One of those childhood fascinations who stayed with me into adulthood, today's tribute subject is that cleft-chinned, hirsute hunk Martin Kove. Best remembered for his supporting role on the female-driven cop show Cagney & Lacey and for his turn as the antagonist in The Karate Kid and its sequels, he's been a steadily-employed actor for more than forty years now. His career, though, has included some other surprising cult-status items that not everyone may be aware of...
Kove was born on March 6th, 1947 in Brooklyn, New York into a Jewish family. After pursuing roles on stage (and winning them in tours and/or regional theatre), he was able to land a brief, uncredited on-screen appearance in the Elliott Gould black comedy Little Murders (1971.) His next part, however, though in a far lower-budgeted and on-the-fringe movie, would have a more lasting impact. It was the 1971 Paul Morrissey project Women in Revolt.
Women in Revolt was produced by Andy Warhol, was about three young ladies enmeshed in militant feminism and starred three trans-vestites (Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn) as the gals in question! Kove (at this stage of his career going by “Marty Kove”) had one scene with male-in-drag Holly Woodlawn in which he was utterly and completely naked throughout as the two performed simulated sex. The very low-budget and deliberately tawdry film retains a cult following thanks to its kinky subject matter (not to mention its full-on nudity from Kove.)
I wonder how many of you would have failed a trivia question had I asked, “Which Merchant-Ivory production costarred Martin Kove?” The producer-directors and this actor seem as if they're from polar opposite galaxies! However, he did have a featured role in one of the famous duo's most outre projects, the 1972 film Savages.
Savages (filmed in black & white, which segues into sepia tone and finally vibrant color) opened up with a scantily-clad gaggle of jungle mud people who follow an errant croquet ball to an opulent mansion where they proceed to don fancy clothing and take on the airs and mores of the upper-crust people who once inhabited the place. Kove (who had experience appearing on film without benefit of clothing) played an antagonistic member of the tribe who cleaned up nicely, but wasn't without some holdover hostilities.
As if his brief, new career in movies wasn't diverse enough already, he next worked on one of the most legendary low-budget horror movies ever made, 1972's The Last House on the Left. In it, he played a doofus deputy whose bumbling approach to crime-solving does little-to-nothing to solve the vicious murder of two local girls. Though the gory movie is infamous (and was remade in 2009), the part concerning him and his costar Marshall Anker as the sheriff is often cited as being an unwelcome and discordant from the tone of the rest of the film.
What followed was a series of tiny roles in various movies and TV programs such as “Ambulance Attendant” in the Cliff Gorman-Joseph Bologna film Cops and Robbers (1973), “Weigh Station Cop” in the Robert Drivas-Barry Bostwich trucker drama Road Movie (1974) and various policemen and punks on series like The Wide World of Mystery, Police Story and McCloud.
Still, 1974 also provided roles on Gunsmoke, Rhoda and McMillan & Wife as well as a bit in the “Butz Beer” phony advertisement within The Groove Tube, a collection of comic sketches and skits regarding TV programming. Things began looking up a bit in 1975 with small parts in a variety of movies from The Wild Party (starring James Coco and Raquel Welch) to Capone (with Ben Gazzara and Kove's Savages costar Susan Blakely) to The Four Deuces (with Jack Palance and Carol Lynley) to White Line Fever (with Jan-Michael Vincent.)
Yet another cult favorite, Death Race 2000, also came this year. The movie, which starred David Carradine and a young Sylvester Stallone, concerned a frenzied road race in which killing pedestrians, the harsher the better, racks up extra points! Kove played a race entrant named Nero the Hero, who was fed grapes by his female passenger before donning a gold helmet with laurels painted on the sides of it.
Kove was making quite an impression in another way as well. He was selected for the national advertisements of Irish Spring soap, playing a burly Irish arm wrestler who needs to wash up after a bout. Thus, TV viewers were treated to the up-close sight of his hairy, soapy chest, which went a hell of a long way in making up for the rancid accents that all actors in these ads sported. (My Irish mother would often scream at the TV that “no one” talked that way back home, but I wasn't listening closely anyway with Martin in the shower!)
Now a working actor with facial recognition and connections, Kove began to pop up as a guest star on many popular 1970s TV series such as Switch, The Rookies, Kojak, The Streets of San Francisco, The Rockford Files and The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (seen below with Jean Rasey and Pamela Sue Martin.) This was the era of the “macho man” with chest hair, gold chains and shirts open halfway and Kove fit the mold perfectly! By this time he'd morphed from his natural dark hair to medium blonde and finally to this lighter, highlighted look which seemed to bring out his features, particularly his eyes, more.
Also during this time, Kove appeared in the epic miniseries Captains and the Kings and had a small role in the snowy Charles Bronson mountain film The White Buffalo (1977.) But, more importantly, he was granted a costarring role on a TV series of his own! Granite-jawed Kove was teamed with James Houghton and Tom Simcox on a police-fire-water rescue show called Code R (1977.)
With him playing head lifeguard on Channel Island, there was opportunity for him to pop up in abbreviated swim trunks or a zip-up wetsuit, but, unfortunately for him, the series wasn't able to make it for more than 13 episodes before being cancelled. More popular shows on competing networks like Donny and Marie and Sanford and Son sealed its fate.
No matter, Kove was a frequent TV guest star on other shows including Charlie's Angels, The Incredible Hulk, Starsky and Hutch, Quincy, M.E. and the role-reversal sitcom We've Got Each Other, on which he appeared five times in a recurring part. In 1981, Kove married for the first (and only, as of this writing) time to a production assistant named Vivienne Raymond.
As he continued to show up on shows like Barnaby Jones, CHiPs and Beyond Westworld, there were TV-movies, too, and low-budget far such as the 1982 Greek adventure flick Bloodtide. At least there he was working along James Earl Jones, Jose Ferrer and Lila Kedrova (!), which took some of the sting out of appearing in such a project.
Better things were on the horizon, though. In 1982, he joined the cast of an unusual cop series that was struggling to find its identity (not to mention its ratings.) Cagney & Lacey had first seen the light of day as a TV-movie with Loretta Swit and Tyne Daly as no-nonsense policewomen. When a regular series was developed from it, Swit was unavailable due to M*A*S*H and so Meg Foster was cast in her stead. When audiences and CBS executives began to perceive Foster as lesbian, the series was cancelled. However, its creator pushed for a redux, with Sharon Gless (his original choice, unavailable at that time due to House Calls) in the now-slightly-softened Foster part. To help avoid any further lesbian connotation, Kove was brought on board as a hunky fellow detective.
It was then that Martin Kove really began to establish an identity with the public, thanks in no small part to the opening credits of the show, which focused on a shirtless Kove, flashing his chest to the camera as he dressed. (I'm thinking it took a while even then for anyone to bother looking to the right for his name, so fixated were they on his beefy physique at the left of the screen!) So momentous was this series of frames (in these mostly pre-VCR days of limited television channels) that a ground swell of admiration began to build around Kove. Despite some unlikely attributes, such as a deeply furrowed brow, our man became a popular pin-up and poster boy among many female (and doubtless male!) fans.
Cagney & Lacey eventually settled into a groove (after one more cancellation that was staved off by a vigorous letter-writing campaign) and emerged as a modest ratings success, but more so an Emmy Award magnet. Kove didn't reap the benefit of anything like that, but he had a secure home base through 1988 and won himself a significant fan base over the course of the show's run.
There was even more to come on that front, however, as he appeared in a 1984 movie that would grant him cult status among martial arts fans. The Karate Kid was a teen-aimed drama concerning young Ralph Macchio learning the art of self defense mixed with personal growth from Japanese master Pat Morita. Kove was cast as a former special forces officer and a sensei, master of a destructive form of karate called Cobra Kai.
Rumor was that Chuck Norris had been considered for the part, but not only had he not been officially approached, but he also had no desire to portray the martial arts in a villainous or unsympathetic way. Kove had no such reservations and, in fact, was angry the day of his audition because he'd been put off for several weeks and as a result had turned down some other acting offers.
All worked out well, though, in the end as Kove was hired for the sequels The Karate Kid II (1986) and The Karate Kid, Part III (1989), gaining recognition from young fans with each successive appearance, though not all of it was positive! He claimed to be the object of hatred from many folks who adored Macchio and Morita's characters to the point that he felt like “The Darth Vader of the contemporary cinematic world,” though he enjoyed the distinction.
In 1985, he also worked in the mega-hit Rambo: First Blood Part II with Sylvester Stallone. 1987 brought him a starring role in a low-budget action movie called Steele Justice. He portrayed a Vietnam veteran-turned-cop who was attempting to avenge the killing of one of his fellow officers and vets by drug dealers. The plot sounds drearily familiar, but he was paired with Sela Ward and didn't appear to wear a shirt very often in the film, which is good!
By 1989, with quite a bit of popularity on his side by now, he landed a series all his own from CBS, who'd been the network of Cagney & Lacey. Hard Time on Planet Earth concerned a soldier from another planet who was sent to Earth in order to serve a sentence he'd been given as the result of an unsuccessful rebellion at home. He was given a small orb-shaped robot companion who was in charge of keeping his violent temper under control (and the robot's name was Control.)
The publicity photos wasted no time in promoting the beefy physique of the series' leading man, though it was also abundantly clear that Kove had undergone cosmetic procedures to rid himself of his trademark cro-magnon-like browline. He now had high, arched eyebrows as a result and a smooth forehead... The series was lambasted by critics, all-but-ignored by the public and gone from the airwaves after 13 episodes, though, like many of his projects, it retains a fan following today.
In 1990, Kove became a father when Vivienne gave birth to twins, a girl (Rachel Olivia) and a boy (Jesse.) He proceeded to work in many action-oriented movies, many of which were low budget and quite a few of which were of the new phenomenon “straight-to-video.” 1994, however, brought a small role in Kevin Costner's western epic Wyatt Earp. Oddly enough, he played Ed Ross in both Earp and in the TV-Movie Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone, which was aired in 1994 and was an updating of the The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961) starring Hugh O' Brian.
That same year he worked with Kenny Rogers in Gambler V: Playing for Keeps as well as rejoining most of his old castmates for Cagney & Lacey: The Return. In 1995, he guest-starred on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.
From the mid-1990s to the present, Kove has amassed a staggering amount of credits in countless low-budget movies, occasionally co-producing them. He and Vivienne divorced in 2005, but he remains an active, doting father to Jesse and Rachel.
Jesse, twenty-four as of this writing, is now an actor in his own right and has been generating credits for himself over the last five years.
Martin Kove often found himself pigeonholed as either a brooding hunk or a surly villain during his peak time as an actor, often with his body taking center stage. In recent years, he's enjoyed performing a wide variety of roles, albeit in pictures that few people end up seeing.
Possessing a fondness for westerns, he has been a frequent attendee at The Golden Boot Awards among many other public appearances. He is currently sixty-seven years of age.
Lest we forget what really makes him a hero in The Underworld, though, I leave you with these two shots from a photo shoot he once did with actress Markie Post (who, incidentally, never worked with Kove in an actual project.) She appears to be having fun and I cannot fault her one bit! God love the '80s...
THE END! (By the way, these cropped caps do not show everything that was on display in Women in Revolt.)