Happy Birthday, Ralph Macchio

Yesterday was Ralph Macchio’s birthday.

I always knew Ralph Macchio was something special. I knew it before Karate Kid. I knew it from Eight is Enough. I clocked him as awesome from the beginning. I felt territorial. When everyone and their mama figured out his awesomeness in Karate Kid, I felt a little bit jealous. He was ALL MINE for a brief time!

Before we begin, here is the trailer for a gripping new documentary about Ralph Macchio, searching for a comeback, called Wax On F*ck Off.

You never forget the celebrity (actor/musician) who first launched you into the world of imagination and fantasy. He was that for a lot of people.

Here’s a piece I wrote many years ago about Ralph Macchio and the impact his performance in one episode of Eight Is Enough had on me.

How Eight is Enough Saved My Life

I am a big fan of celebrity crushes, it was part of how I first fell in love with the movies. I have fine-tuned the “celebrity crush” into a work of art. I should give seminars about how to do them properly.

My first crush? It’s a toss-up between Ralph Macchio and Lance Kerwin, but the Macchio crush was more transformational, in terms of my development as a human being. I say that with zero exaggeration.

Now I am talking about preKarate Kid Ralph Macchio. Very important distinction. I am talking about his stint on Eight is Enough. When he hit paydirt with Karate Kid, and was suddenly on the cover of every teen magazine on the rack, I felt oddly jealous about it. Like I was losing him. I felt proprietary towards him. I had been with him back then. Before it was cool. I somehow liked it better when he was just my little secret.

Some people don’t even remember his one-season stint on Eight is Enough. Ah, but that is probably because they gave up on the show long before he arrived. Macchio was obviously brought on as “young blood” to draw in an audience like me, horny love-sick pre-teens. The ratings were down. Bringing in a troubled cute teenage boy was an obvious ploy to jumpstart the show again. It worked.

To me, at 12 years old, when the show was in its heyday, the older siblings (David, Mary, Susan, Joannie, Nancy, Elizabeth and Tommy) were too sophisticated, too slick, and a little bit ikky, frankly. David, the oldest, was a particularly disturbing individual, I thought, with his pearly whites and feathered hair, and his part-time jobs, and his independence. He had too much of a fake-tan sleazoid veneer. His teeth didn’t fool me. The guy was a creep.

The girls all wore shiny lip gloss, shoulder pads, or frightening workout outfits involving spandex and lilac leotard ensembles. The push-up bra was not in existence in the Bradford house, so the sisters all had droopy sloopy-shouldered silhouettes that added to the skeezy vibe.

There were cars pulling in and out of the driveway. There were teenage problems of the 17- and 18-year-old variety. I could not relate.

And Bowl-Cut Nicholas was not as cute as everyone thought he was; I found him plain old nauseating.

I needed something else. Someone who hit my demographic in its sweet spot. Someone … a boy … who was just the age I needed him to be …

Along came Jeremy Andretti, played by Ralph Macchio. Jeremy was the random orphaned nephew of Abby (played by Betty Buckley, of course). The Bradford family opened their hearts and their home to the troubled teenager, who got into fights, who was sullen, uncommunicative, and to-die-for. The first time I laid eyes on him, I was gone. Put a fork in Sheila. She was DONE. He was everything I found attractive, although I didn’t know it then, being only 12 years old. It was this weird awakening, watching Jeremy in action. My heart fluttered open to this character. He was sensitive, but he covered it up with a tough outer shell. It would take a very special person (me???) to crack that shell. His shyness plus his toughness were a killer combo.

I wouldn’t realize until later that that shy/tough thing he had going on was part of a long continuum of movie stars who have made careers out of mixing those two qualities together. Tough-yet-sensitive hard-boiled-outer-shell guys. Gary Cooper. James Cagney. Cary Grant in some of his movies. Humphrey Bogart. You name it. Jeremy Andretti needed to be tough, not because he was mean, or callous, but because he felt too much. He was too vulnerable.

Almost immediately, with Jeremy’s arrival, I became addicted to Eight is Enough. I was crushed when Jeremy’s storyline was not the featured one. I suffered through the ikky slick-lipglossed storylines of the older siblings, and the sickeningly sweet Bowl-Cut storylines, waiting, waiting, week after week … for Jeremy to take the spotlight.

My crush was a secret. It was so powerful that it actually embarrassed me. It was a runaway train, and this is now a familiar sensation to me, years later. I still get embarrassed sometimes, when I get swept away like this, but I figure there are worse things in life than this habit of mine. It has brought me great joy. It is one of the ways I revel in movies. It has an art to it. It comes from somewhere very deep, and it has to do with fantasies (not just sexual), and dreams, and the “substance of things hoped for”.

The crush arrives usually at a low moment when I need fortitude, when I need a light at the end of the tunnel. The crush helps me to hold on, to hold out hope that someday, someday, the closeness I yearn for will manifest in real life, and not just in re-runs of Eight is Fucking Enough, for God’s sake. This is why I revere actors so much. This is what they can give us, potentially. This is what certain actors (and certain performances) have given me. Something to hang on to … when the going gets rough …

Movies are great company.

I discovered Ralph Macchio as Jeremy Andretti when I was at the lowest of the lowest of points. I was in junior high. I didn’t really take to adolescence, shall we say. I was a fish out of water in the machinations of 8th grade. I was bruised and battered very quickly from rejection from boys, and not just rejection, but outright laughter in my face, when I would ask them to dance, what have you. (I was “that girl”, the pariah of the school, for one awful year). I was pudgy. My clothes were all wrong. My Xena jeans didn’t look the same on me as they did on Cris D., the goddess of junior high. Kids crank-called my house and shouted insults about my clothes into my ear. I was probably in a very deep depression and didn’t even know it. I found it hard to get out of bed in the morning. I would cry on the way to school.

In the middle of that howling wilderness, there was one particular episode of Eight is Enough that I can say, without too much exaggeration, saved my life. I could feel the shift take place.

I remember that episode almost shot for shot, and I have not seen it since it was on that first time in the early 80s, so that gives you some idea of its lasting impact.

Here’s how the episode opened:

In a movie theatre. We can see that the movie being shown is an old Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers classic. There they are, dancing across the marble floor, floating, actually, her dress graceful, light, he elegant, lithe. Then we cut to the audience in the movie theatre, and there is Ralph (Jeremy), with his beautiful face, watching, totally engrossed. He’s eating popcorn, and he is totally into the movie.

And two seats away from him sits a teenage girl, also by herself, also engrossed, also chomping on popcorn.

A sort of G-rated True Romance.

After the film, the two of them somehow strike up a conversation in the lobby and they both rave, unselfconsciously, about their love for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and how much they love old movies and how cool it is that the local movie theatre would run them as matinees.

Our first clue of the HOOK of this episode (and why it hooked me so hard): the two bond over old movies, of all things. I loved old movies, too. I did a paper for my Drama Club about Fred Astaire when I was 11 years old. I was like that girl, sitting in the matinee, watching Top Hat, and losing myself utterly.

The girl reveals that she has just moved to the town, and is a little nervous about starting at the high school on Monday. Jeremy is obviously very excited that she is going to be going to his school, he feels a bond with this girl. They part, him telling her that he will keep his eye out for her on Monday. Teenage romance shivers in the air!

But what was so deadly for me watching it, what hooked me in so deeply, was that their connection was not based on lust, which I couldn’t relate to yet. I wasn’t there, developmentally. No: it was a shared interest in something, a common passion. This was devastatingly effective.

The episode moves on. They see each other at school. They have sweet encounters in the hall. They meet up “by coincidence” at the next Saturday matinee of a Fred Astaire movie. Only this time, they sit together, side by side, sharing popcorn, occasionally grinning at each other.

I died a million deaths watching all of this. I ached! I yearned! I burned up inside like a pubescent Tennessee Williams character. I had so much to give, so much of myself to share but nowhere to put it yet. Holding all of that stuff back actually hurt. It still does. So I put all of it into Ralph Macchio. He could take it.

Then, inevitably, conflict arises. Turns out that Jeremy’s interest in Fred Astaire is something he hides from his friends. He could never admit to liking old movies with DANCE NUMBERS in them to his buddies. As long as his little Saturday-matinee romance was kept secret from his friends, he was cool with it.

But alas, Jeremy, life doesn’t work out that way, does it?

Of course, one day she comes up to him in the cafeteria, where he is sitting with his group of friends. Oh, the hostility of the high school cafeteria! The caste system! The Darwinian brutality! She says to him, in front of his friends, with a big friendly smile – “Hi! What are you doing Saturday? They’re playing ‘Swingtime‘!”

She has now broken a rule. She didn’t even know it was a rule. She was like me. I found myself in the world of junior high, with all these rules suddenly, social rules, all these boundaries of what was acceptable behavior and I most certainly did not get the memo. She didn’t know that he was ashamed of that part of himself, that he needed to keep it secret from his buddies.

He makes believe he doesn’t even know what she is talking about. It is a complete and utter betrayal. His friends snicker. Ruthlessly. She stands there, alone, shamed. She walks away, mortified, with the taunting voices of his group of friends imitating her girl voice echoing after her, “Swingtime is playing! Swingtime is playing!”

I knew her pain! I had had my feelings snickered at! I had had my intensity scorned!

And yet, watching. I wanted to crawl through the television and yell at her: NO! He does like you! He’s just embarrassed! He can’t admit to liking those movies in front of his friends! He does like you – and that’s why he rejected you!

And so, I ached for him as well. He was choosing cool indifference (and therefore loneliness) over unafraid involvement. Not just with her. But with who he really was. This was a tragedy.

I saw people making those choices all around me every day in junior high: clipping off or suppressing the unacceptable parts of themselves to fit in with the pack. It seemed “the thing” to do but I found it enormously painful. I tried, I really did, but I couldn’t manage it.

Jeremy feels horrible about how he treated her. He tries to talk to her in the hallways. She rejects him. He tries again. She ignores him. She is a stony wall, an ice princess. She was a real hard-ass, that one. I didn’t think that I could withstand his heartfelt apologies. I would cave. But I learned from watching her: No one should shame you the way he shamed her. Especially if he had opened up in private. His behavior was unacceptable. A girl has to set her own standards for how she wants to be treated and she shouldn’t accept anything less. A man needs to be able to stand up to his friends and say, “This is who I am. Deal.” It is not okay any other way. My response to this came from my loneliness. From feeling left out. I was so eager for attention from any boy that I would take the scraps from his cafeteria table … rather than wait for someone willing to sit down and have a whole meal with me. I watched the girl on Eight is Enough say “no” to his scraps.

This was a mind-blower. Truly. I am still learning that lesson. She would not allow him to compartmentalize her, and only acknowledge her existence on Saturday afternoons.

Finally came the climax of the episode. After watching it, I lived it over and over and over in my head, I obsessed on it, I fixated on it, I held onto it with tight fists, knowing instinctively that this is something I need to remember.

She was walking along on the sidewalk in front of the school. The campus was crowded with students. His declaration (when it came) needed to be that public. This is a well-known formula, of course, used in countless movies to great success: the public revelation of sincere emotion, the declaration of love made in front of a crowd. The final expression of commitment is not just made between two people privately, but involves the whole world. It has to. It’s like a wedding ceremony: the bond between two human beings is enough of a big deal that it must be made publicly to have any real weight.

Jeremy runs up to her and tries to talk to her. She staunchly keeps walking on, clutching her books to her chest. He walks along beside her, apologizing, ignoring the rejection. He has lost the indifference. Now it matters more to him to tell her the truth and he doesn’t care who sees.

She finally shouts at him, “Leave me alone!!” She marches off without him, leaving him standing there with a crestfallen look on his face. People stare. The two of them are making a scene. He doesn’t care anymore. And now he is the one who has been publicly rejected and shamed.

And in that moment, the transformation occurs. He leaps into the unknown, he tosses himself off the cliff into the fearless abyss.

I have no empirical evidence of this, no quote to back up my theory, but I would warrant a guess that this next moment in this one episode could be responsible for Ralph Macchio’s enormous success a couple of years later in major motion pictures. If I had been a casting director, and I had seen that one scene in Eight is Enough, I would have thought: “That kid could carry a romantic film.” There was a seismic shift during the scene and by the end of it, he became a viable leading man. You think I’m kidding? I’m dead serious. Why else would I remember the scene so clearly 25 years later?

She walks away, with an air of finality. He stands, helpless, and then, on impulse, he jumps up on a nearby bench, and blurts out, in tune, at the top of his lungs: “I won’t dance! Don’t ask me!”

She stops dead in her tracks and slowly looks back at him, shocked. All the watching students start snickering, giggling. He doesn’t care. He stays up on the bench, and sings out at top volume: “I won’t dance, don’t ask me! I won’t dance Madame with you! My heart won’t let my feet do things that they should do!” He starts to dance around up on the bench, even as the small mocking crowd gathers. She stares up at him, dumbfounded.

He leaps off the bench and dances toward her, still singing the song. She’s embarrassed, blushing, she doesn’t know what to do. Then she gets her nerve back, and turns her back on him, starting to stalk off. (I gasped, watching. The fortitude! The strength of self! To resist!!)

Eventually, of course, his singing and dancing breaks her down. But it was more than that. It was more about his fearlessness in publicly admitting his feelings for her, and even deeper than that: his fearlessness in finally admitting and claiming who he was. That’s what the scene was about. Falling in love is not just about declaring yourself to the other person. You also must say, “Here. This is who I am. This is me.”

He is now dancing around her, serenading her in front of the whole school. I was too young, watching it, to realize what a cliche it was. Finally, he takes her in his arms. Suddenly it seems like he is wearing a top hat and tails, his movements are so graceful and yet so forceful. It is startling. You could feel the gasp in the crowd. He waltzes her around, awkwardly, she’s laughing now, and he finishes the song with a flourish, dipping her body over backwards, like an old pro.

The crowd (naturally) bursts into applause.

I thought about the episode for days. I actually wrote it out into short-story form, so I could elaborate on the feelings of both parties. I wanted to live it.

The message was, obviously, that being yourself, and admitting who you are, not changing yourself for your friends, is far superior to lying in order to save face. This sliced through me like a laser.

Especially, it must be admitted, because it was the boy doing this in that particular story. It was the boy who had to give the public persona up, and be fearless. In my limited and very painful experience in junior high, boys traveled in packs, were aloof and cruel to me, and acted embarrassed when I asked them to dance. I was always in such a state of uncertainty and pain when it came to the boys I liked. (I know now that boys had their own brand of hard time during those years but that only came with perspective, and getting older. While I was in it, I had none of that. Boys were on another planet. A planet I so wanted to visit. But they didn’t want me there. It was very painful.)

The thought that a boy my age could be interested in me the way Jeremy was interested in her, and that a boy could throw caution to the wind in front of his peers, was so attractive to me, so powerful, that I basically melted into a hot quivering puddle of longing and hope that lasted for months. It blew my mind.

What it said to me was (outside of the celebrity-crush aspect of the whole thing): “Don’t just look at the surface of things. Don’t passively accept the aloofness of the boys you like. They might be afraid, or shy, or don’t want to seem goofy to their firends. Differentiate between who they were with their friends and who they were when you got them alone.”

But also: it said to me: “Do not accept being treated cruelly. Even if he’s cute and you like him so much. Do not chip away at yourself. It is forbidden.

It said to me, too, (and here is where it gets global, here is why I still remember it shot for shot, even though I have never seen the episode since):

Hang on. Just hang on.

There may not be a boy in your life right now who would leap on a park bench for you (i.e.: get you, love you, celebrate you), but hang on. There will be.

The loneliness you feel right now shall pass. This, too, shall pass.

The girl Jeremy fell for in the episode was not a hot babe. She had long straight hair and wore long skirts. You didn’t have to change who you are to get a boy interested in you (the lesson I learned from Grease). You just had to be yourself, and be true to yourself and continue shining your own particular light with its own particular wattage and someone would see that light eventually and be drawn to it. If you tried to change yourself, and fit into what you thought was the ideal, if you tried to adjust yourself to what you thought guys wanted, then you would not be being truthful, and the right kind of guy for you would not be able to find his way to you.

That one episode of Eight is Enough got me through many dark hours in junior high. It burned me up inside, a fire that eventually went out, but a fire I have never forgotten. That one episode helped me not be ashamed of my own individual passions (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies being one of them), to not put pressure on myself to fit into the round hole of the junior high social agenda. Maybe if I stuck to my own path, and kept cultivating my own personality, and expressing my own individual interests, fearlessly, without apology, then a Jeremy type might be in my future.

Keep going, Sheila. You’re okay. You’re doing okay.

There will be someone out there for you. There will.

Thanks, Ralph Macchio, for what you gave me in your wonderful performance in that one episode.

And thanks, too, to the creators of Eight is Enough for realizing that eight kids were actually not enough.

Thank you for realizing that you needed one more.

This entry was posted in Actors, On This Day and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Happy Birthday, Ralph Macchio

  1. kathy says:

    Love me some Ralph ! The only actresses on TV who were worse than the Eight is Enough girls were the Walton sisters. OMG !! Mary Ellen. Joanie was the one on EIE … horrible ! What a hambone ! I still don’t understand Betty Buckley being on that show. It was like she was dropped off from another planet.

  2. Nondisposable Johnny says:

    Hey for good or ill, those first celebrity crushes stay with you your whole life!

    You should be thankful Sheila: a) Ralph made it pretty big (I know what you mean about not necessarily wanting to share, but believe me, it beats obscurity or the grim reaper) and b) he’s still around going strong.

    I mean, my first crush was when I was twelve and feel for 25 year old (at time of filming) Janet Munro (who looked about sixteen) in a re-release of Swiss Family Robinson. Of course, she was thirty-eight by then and would die the same year. As a result I’m messed up in ways no shrink can touch!

    So never, ever take this thing with Ralph for granted (insert maniacal laughter here!)

  3. Sheila says:

    NJ- hahahaha I love to hear about early crushes!

  4. Jeff Swanson says:

    What a lovely article. Full of things I believe and utterly relate to.

    Now I want to see that damn show!

  5. Sheila says:

    Jeff- thanks! Yes, I can’t believe I am saying this but why isn’t Eight is Enough on DVD? I bet someone out there videotaped that episode! It’s the only one I care to see again!

  6. Sheila says:

    Kathy- Joanie! Hahaha total hambone

  7. Jeff Swanson says:

    I got a friend checking the Web for me. If we find something, I’ll let you know. Doubtless someone’s digitized it somewhere.

  8. sheila says:

    Jeff – to quote my tween self: OMG.

    Keep me posted!!!!

  9. Rachel says:

    My friend shared this with me when I told him I pined for Ralph Macchio back when he was Jeremy. Oh sister. It’s like we shared the same little pre-teen psyche. Only I was invited on Planet Boy but as the mascot. I wanted to be the one they desired not the one they wanted to shoot hoops with! But we get our attention any way we can get it right?

    Thanks for sharing this.

  10. sheila says:

    Rachel! So few people even remember Jeremy! Love that you did too!!

    • Rachel says:

      We’re a small yet passionate club. I couldn’t even watch The Karate Kid because I was bitter about sharing him with the world.

  11. sheila says:

    You too?? We should have been pen pals. Dammit!!

  12. rhonda says:

    your’re pathedic

  13. sheila says:

    Who? Me? Ralph Macchio? The other people on this thread? You’ve left the same comment on my site twice today and you have misspelled “pathetic” both times.

    Help me, Rhonda!

  14. bybee says:

    I’m sorry I didn’t see Ralph on Eight is Enough. I was put off in the first season by that canned laughter.

  15. Lana says:

    I first saw Ralph in The Karate Kid (of course) and like you said, I knew right away he was special. He was so fresh and original, spontaneous and natural. I think Roger Ebert nailed it in his review: “His delivery always sounds natural, even offhand; he never seems to be reading a line. “

  16. Natalie says:

    I love this and relate to it, so very much. I love that you actually learned something so important from an episode of Eight is Enough. Great story, beautifully told.

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