Ralph Macchio isn’t the only star of the streaming series "Cobra Kai" who hails from Long Island. The show, a spin-off of 1984’s "The Karate Kid," re-casts the Dix Hills-raised actor as Daniel LaRusso -- now a family man who runs a successful car-dealer -- but it turns out that Courtney Henggeler, who plays his wife, Amanda, grew up partly in Seaford.
Henggeler, 42, was working as an actress in Los Angeles and on the verge of giving up when "Cobra Kai" offered her the role of Amanda LaRusso, a suburban wife and mother of two. (Henggeler is also married with two children.) The show ran on YouTube Premium for two seasons and became a sleeper hit, earning two Emmy nominations for stunt work; Netflix picked it up for Season Three, which premiered Jan. 1. William Zabka, who reprises his famous role as Daniel's nemesis Johnny Lawrence, co-produces the series with Macchio.
Henggeler spoke to Newsday by phone from her new-ish home in Huntington. She moved there early last year -- pre-Covid -- to be near family. "You just can’t quit Long Island," she says. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
You moved just in time for all the, uh, excitement.
We moved in the day the lockdowns started. We hear Huntington is beautiful! We'll never know, but we hear it's a wonderful town with wonderful restaurants. Maybe someday we'll find out. I don't know if you're familiar with Kerber's Farm? The inside of it looks so stinking cute -- but I've never been in!
So, you’re a New Jersey native…
I was born there, but I think I lived there half a second before my parents moved. I grew up in Pennsylvania, actually, in the Poconos, until I was about 14. Then my parents separated and my mom was like, ‘Let’s go back to Long Island.’ We’re South Shore people, my parents actually grew up across the street from each other in Seaford.
Where’d you go to high school?
Seaford High School, home of the Vikings! We didn't have a robust theater program, but I did do every play that you could possibly do in high school. And I did the Town of Hempstead Teen Rep. We had something called a "showmobile," so we would travel to different parks around Hempstead and perform different children’s shows on – literally – a car that would open up. It sounds kooky but it was a lot of fun.
Then what? College?
I went to a SUNY school, Fredonia, which is about as far away from Seaford, Long Island, as you can get in New York State. I was a BFA major, and it wasn't clicking with me. So I dropped out of college, to my parents' horror. I got a job that summer bartending, and taking classes in the city. A year or two after that, I moved out to Los Angeles. I started booking commercials immediately and I was like, "This is easy!" Cut to 20 years later: "Finally, I’m on a series!"
So tell me how you got the role of Amanda LaRusso.
I’d just had my son. I decided I was quitting acting. I’d been doing it for so long, since I was in my twenties. It was exhausting and I just wasn’t getting any further. I told my husband, "I think I’m done." He was like, "That is amazing. I support you in whatever you want. However, we get our health insurance through SAG [the Screen Actors Guild]. Can you hang in there a little longer until we find a plan B?" Within the next week I think I got the audition for "Cobra Kai."
What was it like being on set with Ralph Macchio and William Zabka, actors who go back 35 years together?
Ralph and Billy could not be more lovely, but it was very surreal. I called Ralph "Ralph Macchio" -- one word. I couldn't get over the fact that this was my TV husband I'm talking to. And off-set we're talking about our kids! Like, I'm talking about Ralph Macchio's kids? He was like, "It's just Ralph. You can just call me Ralph." That finally stopped around Season Three.
Are there other projects you're working on besides "Cobra Kai?"
I've written a Lifetime movie that aired earlier in the fall. It's called "The Secret Life of a Celebrity Surrogate." It's about a girl who becomes a surrogate for a powerful Hollywood couple, and the dangers that lie in there. I write a few movies like that. My goal is comedy, that's what I love to write, but for some reason I found myself in the "female thriller" niche. And I have a good time writing those as well.
REVIEW: With move to Netflix, "Cobra Kai' loses some of its charm
WHAT IT’S ABOUT Ralph Macchio made an endearing comeback story when he reshouldered the mantle of “The Karate Kid,” the 1984 movie that made him a star, by launching a spinoff series, “Cobra Kai.” For fans, the only thing better than seeing Macchio once again play Daniel LaRusso — no longer a skinny high schooler but a wealthy business owner — was seeing William Zabka reprise his role as the blond bully Johnny Lawrence, now a middle-aged boozer defeated by life. The series cleverly flipped their old rivalry on its head by making Daniel the top dog; it’s Johnny who must regain his self-respect by reopening his old dojo, the infamous Cobra Kai.
“Cobra Kai” premiered on YouTube Premium in 2018 and became a hit for two seasons. It’s been picked up by Netflix for Season Three.
MY SAY If “The Karate Kid” franchise is your “Star Wars” — that is, a canonical text you’ve memorized down to the last detail — then this season of “Cobra Kai” is for you. Macchio, a co-producer of the show, has described it as pure fan service, meaning it’s stuffed full of references, origin stories, flashbacks (so many flashbacks) and surprise guest appearances. That’s good news if you vividly remember, say, the climactic battle of “The Karate Kid Part II” and every character in “The Karate Kid Part III.” Otherwise, you might get the feeling this season is losing its focus and overstretching its material.
It’s hard not to get invested in the constant battles between sadistic bullies and weaker underdogs. That’s primal stuff, and it’s the whole reason the original film still endures. The young supporting actors here remain a mixed bag, but there are some standouts, including Jacob Bertrand as Eli “Hawk” Moskowitz, a nerd-turned-punk-turned-jerk, and Peyton List as Tory Nichols, a pint-size psychopath obsessed with Daniel’s daughter, Samantha (Mary Mouser).
Add to some of these primal scenes the raw emotions that erupt between sons and (sometimes figurative) fathers, and “Cobra Kai” can still be fairly entertaining. Zabka’s Johnny, still the downtrodden heart of the show, pulls triple duty in this capacity: Johnny is trying to reconnect with both his son, Robby (Tanner Buchanan, a natural-born brooder), and a possibly paralyzed student (Xolo Maridueña as Miguel), while himself resisting the Vader-like pull of his old sensei, John Kreese (Martin Kove, savoring every chew of the scenery). At times, Macchio’s Daniel feels a little sidelined, though the show does send him to Okinawa to visit the hometown of his beloved teacher, Mr. Miyagi (played by the late Pat Morita in clips from past movies).
Kreese turns out to take center stage this season in a lengthy origin story. He’s played as a clean-scrubbed young man by a rather good Barrett Carnahan in a series of intense flashbacks, which are at first shot like a 1950s movie — the small-town diner, the bobby-soxer, the mocking jocks — and then like a 1970s war movie as the kid from the heartland loses his humanity in Vietnam. Those segments feel a tad dark for “Cobra Kai” and don’t jibe with the show’s generally harmless tone, but they’re elaborately staged and help break up the monotony of the teen-on-teen fight scenes.
Never underestimate “The Karate Kid” as a franchise. It survived “The Next Karate Kid” (1994), which featured a young Hilary Swank; a 2010 remake with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan; and a long-forgotten animated television show. It can probably survive a patchy season of “Cobra Kai,” too.
BOTTOM LINE YouTube’s sleeper hit has lost some of its scrappy charm under Netflix. -- RAFER GUZMAN