Thursday, April 03, 2008

Aren't you Jack from Jack in the Box?

My heart goes out to character actors.

When you read casting breakdowns there are a lot more productions seeking, “Male, 30’s, handsome, charming” than “Overweight, 50’s, Italian/Russian mix, unibrow”.

And the few character actors that are successful enough that they don’t have to be service managers at Jiffy Lube ultimately get trapped by their own success. Producers will glance at their headshots or see them read and say, “Him again? Jesus. This guy’s been on a million shows. Can’t we find any new overweight Italian/Russians? “

When you walk into a room and the producers go, “Hey, it’s the ‘can you hear me’ guy!” or “I’ve seen that big white head before. Aren’t you Jack from Jack in the Box?” you’re dead.

Or if a production is to be filmed on location in say, Houston. They’ll cast from the local pool there. Yes, that Nazi soldier might speak with a drawl but it’s cheaper to over-dub him than fly a real Nazi halfway across the country.

And time is never a friend. They get too old to play the cute waitress, the ballplayer, or Julia Roberts’ best friend (although Julia Roberts miraculously never ages herself).

If a character actor isn’t hot agents often lose interest. There’s always some Chihuahua who’s easier to book.

The most heartbreaking casting session I ever held was on MASH. We had a USO subplot in an episode and needed an accordion player. One by one, ten accordion players came in to audition. They all looked right, they all could play “Lady of Spain”. We had to choose one, which we did. But I felt so terrible for the others. How many calls do they get from their agent saying “MASH needs an accordion player”? How many of them kissed their wives goodbye on the way to the casting session saying, “I know I haven’t worked in six years but I’ve got this one!”

So the next time you’re in Jiffy Lube or Wal-Mart or Staples be nice to the clerk. He may be one hell of an accordion player.

22 comments:

sephim said...

There was that movie where they had eight(?) different actors playing one girl (I don't remember the name of the movie, but that's not important) - I always wondered why nobody ever did that with every character on a movie, or TV series. Sure it'd be disorienting but I'm sure people would be forced to pay more attention to the movies or TV show they're watching and would maybe notice how good the writing or the direction or the production was rather than just some actor du jour in the same role that made them famous in the same comfortable format - possibly forcing actors to actually act, in a situation where the important part of a movie or show finally shines through.

Somebody get on that?

Anonymous said...

Yep, that "be nice" thing seems to work everywhere. I'm beginning to get it.

Forest Jefferson said...

I think such connection is inevitable and widespread in any life situation. This is one of the reasons of adultery.

jimbo_jones said...

That's one of the things I love about Law & Order (the original) - the pool of actors they use. That show alone has probably kept many actors from starving. It's fun to see how they reuse these same faces again and again in different roles. It's also fun to see what the actors do with it.

On another note about L&O, I feel they have found new life this year. The cast changes have been excellent and I have a renewed enjoyment of this old show. That girl partner last season - horrid. And I like Jack as the conflicted DA. I'm thinking this show can go on now a few more years.

And for those of you who thought I was kidding or being sarcastic when I compared MASH to Coupling, not at all. IMO, Coupling (the Brit one, of course) was/is the best sitcom ever produced. Of course, it would be a bit over the head of a lot of folks who find MASH to be cutting edge humor. If you haven't seen Coupling, you should start at the beginning and watch straight through. It's gold, jerry.

Susan said...

I enjoyed reading your blog today.
Found it while searching google for the name of an obscure 70s Journey song.

Tom Quigley said...

..."Yep, that "be nice" thing seems to work everywhere. I'm beginning to get it...

A few character actors that I've met on shows that I've worked on who were either in the cast of that week's show or were guests of the production staff (or ran into somewhere else): Kenneth Tyger (probably best known for his role as Mr. Kopechne, the man who thought he was turning into a werewolf on an episode of BARNEY MILLER), Ann Guilbert (Rob and Laura's next door neighbor Millie on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW), Anne Haney (probably best known as the lady who ran the nanny placement service in MRS. DOUBTFIRE), John Carlen (Harv Sr. on CAGNEY AND LACEY), Anthony Cistaro (Kelly's French boyfriend and Sam and Woody's nemesis on CHEERS), Casey Sander (Brett Butler's next door neighbor in GRACE UNDER FIRE) and William Utay (Dan Fielding's personal assistant and valet on NIGHT COURT). In each case I made a point of mentioning a role or show I had remembered seeing them in, and they always seemed so appreciative hearing that someone had noticed their work. It's at that point that you realize how much these people bust their asses to get these roles and the level of competition that they're up against in Hollywood -- and usually for roles which offer minimal exposure, if not forgotten altogether. I'm just glad that my words could bring a smile to their faces.

Sebastian said...

Yeah speaking about character actors and Law and Order: what's the guy from Six Feet Under doing on Law & Order? Wasn't he supposed to rescue some hostages recently? No?

I think it's funny that they were able to use Haiden Pennatiere when she was 11 and then again when she was 16 on SVU. Now she's on Heroes. Yay for her. Oh and Casey Novak was in a season three episode about a rape of a male stripper before she became the resident ADA in season 5 ff. Yeah it's sometimes funny but then again sometimes it's not. I like it more when characters stay the same of different shows. Like Frasier. Or Munch.

And I know I am cynical but speaking of SVU I think the guy at the Staples or Home Depot could also very well be a child molesting arcordeon player.

But I promise: the next time I'm at a staples in Hollywood I'll be nice to all the clerks.

webbie said...

Two comments:

First, I love to watch Law & Order to see old soap stars. Yes, I know they have big "legitimate theater" creds, but really, I know them from As The World Turns, Guiding Light, and All My Children.

Second, I live in a city where your waiter is a songwriter, your pet groomer is a drummer, your youth pastor is a back-up singer. Your carpenter may have to abandon your bookshelves to go on tour. And the manager at Jiffy Lube had two hit songs in the 80's.

Brent said...

How about when strange forces of the universe collide and a character actor breaks out as a star like Phillip Seymour Hoffman or John C. Reily or Ernest Borgnaine back in the day.

It's rare but I like to see a Hollywood star who looks like the people I see on the street.

Amber said...

“I know I haven’t worked in six years but I’ve got this one!”

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

*takes deep breath*

BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Oh god that image is so sad and funny all at once!

jbryant said...

jimbo jones said: "IMO, Coupling (the Brit one, of course) was/is the best sitcom ever produced. Of course, it would be a bit over the head of a lot of folks who find MASH to be cutting edge humor."

Gee, jimbo, it's sweet of you to warn us borderline-retarded M*A*S*H fans to steer clear of Coupling, lest we be confused by all the 21st-century references. Curious though - just what exactly IS the sell-by date on humor? Is nothing timeless? And if not, then how much longer until Coupling is off the cutting edge? Should I put a rush on the DVD delivery?

jbryant said...

tom: Casey Sander is my best friend's aunt's fiancee's cousin. True story. Did you see him in the Bruce Willis flick 16 Blocks? Unrecognizable from his Grace days.

You're right about character actors being appreciative when recognized, especially if you know their name and single out a particular performance. About 10 years ago, I saw Sam Anderson (Bernard on Lost) in a Barnes and Noble, greeted him by name and told him how great he was in a TV movie called The Man Next Door. He lit up and we had a nice conversation. Nowadays, of course, he probably gets stopped by every third person with "Hey, Bernard!"

Bitter Animator said...

I do wonder what effect it has on certain actors (usually bit parts) when the scripts hinge on just how ugly they are. It can't be good for the ego.

I imagine they must turn up on set seriously depressed.

Grant said...

Jesus jimbo, you're not just insulting fans of MASH, but you're insulting the host of the blog. Why do people come here and then trash MASH? Even worse are the guys who appear and go on about how they don't watch TV and it rots the mind. Why the hell are you reading a TV writer's blog then? Something about the internet really turns people into dicks. Either that or they just like to hear themselves talk. And besides, with that name you should realize Ken worked on "The Simpsons" back when it was good.

Anyway, back on topic, I always thought it would be funny if the Jack-n-the-Box or the new Burger King held out for more money. I could just see them telling their agent, "But I'm the Burger King! They need me!"

Tom Quigley said...

,...."tom: Casey Sander is my best friend's aunt's fiancee's cousin. True story. Did you see him in the Bruce Willis flick 16 Blocks? Unrecognizable from his Grace days"....

jbryant: Didn't see him in that, but the night I ran into him he was in the cast of a pretty bad short-lived show called COSTELLO (a production that Matt Williams, Carmen Finestra and David McFadzean would probably like to forget they ever had any connection with), and I'd just seen him playing Mike Love in a made-for-TV movie about the Beach Boys the week before -- guess which one I mentioned to him?...

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Just one caveat: don't go to Jiffy Lube. They'll try their best to rip you off with unnecessary procedures. The "dirty air filter" is a classic.

As for character actors, I can easily name some who have had long careers. R.G. Armstrong, Dabbs Greer, Virginia Gregg, Royal Dano, Dub Taylor, and Norman Fell, for example. Grantde, once you make a commercial it's hard to shake that identity. Remember the Greyhound Bus driver?

D. McEwan said...

Jimbo,

I believe I saw every episode of M*A*S*H, most during their original run, all subsequently, and enjoyed most of them very much. I've even continued to like them AFTER working a bit with Loretta Swit 15 years ago. I've also seen every episode of the British COUPLING, and never once became disoriented, confused, or found it sailing over my head. Guess what? I haven't actually gotten stupider as the years passed. Just the reverse. Which is why I was able to notice what a good show COUPLING was even without your help. And even now that I know you like it, I will continue to like it also.

jbryant said...

tom: I saw Casey Sander in the Beach Boys thing, but I've never heard of "Costello." Oddly enough, however, I did meet Matt Williams at a writing workshop he co-founded, the New Harmony Project, shortly before I moved to L.A. McFadzean and Finestra were there, too. I wasn't part of the workshop, but I popped over from my nearby Kentucky hometown to see a script reading directed by Linda Lavin. It was not the greatest script, but it was fun to get a taste of "the biz" that close to my own back yard.

tb said...

Dub Taylor, good one! His scene in 'Bonnie & Clyde' where he berates CW for getting that tatoo, great stuff, always remember that scene

LouOCNY said...

Some of my all time favorites:

Jack Riley: ALMOST crossed that threshold into real public recognition thanks to Mt Csrlin - to the point he showed up as Carlin TWICE in later MTM shows - once on ST ELSEWHERE, where he showed up in their psycho ward, and blamed being there on 'some quack in Chicago', and then on NEWHART, also claiming to be a victim of 'some incompetent psychologist'....

Phil Leeds: A guy who actually got MORE work, the older and more gnarly looking he got. He (like Tyger) was one of BARNEY MILLER's 'regulars' - usually playing one of the most charming perverts/conmen you would want to meet. His IMDB list is insanely long..

Richard Libertini: The mystic in ALL OF ME...the guy who claimed he was from the future in BM (buy zinc!)....and best of all, the crazy dictator in the original IN LAWS. Which confirms Ken's original point of being identified with one role - he was on Carson plugging ALL OF ME, and all Johnny could do was bring up the IN LAWS, and tried to get him to do the hand puppet bit from that appearance!

Anonymous said...

Ken, I really enjoy reading your blog. I know this is off-topic but -- a question. I am about to shoot a sitcom episode that I wrote (will use it for my much-delayed film school graduation). I am planning to shoot on location with two cameras and wrap the whole thing in 2 days. Maybe you could give some thoughts/practical advice about it? One thing in particular puzzles me -- should I allow some beats between dialogue lines, in which later the laughs will be inserted? (Obviously, I'm not filming it in front of a live audience LOL.) I mean, I'm not sure how this is done. My understanding has been that the actors are instructed to deliberately make pauses after each (or most) gags, so that the laugh-track can take place without overlapping the next line. But maybe I'm wrong?

-- Jordan

Scott Goodwin said...

LouOCNY--thanks for reminding me of Richard Libertini's name. The other day I was *pretending* to be invisible at work when some folks were approaching me in the hall to solve their problem. I got the idea from a recurring bit he performed in SHARKY'S MACHINE (written by novelist William Diehl and adapted by Gerald di Pego).

Glenn Morshower is another great character actor, who's managed to create pretty much the same recurring character on 24, ALIAS, and WEST WING. I did a double take several years ago when I saw him as head of secret service on two different shows (and two different networks). Meanwhile, there was another middle-aged, stiff-jawed redheaded man waiting by the phone...