What the Hell Happened to Ralph Macchio?
In the 1980’s Ralph Macchio was a teen heartthrob. He rose to prominence along with with other hot actors of his generation with roles in iconic movies that are still relevant today. Macchio managed to avoid the Brat Pack label that doomed many of his contemporaries. But he struggled with transitioning to adult roles. In the early nineties, after a small role in one last memorable movie, Macchio faded into obscurity.
What the hell happened?
Like a lot of actors, Macchio started off doing commercials. Here is the future Karate Kid singing and dancing about the “yummier” taste of new Bubble Yum in a 1980 TV spot.
Macchio made his movie debut in the teen comedy, Up the Academy.
Macchio played Chooch Bambalazi, one of four boys sent to a strict military academy. The band of misfit brothers attempt to make the best of their situation with “zany” antics.
Up the Academy was Mad Magazine’s answer to National Lampoon’s Animal House. In 1983, Mad Magazine editor explained how Up the Academy came about:
What happened is that we had a contract with Warner Brothers to put out a Mad movie. It’s like four years old now. They came up with a script that we didn’t like, and then they came up with a script using our scriptwriters that they didn’t like, but meanwhile they threw this script onto our desk… Although there were many things in it that I thought were offensive and should be removed, generally I liked the script. And I thought, ‘Well, in addition to a Mad movie, there’s nothing wrong with having something like Lampoon did with Animal House. Animal House was “Lampoon Presents” and really had nothing to do with the magazine, it was just using their name, and it was a good movie, and it was very successful, and it made Lampoon a lot of money. I guess. So we were going to do the same thing. “Mad Magazine Completely Disassociates Itself from Up the Academy“. But that was too long for them, they can’t think in that many words. They put the damn thing out without all the deletions they had promised to make, which means they’re liars.
Gaines sought to mitigate the damage Up the Academy inflicted on the Mad brand:
“There we were connected with it, and there wasn’t much we could do about it. I paid Warner Brothers 30 grand to take Mad’s name off for television. So for $30,000 we got out of being associated with it on Home Box Office. It won’t say “Mad Magazine Presents” and Alfred E. Neuman won’t be in it. And it was well worth $30,000.”
Mad and Warner Brothers were sister companies under the Time Warner umbrella. After Gaines’ death in 1992, Time Warner took greater control of the magazine. This allowed Warner Brothers to put all of the references to Mad back into future Up the Academy for home video release.
Gaines wasn’t the only one trying to distance himself from Up the Academy. Actor Ron Leibman had his name completely removed from the credits and all promotional materials. Macchio recalled Leibman’s frustration on the set:
“I don’t know why he did the movie. He was very good in it, but making that movie, it was a very weird dynamic. As I say, I was so young and green, and there was a lot of… It just wasn’t a happy set from the adult standpoint. Us kids, we had a good time, but there were problems with production, I think, on that movie.”
Up the Academy was directed by Robert Downey, Sr. Yes, the future Iron Man is his son. Robert Downey Jr had a small uncredited role in the film. He was 13 years old at the time.
The movie was not a hit with critics or audiences. William Gaines sent hand-written apology letters to anyone who wrote the magazine to complain. But Macchio credits his appearance in Up the Academy with furthering his career:
“That was my first part and my first big audition. I got the part, and I just overacted like I’m some young Italian Mafia guy. Thick accent. Hey, listen, it got me the next job! “
“The next job” was a regular role on the TV comedy-drama, Eight is Enough. Macchio joined the show for its final season from 1980-1981.
The show was based on the writings of syndicated newspaper columnist, Thomas Braden who wrote a book about raising his eight kids. In the show, Dick Van Patten played Tom Bradford, a newspaper columnist with eight kids. His wife, Joan, was played by actress Diana Hyland for the first four episodes. Tragically, Hyland was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to be written out of the rest of the season. She passed 12 days after the first episode aired. She was romantically involved with John Travolta at the time.
The show’s second season acknowledged Hyland’s death by making Tom Bradford a widower. In the first episode of the second season, he married a school teacher played by Betty Buckley. Buckley was cast partially because she had played a similar role in the hit movie, Carrie. The show made teen idols of its young stars Grant Goodeve and Willie Aames. Yes, Bibleman was a Tiger Beat sensation once upon a time.
As the young cast matured, Macchio was cast to keep the youth demographic. He played Abby’s orphaned nephew who gets taken in by the Bradford clan. Macchio recalled being cast on the show:
“I was coming right off Up The Academy, and I auditioned for that part, got the network test, and I was on the set of Eight Is Enough in, like, 24 hours. I was just like, “Wow!” And then the actors went on strike for three months that day. I’ll never forget that… I guess at the time, it was like, “Let’s get a Scott Baio type and infuse some youth into the cast of this show in its fifth season.”
Like Goodeve and Aames before him, Macchio started showing up on the covers of teen magazines.
Apparently this issue contained a sexy centerfold of Macchio! I’m sorry. Ralph. No one on this cover has a last name except for Dukes of Hazzard star, John Schneider. I wonder if that’s why he wasn’t subjected to a cheesy Christmas poze.
Unfortunately, nothing in Macchio’s giant Christmas stocking could save Eight is Enough. It was cancelled at the end of the fifth season. But Macchio’s teen heartthrob days were just getting started.
In 1982, Macchio worked in TV movies. He appeared opposite Beau Bridges in Dangerous Company (see clip above). He starred in a CBS Afternoon Playhouse entitled Journey to Survival. And he appeared alongside his TV uncle, Dick Van Patten in the TV drama, High Powder. High Powder also featured several of Van Patten’s own kids.
Posted on April 19, 2014, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actor and tagged dancing with the stars, eight is enough, entertainment, movies, my cousin vinny, ralph macchio, the karate kid, the outsiders. Bookmark the permalink. 40 Comments.