“The real story’s only just begun.” Those were the chilling final words spoken during the Cobra Kai Season 1 finale, as the disgraced former sensei of the Cobra Kai dojo, John Kreese (Martin Kove), made his first appearance on the series. It had been nearly three decades since Kreese had appeared on-screen in The Karate Kid Part III, but it was instantly clear that the vicious former mentor of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) is as devious as ever.
The actor behind the character, though, is a completely different story. That’s what I learned during a visit to the set of Cobra Kai’s second season. When we sat down to talk just outside of the dojo set, Kove–who introduced himself as Marty–proved to have very little in common with Kreese. Even on this cold day in Atlanta in the final days of production on the season, he was happy and excited about the opportunity to revisit this character.
“Working here, and the things that [Cobra Kai explores] of why and what has happened to [Kreese] in the last 30 years, it’s incredible,” he said. “And it’s so much fun to act.”
It’s not just Kove having fun, though. Bringing Kreese back to life on the series–you may remember Johnny’s Season 1 claim that his mentor was dead–allowed producers, who are longtime Karate Kid fans, the opportunity to explore the character in ways the movies never had the luxury.
“It’s like you get the Emperor from Star Wars back. This guy embodies the dark side of karate,” executive producer Josh Heald told GameSpot. “There’s not a single moment in any of the first three movies where he’s not this foreboding, scary bad guy. And so he brings all of that to the table as a character and here, in the series, we get to peel back the layers and understand in a real world, how could somebody be like this?”
That question is one Kove has thought about quite a bit over the years. “He doesn’t believe that karate is a defensive art. Karate is an offensive sport,” the actor explained. “And he believes that your opponent, if he’s not on the ground, pretty much unconscious, then you haven’t won yet. That came out of Vietnam, that came out of where our soldiers and our boys weren’t really allowed to win, because John Kreese, which I’ve talked about many times in panels and all, was always a champion, until he went to Vietnam, where our boys were not allowed to win. He vowed when he came back he’d never lose again and neither would his students.”
That, Kove believes, is where Cobra Kai’s no mercy declaration was born. “Mercy is for the weak and here on the streets [when] someone confronts you, he is your enemy and enemy deserves no mercy,” he said.
Cobra Kai is a different place in 2019 than it was when we last saw Kreese in 1989, though. When Johnny relaunched the dojo in Season 1, it was easy to see his vision differed from his mentor’s. “The only way that I could, as an actor, justify Johnny [relaunching the dojo is] that he’s trying to approach it differently and [hoping] for a different result,” William Zabka, the actor who plays Johnny, explained. “So he’s definitely not Kreese. He’s Johnny Lawrence with all of his history and all of his tics and challenges and dreams and all that, trying to help these kids genuinely, and he believes it.”
And with Johnny at the helm, Kreese is going to play nice–for now, at least. “He’s willing to obey the rules, he’s willing to try and gain the confidence of Johnny by being a human being,” Kove said. “And he doesn’t have a problem coming in, be an assistant sensei–even though he created Cobra Kai–as long as the values of Cobra Kai stay as he created them, which you would think, Johnny being his best student, would maintain.”
Of course, while Johnny may be trying to run a very different Cobra Kai, you can still expect to see Kreese up to some of his old tricks. “He brings a whole other flavor to the show which we really enjoy and you get to see him interacting with students of today, his former student in Johnny, and you get to [witness] Daniel LaRusso’s seeing Sensei Kreese again for the first time in a long time,” executive producer John Hurwitz teased.
At least as far as Kreese is concerned, he wasn’t kidding when he said, “The real story’s only just begun.” What that means for the future of Johnny Lawrence and the Cobra Kai dojo is something you’ll find out when Cobra Kai premieres Wednesday, April 24, on YouTube Premium.