fbpx

Martin Kove, from Brooklyn to the Wild West and “Cobra Kai”

After 50 years in show business, Kove is best known for his role as Kreese, a Vietnam veteran with a lust for control, a talent for leading youth and a mind full of haunting memories.
[additional-authors]
January 19, 2022
Martin Kove stars as Sensei John Kreese in season four of the Netflix hit series, “Cobra Kai.” Photo by Ray Kachatorian

Don’t tell actor Martin Kove that he plays the villain in the Netflix series, “Cobra Kai.” In his view, his character, Sensei John Kreese, is merely “misunderstood.” 

While his portrayal of Kreese in the original “Karate Kid” movies may have seemed like a clear antagonist in a “good guys vs. bad guys” setup, the continuation of the franchise as “Cobra Kai” has him playing a character who is quite complicated—neither completely good nor irredeemably bad.

After 50 years in show business, Kove is best known for his role as Kreese, a Vietnam veteran with a lust for control, a talent for leading youth and a mind full of haunting memories. Unlike his character, Kove had quite an enriching childhood. 

Adopted into a conservative Jewish home in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, Kove was an only child. Film and television were ever-present for his parents. Once a month, the family would go see spectacles such as “King of Kings,” “Ben Hur,” and “The Ten Commandments” in theaters in Manhattan and Long Island, and at home, they’d often watch Western shows. Kove’s parents would give him toy guns to emulate his favorite films with his friends.

“I would supply everybody on Union Street with air rifles and Fanner 50s and all this stuff because I was spoiled and my parents were buying me all these fun guns,” he told the Journal. “We’d go outside and run around the streets and have fun.”

Martin Kove and son Jesse at the Hole in the Wall Ranch in Kaycee, Wyoming.
Martin Kove and son Jesse at the Hole in the Wall Ranch in Kaycee, Wyoming.

Kove’s mother was a bookkeeper and his father worked in a hardware store. His parents were “frightened people,” he said, who had grown up in the Depression era, but they also were encouraging of their son. Little Marty’s imagination would run wild after watching so many “horse operas” on television. 

Kove’s life forever changed when he took his first role in a fourth-grade school play called, “The Golden Goose.”

“I’ll never forget that,” he said. “That’s when I got that feeling that you get on stage that this is for me.” 

Kove’s exposure to acting and Western films and television as a youth set him on a path that he’s still on today.  

His own journey from New York to the wild West started half a century ago, when he earned his first film roles. Having grown up in the concrete jungle of the East Coast, he remembered the awe of being in the full-color presence of the mountains, dirt and chaparrals. Up until then, he had only seen Western terrain in the films and television he adored. 

He vividly remembered the first time he drove through the wilderness with that childlike imagination as an actor. The year was 1974, and 28-year-old Kove was driving from Los Angeles to Tucson to film a movie called “White Line Fever” starring Slim Pickens. In a Mercedes 190 SL convertible with the top down, he recalled listening to an 8-track of music by Mantovani. 

“It was the closest thing that I could find to Ennio Morricone,” Kove said. Morricone scored over 400 films, including some of the most iconic scores to quintessential Western films such as “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “Once Upon a Time in the West.” 

“Driving through Death Valley, blasting Mantovani’s ‘101 Strings,’ trying to get into my Italian Western mood and seeing all those monoliths and hills, I felt like I was in Monument Valley doing a John Ford picture,” he said. Ford directed movies like “Stagecoach” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” Kove has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Western genre. 

The scenery and sounds of Western film had such a lasting impact on Kove’s approach to acting throughout his career that after season two of “Cobra Kai” wrapped in 2019, he took showrunners Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald to the Autry Museum of the American West for a concert showcasing Ennio Morricone’s music. He wanted to treat the writers to experiencing the movie music that puts him in the zone. 

According to Kove, in the first half of the 20th century, one-third of all cinema was Westerns, and the influence is still apparent today. During his first appearance on “Cobra Kai,” the guitar music accompanying the scene channeled the intimidating, rugged sounds from a spaghetti Western.

Reflecting on how young film audiences have changed over time, Kove said they are more sophisticated than ever before. 

“They’ve got to see intelligent entertainment. But character-driven pieces like ‘Cobra Kai’ and ‘Karate Kid,’ as much action as there was, as much ‘white hats versus black hats’ as they are, they’re [intelligence]-driven with intelligent problems, especially ‘Cobra Kai.’” 

Kove is intent on keeping the love and lessons of the genre alive, both at work and at home. He’s thrilled that one of his twin children, Jesse, is growing out his beard to act in a dream role in an upcoming Western film. And between filming projects, Kove loves playing with his four-year old grandchild on his 11-acre ranch near Nashville.

At 75, he is still that excited kid galloping in his living room in Crown Heights. And year round, he stays in top physical shape as he and Jesse spend several hours a week with their own strength sensei, trainer Nino Puell.

Kove will also be joined by Jesse and twin sister Rachel in a new podcast they are launching this week on the PodcastOne network, “Cobra Koves.” The podcast will feature the father and his grown kids breaking down episodes and talking about pop culture, bullying and personal development, according to the podcast’s trailer

It’s not lost on Kove for a moment that he gets to bring his enthusiasm for old time Westerns into a modern-day television show that, in the first two weeks after its season four premiere, was viewed over 200 million hours on Netflix.

It’s not lost on Kove for a moment that he gets to bring his enthusiasm for old time Westerns into a modern-day television show that, in the first two weeks after its season four premiere, was viewed for  over 200 million hours on Netflix. 

“[There’s] this phenomenon,” he said. “The adults want to have their kids watch this classic movie that they grew up with called ‘Karate Kid,’ and the kids say, ‘No daddy, you gotta watch this series ‘Cobra Kai!’ And then the parents watch it. And then all of a sudden, they tell the kids, ‘Now you can watch ‘Karate Kid,’ because it’s really as exciting as the series.’” n

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Are We Going to Stop for Lunch?

So far, the American Jewish community has been exceptional in its support for Israel. But there is a long road ahead, and the question remains: will we continue with this support?

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.