When Ralph Macchio signs an autograph or yaps with a fan during Dragon Con this weekend, he doesn’t want it to be a bland, fleeting interaction.
He’ll probably tell you about the last time he spent any significant time in Atlanta — 1997, when he was starring in the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” for a week at the Fox Theatre.
Or he might recount his first-ever visit to a California Pizza Kitchen, which happened to be at Lenox Square in the early ‘90s when he was here shooting “My Cousin Vinny.”
“What is this? Pineapple on pizza?” was the lifelong New Yorker’s immediate response to the West Coast-style pie.
He’s quick to recall hanging out at the Buckhead Diner and in Monticello while filming “Vinny,” and sounds genuinely enthusiastic about his impending Dragon Con experience.
This whole nostalgia-convention thing is relatively new territory for the eternally baby-faced star, now 52, who will make his inaugural Dragon Con appearance along with C. Thomas Howell, his co-star in “The Outsiders,” and Martin Kove, he of Cobra Kai fame from “The Karate Kid.”
“I started dipping my toe in the water and it’s been great. To see the outpouring fans give, you kind of embrace the fact that you have touched a little bit of pop culture. It’s a motivating, positive factor and the kids make it for me,” Macchio said recently from his home in suburban New York. “At one point, there was this stigma that only the folks from yesteryear participated in these conventions. But now, it’s huge. Especially for someone like me. I’ve never been a superhero or a detective. I’m just a guy next door.”
The combination of Macchio’s beloved roles as Johnny Cade in “The Outsiders” and Daniel LaRusso in “The Karate Kid,” coupled with a seemingly omnipresent easygoing grin and Neil Patrick Harris-like levels of self-deprecation, have helped him maintain a level of gentility that he’s quick to skewer.
Though he was — and is still — often asked to play himself for the purpose of a joke or a wink-and-nod reference, Macchio prefers to play it sparingly and smart.
He cameoed as himself on “Entourage” in 2005, turned in the hilarious — if not family-friendly — “Wax On, (Expletive) Off” video for “Funny or Die” to help promote the new “Karate Kid” in 2010 and introduced himself to a new generation on “How I Met Your Mother” last year.
But for the moment, he’s taking a break from playing Ralph Macchio — ’80s Teen Star and Ultimate Nice Guy.
“My kids stopped talking to me after I did ‘How I Met Your Mother’ because it was their favorite show,” he said with a laugh. “You have to be smart and irreverent with these things. It can’t just be the one joke. I pass on those all the time.”
For example, that hotbed of C-list talent known as “Sharknado.”
Yes, they asked. And Macchio politely declined.
Instead, he’s spent time in recent years showing off impressive dancing skills (who knew?) on “Dancing With the Stars” — he came in fourth during his 2011 stint — as well as producing the docu-series “American Gypsies” in 2012 for the National Geographic Channel.
“There were some elements that I loved and others that felt like force-fed reality and somewhere in the middle is always the truth,” he noted wryly about the show.
Macchio also has kept his contacts close and enlisted his “Dancing” partner, Karina Smirnoff, for a role in “Across Grace Alley,” a 24-minute film he directed that made the festival rounds last year and will hit video-on-demand this fall. The short movie is about a young boy, struggling with his parents’ divorce, who becomes infatuated with a woman he sees through a neighboring window and the long-lasting effects of the brief encounter.
But as much as Macchio likes to lean forward, he’s not completely averse to looking back.
He remembers his “Outsiders” co-stars — the hardly-known-at-the-time Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Patrick Swayze among them — fondly.
Lowe was “a smoothie,” he joked, and the mostly teenage cast would “sit around thinking we had the whole world figured out.”
Then there is “The Karate Kid,” which turned 30 this summer (yes, go ahead and feel old).
Macchio has enjoyed making the rounds with Kove to engage in Q&A sessions at some anniversary screenings around the country and is still a bit incredulous that “wax on, wax off” became a catchphrase.
So when you see him at Dragon Con, it’s perfectly OK to inquire about any of his iconic pop culture moments.
Just don’t ask him to demonstrate the crane kick … for one simple reason.
“I’d probably slip a disk.”