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Stage Is Home to Garrison

WHEELING – Rob Garrison has always called Wheeling his hometown, but tonight he returns to a place where he says he feels most at home – the theater stage.

Garrison will be taking the stage at Oglebay Institute’s Towngate Theatre for a production of the timeless holiday tale “A Christmas Carol,” playing the lead character of Ebenezer Scrooge. It’s a dream role for the seasoned performer, who hinted this week he is looking forward to bringing bitter old Scrooge to life with a venomous verve. An audience would expect nothing less from an alumnus of the Cobra Kai.

A veteran television and film actor, Garrison is best known for his role as Tommy in the classic 1984 motion picture “The Karate Kid.” His character is that of a sidekick to arch villain Johnny Lawrence, both of whom are members of the merciless Cobra Kai dojo. During the film’s climax, his character delivers one of the movie’s most memorable lines: “Get him a body bag! Yeah!”

Garrison is no stranger to playing the bad guy, but Scrooge is a more complex character.

“It’s a challenging role,” he said. “Scrooge is transformed throughout the play. I learned a lot about myself while developing his character. It’s a happy story in the end, and I want people who come to see the show to be happy when they leave the theater.

“I’m so excited to be doing it. This really is a bucket-list role. Honestly, I’m nervous as hell, because it’s a huge part. I’m praying I get all my lines right. Scrooge is on stage pretty much the entire time, and he just doesn’t shut up.”

In addition to Garrison, a cast of local performers from veteran actors to theater newcomers of all ages will bring “A Christmas Carol” to life at 8 p.m. tonight and Saturday, and next Friday and Saturday at Towngate. There will be a matinee performance at 3 p.m. Sunday.

The play – adapted by Wheeling playwright Jeremy Richter from Charles Dickens’ famous 1843 novella – stays true to the traditional holiday tale with which generations are familiar. The production is directed by Towngate Theatre Director Tim Thompson.

“Jeremy Richter’s adaption is phenomenal,” Garrison said. “He’s really found the soul of the characters. Tim Thompson and our technical director P.D. Gregg do an incredible job, and all the actors and crew are wonderful.”

Some shows have already sold out in advance. Representatives of Oglebay Institute this week strongly recommended visiting www.oionline.com or calling 304-242-7700 in advance for ticket information about upcoming shows.

Garrison just recently reemerged on the local theater scene for the first time in decades. It was at Wheeling Park High School where he first discovered his passion for acting.

“I fell in love with it during my junior year,” said Garrison, a member of Park’s Class of 1978 – the school’s second graduating class. “For some reason it came naturally for me. I was just able to find different characters. I was in a production of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,’ and in my senior year, I landed the lead role in ‘The Fantasticks.'”

By fall of 1978, Garrison was enrolled in Ohio University’s theater program on a full college scholarship. There he honed his skills in numerous roles with the university’s theater productions.

“I grew so much as an actor at OU,” Garrison said. “I knew I was at home when I was on stage.”

His hard work paid off with a big break in his first role on the big screen. The 1980 motion picture “Brubaker” starring Robert Redford was being filmed at various locations in Ohio, and they were in need of supporting actors. Garrison landed a small role as “Pretty Boy,” a young kid in prison. The experience turned out to be a first-hand clinic on movie production.

“To get the same faces in the background, the director wanted the whole cast to stay for the entire filming,” Garrison said. “It’s a completely different environment than the theater, and for five and a half months, I got to be there on the set and watch how the lighting and sound crews worked, just watch how a movie was made.”

Garrison graduated from college in 1982 and made his way out to Los Angeles. Within two months, he landed a role in a pilot for a television show, had his Screen Actors Guild card and an agent. With a few roles under his belt, he found himself on the set of “The Karate Kid.”

“It’s been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs ever since then,” he said.

Both Garrison and another young actor named William Zabka tried out for the role of the Cobra Kai villain Johnny Lawrence. The fair-hared Zabka won the part, and Garrison was cast as fellow Cobra Kai thug Tommy.

“Billy Zabka has been my best friend for years,” Garrison said, noting that Zabka plays the villain so convincingly, it’s sometimes hard for many people to believe what a warm and generous person he is out of character.

Garrison noted his famous “Get him a body bag” line was not even in the script, nor was it part of the filming. Director John Avildsen had Garrison come back to loop in audio tracks four months after filming was complete, and for crowd banter during the climactic final match, Garrison improvised it on the first take, Avildsen liked it, and the dub made it into the final cut.

“The Karate Kid” became an instant classic, and the “body bag” quote has been included on various lists for the top 100 movie lines of all time.

In the wake of such a huge and influential movie, Garrison continued working in film and television. His young appearance and acting experience proved beneficial for roles in popular coming-of-age shows and movies at the time. But by his mid-20s he began losing his hair, and his roles changed from the handsome teen or young man to deranged lunatics, criminals and other supporting characters.

“I consider myself to be like a journeyman character actor,” Garrison said. “I’ve been through stretches where I’ve had 10 jobs in a year, and the next year I might have had one. Some years I’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars, and some years I’ve made just hundreds in this business. That’s when, like many other actors, you have to go out and wait tables, too.

“I’ve been in a lot of bad movies. Some weren’t even released. I’ve been in a few good ones, too,” Garrison said, adding that residuals from “The Karate Kid” still make up about half of his income.

Garrison’s resume includes roles in several movies and television shows such as “St. Elsewhere,” “Coach” and “McacGyver.” He has appeared in casts that have included the likes of Morgan Freeman, Christopher Lee, Denzel Washington, Howie Mandel, Jamie Lee Curtis, John Candy, Martin Short, Wilford Brimley, Levon Helm and many more.

By the early 1990s, much of Garrison’s work in high-profile television and movie productions had run thin. Ten years ago, he returned to the Ohio Valley.

“It was hard,” he said. “I was making a living at acting, and then there for a good while I didn’t do anything. Honestly, when I first came back, I felt like a failure.”

Any mention of “The Karate Kid” would make him angry during that time. It became both a blessing and a curse.

Before his father passed away, Garrison said his dad truly put it into perspective for him. He made him realize how many aspiring actors never even make it to L.A., and out of those who do only a few find enough work to make a living, and out of that select few only a handful can say they’ve been a box office hit.

“It changed my whole outlook,” he said. “Now it’s fun when people ask me about ‘The Karate Kid.’ It’s not about me. It’s about how the movie has affected them.”

Today, Garrison, 54, still stays in touch with Zabka and the Cobra Kai crew. He hired a new agent this year during a recent visit with Zabka and noted that with modern technology, he can submit preliminary audition videos via the internet from the comfort of his home in Wheeling.

While here, he enjoys keeping his acting skills sharp by performing in community theater on the Towngate stage.

“It’s been a lifesaver for me,” Garrison said. “I can’t thank Towngate enough for giving me these opportunities. The theater is my home, my love. And I’m looking forward to getting on that stage.”

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