Thursday, December 16, 2010

FRASIER starring Lisa Kudrow?

Peter Casey, one of the creators of FRASIER, has been kind enough to share with us the complete story of how that classic series came to be. Part one was yesterday.  Here’s the final segment. Again, thanks Peter. GREAT stuff and it’s nice to have a couple days off.

As I mentioned earlier, Roz was the least developed of all the main characters in the pilot. We hadn’t really come up with a definitive take on her, so as a result, we told our casting director, Jeff Greenberg, to bring us the whole rainbow coalition of actresses to read for the part. We saw every age and ethnic background. We read dozens of actresses. One thing we felt pretty sure about was that we wanted the character to be ballsy and salty. She was supposed to be someone who Frasier was smarter than, more educated than, but was completely inferior to in the setting of the radio station. That was her stomping ground and she was the alpha dog there.

After all the casting sessions we had narrowed our choice to two actresses; Peri Gilpin and Lisa Kudrow. Lisa didn’t exactly fit the mold of what we were looking for in terms of a strong-willed character, but she was really funny. Her quirkiness made lines that weren’t intended as jokes hilarious. So we brought both of the ladies to NBC for the executives to see. Both read, and in the end it was decided to cast Lisa.

Shortly thereafter we had the first reading of the script. It was the first time we gathered the whole cast together. Paramount and NBC executives were there. Agents and managers were there. And apparently the guardian angel of comedy was somewhere in that room, too, because the reading was hysterical. Huge laughs. Everyone felt we were embarking on something very special. As is always the case, the script was long and there were jokes that either needed sharpening or were just plain duds so we set about re-writing. This is how each day of the pilot production went; the cast would rehearse, the writers would come to the stage in the afternoon for a run-thru, then we’d go back to the offices to re-write and cut.

By the third day of rehearsals it was becoming apparent to Jim Burrows, Kelsey, and the three of us that things weren’t going so well with Lisa as Roz. Although she remained funny in her quirky way, we found that each day we were re-writing the character less strong because Lisa just didn’t play forceful. More importantly, what Jimmy noticed was that Kelsey was pulling back in scenes with her because if he went all out like he usually did, he completely overpowered her. This was a big problem. We didn’t want the star of the show to have to compensate like that in every scene with one of the regulars, so with great regret we called Lisa and told her we were going to have to recast the part. We felt awful because she was a really, really lovely person with whom to work. And I know she was heartbroken that it had come to this, but she handled it with a lot of class. (Our consciences were assuaged the next year when she was cast in FRIENDS)

Jeff Greenberg contacted Peri, who was having lunch at a restaurant, and told her to report to Paramount the next day to play Roz. Jeff said he could hear her scream from across town without needing the phone.

So, finally our cast was set. From that point on through the rest of rehearsals things went smoothly. We re-wrote Roz back to her original character and Peri made it work wonderfully.

Our art director, Roy Christopher, had created amazing sets for us, and he would be rewarded that first year with an Emmy nomination. Frasier’s condo was stylish and contemporary with multi-levels and lots of doors and hallways to provide us with a multitude of exits and entrances. It had a piano (which both Kelsey and David could play) for a big prop and a balcony (equipped to rain when needed) and that gorgeous Seattle skyline (day and night). The radio station was modeled on the KABC radio studios in Los Angeles which we had visited while doing research. Café Nervosa was completely Roy’s creation and was designed so our character could sit and play a scene at any table in the café (after all, you rarely get the same table every time you go into your favorite haunt)

The night we filmed the pilot was magic. We’d had a dress rehearsal that afternoon with an audience (the first time we’d let the public see the show) and it had gone better than we could’ve hoped. They were laughing from the beginning to the end. And when Jimmy Burrows finally called out, “That’s our show!”, the audience rose to their feet for a standing ovation. We all said we should’ve filmed that show because that evening’s audience couldn’t be any better…but they were. Again, big laughs in all the right places and again a standing ovation. Two things about that filming have stood out over the years for me. First, Jane Leeves had invited her friend, Valerie Bertinelli, to the filming. Valerie must’ve really loved the show because you can hear her laugh all the way through the show on the soundtrack. Second, all the NBC executives were in a glassed-in booth above the back of the audience during the filming. At one point during Frasier’s first scene with his father, Martin makes a sarcastic remark about his ratty chair fitting in with Frasier’s expensive furniture because “it’s eclectic.” It’s a great callback joke from earlier in the scene and the audience just erupted. I turned around and looked up to the NBC booth to see their reactions. Not only were they all laughing, but all I could see of Warren Littlefield, the president, was the soles of his shoes because was tilted back in his chair he was laughing so hard. I nudged David Angell, pointed to Warren’s shoes and said, “We’re in.”

Our biggest struggle after filming the pilot was cutting it down to time. We were something like six minutes long, which is a lot. We cut and cut and cut some more. We cut things we liked and we cut things we loved. Still, after 6 or 7 passes at the show we were still a minute long. We felt we had cut it to the bare bones. Any more cuts could damage the show so we went to Paramount with our dilemma. Thankfully, they agreed with us and asked NBC to give us some extra time. After viewing what we hoped would be our final cut, NBC agreed to give us that extra minute which was a very big favor. So, how do they come up with that extra minute of programming time for us? Don’t think that all they have to do is cut a commercial or two. Are you crazy? That’s money. No, to give us that extra minute, they asked the three other comedies and one drama on that Thursday night to each cut 15 seconds out of their programs. It’s not something that’s done very often and it’s not something the network likes to do, but for that pilot of Frasier they felt it was worth it.

Well, that about covers the creative process that went into FRASIER. I want to thank Ken Levine, funnyman, baseball announcer, and longtime friend for inviting me as a guest on his blog. And I would also especially like to thank you, the fans of FRASIER. You’re the reason we ran for eleven wonderful years and the reason you can still see the show in syndication. I wish I could buy each of you a grande nonfat double espresso latte with caramel, but then I’d have to create another hit series.

GOOD NIGHT, SEATTLE!!!!

22 comments:

RockGolf said...

So Leeves and Bertonelli were friends even back then, and now they're both in Hot In Cleveland. I wonder who recommended whom.

John said...

Nowadays, if you had been hosting the more recent crop of NBC execs in the booth, they'd probably be writing you a note during the show's filming, asking if the viewing audience would actually understand what "eclectic" means, and could you please come up with a simpler word for Martin to say.

*tarazza said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
*tarazza said...

Amazing what comes about when the networks let the real experts do their thing. Great show, and great backstory! Thanks, Ken and Peter!

The Kid In The Front Row said...

Wow, this is wonderful! Thanks to you and Ken for bringing us this. I LOVE LOVE LOVE Frasier.

A_Homer said...

What a well written two-parter! Many thanks. You made it so clear regarding the difficult but necessary decisions with a situation like Kudrow having to be replaced just because of overall dynamic rather than quality of the acting. And the design of the coffee shop -- never occured to me but true, there are many different places people sit in that coffeshop in Frasier (unlike Friends use of one couch each time, as if it's reserved for them)...and naturally the different doors for entrances and exits -- all required when Frasier goes near to farce. Real holiday treat, thanks again.

mackdaddyg said...

Found out about this post from tvparty.com. Great story! Frasier is one of the best shows ever. Thanks for sharing this. Well done.

Tom Quigley said...

Ken and Peter:

Thanks for two days of posts that give us the inside story of how such a classic show came to be. (I don't recall reading these the first time they appeared.) I happened to be working on the Paramount lot at the time, but only heard bits and snippets of what had gone on until the show was actually nearing the film date for the pilot. BTW, my favorite line in the pilot script "The Good Son," was when Niles says to Frasier and Martin "Now that you two are settled in, I've got to run. I'm late for my dysfunctional family seminar." When I heard that, I laughed out loud and wondered "Is he going to be conducting it -- or be a participant in it?"...

As for Lisa, I met her several times when I handled seating the audiences at the MAD ABOUT YOU filmings and she did the occasional guest spot as Ursula, the ditzy waitress, even after she had become a hit in FRIENDS... You'd be hardpressed to find a nicer person to meet and talk to in Hollywood.

benson said...

As Tom said, thank you Peter and Ken for the inside perspective. I know I'm repeating myself, but the whole Lupe Velez story is one of my favorites, as well as a wonderful life lesson. And Frasier is the best.

Michael said...

For me, the killer moment in the pilot was when Eddie was introduced.

I also have to wonder. Maybe Lisa Kudrow could have been a flighty Roz if Jane Leeves had not played Daphne in the same way. Little things do mean a lot.

Max Clarke said...

Great to read this again.

Between the original posting and this, I've had the chance to watch Frasier. My parents love the show, so I got to watch DVD after DVD on a visit home.

Just a brilliant show, a worthy successor to Cheers.

Kirk Jusko said...

Great story, but one thing left out that I'm curious about: Where did the idea to divide each episode up in "chapters" come from? I'm referring to the title cards before every scene.

scrubs said...

I've always wondered about the title cards as well but I've never been able to find any information about them.

Ref said...

I'm with Michael about the killer being Eddie's introduction, staring at Frazier after Martin had insisted he didn't. How did that work before an audience that didn't get the beautifully timed cut on film?

Ref said...

Once again, it's nice to learn that someone you admire is, in fact, well-liked for their personality and work habits. Ken had posted nice things about Shelley Long before. She and Lisa Kudrow have both been described in items I've read as surly and difficult. Could it just be that they don't have much patience with some writers, as opposed to co-workers?

David said...

Ken, Thought you might be interested in this. Someone has built his very own M*A*S*H set in his backyard. Other than the grass and the neighboring houses, it looks like this guy did a pretty accurate job...

http://www.roomzaar.com/rate-my-space/Yards/MASH-set-backyard/detail.esi?oid=510140

Paul Duca said...

RockGaif....Betty White recommended both of them.

Roz Doyle said...

The character Roz Doyle was named for the real life Roz Doyle who worked for the producers and had tragically passed away. She was a smart, beautiful, competent, in control producer. Ken...would you say the TV Roz was modeled in someways after the real life Roz? I think so.

Lizbeth said...

I have dozens of scriptwriting books on my shelf, but McKee's is the one I put down after about 10 pages and never picked up again.

There is, of course a general formula, which is easier to learn if you READ as many GOOD SCREENPLAYS as you can. I can't believe how many screenwriters don't read screenplays.

I've given feedback on many screenplays and usually find most are plotted adequately enough (they know the basic formula)... But the number one problem??

Quite simply they LACK CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT.

Mel Ryane said...

The old cliche,cream rises to the top, seems appropriate here. How lovely to read of an actor being dropped and later getting a great gig. And an actor being rejected only to find that, like Cinderella, she fit the shoe all along. Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Peter. Do you have the story for pitching Wings?

Anonymous said...

I, too, would love more background info on Wings...