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The Karate Kid All Grown Up

updated 06/01/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/01/2009 01:00AM

When watching sports at Ralph Macchio's cozy four-bedroom home on Long Island, there's one unspoken rule: Root for the underdog. "It's the Mets, the Jets and the Islanders," says Macchio, 47, who knows a little something about beating the odds. Twenty-five years after gaining fame as Daniel "Danielsan" LaRusso in the film The Karate Kid, Macchio is still onscreen, now as Ana Ortiz's love interest on ABC's Ugly Betty. After a decade spent acting in small indie films, the married father of Julia, 17, and Daniel, 13 (yes, his name was partly inspired by Karate Kid), is relishing his return to the spotlight.

And Macchio is always happy to be reminded of the movie that made him a star. "As an actor, you hope to have one piece of anything that could touch that many people," says Macchio, who hardly seems to have aged since he played a picked-on teen who learns martial arts and life lessons from the mysterious Mr. Miyagi. "People in their 30s say, 'Oh my God! You make me feel old. I can't believe you have kids.'" But although Macchio catapulted to teen-idol levels of popularity in the '80s, he was actually 22 when he played the part of Daniel. Still, he recalls, he could easily relate to the role: "I immediately got this guy. I had that tough talk but innocent look."

His wife of 22 years, Phyllis, 48, a nurse practitioner, has been by his side the whole time. The pair, who lived in neighboring Long Island towns, met when he was 15 at a party in his grandmother's basement. Sparks flew, Phyllis remembers, over cheese doodles and root beer. "The first time I saw these big, dark brown eyes," she says, "I felt a natural bond." After starring in Karate's two sequels, as well as 1992's My Cousin Vinny, Macchio left Hollywood behind to spend more time shuttling his children between school and guitar and tennis lessons. "I don't look at it as being out of the limelight, wasting my time," he says. "My biggest accomplishment has been raising my family."

Which includes cheering on hometown teams with Daniel—who isn't solely named for his dad's cinematic counterpart. "My wife's cousin Daniel was her best friend growing up. And yeah, for me the name Daniel will always mean something special," says Macchio, who still owns his character's headband and the 1947 yellow Ford Convertible from the film—"I have the 'wax-on, wax-off' car!" he boasts. While his son was allowed to wear the headband to school one Halloween, Macchio is stricter about his daughter's dress code. "I have a daughter who is dating. Give me the crane kick," Macchio says with a sigh, invoking the film's signature knock-out move. "This is the toughest job on the planet."

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