Thursday, September 25, 2008

Why actors get fired

Here’s this week’s fabulous Friday question. Use the comments section to ask yours.

From Dana Gabbard:

Lisa Kudrow was originally cast as Roz, but after a day or so of rehearsal was replaced with Peri Gilpin. Series as varied as MASH, Rockford Files and Private Practice had key roles recast between pilot and series. The second Star Trek pilot had a different doctor than Dr. McCoy. What are the factors that go into making a major cast change that early in the production of a series?

In the case of Lisa Kudrow, she’s obviously a gifted comedienne, but she just wasn’t right for that part. She didn’t have the edge the character required. That happens on occasion. And sometimes it takes an actor a few days to lock in. That’s why it’s so important to get a great director like Jimmy Burrows to do your pilot. If he can’t help the actor find his character than it’s the wrong actor for the role.

There have been a few actors who were close to being replaced but somehow got it together and went on to carrying their shows. One that comes to mind is Tea Leoni. When she was rehearsing the pilot of the brilliant FLYING BLIND (a show that deserved a much better fate) there was so much concern that new casting sessions were planned. Jimmy and series creator Richard Rosenstock recognized her potential and stuck with her. Very smart move.

On the other hand, a friend of mine hated a certain actress and replaced her. I thought he was nuts. She was the only good thing in the stupid show. Fortunately, Annette Bening has found other work.

Often actors are replaced because the network arbitrarily just doesn’t like them. The initial table read and network runthrough is supposed to be just part of the rehearsal process. It’s not. Not anymore. Actors get fired all the time after these performances. On another friend’s pilot, they made him replace Tim Robbins.

And then sometimes, after you’re in rehearsal, another actor or bigger star that the network covets suddenly becomes available so they make you dump your choice to make room for theirs. It doesn’t sound fair, does it?

Decisions are also made on appearance. She’s not cute enough. Looks kind of fat on film. Tina Fey had to fire her close friend Rachel Dratch from 30 ROCK because the network wanted the more attractive Jane Krakowski. I must say I was against that move at first, and still feel Rachel would have been good, but Jane has pleasantly surprised me with how funny and talented she is.

If an actor survives the filming of the pilot he’s still not out of the woods. Because now comes testing. The BIG hurdle. Focus groups of the great unwashed. Lamebrains watching shows, twisting dials, passing uninformed judgment on everything they see. Tons of actors are booted as a result and many pilots are reshot. And I’ve sat through some of those sessions. It’s HOSTEL for the show’s creator. “I hate her.” “Why?” “I don’t like her shoes.” That’s an actual exchange from one of my pilot’s focus group.

For an actor to win a part on a pilot he must beat out 200 other candidates, get approved by the studio and the network (no mean feat), make it through production unscathed, and escape testing. Then there are the long odds of the show even being picked up and if it is, not being one of the 90% of new shows that fail. Winning two lotteries is easier.

So when I see actors kissing their Emmys and saying, “I’m proud to be an actor” I believe them. I sure wouldn’t want to make a living based on their odds.

31 comments:

Curious George said...

So when I see actors kissing their Emmys and saying, “I’m proud to be an actor” I believe them. I sure wouldn’t want to make a living based on their odds.

Like somehow it's easier being a writer?

Question 1. If MASH was being filmed today, who would your dream cast be to fill the roles of Hawkeye, Trapper John, Henry Blake, Hotlips, Radar, Klinger, and Frank Burns?

Question 2. If you had your pick out any actor/director to work with, who would it be and why?

Tim W. said...

I don't actually know whether Lisa Kudrow is a gifted comedienne. I've only seen her play one role, and while it was mildly amusing in very short bits on Mad About You, it was annoying with more screen time on friends and that movie with Mira Sorvino.

jbryant said...

Kudrow was brilliant in the film The Opposite of Sex, which certainly proved she can play non-ditzy roles. I thought she was great as Phoebe, but I certainly get that familiarity can breed contempt when we see someone play the same role year after year. I never saw The Comeback, but I heard she was good in that, too.

Nat G said...

I agree on the callout for Flying Blind; let's hope what episodes exist land in Hulu or somesuch.

I once saw the opposite of the network-says-kick-him-off situation. A bit player (bartender) on the pilot was liked by the network so much, they asked that the bar be made a regular set so that the bartended could be a regular.

Gareth said...

When you write a spec script for a specific show, how much can you change the characters? There are obvious limits: you can't kill anyone off, amputate any limbs, break up any marriages, and so on. But I'm sure there are subtler limits too. If a regular character is a misanthrope, a cheapskate, or a hopeless romantic, a script that permanently changes those qualities probably wouldn't be welcomed. But push that too far and the script leaves the characters completely unchanged, and the story is pointless. So how much change is enough?

michael lively said...

@jbryant....
Lisa K. in the Comeback: She was excellent, but the show was torture. 13 eps of brutal, unending humiliation. I bought the whole series for $2.99 at RiteAid.

LYNX said...

Flying Blind is one of my all time favorite shows and was smart enough to tape every episode when it aired as i figured a show this fun wont last long. I was right. Let me know if you want them and i can make you copies on DVD!

Hauke B. said...

My question: After your (totally valid) criticism of those who criticised "Tropic Thunder" for being offensive, I wondered:
What kind of comedy, in terms of subject matter, tone or form, would you consider off-limits. Or does anything go, as long as it's funny?

Simon H. said...

Flying Blind was one of those little gems that was too good to survive past the first year. Not only did it have amazing chemistry between the two leads, but it had a great theme (shows actually used to have them) from David Byrne to enjoy every week. I think it aired at 10 p.m. on Fox at the time. It was followed by one of the most dreadful shows in television history, "Whoops", about the six survivors of a nuclear apocalypse. It was a wacky comedy. Really.

Simon H. said...

Correction, the name of the show after Flying Blind is Woops, not Whoops.

Mr. Peel said...

I remember loving, loving Flying Blind. Who knows how it would hold up today, but I still think of it fondly. All I could find on Youtube were the credits.

Grant said...

Gareth,

None. They can't change at all.

That's the standard sitcom M.O. So much so that shows like the Simpson's have made fun of it.

If you still want some sort of change, have a character learn a valuable lesson: drugs are bad, Christmas is worthwhile after all, love is the greatest gift of all, etc.

But next week, all the characters will be right back where they started. They'll have forgotten that drugs are bad or Christmas is worthwhile. Or even if they remember, they won't talk about last week's topic.

Tim W. said...

I forgot Kudrow was in Opposite of Sex. I don't recall her being funny in the role, but it's been a long time since I saw it.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

In the Leave it to Beaver pilot they had a different Ward Cleaver (Casey Adams)and either Eddie or Wally was played by Harry Shearer. His career never recovered from that, eh?

Paul Duca said...

That pilot of BEAVER has shown up on TV Land, Cap'n Bob...another actor played Wally instead of Tony Dow, and Shearer was we now see as the prototype for Eddie Haskell. What's interesting is that Shearer's character didn't seem to like Wally any better than Beaver. That might be the reason for his recasting...the suits may have felt he couldn't pull off a portrayal of the reworked Eddie--believable as a friend to Wally yet an antagonist to everyone else.

A. Buck Short said...

"Hostel for the show’s creator?" You mean they wouldn’t even put the sucker up in a motel? :)

I’m with you on Tea Leoni – or we can go sequentially if you’d prefer? And if what I read is correct, so is Duchovny -- this morning, and then twice again this afternoon. We're still waiting for the overnights. What? We should all have that problem. (Think there was a cartoon with a satyr going to a sex therapist, saying “I just can’t get it down.”)
But enough with the priapism, although for me personally, it's not that long a story.

I thought Leoni was good in that Naked Truth series years ago where she played a prize-winning photographer who could only get a job with a tabloid scandal sheet. I think at the time, critics were complimenting her “physical” comedy, comparing it to Lucille Ball. I thought she had a lot more.

And with the straight roles, in The Family Man, she had me at hello...and then hello again. Although I'm not sure I really needed to know that much about the radial tire business.

Arjewtino said...

I liked "Flying Blind", thought that was a good show.

Of all the shows you worked on, which ones do you think would have had drastically different fates if they were aired today?

Do you think Cheers would do well? Frasier? MASH?

Anonymous said...

Yes, Ken, it is the fault of research that 85% of shows fail once they get on air. Yes, focus groups keep all of the Shakepeares and Shaws off prime time tv. How nice it would be if producers and writers could be honest with themselves and listen to what America says. Yes, of course, the occasional "I don't like her shoes" comment comes out, but most of the time, people simply tell the truth when they watch a pilot. Get a grip and stop shooting the messenger.

Tim W. said...

anonymous, you might have more of a leg to stand on if not for the fact that Walker: Texas Ranger and Touched By An Angel both lasted nine seasons and if 2 and a Half Men didn't consistently finish in the top ten. Apparently a little known fact (at least to you) is that a large portion of the public are, in fact, morons. It's really the only way to account for the fact that despite monumentally screwing up his country during his presidency, more than a quarter of Americans still believe George W. Bush is doing a good job.

Tallulah Morehead said...

Though, to be fair, that actress's shoes WERE just AWFUL!

I did ALL my movies in lovely, glittery "fuck Me" pumps. That's what a true actress does. Would Judy Garland have become a star without her ruby pumps?

All professional actresses know, it's all about the pumps: who gives you pumps, how you take their pumps, and how you look afterwards.

But on my films, we only consulted out-of-focus groups, at least, that's how they looked to me.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, Lisa Kudrow looks like her mother in that picture, compared to how she finally appears in "Friends"...

VP81955 said...

I thought Leoni was good in that Naked Truth series years ago where she played a prize-winning photographer who could only get a job with a tabloid scandal sheet.

The first season of "The Naked Truth," which aired on ABC, was brilliant. Leoni and the ensemble cast were wonderful, and the scripts had bite. Unfortunately, ABC declined to pick up the series and it moved to NBC, which proceeded to put it through its sitcom processing machine, taking out all of its distinctive elements and reducing it to the "Suddenly Susan" level. Now a run-of-the-mill series, "The Naked Truth" died after two seasons.

I think at the time, critics were complimenting her “physical” comedy, comparing it to Lucille Ball.

Which, of course, would mean Tea is twice removed to Carole Lombard, whom Lucy always cited as an influence (they were friends while at RKO in the late thirties).

I'm surprised Tea hasn't had more of a film career, given her genuine comedic talent, but these days, how many good romcoms are made? (By good, I mean with an absence of karaoke scenes.)

Interestingly, Lisa Kudrow looks like her mother in that picture, compared to how she finally appears in "Friends"...

So Lisa's turning into Teri Garr? (Not healthwise, I hope, no slight intended to the lovely Teri.)

I will say that if Lisa had worn that blouse to the audition, she probably wouldn't have been fired. (Well, maybe a Mamie Van Doren "bullet bra" would've helped.)

john W said...

what should I be aiming to write for if I'm serious about trying to break into the industry, single camera or multiple setup?

John said...

Harold Gould should be the patron saint for actors and actresses replaced after the pilot -- he had two hit shows on ABC yanked out from under him, as he was cast as Marlo Thomas' father in the 1965 pilot for "That Girl" and was replaced by Lou Parker, and seven years later was cast as Howard Cunningham in the pilot for "Happy Days" and then replaced by Tom Bosley when that show became a series.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Thanks, Paul. I have a video of the Beaver Pilot (Called It's a Small World, BTW), but was too lazy to find it. The final cast was excellent, and the series was always a favorite of mine.

Ryan Patrick said...

Greetings from a long-time M*A*S*H fan. Love the blog. I just watched "Goodbye Radar" last night and I have a couple of questions:

1) Can you describe the process of writing a character off?

2) What were the circumstances that led to that episode? Any juicy details?

Chad said...

I remember watching "Flying Blind" in college and think Leoni was both beautiful and brilliant, just an amazingly gifted comedienne ... and she's managed to essentially be wasted in EVERY ROLE SHE'S HAD in the years subsequent ... especially "Spanglish," where she's such an irritating shrew of a woman, you couldn't have blamed Sandler if he had slept with the maid.

Jack said...

Question-

I just recently saw the movie, "The TV Set", with David Duchovny and Sigourney Weaver. Just curious if you saw it, and if so, do you feel it accurately reflected the TV industry?

Barry said...

I'm curious about what you said Re: Tina Fey/Jane Krakowski/Rachel Dratch. Jane was a regular from the very beginning - did Fey originally hire Dratch to play her role, and they replaced her? Because Dratch showed up all throughout the first season as different characters...

Anonymous said...

Rachel Dratch originally played the Jane Krakowski role. When the network insisted she be replaced, Tina softened the blow by using her as a utility player in varied roles throughout the first season.

But the replacment was made before any episodes ever aired, which is why you've only seen Jane Krakowski in her role.

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