By Nancy Faber
August 27, 1984 12:00 PM

The audience is screaming—in the movie and in the movie theater. The final seconds of a karate championship are ticking away, and the score is tied. Can the tired, dazed, wimpy underdog outwit the blond, square-jawed bully, thus winning the trophy, the girl and self-respect? Stop action. If this plot sounds familiar, no wonder. Rocky director John G. Avildsen is at it again, only this time he’s moved from boxing ring to dojo for The Karate Kid. The summer’s sleeper hit may just catapult its star, Ralph Macchio, the way Rocky did Sylvester Stallone.

Already Ralph possesses some of Stallone’s swagger. Of his new smash, he says, “When I read the title, I thought, is this some kind of joke? Some kind of Bruce Lee parody?” For The Karate Kid that posture proved an asset, as it has throughout Macchio’s brief career. “It was Ralph’s cockiness and vulnerability that got him the part,” Avildsen admits.

To prepare for battle Macchio underwent a five-week cram course in karate, trained in L.A. by martial-arts expert Pat Johnson. “But karate isn’t what the movie is about. It’s about a relationship, ” insists Macchio, who refused to pose for publicity shots in karate poses. In the drama, Noriyuki “Pat” Morita of Happy Days plays Miyagi, Daniel’s karate teacher and surrogate father. According to critics it’s Macchio’s and Morita’s spirited performances that lift the formula movie off the mat. Says Ralph: “Without that chemistry the movie could have been just a bad version of Rocky.”

At 22 Macchio looks 16. Like Stallone he’s Italian, but there the physical similarity ends; Macchio weighs in at just 120 pounds. Looking too young is a curse everyone should have. “It’s a problem on the days I let it be a problem,” he says. “Sometimes when I’m asked for ID when I’m being served, I don’t like it.” Even his younger brother, Steven, 20, looks older than Ralph.

True to his heritage, Macchio feels that la famiglia is molto importante. After two years in Hollywood and on movie locations, he moved back to his hometown of Huntington, L.I., where his parents, Ralph and Rosalie, own a trucking business. “My father owned some Laundromats, and when I was 10 he had me in there making change and being an attendant,” says Ralph. “He taught me that on weekends you had to get up and go to work. That has been a big help in acting.” Adds his dad, “I’m happy that any success Ralph has had has not changed his attitude toward his home life and friends.”

Macchio began as the tap-dancing kid when, at age 3, Mom signed him up for lessons. Six years ago he was in a local dance recital doing an Eddie Cantor impression when an agent spotted him and sent him out on auditions for commercials. But Ralph’s commitment wasn’t complete. Rather than miss a beach party, he once sent a friend to an audition in his place. The pal got the part. “I didn’t need acting to survive,” boasts Macchio.

His college plans were zapped when he landed a role as a military-school recruit in the 1980 comedy Up the Academy. “Suddenly I was trying to put things into the part. Acting became work,” he recalls. Afterward he moved to Los Angeles, where he signed on for one season as Betty Buckley’s adopted nephew in Eight Is Enough. When Francis Coppola began casting for The Outsiders, “that was the first time in my whole career that I went for it, that I couldn’t say I don’t care,” Macchio admits. He eventually got the major role of teen rebel Johnny Cade, but the finished film did not engender celebration. “Somehow it didn’t come out right,” admits Ralph.

Since The Karate Kid he has finished a black comedy, Teachers, and he just wrapped Billy Grier, an ABC-TV movie in which he plays a boy who has progeria, the rapid-aging disease. The four-hour makeup sessions involved lots of spirit gum and foam rubber. “It felt like five layers of Scotch tape on a sunburn,” Ralph moans.

Macchio is characteristically self-assured about his high-kicking career. “There is nothing I ever wanted, if I wanted it bad enough, that I didn’t get,” he says. Observes Avildsen, “I hope he will survive all the adulation that will come his way. I think he has that balance not to go off the deep end.” He pauses a moment before adding, “But then I thought the same thing about Stallone after Rocky.” Nobody in the family is worried. Insists Ralph Sr., “He hasn’t forgotten who he is.”