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Tennessee: His Home Funny Home

For Henry Cho, rural life is fine--but he won't keep farmer's hours.


For most performers who want to get into movies, the path is to Los Angeles. Very few stars get the call in Gallatin, Tenn.

But for Henry Cho, the best move was back to his roots, his friends and his family.

Things seem to be working out for the easygoing Cho, a Korean American who was born in the Volunteer State and who went into stand-up comedy in 1986 with the specific goal of getting into films.

"I lived in Hermosa Beach for about six years," he recalled recently from his farm in Gallatin. "I moved out there in 1989 and planned to live in L.A. until I reached a level I was comfortable with--and then get out of there."

His career got a big boost a few years ago when he started hosting NBC's "Friday Night Videos." But, he noted, "I always wanted a lot of land and a house. It's a lot cheaper here than around L.A. And there are direct flights from Nashville."

The step back hasn't hurt him. Last year--a year after he'd returned to Tennessee--he filmed an updated "McHale's Navy" with Ernest Borgnine, Tom Arnold and David Allen Grier, among others. It's due on screens in April. The action-adventure-comedy movie was shot in Barra de Navidad, a town about 100 miles south of Puerto Vallarta.

"I love Mexican food," said Cho, who was there for about three months. "But Mexicans eat Mexican food every day! All the time! If I don't see another burrito for a while, I'll be a happy man."

In the movie, Cho plays Willie, a MacGyver type who can rig just about anything. "I was playing him really straight because I was tired of seeing misfit rebels who come up brilliant in crunch time."

Others wanted a little more offbeat character. But Cho was comfortable with his choice and won his case.

"I'm an Asian with a Southern accent. I'm already out there. For a majority of Americans, that's already funny. There are times when you just gotta rein it in."

In Mexico, Cho also got to engage in his off-duty passion, golf. "I was playing with Dean Stockwell, and the beverage guy would follow us all day with the cart. It was cerveza city."

Since returning to his spread--which he shares with two stray dogs, a golden Lab and a German shepherd--Cho has been living the life of a Southern gentleman farmer, leisurely picking and choosing his jobs.

"My buddies understand what I do. My father says, 'Maybe you should move back to L.A. You haven't been working much.' But I'm OK. I've got money in the bank. I've pretty much taken off four or five months. I can make five digits doing corporate shows. That covers my nut, and I can live my life the way I want to.

"I've given myself to Memorial Day, and then [I'll] get back to it. I've tried before to take time off like this, but something always came up. For me to move back to L.A. will take something I'm pretty passionate about. I'm going to stay here as long as possible.

"My ultimate goal from Day One has been to do films, ever since I first took the stage," continued Cho, who, his first time onstage, told funny, reality-based stories about his friends and family. "I looked at Robin Williams, Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart. I thought, 'OK. I'll try stand-up.' I still love doing stand-up and don't think I'll ever stop.

"I know I have a long way to go. I always thought I'd do a sitcom and then leave for films, but there's 10 hoops to jump through . . . and the issues of content and control. I'd love to do a drama, something like 'ER' or 'NYPD Blue.' "

As flexible as he is about the mediums in which he will work, Cho is adamant about certain other things:

"I wouldn't do anything stereotypical, no broken English unless it's set in the 1800s--and even then I'd argue about that. I wouldn't own a laundry in Russia or a restaurant in New York. I've never felt the bias, I guess, that a lot of Asian actors feel, because I'm not like most Asian actors.

"If I were only an actor, I'd have to say yes to a lot of roles. But I can say no because I can go to an Improv or a Punchline and make my money. If I was predominantly an actor, yeah, you'd see me playing those roles. Not too many ethnic actors can say no to these roles. But I'm the guy who can say no."

On the day of the interview, Cho had been playing the role of good neighbor, helping a friend round up some cattle that had moseyed off after a thunderstorm knocked a couple of trees onto a fence. Cho had received an early wake-up call.

"My neighbor can't believe it's 5:30 in the morning and I'm still in bed. He says, 'I got coffee in the truck. You've got two minutes.' We were on horseback because it was raining. Normally we'd take four-wheelers. I'm not really as diversified as he is, so he told me to just stay in this one place and don't let 'em by. So he goes and finds them, and I [end up with] four or five spooked cattle coming at me.

"I'm a city boy living in the country, but I've learned a lot. I've learned not to have cattle."


* The Improv, 4255 Campus Drive, Irvine. (714) 854-5455. 8:30 p.m. today, 8:30 and 10:30 Friday, 8 and 10:30 Saturday. Closed Easter. $10-$15.

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