The untold truth of All American

The CW debuted All American, a teen drama that initially flew under the radar of most viewers, in the fall of 2019. The series focused on talented African-American high school quarterback Spencer James (played by Daniel Ezra) from South Los Angeles, who finds himself caught between two worlds when he's recruited by football coach Billy Baker (played by Taye Diggs) to play for Beverly Hills High.

The show barely made a dent in the ratings. When it was renewed for a second season, AdWeek noted that All American averaged 1.1 million viewers, tying for the position of 227th place among all primetime shows on broadcast television. Given that information, it would be easy to predict that the show would simply fade away, joining the thousands of little-remembered series littering television's cancellation graveyard. Yet due to an odd twist of fate and some highly unusual circumstances, this critically acclaimed drama wound up building a following that would be the envy of any TV series.

Viewers who tuned in discovered a smartly written, nuanced drama that fearlessly tackled hot-button issues such as race and class. From the show's unique origins to its surprising rise in popularity, read on to discover the untold truth of All American.

The star of All American isn't American

The beating heart of All American is high school quarterback Spencer James, played by Daniel Ezra. One fact about Ezra that would likely surprise viewers is that the actor is actually British, not American. According to his CW bio, Ezra is a graduate of London's prestigious East 15 Acting School. He earned a nomination for the Ian Charleson Award, honoring "the best classical stage performances in Britain by actors under the age of 30," for his role in the National Theatre's stage production of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.

Like any British actor portraying an American character, Ezra pointed out that overcoming the cultural differences to authentically portray Spencer was just one element in his multifaceted approach to crafting his performance. "That just meant I had to work a little harder," Ezra explained in an interview with Tribune News Service. "I stayed in the American accent longer and carried the football around with me. I spent as much time as possible in South Central L.A. to make the performance as authentic as possible."

How All American's Daniel Ezra perfected his American accent

In order to maintain a convincing American accent for his role in All American, U.K.-born Daniel Ezra decided not to revert to his regular accent while filming the show. In fact, Ezra explained that even when he's not on camera, he'll continue to use his character's accent so it becomes second nature. During an appearance on daytime talk show The Real, Ezra revealed that his co-stars didn't learn he was British until after filming on the pilot episode had been completed, at which point he shifted back to speaking with his natural British accent.

Crafting the accent of Spencer James did not happen overnight. As Ezra explained, he did a lot of work to get it right, even accompanying the pilot's director, Rob Hardy, to South Central Los Angeles in order to get a flavor of the authentic accent he was creating. "He took me down to Crenshaw," said Ezra.

Another way that Ezra worked on achieving the right accent for the character was to listen to the music of rappers from Los Angeles. "I listened to only L.A. rap artists, only Californian rap artists, and just sticking [with] it," he shared. 

The All American cast dubbed star Daniel Ezra the show's worst football player

Growing up in the U.K., Daniel Ezra was more familiar with soccer — or, as it's called everywhere except North America, football — than he was with NFL-style American football. And although he plays a star quarterback in All American, his co-stars have jokingly declared him to be the worst real-life football player in the entire cast.

In a series of interviews conducted on video for TV Guide, the cast was asked to single out the worst football player, and nearly all of them pointed to Ezra, citing his British heritage. However, All American actor Michael Evans Behling diplomatically pointed out that Ezra had been working on developing his skills. "I will say this," he said. "What he can do now is pretty impressive."

Ezra was not unaware of his gridiron shortcomings. "We don't have [football] in the U.K.," he explained, admitting his previous football experience was "zero." He added, "I grew up playing basketball and things like that, so I had to learn everything from the ground up. I still can't throw very well, but I can catch."

All American is based on the true story of an NFL star

The storylines on All American have proven to be compelling to viewers, and one reason that may be is because it's based on the true story of retired NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger, who played for the New York Giants, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and Carolina Panthers. Paysinger is not only the show's inspiration, but he's also All American's co-producer and consultant, responsible for ensuring the series maintains the authenticity viewers have come to expect.

Like All American's Spencer James, noted Screen Rant, Paysinger lived in South Central L.A. but commuted to Beverly Hills High each day after he was recruited to play on the school's football team. He graduated in 2006, spending two years playing for the Beverly Hills High Normans. 

In an interview with ESPN, Paysinger said he was proud of the way the show characterized his neighborhood, which he believes transcends typical Hollywood clichés. "The one thing I want viewers to see is South Central is also a beautiful place," he explained. "It's a place that I call home to this day. I think we've been able to do that."

How Spencer Paysinger brought his story to television

Before Spencer Paysinger retired from the NFL in early 2018, he envisioned a second act as a writer/producer in Hollywood. In an interview with ESPN, Paysinger revealed that, even while playing in the NFL, he'd been dabbling in screenwriting, starting off by downloading scripts of favorite movies like Pulp Fiction in order to get a feel for how a story is shaped on the page. 

Using his life story as inspiration, Paysinger pitched the idea of All American to Warner Bros. Television Group chairman Peter Roth. Roth, arguably one of the most powerful players in television, was intrigued. A second meeting was set up, and The CW bought the rights. After defining the show's premise as "an outsider in two worlds," a pilot was eventually shot. 

According to Paysinger, he took screenwriting as seriously as he took football, and he saw All American as the first step of his ultimate goal. "I don't want this to be one shot," Paysinger explained. "I don't want this to be, 'Hey, you're the guy who had that one show. What are you doing now?' I want it to be a career."

This All American star used to be a barber

One of the key characters in All American is quarterback Spencer James' cousin Tamia "Coop" Cooper, played by Bre-Z. "She constantly pushes him not be afraid to leave his comfort zone," Bre-Z told Glamour of Coop. "I love that my character is not one-dimensional. I love the positivity within her regardless of what she feels like she has to do because of the environment that she's been brought up in. And she's funny as hell."

Before coming to Hollywood, Bre-Z, whose real name is Calesha Murray, worked as a barber — something she'd been doing since the age of 10. Cutting hair, she explained, "was my bread and butter throughout high school and growing up." While she was earning a solid income, she ultimately felt "like I hit a plateau in my life." Finally, she and a friend decided to make the move to Los Angeles to pursue their showbiz dreams. "I got here, and six or seven months later I was asked to audition for Empire," she said of her breakout role as Freda Gatz in the music-themed drama. "I've been here ever since."

TV critics fell in love with All American

While the initial ratings for All American weren't that encouraging, the critical response sure was. In addition to an enviable 96 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, TV critics' reviews were glowing. USA Today compared the experience of watching All American to attending "a class reunion," calling it "comforting and nostalgic."

Meanwhile, Vox described the series as "one of the strongest new dramas of the fall," noting that there was "something hard to beat about a good-hearted kid discovering the excesses of money and power, while those who have the money and power discover just how much they have in common with the new kid." Variety also gushed about All American, calling it "a rookie show with real promise" that was "a bright spot at the start of a moribund network-TV season." 

Described by both TV Insider and The Hollywood Reporter as The O.C. meets Friday Night LightsTHR declared All American to be "the fall's best new broadcast network drama," while pointing out the fall 2018 network television offerings were overall pretty dismal.

All American's second season was in doubt until this happened

Given the lackluster ratings for All American's first season, the show's fate was up in the air when The CW president Mark Pedowitz spoke to journalists during the January 2019 Television Critics Association press tour. The reason he hadn't yet decided whether All American would return for a second season, he told reporters (per Variety), was because he was "curious to see how it does with out-of-season streaming" once the show debuted on Netflix in March of that year.

In April 2019, reported Deadline, The CW announced renewals for ten shows, and All American was not one of them, leading industry watchers to fear the series was a goner. Days later, however, The CW announced that All American would be returning for a second season. As the series' executive producer Greg Berlanti suggested to Deadline, Pedowitz's decision to wait paid off. "A few weeks back, Nielsen released data to The CW saying All American was the number 3 show of the week for Netflix and number 2 in teenagers," Berlanti revealed. "Obviously Netflix is quiet about that sort of thing but all the indicators we've gotten are very positive and a good sign that the show is continuing to find an audience..."

How All American became Netflix's No. 1 show

When the second season of All American hit Netflix in March 2020, viewership exploded. According to AdWeek, the day that Season 2 was released on Netflix, it immediately became one of the streaming service's most popular shows among American viewers. In fact, AdWeek pointed out that the show then went on to claim the top spot among all Netflix movies and TV shows. 

In late 2019, The CW's president Mark Pedowitz discussed the so-called "Netflix bump" that had given All American and, previously, Riverdale, far larger audiences via streaming than they received on the network. However, that advantageous situation was coming to an end. As Pedowitz told AdWeek, Netflix's streaming deal with The CW's corporate parents, WarnerMedia and CBS, was concluding. The CW's series would subsequently stream exclusively on the network's website and app.

Pedowitz admitted that "the biggest challenge we all have is to get the Netflix viewer, who may not pay attention to us, to come and look at our shows." He went on, "We have to say, 'Look, we found Supernatural, Flash, The 100, Riverdale, All American, In the Dark. Why don't you just check us out?'"

How All American's Da'Vinchi Juste reacted to the show's Netflix popularity

News of All American hitting No. 1 on Netflix did not go unnoticed by the series' cast. Actor Da'Vinchi Juste, who plays quarterback Darnell Hayes, spoke with Fox Sports Radio's Listen In With KNN about the show hitting the top spot on the streaming service. "It feels great to finally be acknowledged [after] the years you've been working in silence that nobody saw," said Juste when asked about his feelings on All American's No. 1 status.

"Everything that led up to this moment, like, if I started talking I would never end, you know?" Juste added. "It's amazing to see that all the blood, sweat, and tears ... voluntarily putting yourself through hard situations and circumstances just so I could ascend to the next level."

During the interview, Juste also discussed working with Spencer Paysinger, the former NFL player whose life story formed the basis for All American. "He's on set like all the time," said Juste. In fact, Juste said that Paysinger remembered him from an earlier audition when he went out for the role of Spencer James, which ultimately went to Daniel Ezra. "We just talk and chill. He's a really good guy," he added.

How the All American cast reacted to being picked up for a third season

In early 2020, The CW announced that All American was being picked up for a third season. As one might expect, the show's cast was beyond thrilled. In a video produced by The CW, the show's stars shared their excitement about continuing the story in a third season. "We're very, very excited that we got the Season 3 pickup," said Taye Diggs, while Daniel Ezra admitted, "We were ecstatic to get the news." Samantha Logan, who plays Olivia Baker, revealed she was "looking forward to diving into whatever they write for me."

Bre-Z, who plays Coop, shared that she "literally screamed" when she learned of the renewal news. She also offered her theory about why the show resonated with viewers to the degree that it had. "Our storylines help so many people," she said, noting, "And there's not a lot of television that's doing that."

Actor Cody Christian, who plays Asher Adams, described the show's tight-knit cast as "a community of people." Christian added, "We have a family that, like, really cares about telling a good story."

All American paid tribute to late rapper Nipsey Hussle

Fans were shocked and saddened when Los Angeles rapper and community activist Nipsey Hussle was shot dead in March 2019, as reported by The New York Times. Given that Hussle lived and worked in the same Crenshaw area of South Central Los Angeles depicted in All American, the show felt it was necessary to honor the rapper. 

In October 2019, reported Billboard, the premiere episode of the second season featured a brief tribute. While the rapper's song "Blue Laces 2" plays, a street artist is seen working on what is revealed to be a mural of Nipsey Hussle, which features one of his quotes: "I don't give any person that much power over my path... Not one person can make or break what I'm doing. Except me or God."

In the scene, the camera pulls back to reveal Spencer and Coop have stopped and are gazing at the mural. "Things will never be the same around here," Coop tells Spencer, who responds, "33 years young. Makes no damn sense." Says Coop, "It never does."

All American tackles some hot-button issues

The premise of All American is perfectly positioned to address hot-button issues of race and class, given that protagonist Spencer James straddles the very different worlds of extravagant Beverly Hills and the far less luxurious South Central Los Angeles.

The show's fearless approach to tackling these issues head-on was evident in an episode that saw Spencer and black teammate Jordan (played by Michael Evans Behling) pulled over by LAPD officers. Spencer has had "The Talk" with his mother, instructed on how a young African-American male needs to act when interacting with police in order to prevent the situation from escalating. Jordan, however, coming from a more affluent background, has not. The situation ultimately results in both teens being handcuffed.

It's a topic that All American showrunner Nkechi O. Carroll felt was important to address. "I'm a mom of two black boys in America and I'm very cognizant of when is the right time to have that talk with them," she told Teen Vogue. "I am also fully aware that it's a talk that many of my counterparts who do not have kids of color, specifically African-American sons, must ever have."

Why Taye Diggs thinks All American is different from most teen dramas

Television has no shortage of teen dramas competing for the attention of young viewers, yet All American has clearly stood out enough to capture the coveted No. 1 spot on Netflix. Star Taye Diggs, who plays Beverly Hills High football coach Billy Baker, offered his theory about the show's popularity. Speaking with TV Insider, Diggs shared his belief that the show's authenticity has been the key to its success, featuring three-dimensional characters who don't always act in predictable ways.

"It's not the type of show where it's cookie cutter, where the coach makes all the right decisions and is the perfect example," he explained. "These are adults and young people being faced with real-life situations."

For Diggs, there's a level of ambiguity in the characters that is far more realistic than what's typically seen in a teen drama. "There isn't necessarily a right or a wrong," he said of the way the show's characters are written. "These are human beings in human situations, acting like human beings," he said.