Aloha from Hawaii, where I never stand down from my “Friday Question” watch. Anything you want to know? Leave your question in the comments section. Mahalo.
Katherine gets us started.
Ken, I was wondering if you could give us a full account of what it was like directing an episode of Frasier. You'd written a lot of episodes for the show, but how was that different (or similar) to directing one? Were the actors welcoming to a first time director for their show, or were they already at the point where they knew their characters well enough and didn't feel like they needed suggestions? And last, as a huge fan of David Hyde Pierce, I'd love to know what it was like working with/directing him.
Directing FRASIER was like getting behind the wheel of a Porsche. You had the best actors, writers, and crew in Hollywood. As long as you didn’t have the cameras pointing at the audience instead of the actors, you were pretty much assured of a good show.
Since I had written and consulted on the show for years, the cast and crew knew me very well the first day I stepped onto the stage to direct. I had also directed a number of episodes elsewhere by that time, so the actors didn’t feel like I was a novice.
I always consider my first task on any show I direct is to make the actors feel comfortable; let them know that they’re in good hands (or at least let them think they are). Familiarity and experience come in real handy in that regard.
And of course, I’ve known Kelsey since his first day on CHEERS.
On the other hand, there have been shows where the cast didn’t know me going in. I had to win their trust. Tony winning director, Jerry Zaks, once gave me a great piece of advice. “To win over an actor, lead him to a joke”. Again, it’s all about confidence and trust.
My first day directing DHARMA & GREG, Susan Sullivan just took me aside and said, “So just who the hell are you, and what have you done?” I listed my credits, she nodded, and we were good after that.
The cast I really owe a huge debt to is the one from WINGS. Even though they knew me, too, they had to endure my first directing assignment. Remember all that stuff I said about instilling confidence in actors? That is hard to accomplish when you have no fucking idea what you’re doing. They were incredibly patient and supportive.
By the time I got to FRASIER I knew the difference between “Action!” and “Cut!”
The key to directing FRASIER was being prepared. I was organized, knew how I wanted to block the scenes. And since everyone in the FRASIER cast was so professional and knew their characters so well, shows came together very easily and efficiently. The fun was finding bits of business to add. And I had the luxury of being able to do that since my time wasn’t spent talking actors out of their trailers.
When things didn’t work, the writers fixed them. When things did work, they improved them.
I’ve said this before, but of all the comic actors I’ve ever worked with – and I’ve been blessed to have worked with some of the very best – the all-time greatest was David Hyde Pierce. I could start really gushing here so I’ll hold back. But suffice it to say, I’ve never worked with anyone who had such amazing instincts, and at the same time was as nice and collaborative as David. I put DHP up there in the Chaplin/Laurel & Hardy/Buster Keaton/Peter Sellers category.
Sometimes sitcoms/movies have pay-offs to a joke that involve someone being revealed as unattractive/fat/ugly, etc. I can't think of an example at the moment but I know I've seen them lots of times.
My question is, how do producers gently cast those parts? Do they give their casting people specific instructions? OR does someone make a call and just say "Round up the ugly suspects?"
There are breakdown sheets that go out to agents and managers. Casting directors try to be diplomatic in describing the purpose of the role. Yes, it could be viewed as insensitive, but hey, there have been actors who have made a good living playing ugly. Just ask Lon Chaney… and Lon Chaney Jr.
And finally, from Lou H:
How did you handle recurring characters like Paul on CHEERS who had a part every 2 to 4 shows? Is it more "Hey, there are some lines this week that Paul would be the best fit for, let's see if he's available, otherwise give the lines to someone else" or did you first find out his schedule and then write him in as often as you could reasonably do so?
I always felt bad. Paul finally got an episode in which he was very prominent. It’s the kind of episode that helps launch a character from recurring to regular. Unfortunately, it was the last episode of CHEERS ever filmed. But he was great in it!