Monday, March 05, 2012

Stunt casting

I’m often asked about stunt casting – that’s the practice whereby shows will feature special guest stars, usually movie stars, in the hopes of getting a ratings boost. A Nielsen sugar rush.  Networks love stunt casting likes Charlie Sheen loves breakable objects in hotel rooms.

Especially now with so many options, networks cling to anything that will bring them five additional viewers.

The bigger star, the better when it comes to saving struggling series, but ironically it’s the hit shows that have the best chance of catching one of these big fishes. In general, movie stars think appearing on TV is slumming it. But if the show is really popular then it can be considered cool to appear. Julia Roberts did FRIENDS. Good luck getting her on ARE YOU THERE, CHELSEA?

When we were really struggling the first year on CHEERS the best we could do was then-Speaker of the House, Thomas “Tip” O’Neill. Sure, that brought in the kids but they were hardly enough. On ALMOST PERFECT our big “get” was Marie Osmond.

Often networks will encourage you to stunt cast but not help in getting the celebrity or be willing to pay additional funds to get him. Most movie stars agree to appear in series because someone on the show has a relationship with him and they’ll do it as a favor. One of your actors once did a movie with Michael Douglas, that sort of thing. On MASH we were able to get the dog from THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR because he was drinking buddies with one of our directors.

Bob Dylan, of all people, once guested on DHARMA & GREG. He’s good friends with one of their writers, Eddy Gorodetsky. Of course Dylan has also been on the Chabad Telethon. 

When stars of long-running sitcoms go onto new sitcoms they will frequently enlist the help of former cast members to get their new project off the ground. That’s how Courtney Cox got Jennifer Aniston to be in COUGAR TOWN.  Of course it also helps if Jennifer Aniston has a movie to plug right around that time. 

When there are spin-offs networks beg for cast members of the original series to make an appearance. On FRASIER we pretty much had everyone from CHEERS except barfly Paul come on at one time or another. I’ve told this story before but on AfterMASH the studio lobbied hard for Hot Lips to return for an episode. We reported that Loretta Swit respectfully passed, and this studio idiot said, “Well, it doesn’t have to be her. Just get someone to play Hot Lips.” Seems to me that defeats the purpose, but I dutifully checked on Diana Ross’ availability.

Being associated with hit shows it was my great fortune to meet with, work with, and write for some pretty heavy people. Johnny Carson, Emma Thompson, John Cleese, Harry Connick Jr., Dick Cavett, Debbie Reynolds, Bill Medley, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Arthur Godfrey, Bob Elliott (from Bob & Ray), Dick Van Dyke, Tea Leoni, Elaine Stritch, Barbara Felton, Michael Keaton, James Cromwell, Clint Black, and of course that dog from GHOST AND MRS. MUIR.

Another network stunt is to cross-promote. Stars from your show appear on other shows and vice versa. Coordinating this can be a nightmare. CBS had us do a scene with Nancy Travis and Cybill Shepherd (from CYBILL). So the big question: who writes the scene? Do we write for Cybill or do her writers write for our character? Fortunately, in that case, the show runner of CYBILL, Howard Gould and I are friends. So we passed the script back and forth and I think got the best from both staffs. But that could have been a big issue.

There are numerous problems with stunt casting. In the case of spin-offs, casts of the new shows generally feel upstaged by the guest stars (and rightly so). Production schedules can get way out of whack accommodating these guest stars. Some movie stars are not used to performing in front of live audiences and I’ve seen cases where they couldn’t deliver two lines without screwing up. Filming took forever and it effectively sapped the energy of the other cast members. The other problem is that stunt casting is, at best, a temporary fix. Ratings may go up the week Britney Spears appears but they go right back down the next week.

Ultimately, your show has to live or die with the cast you’ve got. Audiences have to tune in to see them, not Diana Ross as Hot Lips. And too much stunt casting can hurt you. I think an example of that is 30 ROCK.

Don’t count on Oprah to save you. Heck, she’s probably exploring stunt casting possibilities for her OWN network.

48 comments:

Ray Barrington said...

If you get a chance on a slow Friday, could you perhaps discuss the difference in writing for a "big-name" guest star on a series when that guest is playing another character as opposed to when they are playing themselves?

Jeremiah Avery said...

I think Paul may have been on the episode of "Frasier" when the cast went to Boston and wound up attending Cliff's retirement party.

What's perplexed me a few times is when the credits read "Actor/Actress X as Character X" for the "special guest star". Do they not think we won't know which one they're portraying? Can't be all that "special" if they have to be pointed out to the audience.

"Frasier" is one of my all-time favorites (and I've come to appreciate it more as I've gotten older) and I think one of its strengths was not falling back on stunt casting too much. A viewer could never have seen an episode of "Cheers" and not be lost - the show stood on its own.

Plus the writing integrated the cameos well so all the relevant info was given to the viewers (no sucking up here, I assure you - legit praise).

LouOCNY said...

Sweeps weeks in general are asinine - all of a sudden local news shows are doing in depth report son prostitution or strip clubs.

Even game shows get in the act - JEOPARDY!, for instance just had FOUR weeks of tournaments; their college tournament, and a two week teachers tournament. Then in May, they will be having their annual 'power players' tournament, where they have to dumb down questions for the likes of Newt and Boehner. But the absolute worst is their Celebrity Tournament week, which the material is REALLY dumbed down, so much so its almost impossible to watch!

An (is my actual name) said...

I was so impressed by the writing for Diane Chambers when Shelley Long guested on Frasier. I thought it was better than the Cheers finale-- genuinely moving and used Shelley Long beautifully.

On a related note, I'm interested to know what it was like trying to bring Diane back into the fold for the Cheers finale. There was so much else to accomplish, and it seemed like a bit of a struggle to give closure to the Sam/Diane thing. Can you talk about the process of wrapping up a behemoth show like Cheers, and what went into the cast/story decisions?

YibbleGuy said...

"Just get someone to place Hot Lips" may be my favorite Freudian slip ever. "And then she placed her Hot Lips on my throbbing scalpel ..."

Roy Perkins, impartial dogcatcher said...

Lee Goldberg, a writer on the Dick Van Dyke vehicle DIAGNOSIS MURDER, had a story on his blog about being repeatedly told to prepare scripts for Julie Andrews and Mary Tyler Moore. It seems that Van Dyke would periodically run into them at parties or events and ask them to do guest shots on the show; they apparently could not find a polite way to refuse to his face, and so they would agree; then, when the scripts were sent to them, they would turn them down, and the episodes ended up being made with people such as Piper Laurie and Holland Taylor instead. Van Dyke also got his neighbor, George C. Scott, to agree to an episode; Scott then wiggled out of it by asking for more money than he knew the studio would pay.

emily said...

...and then there's Stunt Sex...

Dan Tedson said...

"On FRASIER we pretty much had everyone from CHEERS except barfly Paul come on at one time or another."

An exclusion that would be pretty in sync with the Paul storyline.

Consider this a Friday question if it gets it answered - any interesting story about how Paul came to be a regular on Cheers? I have a vague memory of seeing him in the background (with more hair) on a much earlier episode of Cheers. By the end of the series he was bordering on being one of the show's stars.

RCP said...

The dog from The Ghost and Mrs. Muir was Scruffy, Ken. And now I've got visions of Charles Nelson Reilly dancing in my head - thanks.

Anthony Strand said...

Paul was, indeed, in the Frasier episode "Cheerful Goodbyes."

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0582362/

The only Cheers regular who never appeared on Frasier (other than Coach, obviously) was Rebecca.

Gazzoo said...

It seems obvious that "Cheerful Goodbyes" was meant to be a reunion of as many Cheers regulars as were willing to do it....so why did they decide to set the story in another bar and not use Cheers?

Jake Mabe said...

Say what you will, but that Tip O'Neill cameo on "Cheers" was a classic. I *still* laugh out loud every time I see it.

Sebastian said...

HA! Reading the title I knew you were going to mention HIMYM.

Oh wait, you didn't. But we both know you did. Right? Right?

Anyway... Tea Leoni *fawn*

Chris said...

No need to go to Newt and Boehner for dumbed-down questions on Jeopardy! when we have the truly stunning performance of Wolf Blitzer and his dumb answers (or would that be questions?) from a tournament a few years ago. I haven't been able to watch the guy with a straight face since.

Jon J said...

The new DirecTV commercial with Charlie Sheen is hilarious and probably very effective.

you can call me owl said...

"The only Cheers regular who never appeared on Frasier (other than Coach, obviously) was Rebecca."

...and Tecumseh.

Paul Duca said...

Not quite stunt casting, but during my YouTube travels I came across what has to be James Burrows' first TV gig. "Jim" Burrows was listed as Dialog Coach on the short lived 1965 sitcom O.K. CRACKERBY!, which starred Burl Ives as a rough-hewn millionaire seeking to place, if not himself, then his offspring into society with the help of their tutor, an impoverished Harvard blue blood (that was before they knew they could go to Hollywood and write sitcoms). Of course, it was connections that got him the job...papa Abe was co-creator of the show.

Dan Tedson said...

"The only Cheers regular who never appeared on Frasier (other than Coach, obviously) was Rebecca.

...and Tecumseh."

...and Captain Janeway.

Tecumseh played a Vulcan on Voyager though, so it all evens out.

Kirk said...

Two others mentioned it, and I'll vouch for them, barfly Paul did indeed appear in the Cliff retirement episode of FRAZIER, along with Carla and Norm.

Gazzo wondered why that episode wasn't set in the Cheers bar. As Cheers had been off the air almost ten years at the point, the set probably had been torn down, though I suppose they could've always built another one (as CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM did for SEINFELD)

I remember an epidoe of GOMER PYLE where Gomer visits Mayberry on leave. No Andy, no Barney, no Aunt Bee, no Opie. They were all away on a trip or something. But they DID show Andy's sheriff office, outside and inside. Was that a "special set" crossover?

BigTed said...

I thought it was a fun idea when the writers of "CSI" and "Two and a Half Men" switched for stunt episodes of each series. The results weren't that great, though.

(Since then, of course, every crime show has ripped some version of a "Charlie Sheen" character from the headlines.)

gottacook said...

P. Duca: Regarding "Jim" Burrows, it wasn't only because his father was Abe Burrows that he got TV work in his mid-20s; he had also been to Yale Drama School as a directing student. Googling yields this reminiscence within the first hit:

I rebelled against my father's business until I was 21. Then I went to the Yale School of Drama in 1962 and had an epiphany the first three or four weeks.

As a playwright, you had to go to an acting class and a directing class to get a sense of the other disciplines. Nikos Psacharopoulos was teaching the directing course. And he said, "O.K., everybody has to direct a scene." I had watched my father [Abe Burrows] work and never quite understood what he did because he was mainly a writer who directed. So when Nikos said that, and I did the scene, in the middle of it I said to myself, "Wait a minute, I can do that." And, ever since, I knew what I wanted to do.

Every Tuesday night it's like theater: I do a live performance by filming the next episode of the series "Will & Grace" in front of an audience. It's all about surprising the audience. The more an audience is surprised, and laughs, the more the actor goes with it. An audience tells you what is funny.

People often ask me if they should go to theater school, and I tell them it is so hard getting your foot in the door. You have to practice your craft, and school allows you to do that. You can tell in drama school if you have talent. They can't give you talent. They can't teach you a sense of humor. They can only let you -- if you do -- flower.


PLEASE go back to the old, readable WV nonsense words.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I think I was most impressed with the casting of Sir Derek Jacobi as a washed-up actor on CHEERS. He doesn't do a lot of sitcom work.

THE BIG BANG THEORY must be fairly ratings-confident -- most of their cameos are actual physicists, known to literally dozens of viewers.

Dave Gute said...

Ken -

Love the blog. Love your tele-seminars. Hope to attend your writer's room session someday.

That being said, maybe it's time to put the Charlie Sheen jokes in a drawer for a bit. At the very least as your opener?

JJadziaDax said...

Neat, and I thought stunt casting would refer to casting stunt people. I finally have a Friday question. There have always been mistakes on tv that those in the know on the topic would find to be obvious errors like pins in the wrong area on a uniform or basically all of House http://www.politedissent.com/house_pd.html, but what about things that are more obvious to us regular folks? What happens in shows when they use say a geiger counter (detects radiation) to sniff biological weapons (Hawaii 5-0, the remix) or even more egregious the infamous two people typing on the same keyboard on NCIS http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8qgehH3kEQ how do such obvious mistakes even occur and are there ever any repercussions?
Thanks again for such an awesome blog :)

James said...

The master stunt-casting coup for AfterMASH would have been Sally Kellerman playing Hot Lips.

Curt said...

I don't think stunt casting has ever been so ridiculously overdone as in later years of Lucille Ball's television career, when every other episode seemed to bring a (at the time, anyway) big-name guest star onto the series, sometimes playing themselves and sometimes in a character role. The lack of continuity in these guest appearances is amusing. Lucy Carter (on HERE'S LUCY) meets Jack Benny four times, but each occasion is written as if it's the first time the two have ever laid eyes on each other.

John said...

@James - Sally Kellerman would have been hilarious as Hot Lips. Would this have been before or after Suzanne Plechette on Newhart ?

@Buttermilk Sky - BBT only uses physicists? Yes, they use them, but what about Woz, Summer Glau, Katie Sackhoff, Will Weaton, LeVar Burton, George Takai. Granted, these are only really known in the sci-fi universe.

They also have used a lot of seasoned sitcom actors for their recurring characters (Laurie Metcalf, Sara Gilbert, Christine Baranski come to mind), not to mention adding Blossom as a regular, and Winnie Cooper as a one-off.

Michael said...

Julia Roberts did a "stunt" appearance on Law & Order when she was dating Benjamin Bratt, and it was one of their worst episodes and stories.

Apropos of Jeopardy, they did stunt casting in another way. One April Fool's Day, Pat Sajak walked out and hosted the show, and then Alex Trebek hosted Wheel of Fortune. It may or may not say something that Sajak did the show like he was the reincarnation of Art Fleming and Trebek didn't seem to know where the wheel was located.

Bradley said...

Of course the most glaring CHEERS star not to appear on FRASIER was Kirstie Alley. Is there any story to go along with this? I figured with Alley on NBC with VERONICA'S CLOSET, it might have been confusing for audiences to see her on both shows. But her series only ran a few years and FRASIER went on for 11, so that can't be it. I would love to know more about this...if there's anything to know, that is.

B.Gilp said...

I always assumed that they didn't build the Cheers set for Cheerful Goodbyes because Ted wasn't available for the show, and you can't set a show in Cheers without Sammy. So they had to work around it by saying Sam had other things going on at the bar so they couldn't have it there, but really, I think Sam would show up for Cliffy 's party, so that episode is weird for me, really funny, but weird. I find it hard to suspend my disbelief for that one.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

You have not added to the list the problem of production telling you they can get someone and then not geting them. On a new series I have been doing last year, we had three such spots (the producers love them). One refused and had to be changed to another similar celebrity. One couldn't find a hole in his schedule and had to be rewritten and then could come after all and the rewrite was scrapped. And one went back and forth for so long, that now at the end of the production period I will have to do an emergency rewrite, for an episode which was abased on the certainty that guy would come - after al the scenes he is not in have been shot (the wonders of shot on film as opposed to multi-camera). I guess that's what you get when the producer is not the writer.

Marco said...

Hi Ken!

I have a potential friday question about the writing style(s) in 2 very popular sitcoms, namely "Two And A Half Men" and "The Big Bang Theory".

While I think both series are very funny (and hugely successful, myself liking Big Bang Theory much more actually) I realized for both of them that I totally do not care about the characters. While I "cared" if Ross got Rachel or Niles got Daphne or if John Becker went to hospital to one of his patients because he felt responsible for him/her I do not care in the named 2 sitcoms at all for them. I don't care if Leonard is together with Penny or not and when they replaced Charlie Sheen with Ashton Kutcher it does not matter as long as Kutcher still has some funny punchlines and so on.

Since both of these series are (co-)created and partially written by Chuck Lorre I wondered if that is due to the general writing style of these series? Because they do everything for a funny punchline and with this they make their main characters some sort of (very!) funny clowns that you laugh but not care about?


Thanks,
Marco

jbryant said...

For some reason, my favorite stunt casting was in the first episode of the short-lived, unremembered series CALIFORNIA FEVER, which starred Lorenzo Lamas and Jimmy McNichol and was mostly set on the beach, if I recall correctly. The guest star was singer/actor Rex Smith, who was coming off of a top ten hit, "You Take My Breath Away." When the kids on the beach hear that Smith has arrived, Eric Laneuville, the only black character, excitedly says, "Rex Smith?! On OUR beach?!" I wonder if it's having to put over such lines that led Eric to switch to directing, where he has carved a most impressive career for himself.

Max Smart said...

Barbara Feldon. Not Felton. Thank you.

the same chris said...

30 Rock always has some big name actor guest starring in multiple episode story arcs, so i dont think this actually counts as stunt casting. And i dont think it hurts the show either. The last three episodes were great imo.

Anonymous said...

Couch resides at St. Ann's cementery in Cranston, Rhode Island. He will not be making any guest appearances.

Curt Alliaume said...

Julia Roberts likely wasn't as big a "get" in early 1996 as she would have been a few years later -- she was coming off a string of flop movies (Something to Talk About, I Love Trouble) and would make a few more (Michael Collins, Mary Reilly) before things got back on track in her career. She also may have been involved with Matthew Perry around that time.

I enjoy watching cross-promotion shows where the characters can't be identified because the shows are owned by different studios, to see how they'll work around it. One episode of Friends had Helen Hunt and Leila Kenzle dropping into Central Perk and encountering Lisa Kudrow's Phoebe, assuming she was Mad About You's Ursula working a second job. But no names were exchanged, and there was no listing of "Jamie" or "Fran" in the closing credits.

Gazzoo said...

Bradley... I have read that the reason Kirstie Alley never appeared on "Frasier" was because her Scientology beliefs strongly went against the use of Psychology....though that didn't stop her from playing a lunatic psychiatrist in Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry".

iain said...

Whenever I hear the term "stunt casting," I automatically think of the Buck Henry/SNL "Bring In The Stunt Baby!" skit.

Curt, I agree that the "Here's Lucy" stunt casting was often ridiculous, but you have to admit but the William Frawley cameo was quite touching:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJqBVBUI2bs

Anonymous said...

Ken's comment about Tip O'Neill on Cheers reminds me of when John Kerry appeared and Cliff and Norm thought he was "Senator Gopher."

cadavra said...

By coincidence, I just finished watching last week's episode of HAWAII FIVE-O, in which James Caan guest starred. It was an excellent entry, not only because he's such a splendid actor and personality, but seeing him swap insults with his son Scott added an extra layer of fun. Plus Dennis Miller cameoed as--what else?--a right-wing radio host. So yeah, sometimes it really does add to the experience.

Anonymous said...

And when you see Dylan on "Dharma..." now in reruns, it is painfully embarassing, especially when in some kind of "freewheeling spirit" end credits she then drums along with him. Anyone who was really a friend would never ask Dylan to consider to do that. Dylan shouuld have re-assessed the friendship rather than done that show.

dangermandownunder said...

First thing I thought of was Here's Lucy.

craig m said...

I recall a Fantasy Island episode about a guy who wanted to be a big leaguer. Out of nowhere comes Montreal Expo Ellis Valentine and, to help us viewers, Tatoo says, "Ellis Valentine? He was in the All-Star Game last year!" I guess that was less awkward than having Tatoo say, "Ellis Valentine? He bats .287 against lefties!"

Chris said...

As a writer, do you have to be Jewish to get away with something like "The Schindler's List" episode in Seinfeld ?

VP81955 said...

How about Elvis Costello on "Frasier"?

Vidor said...

Has "30 Rock" really been hurt by stunt casting? It's in its sixth season on the air.

As for the "Cheers" set, it was still on display in Los Angeles at a museum next to Grauman's Chinese over a decade after the show was off the air. The museum got torn down and I don't know where the set is now. Maybe a landfill.

Marco said...

I was in the museum and sat in Norm's place back in 2003. To me, it was the greatest tour - there was also Fox Mulder's desk and the whole bridge of TNGs Enterprise. Plus much more. I hope the reassemble the Cheers bar set again somewehere else - it was too cool to sit there.