sean kanan cobra kai

He Packs a Punch

Coachella Valley resident Sean Kanan brings back badboy Mike Barnes to Season 5 of Cobra Kai, a role that nearly killed him 33 years ago during flming of Karate Kid III.

JIM POWERS Arts & Entertainment, Current Digital

sean kanan cobra kai

Coachella Valley resident Sean Kanan is flanked by Yuji Okumoto and Ralph Macchio in Cobra Kai, which began streaming Season 5 on Sept. 9.

The clip lasts less than 25 seconds.

It’s now buried in his Twitter feed by a number of posts since Season 5 of Cobra Kai began streaming Sept. 9 on Netflix featuring Coachella Valley resident Sean Kanan in his return as Mike Barnes, the celebrated bad boy of Karate Kid Part III. The streaming series, which first began on YouTube and was later picked up by Netflix, continues the story created by the 1980s film trilogy starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel LaRusso in the title role.

The soundbite comes from Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote the screenplays for all three Karate Kid films based partly on his own experience of being bullied and becoming a student of martial arts.

“I have to say, in Season 5, Sean is really good,” Kamen says in the clip after viewing the Cobra Kai episode Kanan appears in. “I was like, ‘Don’t bring him back. Don’t bring him back. Mike Barnes, Mike Barnes.’ He’s really good. He’s really good. He has learned acting technique. So he can play colors. And his character has all these different colors to it (in Cobra Kai).”


Sean Kanan was 22 when he was picked for the role in Karate Kid III.

Kanan was 22 when he appeared in Karate Kid III in 1989 with just one other film credit on his resume (Hide and Go Shrink).

The Kamen clip was only viewed 4,606 times, but for Kanan it opened up a series of emails between himself and the screenwriter that not only brought context to Kamen’s comments, but also gave creedence to Kanan’s growth as an actor over the years.

“He told me, "It's not that I didn't want you as an actor." He said he never liked the fact that Mike Barnes did not have any kind of redemptive qualities,” Kanan says. “Even Johnny Lawrence (the nemesis of the original Karate Kid film) had redemptive qualities where at the end he says, "You're okay, LaRusso." Robert firmly believed that a 17-year-old kid shouldn't be without some sort of redemption. Also, he knew me as the actor I was and it was a very one-dimensional character. That's specifically what (director) John Avildsen wanted (in Karate Kid III).”

Kanan says be prepared to see a multi-dimensional Mike Barnes in Cobra Kai. The actor talks more with Palm Springs Life about appearing in the streaming series 33 years after Karate Kid III came out, how he almost lost his life during that 1989 film, and whether appearing in the film was a curse or a blessing in disguise.

When the idea of bringing Cobra Kai to a streaming platform first began, did you think even then that there might be an opportunity to be part of it?

I knew who these guys were (Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg), so I knew they were legit, serious guys. They did Harold & Kumar, Hot Tub Time Machine, so I was really excited. You know, look, any time you do a role and 35 years later it still has some kind of relevance and some kind of place in the fandom heart, that's really flattering and I obviously hoped that at some point they would bring me on, and it took awhile, but it was worth the wait.

When did they initially make a contact with you?

I know Billy Zabka (who portrays Johnny Lawrence in the series and also starred in the first Karate Kid film), and I know people involved with it. I think I started talking to the guys around Season3, but I think I filmed last September, and I think they probably called me like in August, probably a year ago. They were so gracious. Jon Hurwitz and Josh Heald had a Zoom call with me and you know, when you're an actor getting hired to play a role on an existing successful show, it's not usual that they have a consultation with you, you know? They just said, "Hey, listen, what are your ideas?" I just gave them a few thoughts that I had and they told me this is what we're thinking. I was like, "Look, you guys have knocked it out of the park. I put myself in your very capable hands," and I think it turned out very, very well.

What was it like trying to tap back into a role you did 30+ years ago?

The great thing about playing this role now is I am now a much more experienced actor, and I'm a much more evolved human being, so obviously I've brought all of that to it. The character is not the one-dimensional character that it was in the film. This is very much what they wanted in the film. The guy is now a more fully fleshed out, multi-dimensional character and so I don't know that it so much required me to draw upon the same stuff as I did in the film, although we definitely see some different sides of Mike Barnes' personality and there are definitely flashes of who that guy was that we saw in the movie. You know, I guess somewhere inside of me it's still there, that part of that character when I need to draw on it.


Sean Kanan as Mike Barnes confronts Daniel LaRusso (played by Ralph Macchio) in Season 5 of Cobra Kai.

What impact did being cast in Karate Kid III have on you? I heard you almost lost your life during filming.

People ask me, they say Karate Kid must be so important to you, and of course it is. It changed the trajectory of my life and certainly my career, but when I think about how important that film is, the fact that I became part of a franchise that is part of, I guess, the cinematic tapestry, not only of our country but of the world, obviously that was an amazing thing.

But when I think about it, the defining takeaway for me is the experience about almost losing my life and how I fought my way back not only into the movie, but I fought my way back into the world. They told me they weren't sure they could save my life, and so for me at that very young age of 22, when everybody feels that they're immortal, especially when imagine you're doing a martial arts film, you're in the best shape of your life, and this happens and they say we don't know if we can save your life. We're going to try. You're like, ‘Wait a second. I was just doing flips and doing this.’ You know, it showed me a part of myself, I guess, that was previously unknown to me.

I mean, it kind of forced me to reveal part of my character that I would need if I was going to survive and stay in the film. You don't know that you have it until you have to show it, you know what I'm saying? At least at that point in time, in that moment, I was able to rally myself into a place where I overcame that challenge. I carry that with me, because when times get really tough, as they do in anyone's life, I think back on if somebody told me that story and it wasn't me, I would say, ‘Wow, that's really incredible,’ and I think you know what? If I was able to do that, then I can certainly do this.

When you suffered that injury, did you realize the seriousness of it?

What happened was I did a stupid stunt that had nothing to do with martial arts, really. I had to stand in a stationary position and sort of throw myself onto the floor two feet away, and did it again and again and again, and that effect was that I perforated my greater omentum (fatty tissue that drapes over the intestines). We broke for the holidays and I was having this significant pain on my left side, which I attributed to all the martial arts I was doing and started taking a lot of aspirin. Turns out I'm bleeding internally and Christmas Day, 1989, while everyone’s with their families prepping for the holidays, I was fighting for my life in the emergency room of Humana Sunrise Hospital. I didn't know how serious it was until I passed out because I’d lost so much blood and started to go into shock, and then when I got to the hospital and they told me what was wrong, I still kind of didn’t get it. They said, ‘We're going to have to operate on you,’ and I was like, Monday? They're like, ‘No, in like 15 minutes.’ Then shit started getting very real very quickly.


Sean Kanan as Mike Barnes acts out a fight scene with Yuji Okumoto as Chozen Toguchi, while Ralph Macchio looks on.

I said to the doctor, ‘If there's any way that you can avoid cutting through my abdominal muscle, and just resect it, that would be great,’ because I knew if they cut the abdominal muscles, I was out of the movie because there would be simply no way to heal in time. They did resect the abdominal muscle to find the bleed, and that made all the difference. There were a lot of things that went wrong up until that point, and then there were a lot of things that actually went right that allowed me to live.

Coming back to the film, were some stunts off limits for you?

No. You would think that, wouldn't you? When I went back to the set, I always joked that it was a good thing that Mike Barnes wore a black Gi, but if I had a white one on I probably would have been bleeding through it. The wound was clearly not fully healed. I mean, it was one of those things that I just knew. I was like this is a life changing opportunity I have here, and I was just young and stupid enough that I didn't really think a whole lot about my well-being. I thought about the necessity of finishing the film, and you know, after I finished Karate Kid III, I did a film for Francis Ford Coppola called The Outsiders based on the S.E. Hinton novel and I still wasn't completely healed. I remember that David Arquette, who was one of the actors, came up and gave me a bear hug from behind and reopened part of the wound.

Did Karate Kid III typecast you in any way going forward with your career?

It wasn't that it typecast me. You know what happened was I came out to Hollywood. I was going to UCLA, but I was very much pursuing my career in acting, and I’d done one or two very little things. I got this role, and I'd just started studying acting, so I mean, I got this role (in Karate Kid) largely because I had youthful good looks, and I had a certain swagger and charisma, but I was still very much learning how to act. I was able to get other sort of similar roles for awhile. Then there was a certain point where the phone kind of stopped ringing for a minute and I guess wisely I recognized that if I was going to have the kind of career as an actor that I wanted, I was going to really have to put in the work training. I went and I did a play, which was one of the smartest things I did, because it was a really challenging play and I learned a lot from it, and really kind of delved back into acting class, and did everything that I didn't have time to do before Karate Kid III, and then fortunately the phone started ringing again.


Sean Kanan

What has been an overarching lesson from your acting career that spills into real life?

When I really think about it, all the time that you spend as an actor struggling, and the psychological turmoil of rejection and things like that, what it taught me, and it was a really valuable lesson that I’ve come to understand over these last couple years, is you’ve got to figure out how to be happy not just when you’re working as an actor. The secret to being a meaningfully happy individual as an artist and entertainer is how do I make a life for myself when I'm not working in my chosen profession? For me, I wear several hats. I’m a writer, I’m a producer, so if I’m not necessarily working on an acting project at the moment, I've got other stuff that I do that fulfills me. But that was a really valuable lesson, and so I guess the gist of what I was trying to say was yes, now I'm in a place where I'm fortunate that I'm working steadily, but the times of not working steadily really taught me a valuable lesson.

See Sean Kanan in The Bold and the Beautiful. He has also created and starred in his own streaming series, Studio City, on Amazon Prime..

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