When Cobra Kai audiences were reintroduced to Terry Silver, the uber-self-indulgent, over-the-top villain of The Karate Kid Part III, in the show's fourth season 30 years after his film debut, they were shocked to discover how mellowed-out and Zen-minded the character had become, and many were clamoring for him to break bad. And break bad he did, in spades, even executing an epic betrayal of his longtime war buddy and the show's enduring protagonist John Kreese (Martin Kove).
All of this left actor Thomas Ian Griffith — an accomplished martial artist himself — plenty of room in the show's fifth season to fill the Cobra Kai dojo with Terry's particular brand of menace and mind games, once again tormenting Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) through psychological means just as much as through physical showdowns as they vie for control of the soul of the Valley's karate community.
"Those action scenes…what interests me more than just the physicality of that is what's the psychology of that?" Griffith tells Metacritic. "I get to really attack not just [Daniel] but everything he stands for in this whole Miyagi-do and his way of teaching, and to say, 'Where is it now?' And when he crosses that line, now you're playing on my field and it makes it easier for me."
In the wake of one of Cobra Kai's most wildly entertaining (and most critically acclaimed) seasons to date, Griffith, who kicked off his film acting career when he entered the Karate Kid franchise, joined Metacritic for a look back at Terry Silver's brutal bid to take Daniel down the darkest path yet and whether, after fully embracing his inner evil, if there is a road to redemption for Terry Silver.
You got to start the fifth season with a Terry Silver who's fully back on the dark side. How was that shift and really leaning into just how malevolent this guy can be?
The fun part was after the betrayal, at the end of Season 4, Terry realized that Chris had a weakness, was not living up to the philosophy of Cobra Kai and all the way we lived our lives and what we committed our lives to. And so Terry realized, "All right, I have to steer this ship myself and do what I consider the right way to be done." And it's winning that tournament, I think, that put him in that place where, 30-something years ago on Karate Kid III, what if they had won and he got to open all his dojos and make that dream come true? So, he is really picking up right where he left off all those years ago.
Do you feel that every little victory that Terry gets makes him take another step toward being even darker?
It's funny because I think he's, in his mind, taking that step forward and doing the right thing — the right thing according to him. And it continually backfires, in the way his loyalty with other people's constantly being tested and being thwarted, and that makes him go a little further and take things a little further. And so, it sort of snowballs on him. And then once he's committed, there's no looking back: There's only one way and he's on that path. And for him, it's almost his survival, so he's going to stay on that path at all cost.
And he really embraces the head games that we know him for from Karate Kid III. And it must have been a lot of fun to dig into that side of him and to play those scenes again with Ralph Macchio.
That's the beauty of the writing and the creators. And it was something we spoke about in depth when just even bringing Terry back, to say what makes him tick and what makes him different and how has he evolved in all these years and what has he been doing and that way of his manipulation. I think first of all, it's something that's at the core of who he is. But also, there's truth in what he says and what he's trying to do. "Oh, is he really trying to be Daniel's friend? Is he really trying to be his wife's friend? Does he have a case in what he's saying?"
And I think the writers were always so smart that they brought it back to, in the madness there's always that little bit of truth in reality for him. So, we can all sort relate to it and go, "Well, wait a second, does he have a point?" It's not just the mustache-twirling lunatic. That's what I love about it, and that was all in the writing that the guys presented to me.
And all these years later, Terry gets to kick Daniel's ass. Tell me about that scene.
Obviously we're like kids in a candy store! We're excited by it and a little nervous going in — Ralph is committed as I am — to saying we're going to do everything or as much as we can — stunt guys, stand aside! They're fantastic, the choreography was great. He was a great partner in that to say, "Look, this is something I've done my whole life. I'm going to come at your heart. I'm not going to hurt you. I have a great control." And that's easy to say [but] It's really hard to be on the receiving end saying, "I'm going to trust that, at 6' 4," this monster's coming at you at full force." And Ralph was just fantastic, he just rose to the occasion and he did a great job.
If we approach it like an acting scene, what's the beginning, middle and end? What is our objective going in? And when I see the weakness of going, "Oh, he sort of lost the Miyagi-Do philosophy — it sort of went out the window, because of his anger and personal pain and angst and everything he's going through," oh my God, the door's wide open. And Terry, of course — they've created such a smart character — he can just zero in on that. And so, that's what I was most excited for.
Was it a pretty major tactical error on Terry's part to draw Daniel's wife, Amanda, into it? Because I feel like she's his willpower match in many ways.
Being married to a strong woman, I think is always a tactical mistake to bring a strong woman into the situation. She's fantastic, though. Our scenes were great; she just killed it. And again, it's almost like that's a little sparring between Terry and Daniel's wife, because she gave it back, and you're trying to one up each other. He was dead honest saying, "I want to bring this type of karate to the world. It's what kids need right now, and that's my commitment. Oh, and by the way, he sent one of his assassins to come shake up my school." It's like, "What?" So, again, he knows just what to lay in there as that little stinger to rock their world.
As it gets to that final confrontation, you just see Terry's right on the brink of being in control and completely out of control.
Whereas midseason you saw Daniel lose his way in terms of his martial arts and his teachings, the exact same reverse happened to Terry at the end. Everything started to become overwhelming, and he got outside of what he preached and taught and became much more of the madman. And then I think that's when Daniel took advantage. So, it was a great yin-yang for the whole season, I thought.
First of all, Yuji this season was just a fantastic partner, and there was something so electric about [it] being the baddie from Karate Kid II and the baddie from Karate Kid III. And that first time we faced off, it really was electric. I mean, just as an actor I was feeling this like, "OK let's go!" And you just felt in the air, the atmosphere changed.
And even the creators, who are just fan boys of the whole franchise and know everything about every character, have their phones out and they're shooting rehearsals going, "Oh my God!" This is a dream come true for them — finally these two people clashing. He was a great partner, and again, we approached it [as] "Where are we at mentally?" What are the objectives of both of them, what do we both want, the give and take of that, as well as all the physical stuff.
And then you have the whole physical side with these incredible stunt actors, incredible fight choreographer, Don Lee and Ken Barefield, the stunt coordinator. They do a magnificent job. As you saw, the fights were off the charts this season, and to do it in the amount of time we had was, it's always challenging.
And then when we wanted to come up with something really special between that finale with Chozen and Terry: "Ah, I'm really good at swords." And Don Lee, the fight choreographer, was a weapons expert. We're going into a little more of a danger factor because now somebody could get really hurt here. So we had to be really careful, yet you want to be able to sell it. So that trust and creating that atmosphere for us to work in was just paramount. But also it just made it come to life.
In Season 4, we saw new dimensions to Terry: the kinder, gentler version of him, gradually eclipsed by the old Terry and all his hurts and grudges and anger. We don't get any glimmer of potential redemption in this season. What are your thoughts about that aspect of him?
It's funny, it was sort of like a retrograded version of what they had done with the other characters because they brought Terry on as someone who had put in so much work into his life to step away from that world. He had his music — the commitment to the way he plays the piano — [and] that takes hours and hours of a time alone to develop that kind of skill. And the way he collected art and where he lived in these beautiful vistas with ocean views. So he filled his life with these beautiful distractions and then Kreese comes back and pulls that one string. And what I love about Terry Silver is that loyalty brought him back into the world, as much as he knows this was crazy, [that] what we did back in the '80s and '90s was wrong.
In Season 4, when he walks in and sees Daniel that first time [at] the dojo, he apologizes and says, "I was a monster, I'm sorry. I was so over the top, and I please accept my apology." And then when he doesn't, it's like, "Oh, I just put myself out there and now…" So it starts to eat away at him, and then he's slowly being brought back into this world.
So is there a goodness and a love and compassion? I really believe there is. I think you have to approach every character without judgment and find the commonality for what you can play and what you can relate to. And he just enjoys a good challenge. I think, of course, you can't play a character without redemption. I don't think he's going to get it in this series [though] — at least I went in with that attitude.
He's pretty defeated at the end of Season 5, and yet I think it's safe to say it would be a big mistake to count Terry Silver out at any point in the game.
I don't know. All I can say [is] it's been an incredible ride; it's such an honor for me to do it. Karate Kid III was my first film. I was so green, I was a New York actor, and John Avildsen, the director, took a chance on me and he wanted to create this archetypal over-the-top villain. I know it's by no means a great film, but for me, being my first movie, I just look back at it with such pride because it's like, "God, I just went for it! I trusted the director and just went for it." And against all odds you go, "That's kind of brave."
So, for me, it always was a positive thing. Now obviously, I didn't have to carry the weight of the franchise. I went on to other things and lived my life and it was a great experience. But for that role to be the role that brings me back to acting all these years later, I mean, that is full circle! It doesn't get better than that.
Get to Know Thomas Ian Griffith:
Griffith made his big screen debut as the villainous Terry Silver in The Karate Kid Part III (Metascore: 36), launching a long on-screen career that includes Vampires (42). He also served as a writer-producer on TV projects including Grimm (75) and Dolly Parton's Christmas On the Square (51).