Thursday, November 04, 2010
Adventures in pilot casting
Okay, on to THE MARY show. You can see the pilot here.
We had several advantages while casting that show. We had a firm series pick-up. This made our project more attractive. Also, there was less network interference. We were asked to bring two choices for each role to CBS when we felt we were ready. And even then, in a couple of cases, we only came in with one person. The other big advantage we had was Molly Lopata, our extraordinary casting director.
Molly discovered Katey Sagal. Our other choice for the part was Kathy Bates, who was also marvelous but Katey just seemed so fresh. Kathy Bates survived the rejection by winning an Oscar. (Aside: You should see Katey in SONS OF ANARCHY. She’s amazing. As is Ron Perlman. And I love the fact that this series about bikers stars two Jews.)
For the part of Lester, the shady guy that Mary’s friend Susan was engaged to, we pictured James Tolkin when we wrote the pilot. He too came in to read and was exactly what we imagined. That's so nice... and rare when that happens.
Finding Susan wasn’t so easy. We must’ve read at least a hundred actresses including Sandy Dennis, Brenda Vaccarro, Susan Strassberg, and Janet Margolin. We had a wealth of riches. Ultimately, we went with Carlene Watkins who had been so funny in one of the great underrated sitcoms -- BEST OF THE WEST.
But the big challenge was Frank. He had to be handsome, charismatic, could hold his own comedically with Mary (not an easy feat), and be a potential love interest. Here too we read at least a hundred actors, maybe more. Robert Loggia, Jerry Orbach, Robert Vaughn, Ron Liebman (who played him “scary”, an interesting but disturbing choice) were among them. It seems like any leading man who starred in a series between 1965 and 1982 came in to read.
James Farentino’s name was mentioned and honestly, we were skeptical. We had never seen him do comedy. Molly believed in him so we saw him and were very pleasantly surprised. So surprised that we didn’t believe it. We brought him back. He was even better.
But we were still nervous. Dabney Coleman’s name was mentioned. This intrigued us. Both David and I were huge fans of BUFFALO BILL (and if you haven’t seen it, Netlix it today!), knew he could pull off the comedy, but our concern was that he usually played villains. This character had to keep you guessing. Was he really a cad or just testing people to get the best out of them? We were relatively sure he could pull off the charm but we still needed to see it. Plus, we had never met the gentleman.
And here’s where it gets sticky. A few months before when we were looking for directors there was one we had our eye on. We had never worked with him but were fans of his work. We contacted his agent who said the director wouldn’t meet. We had to make him a firm offer first. To us that was ridiculous. We needed to see whether we were on the same page. The agent held firm. So we moved on.
Next we came up with Danny DeVito. He had directed some TAXIS at the time. Unfortunately, he had that same agent who told us the same thing as before. No offer, no meeting. We said fuck that. We knew Danny personally. He’s married to Rhea Perlman who we worked with for years on CHEERS. So we called Danny. He read the script, loved it, and wanted to do it. Now the agent calls us furious for going around him.
Anyway, guess who Dabney Coleman’s agent was. Yep. His client would not meet. There was no way we were going to say hello to our leading man for the first time at the table reading. The network was excited about Dabney. But we wouldn’t budge. Dabney didn’t have to read. Just meet with us, have a cup of coffee. The agent still said no. We enlisted Mary’s help. She had played tennis with Dabney. She called on our behalf and he really wanted to do the part but was entrusting the negotiations to his agent.
This was the day before we were going into production. At 5:00 we said we couldn’t wait anymore and went with James Farentino.
I’ll never know how Dabney Coleman might have been in the role but I think we caught a break. Jimmy was everything we wanted and much much more.
So that’s how we cast the show. Again, thanks to Molly Lopata.
And here’s the epilogue: For the last ten years I see that agent in my gym. I know who he is and he knows who I am. You’d think it would be very awkward. But it’s not. We get along great. Yeah yeah, I know – that is sooooo Hollywood.