sure everybody remembers Thornton Melon doing his world famous "Triple Lindy" dive that he learned as a youngster on Atlantic City's steel pier (Folks, that came strictly from memory. Shoot me.).... but the opportunity to do this dive never would have arisen if it weren't for Chas Osborn getting "a really bad cramp". When Jason questions the source of said cramp with the "maybe it's menstrual" comment... Osborn retorts with the shot heard round the world:

"Screw you, Melon!!"

If there's an Oscar caliber moment in Zabka's career... the delivery of this line just might be it. The passion; the enunciation; the feeling behind it. Simply magical. Watch it. Rewind it. Watch it again. Treasure it.

Next up....

The Movie: Just One of the Guys 1985
The Character: Greg Tolan

While in Back to School... Zabka played his character the most one-dimensionally... in Just One of the Guys he plays his chracter the most obnoxiously... but at the same time, there's a little more to it... because there are some serious homoerotic overtones going on. Is it overtones or undertones? You be the grammatical judge:

The Israeli Grammatical Judge: "Oy vey!! This writer is half-Jewish? I am ashamed. Being that my only purpose for being here is to be a stereotype... can somebody go get me a bagel with a lotta lox. Lotta lox.

When we first come across Greg Tolan, it is upon the main character, Terri's, first day at her new school. For those who have never seen this movie... basically the plot is that a hot wannabe journalism student thinks that her article about her school's cafeteria did not win first prize, solely because she was a girl... and not because the subject matter of her article was anything but groundbreaking.

As opposed to writing about 80's movies? Now that's original, Dave.

Good point...

Anyways... Terri decides that the only way to prove that her article is deserving, is to go to the other high school in town dressed as a guy... and submit it there. Now in modern times, all she simply had to do was cry discrimination and she probably could've not only won the contest... but gotten some money out of the deal as well. This is the 80's however... and since girls are still socially acceptable as sex objects... a non-operational sex change and transfer of schools is clearly Terri's only recourse. Actually, no matter what decade this takes place in... the plot makes no sense... but as long as Terri's brother looks at his penis and says, "Sorry Spike."... this movie is a-ok by me.

After scrolling up and seeing what the hell I was even talking about in the first place.... let's get back to those homoerotic something-tones.

When we first see Greg Tolan, it's upon Terri's first day at her new school. Upon entering the building, looking eerily like Ralph Macchio, she sees Greg and two of his disciples picking on a student. Not only is he being a bully... but folks, he's exercising at the same time. You see, giving a wedgie and repeatedly pulling your victim up and down is "great for the deltoids", Greg explains to his buddies. Upon seeing Terri, Greg exclaims, "Just what we need... another pussy.". He then proceeds to pick Terri up and throws her into a pricker bush, telling his buddies, "Another good exercise for strength... the pussy toss for distance.".

So where is the homeroticism involved? Well, if you watch this scene closely, you'll notice that Greg is eating an apple... and when he goes to toss Terri, his friend not only holds his apple... but polishes it for him. Polishes it!!! Apple polishing!! Then his boys put their arms around him as they walk away... As Big Ern McCracken once said.... "Crrreeeepy.".

Now of course, Zabka's foil can't be only a girl... so enter Rick Morehouse. Don't enter him literally, cause that might hurt.

Rick is the guy who Terri takes under her/his wing in order to try and understand the male psyche. In the process, she helps Rick become "cool".... cool enough to help him make a run at Greg's girlfriend, Deborah Strohbridge.

Now I must admit that of all three of Zabka's adversaries in the trilogy, Clayton Rohner's portrayal of Rick Morehouse is probably the main reason why I almost root for him the most out of the three Zabka rivals. I especially love the part when he tells Terri how he needs to be alone when he listens to James Brown.... cause he needs to dance along to it. This is kind of like how I have to be shitfaced and in front of large crowds of people when I listen to Michael Jackson... cause I need to dance along to it and make a complete jackass out of myself. Also, it's preferable if a video camera is around... so weeks later I can sit stone sober and shake my head in shame at the performance.

Throughout the course of the movie, Greg also on numerous occasions displays another hidden talent... table pressing. To say he was not the school janitor's best friend is an understatement along the lines of me saying that I'd want to go out barhopping with Rocky Dennis as my wingman.

Greg isn't content with just flipping over individual's lunch trays... he has to lift entire tables worth to get the most bang for his buck.

"most bang for your buck - See also: Courtney Love at a post-Oscars bash"

kkid3.jpg (4421 bytes)
Getting ready for the table press!

Eventually Greg's sophomoric antics wear a little thin on Deb... and this conversation takes place:

Greg: "I'm gonna beat the shit out of you, Morehouse!"

Deb: "You know.. Terri was right about you. You are an asshole."

Greg: "That asshole called me an asshole?" (one of my personal favorites)

Deb: "Oh what... you want to beat him up too, right?"

Greg: "No.. I want to buy him an ice cream." (and the hits just keep on coming)

This culminates with Deb accepting Rick's offer to go the prom... thuse setting the stage for the movie's finale. Now sure, it seems Greg has gotten himself a good looking date to replace Deb... and he's even elected King of the Prom. (By the way... when his name is announced, watch his whole body motion, including the pumping of both fists. Priceless.)

kkid2.jpg (5507 bytes)
I dub thee.. "King of All 80's Villains"

None of this was enough to satisfy Greg for the evening however... and later on in the night, when Rick kisses Deb right in front of him... Greg utters the best non-voiced line of all time by simply mouthing the words, "You're dead." in Rick's direction. Of course, this whole situation eventually had to lead to fisticuffs... and when that comes, so does the Zabka Line of the Movie:

kkid1.jpg (6345 bytes)
"Nice tux. You'll look good buried in it."

Of course, in true Zabka style, Greg loses the fight and is last seen laying on the beach in a punch bowl. Anybody that's a true fan of this movie knows that this isn't the movie's finale however. The true finale occurs moments later when Terri professes her love to Rick and tells him that she's a girl. Rick's reaction of "Riiiight.... and I'm Cyndi Lowwwper" might be the best delivered mispronunciation of somebody's name ever seen on celluloid.

Seriously, if anybody ever tells you something completely unbelievable, respond with, "Riiiight.... and I'm Cyndi Lowwwper.". If they immediately recognize that line as being from "Just One of the Guys"... keep that person as a friend for life. Cherish them.

Oh yeah... and Terri shows Rick her boobies too... and while they are indeed a fine pair of breasteses, in my opinion, Rick's pronunciation of Cyndi Lauper's name still ranks just a little higher on my list of memorables.

Last and certainly not least in this trilogy is the role that started it all:

The Movie: The Karate Kid 1984
The Character: Johnny Lawrence

Now before I start this in depth look at Zabka's portrayal of Johnny... I pose this question to you:

kkid5.jpg (11311 bytes)
"Can you really blame anyone for wanting to beat the shit out of this kid?"

It's a shame that in the subsequent movies of the trilogy, only the extreme negative characteristics of Johnny, was Zabka allowed to explore. For you see, in The Karate Kid, Zabka's character, Johnny Lawrence, is a tragic hero.

We get no backstory about the kids who were actually in John Kreese's teenage militia, the Cobra Kai... but one has to assume that before Kreese got his hooks in these kids, they weren't half bad. I mean, Ali (Ali with an "i") used to go out with Johnny... and when we first see Johnny in this movie, on the beach, he is simply trying to talk to his ex-girlfriend. Of course, when Daniel Larusso intervenes, then the excitement begins and Johnny gives him a nice little beating... even taking the time to utter The Zabka Line of the Movie:

"How about you, hero? Have enough?"

It is with the utterance of this line, calling Daniel a "hero," that we see that subconsciously Johnny knows he's being an asshole... and Daniel is in fact doing the right thing in defending Ali.

On a totally unrelated note: One thing I never understood about the plotline of Karate Kid is this... Now Daniel's new friend, Freddie, invites him to this beach party... where Daniel picks up the most popular girl in school... and then proceeds to stand up to a bunch of bullies to defend her... while everybody stands around doing nothing. After getting his ass kicked, Freddie's friends look at Daniel as a joke and Freddie subsequently is never seen talking to Daniel again. Does this make any sense? The kid just picked up the most popular girl in school. Wouldn't he be somebody you'd want to hang around with... solely to bottom feed off of some future scraps he might be able to bring to your group of friends?

Now while on the surface, The Karate Kid comes across as a basic Rocky-esque triumph of a kid beating the odds with the help of a wise mentor.... there is something deeper going on.

This is a movie about growing up in the 80's with the lack of a father figure. It shows the difference the influence of adult males can have in a child's life....

Who's to say that if Daniel had never gotten into the fight in the beginning with the Cobra Kai boys... and instead showed up on his own to Kreese's dojo shortly after arriving in town... that he too wouldn't have become one of the Cobra Kai militia?

It's interesting to see how Johnny acts around his sensei and his fellow students is very different than the Johnny who's dancing with Ali at the country club. He even goes as far as to say, "Maybe we can call a truce."

This is in stark contrast to the robotic Johnny who's beating the shit out of Daniel outside of his apartment complex. The Johnny who exclaims, "I'll decide when he's had enough. The enemy deserves no mercy." He is merely emulating what he has been taught by Kreese.

This is why Miyagi takes Daniel to the Cobra Kai dojo to lay down the challenge for the tournament. Miyagi sees that Daniel is not the only victim... The kids doing this to Daniel are also victims... because obviously the method in which they are being taught karate is not right.

When Miyagi and Daniel arrive at the dojo, we even hear Kreese programming his kids:

Kreese's motto: We do not train to be merciful here. Mercy is for the weak. Here on the street in competition, he is the enemy. An enemy deserves no mercy.

kkid4.jpg (10425 bytes)
"You're a pushy little bastard aint'cha?... but I like that ... I like that."

At the end of the movie, Daniel is not the only winner...

kkid6.jpg (20671 bytes)
"Daniel Larusso is going to fight!!"

..but all of the Cobra Kai are winners as well. They are all redeemed. From Bobby's seeing the light by saying, "I'm sorry!" after sweeping Daniel's leg... to Johnny's subsequent passing of the trophy to Daniel while stating, "You're alright, Larusso!"... these kids are saved. They are no longer under Kreese's spell.

The scene at the beginning of Karate Kid II which was shot during the filming of the first movie and should have been used as the true ending of the original.... drove this point home. Miyagi saved these kids, who in essence were good people that just were clouded by an evil adult influence, literally and figuratively.

I thought Zabka's performance was brilliant in this movie. He made you hate him... but at the same time, you almost felt an underlying pity for him. Unfortunately, he made you hate him so well... that this is what his future role's concentrated on... rather than the underlying conflict that made him behave the way he did.

With all of the 1980's nostalgia running rampant... I just wanted to give kudos to an actor that I think is not given enough credit. William Zabka... Thanks for all of the memorable performances. You may have been labeled as the "villain" in your movies... but to me you're a true Hero of the 80's.

Dave
dave@whatever-dude.com
Hero to Nobody


Just wanted to take the time to tell W-D's readers, that if they get the chance, check out these sites:

The No Name Site - A great new site run by some old writing mates of mine: Adam, Josh and Jared.

Explicit-Times An up and coming satire site in the same style of "The Onion" run by an old boss of mine, Tomm. There. I linked you!! I told you I would. ;)


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