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Why'd Terry Silver's return work on 'Cobra Kai'? Thomas Ian Griffith says 'everybody's in on the joke'

Terry Silver's still over-the-top. It's just a different kind of over-the-top.

By Matthew Jackson
Cobra Kai S4 PRESS

The Karate Kid franchise is many things, but one thing it's never been is particularly subtle. This is a story that started with a kid who wanted to do something about the bullies in his life, and then grew into a multi-part saga in which karate tournaments have essentially become the most important thing in the world for multiple generations of kids, not to mention the thing that can doom or redeem them along the way. 

Within that world, though, Cobra Kai has found a whole range of emotions to mine over the course of its four seasons, not just for its original star Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and his journey to putting his life back together, but for Karate Kid characters both new and old. One of those old characters, Thomas Ian Griffith's The Karate Kid Part III villain Terry Silver, made his triumphant return to the franchise for Season 4 of the hit Netflix series, adding a new layer of legacy character drama to the narrative. But the Terry Silver of 1989 is not the Terry Silver of 2022, and for Griffith that meant doing a little adjusting while keeping Terry's original persona at least somewhat intact.

If you remember The Karate Kid Part III, you know that Terry was arguably the most over-the-top villain in the entire franchise, an ultra-rich, smirking monster with a slicked-back ponytail who's all attack, all the time. Speaking to Vulture about returning to the character for the first time in decades, Griffith explained that Terry's original behavior was perhaps a bit too much for Cobra Kai, particularly when he got a monologue to explain how much cocaine the character used to do back in the '80s. No, for Cobra Kai, Terry required a different kind of over-the-top-ness, inspired in part by his sheer commitment to teen karate competitions when he could be doing...literally anything else. 

"To bring that back now, I don’t think that would’ve worked. But when I read the first script [of season four], I thought, 'This is it,'" Griffith said. "The monologue where I’m talking about doing the blow, and the absurdity of this. I was reminded that everybody’s in on the joke. It’s totally ridiculous, this billionaire coming back. It was ridiculous back then, and it sort of still is, but that’s the premise of the show. 'I’m going to stop everything and come back and my world is going to be consumed with a high-school karate tournament in the Valley.' And then within that world — and I think this is what the show does so well — you have all those characters commit to the seriousness and the importance of what’s happening. That’s why I think it works."

That commitment to preserving who the character was while adapting who he is for the current iteration of the franchise also extended to the fight scenes, which Griffith volunteered to do himself when he realized that, as a lifelong martial arts practitioner, he could still deliver kicks as quickly as the show's stunt performers.

"I approach fight scenes just like I would a regular scene — to make sure it’s character-based, that it has the right emotional beats," Griffith said. "And then these guys, Don Lee and Ken Barefield, the stunt coordinator and the fight choreographer, they’re fantastic. I set it up from the beginning, I said, 'I’m very specific with what I do. This is a world I know very well.' So they would show me their ideas after talking to the creators and writers, and then it was such a collaboration. I’d say, 'Well, this is what I'd like to do here, let’s alter this,' and that made it so much fun, because they have respect for what I do, but I know how talented they are, so I want to hear their ideas.

"The goal always was to keep Terry’s style true to who that character is. It’s a bigger-than-life character, this guy. It should be that explosiveness. He’s always this coiled snake, in a way. Especially in how I move — even though I’m a big guy, I have a certain way of moving that’s very hard to mimic. And of course as fighters — most of them are incredible martial artists, by the way — they love that."

Cobra Kai Seasons 1-4 is now streaming on Netflix.