This is sort of a follow-up to a post from last week when I mentioned that we wanted to cast Andrea Martin in a pilot and the network nixed it. They wanted Toni Tennille instead. This will be the first in a series of stories about this ill-fated project that I will sprinkle in over the next few weeks. I can’t write them all at once. I’ll have Viet Nam flashbacks.
Today I’ll just focus on casting.
The year was 1979. The project was called CHARACTERS. And the network was NBC (back when they were a network).
The premise was simple (at least initially). I had read a book called SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY about the formation of the improv group SECOND CITY. From their original members came Mike Nichols & Elaine May. When the two of them did scenes together it was magic. Eventually they became a very successful comedy team for a number of years. My partner David and I thought a good idea for a series would be a contemporary Nichols & May – two young members of an improv troupe who team up. Since we believe that all good shows need a definite theme, ours was “can two people who are attracted to each other work together strictly as friends?” This was years before WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, by the way.
We pitched it to NBC. They liked it but wondered, what if she has a boyfriend? Then it could be kind of a triangle relationship. This was a little different than what we planned but okay. We were young and just wanted a sale. Here’s what we found out later: One of the big development honchos had just read SEMI-TOUGH, which had a triangle relationship in it. So the word went out – we want a SEMI-TOUGH. That’s how a football themed piece became an improv group piece.
We wrote the script and got the greenlight to make it. Now came casting. David and I had never done casting before. On MASH, executive producer Burt Metcalfe (himself a former actor and casting director) handled all of that. We had enough to worry about with what dress looked best on Klinger?
We met with head of casting for NBC – let’s just call her “Matriarch”. I think her first casting assignment was RICHARD III for Shakespeare. We told her our prototypes were Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner. From day one she hated us; I don’t know why. Maybe because we were then very young and inexperienced, maybe she just hated the project; I never found out. But she was not an ally.
We hired our MASH casting director, read a bunch of people, found ones we thought were good, and ran their names by Matriarch. She hated all of them. Unilaterally. The last thing she said to us was “Keep looking!” and slammed down the phone.
We decided to try our luck in New York, maybe find some new faces. In two days we read every actor and waiter in Manhattan.
Side note: Neither David nor I are big soap opera fans. These big soap opera stars would come in to read for us and just stand in the doorway as if to say, “Yep. That’s right. It’s me. In person.” We didn’t know who the fuck they were. This did not sit well with them.
Anyway, we found more worthy candidates and put them on tape, using just a black-and-white camcorder in the office. Nothing fancy. No real screen test.
The actress we were highest on was Andrea Martin. She came out of the Toronto chapter of SECOND CITY and currently was in SCTV (that brilliant sketch comedy show -- now available on DVD). We brought the tape back to Burbank and Matriarch just hated her. Loathed her. Wanted her killed. Matriarch also crushed us for bringing her black-and-white screen tests.
Finally, we asked who she saw in the role and she said Toni Tennille. After picking ourselves off the floor, we took NBC prez Brandon Tartikoff aside and said this is ridiculous. She's a marvelous singer but if we were doing a biopic on the Captain & Tennille there are still probably better actresses to play Toni than Toni Tennille. He agreed that was an odd choice.
We left it like this: we could fly some people out here and do real screen tests and then make our final decision.
Part two tomorrow: the screen tests and ultimate resolution.