Amy Hill stars as the grandmother in "All-American Girl."
A new DVD set resurrects the Korean character Amy Hill was at first considered too young to play
IT WAS YOUR standard, formulaic television family sitcom -- only, this time, with an Asian-American cast, starring stand-up comic Margaret Cho.
Back during the 1994-95 season, "All-American Girl" may have been "groundbreaking" due to its main actors' ethnicity, but the ABC network just didn't know how to market it. Things were so uncertain that, by the series' final episode, Cho's make-believe family was replaced by characters deemed better-suited for a national audience, namely three white, male friends.
The only character besides Cho's to survive the overhaul was the spot-on Korean grandmother played by Amy Hill. Cho had asked Hill (herself an accomplished actor of mixed Caucasian and Japanese heritage) to join her show, where straight-talking Grandma became the most popular of the characters.
Amy Hill with the cast of "All-American Girl."
With the comedy just released in stores as a four-disc DVD set from Shout! Factory, the 52-year-old Hill is thankful to Cho for helping her TV and movie career.
"We both lived in San Francisco around the same time she was growing up," Hill said by phone from her Los Angeles home. "She's 10 years younger than me. I later saw her again at a benefit in S.F. after I moved to L.A., and I just thought she was amazing. I was so happy to see her work ... she was so fierce and so funny.
"A year later, I saw that she got a development deal with ABC. My agent wanted me to read for Margaret's mother's part, but when I got the script, I really liked the grandmother. Like Margaret, I had also done my own mother in improv comedy. When I talked to the producers about doing the role, they were, at first, uncomfortable with it. They said I was not old enough. But once I put on the gray wig ... and was left alone to do Grandma, the executives of the pilot episode later asked where they found the old lady to play her!"
BUT the show ran into trouble. Cho suffered health problems due to drastic weight loss.
Hill said that, "watching from the sidelines, I saw the deconstruction of the show. Margaret was pulled in every which way, by the cast, the producers, the writers, the Asian-American community. She had positive intentions with the show, wanting to make a difference, but Hollywood could care less. ...
"The network ultimately fired the creator, the writers, got a new director, and got rid of everyone in the cast except for me and Margaret. ... Everybody found out the day we taped our last episode together (that they were cut) ... and it was devastating, with people in tears."
TEN YEARS LATER, Hill admits that she was stunned when she got the call to do commentary for the DVD release of "All-American Girl." "I never expected anybody to see it again," she said, "but it's just my take on the show. I guess in the Asian-American community, there's a lot of interest, as there's still no Asian-American family represented on a sitcom. They're the ones interested in buying this, and it speaks to a lack of having our faces on TV. It was not the best show done, but just the fact that it was there, it could leave an impression on young Asian-Americans."
Amy Hill in character as the grandmother in "All-American Girl."
In retrospect, although the show was, in the words of Cho, "a bland, middle-of-the-road comedy," it still had its occasional charm. And it's interesting to see other veteran Asian-American actors such as Jodi Long, Clyde Kusatsu and B.D. Wong in the show, along with guests (and friends of Cho's) like David Cross, Jack Black and Quentin Tarantino (at a time when his "Pulp Fiction" was all the rage).
Born in Deadwood, S.D., and schooled in Japan, where she later became overall "talento" in radio and TV, Hill pursued a serious acting career when she moved to San Francisco. Five years ago, she adopted a baby as a single parent. And while she's planning to do more theater work, Hill said she considers herself fortunate, able to play roles outside of the plethora of elderly women she was offered once "All-American Girl" went off the air.
Through her work on projects like "50 First Dates," "Lilo & Stitch," and the canceled TV drama "North Shore," "I have a lot of friends in Oahu, and I try to come over once or twice a year. In fact, back around '92, I did my 'Tokyo Bound' one-woman show at the Lizard Lounge."
Besides doing the voice of Ah-Mah for Cartoon Network's "The Life & Times of Juniper Lee," other recent TV work includes "Curb Your Enthusiasm" ("that one I played a Japanese faith healer -- my 91-year-old mother was a faith healer herself once for six months"), "Without a Trace" ("I was a plain, simple mother experiencing trauma) and as a fortune teller on "Six Feet Under."
"It's kind of cool to be different people, whether it's as a sarcastic sidekick, a receptionist ... I'm not afraid to do immigrant characters. I've played Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Hawaiian."