The Cigar Sensei
He materializes on the screen like the Ghost of Cigars Past, his torch caressing the end of a Bolivar Belicoso Fino. The broad, craggy smile, the physical confidence and, of course, the Cuban cigar—actor Martin Kove is clearly having a moment. The 74-year-old is riding a late-career updraft, thanks to the international popularity of the surprising smash TV series “Cobra Kai.”
The show, currently streaming its third season on Netflix, revived steely martial-arts master John Kreese, the character from The Karate Kid and its Reagan-era sequels whose catchphrases (“No mercy!” “Sweep the leg!”) put Kove on the map more than 35 years ago, and back in the spotlight today. Netflix claims more than 50 million accounts viewed the second season of the show, making it one of the network’s more popular programs.
Kove takes a puff of the Bolivar and tells the story of his most memorable cigar. He was with his son Jesse in an outdoor lounge atop Havana’s Hotel Parque Central in January 2020, pre-pandemic, with a sweeping view of the city, pursuing his longtime love for fine tobacco products. “I was smoking a Wide Churchill by Romeo y Julieta with my son, taking in this view of Havana. The manager of the hotel served us coffee personally. It was the most eventful day of cigar smoking in my life,” he says during a virtual interview. “The Romeo y Julieta is usually a little mild for me. I like cigars with more body, and yet this was perfect. It was the best day of smoking cigars ever.”
Kove’s love of cigars is legendary among his friends and colleagues: “He’s my cigar sensei,” says Ralph Macchio, whose character is at odds with Kove in “Cobra Kai.” But then Kove has been a good-will ambassador and a fount of knowledge about the history and traditions of cigars since the 1970s. Macchio, now 59, has enjoyed his share of cigars with Kove, and gives Kove full credit for whatever cigar knowledge he’s acquired.
“Martin is synonymous with cigars,” Macchio says. “You’ll find him outside the restaurant, on a bench, smoking his cigar. He loves cigars and loves talking about them. I ask him questions about cigars—it’s like learning about tasting wine or Scotch.” As actor Bruce Boxleitner, a longtime pal and cigar-smoking buddy, notes: “Marty’s a very avid cigar aficionado. Cigars are definitely part of it when we get together. He’s got cigars from all over. I just mooch.” Says Kove of his friend, “He’ll smoke anything.”
Suddenly, Kove has a renewed measure of Hollywood heat, thanks to a role that includes a cigar. Kove’s dramatic first entrance in “Cobra Kai” features a cigar firmly planted in his jaw.
“The writers had me coming out of the shadows in that first scene, smoking a cigar,” Kove says. “It became part of the character.” That moment comes at the end of the final episode of Season 1, a cliffhanger teasing the second season, in which Kreese returns to help former protégé Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka). Their characters want to return the Cobra Kai dojo to dominance over rival Miyagi-Do, run by Johnny’s long-ago opponent, Daniel LaRusso (Macchio). Zabka, Macchio and Kove, who first faced off in the 1984 hit, play modern-day versions of the characters from the Karate Kid films. LaRusso has prospered, becoming a rich and famous local businessman, while Lawrence has struggled, moving from one dead-end job to the next, wallowing in too many domestic beers and plenty of ’80s music. Of course, their paths cross in karate conflict once again.
Kove was excited to get back into his black gi, but he disliked all the cigar dissection needed to play the character. Doing more than one take meant chopping up multiple cigars so their lengths would match from shot to shot. “I hate to cut up a good cigar,” Kove says. “Then the prop guys got these cheap cigars that gave me a headache. I thought, Hey, this is my entrance—I have to use one of my own. So I brought in cigars, a cutter, a lighter. Eventually we ended up getting some CAOs and La Gloria Cubanas.”
Kove leapt at the chance to revisit the character of Kreese, and hoped the TV series would offer the opportunity to add layers to the monochromatic portrait he’d painted in the films and it did: While the movies mentioned Kreese’s background as a
Vietnam veteran, the series expands upon that detail, while also depicting him suffering from homelessness. Kove is happy to add layers and dimension to the role.
“The movies were black-and-white, good guys and bad guys,” Kove says. “But no man is a villain to himself. I think of Kreese as misunderstood. And I like stories where the characters are gray.”
Like his character, Kove knows his way around a dojo. He holds a black belt in Okinawan martial arts and works out with a trainer three times a week (and presumably resists the urge to sweep the leg). Learning the choreography for one of his show’s fight scenes can require as long as a month of training and rehearsal. He does many of his own stunts, and has the physique of a much younger man.
While playing tough guys and villains kept the Brooklyn-born actor working steadily from the beginning of his career, it took him a while to appreciate that fact. As an actor, Kove was drawn to roles that required emotional depth when he began his career in New York and regional theater. Playing Stanley Kowalski in a regional production of A Streetcar Named Desire convinced him to give Hollywood a try.
“I realized that there were two sides to me as an actor,” Kove says. “I was always very sensitive, but I liked the tough-guy roles. But I didn’t see anyone having both those sides. Either you were soft like Montgomery Clift or a macho guy like John Wayne. I wanted to be able to do both.” He regularly nabbed small roles in network TV of the 1970s, from “Rhoda” to “Gunsmoke” to “Kojak.” But his rugged look (“My imperfect face,” he says with a smile) led casting directors to slot him in a certain kind of part.
“Martin Kove is unique because he simply stands out,” says longtime friend (and fellow cigar aficionado) Sylvester Stallone, whom he shared the screen with in Rambo: First Blood Part II. “His physical presence is intimidating, and his facial bone structure is that of a warrior, a fighter, a take-charge guy. He’s a man’s man.” Boxleitner remembers Kove worrying about being typecast: “I told him, ‘Embrace it. Remember Lee Marvin and the great parts he had?’ The villain is the role actors want to play, not the romantic lead. Marty’s got a big personality, and he plays a heavy well. But what the audience is really seeing is a tender guy who would give you the shirt off his back.”
By the mid-1980s, Kove was a solid journeyman in his craft, featured on the network series, “Cagney & Lacey,” from 1982–88, playing a blowhard detective who served as foil to the title characters. When he was offered the chance to audition for the director of The Karate Kid, he was elated, because it was potentially a big break. But when director John Avildsen moved up the audition at the last minute, leaving him only a single day to prepare (instead of a promised week), Kove was furious.
“Use that anger for the character,” his then-wife told him. He strode into the audition room, angrily called out Avildsen for stunting his preparation time, and, in the next breath, launched directly into Kreese’s big speech at the same energy level.
“He came in with that ‘Mercy is the for weak’ speech and blew everyone away,” says Macchio. “There was a lot of pressure because I think we were already shooting the film when he was cast. He stepped right up to me and Pat [Morita]. He was intense. He still is.”
The very definition of a working actor, Kove has earned a living for decades acting in films (sometimes as many as a half-dozen a year) and doing television guest shots, even if most of their titles aren’t familiar to the general public. “In the ’80s, I got conned into things that were not well-written but where I liked the character,” Kove says. “But great scripts make great movies. I’d rather have five lines in a Raiders of the Lost Ark than do some of that stuff I did.”
He was extremely receptive when writer-producers Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg approached him about reviving Kreese for “Cobra Kai.” The show was a hit when it debuted on YouTube in 2018 and the success of the series’ first two seasons attracted the attention of streaming megapower Netflix, which bought the rights to “Cobra Kai” and started offering its first two seasons in 2020, even as it greenlit the production of two new seasons. The third season debuted in January, and Kove was scheduled to start filming season four before February.
The fact that the producers saw the re-imagined Kreese as a cigar-smoker struck a chord with Kove, who has made it his mission to educate his circle about the joys of fine tobacco. “The writers from ‘Cobra Kai’ will come over to work on the show and I’ll give them an education,” Kove says. “I had them try Dominicans; I gave them taste tests. I love teaching them: Which ones are lighter and stronger? Which one do you have time for? You can’t sit down with a Churchill if you’ve only got 20 minutes. We’ll go to my man cave and I’ll pull out the Bolivars and Montecristo No. 2s. They’re new smokers and like to change it up.”
Kove developed his cigar fascination as a young actor, and has refined his taste over the years. “One day I walked into a little shop on Sunset—it’s not there anymore—and bought myself a Royal Jamaica,” he recalls. “It was very light, very tasty. That’s how I started. I liked the draw, and the nobility of smoking those. They were like a long corona, like they smoked in Westerns. I love the heritage of a cigar. I’m always intrigued when I see them in England, where the men retired for a glass of Port and cigars in the drawing room. But I also love Clint [Eastwood] smoking them in The Good, the Bad & the Ugly.”
Cigars are a subject he brings up right away when working on a new project. “When I can sit and talk creatively with a producer or writer, the first thing I’ll ask is: ‘Do you smoke cigars?’ ” Kove says. “I think of cigars as a way to relax. Smoking a cigar is like meditating . . . I’ll have a cigar while I watch football or while I’m reading a script. I also like to smoke in my car; I have a car with a top that goes down. I don’t care what the temperature is. I have four different outdoor areas at my house. And I have my man cave out there. When it’s cold for L.A., I’ll put on a scarf and a hat and sit outside, smoking a cigar and watching ‘The Mandalorian.’ There is that sense of nobility. You feel like a patron. There is something elegant about the sport of smoking cigars.”
A cigar autodidact, Kove also takes advice when it’s offered. His friend, actor Joe Pantoliano, saw him smoking flavored cigars many years ago and said, “What are you smoking those for?” Then he introduced Kove to Cuban cigars, which remain his favorites. “Cubans are richer, smoother,” Kove says. “Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of great Dominican cigars. I was in Ybor City in Tampa and I made the rounds and bought lots of hand-rolled cigars. There’s something special when you’re smoking a cigar that was hand-rolled yesterday. There are several Dominican and Nicaraguan cigars that I like when I run out of Cubans.”
His go-to non-Cubans are the Arturo Fuente Short Story (“Joe Mantegna introduced me to those”) and the Camacho Torpedo. He has a pair of humidors in his house, as well as a travel humidor. He always keeps a couple of boxes of cigars on hand to share with his friends, with a half-dozen varieties to choose from.
His fascination with the culture and history of cigars finally prodded Kove to make that visit to Cuba in 2020 with his son Jesse, to truly soak in the ambience of the place where his favorite cigars are made. “We went to all the cigar factories,” Kove says. “I had so many cigars while I was there.” He enjoyed the cigars and he relished the history: “Guys like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, [Cuba] was their Las Vegas back in the day,” Kove says. “Everything there is as it was in yesteryear. The taxis were all painted in bright pastel colors: blues and pinks.”
His affinity for the sights in Cuba might be matched by his love of the Old West. He’s “a frustrated cowboy,” says Stallone. A child of the ’50s, Kove came of age when one of every three Hollywood films and TV programs was a Western. Besides acting in a number of Westerns over the years, Kove has been able to play cowboy for real since the early 1980s, when he started heading to Wyoming every summer for a week-long trail ride. The horseback camping trek covered 100 miles of trail that Butch Cassidy and the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang traveled in their 19th-century heyday.
“It’s like living moments out of the past,” Kove says. “And those are moments I most enjoy a cigar. You’re riding six hours a day and enjoying a cigar while you ride. And then you’ll have one while you’re sitting at the campfire, enjoying cowboy poetry.”
Boxleitner, who began doing the ride with Kove and a group of friends later in the ’80s, recalls a specific image of Kove on the trail.
“We’d be riding the most beautiful country and Marty would have headphones, with a soundtrack on,” Boxleitner says. “And it would usually be something by Ennio Morricone from one of the Sergio Leone movies. He had his own movie going in his head.”
Kove would love to help revive the western for a younger audience. To generations that came after the Baby Boom, it’s a genre that’s a quaint novelty. To Kove, it’s one that’s crucial to the American identity.
“The Western is the heart of American cinema,” he says. “It was an overexposed genre. And now it’s been neglected. We need films like Red River, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch. I want to be the actor to rejuvenate the Western. Then I can die.”
Kove is grateful for this unexpected turn: that a little film like The Karate Kid would pay such dividends in two different centuries. Almost four decades later, John Kreese and “Cobra Kai” have embedded themselves in popular culture as a mythology that continues to appeal to new generations.
“You realize you can disappear as fast as I did in the ’80s. So this new interest is humbling. I don’t take it for granted,” says Kove. “With ‘Cobra Kai,’ the writing is so good—all I’ve got to do is get the words out. Karate Kid is the gift that has kept on giving all these years.”