Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Casting against type

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TV critic extraordinaire, Alan Sepinwall engaged in a Twitter discussion recently about actor David Morse. Morse is known for playing heavies and dark brooding characters and a reader wanted to know if he had ever played a light character. Alan (bless him) referred the reader to BIG WAVE DAVE’S, a short-lived series my partner David Isaacs and I created for CBS back in 1993.  The Big Wave Dave of BIG WAVE DAVE'S was Dave.  

We opted to cast against type and were thrilled with the results. To see David in our show just go here.

I feel bad for actors in that they easily get pigeonholed. Play a good villain and those are the only roles you’re offered. Make a name for yourself in comedy and you’re deemed too “light” for hard drama. Producers and networks are often short-sighted and just see actors one way.

And yet, casting against type pays off time and time again. I’ve found that interesting villains generally can play comedy. Ed Asner was a heavy his entire career until landing the Lou Grant role on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Nick Colsanto played mob guys and thugs in many movies including RAGING BULL and I think you’d agree he did an okay job as the Coach on CHEERS. (And while we’re on the subject of CHEERS, could you ever picture Woody Harrelson playing scary guys so convincingly?)

When I saw ROBOCOP I was particularly impressed with one of the bad guys. I had never seen him before but he was so compelling. I thought to myself, “I want to work with that guy someday.” That guy was Kurtwood Smith and in fact I did work him. Going against type we also cast him in BIG WAVE DAVE’S. Kurtwood went on to play the father in THAT ‘70s SHOW.

David Clennon is best remembered for the very button-down character he played in THIRTYSOMETHING. We cast him as a complete bizarro in ALMOST PERFECT. You can see an example here. Tell me he didn’t hit it out of the park.

As a producer you have to be willing to stick your neck out. You may be asking an actor to do something out of his comfort zone and you may be asking the audience to put aside preconceived opinions (even if those opinions were favorable). But when it works the payoffs are HUGE.

Look at Mandy Patinkin in HOMELAND. Usually there’s not a set he doesn’t leave teeth marks on. But in this show he plays a wonderfully controlled character and is far more spellbinding than he ever was playing to the last row.

Perhaps the producer who casts against type the best is Graham Yost of JUSTIFIED. Longtime sitcom veteran Jere Burns as a bad guy/weasel was inspired. And in the casting coup of the decade – Margo Martindale as the evil matriarch who ran the county was a revelation. No one played more sweet, nurturing, lovable moms and aunts and kindergarten teachers than Margo Martindale. And she was always great in every role. But on JUSTIFIED she rose to a completely different level. I was a longtime fan and still I kept saying, “Who knew?”

My point is this: how many actors working today would surprise and delight you in roles you’d never expect if they only got the chance? Wondrous Jennifer Lawrence played a kid on the middling sitcom, THE BILL ENGVALL SHOW. I invite producers, studios, networks, playwrights, film directors – anyone – to keep an open mind. The person you least expect could be the person who steals your show.

62 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another example, from the UK and going the other way (comedy to drama) is Kathy Burke http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kathy_Burke A superb comedic actress in various Harry Enfield shows who then went on to be brilliant in Nil by Mouth

RJ Hope said...

It is getting better but there are few execs and producers that still typecast. This is includes not only actors, but writers and directors, as you very well know. It is understandable, it takes in incredible amount of money to make TV and movies, but any new creative endeavor is chancy. There is far too much risk management in Hollyweird now.

gottacook said...

David Clennon first made an impression on me as one of the deluded anti-nuke terrorists who end up destroying Charleston, SC in the absolutely scarily effective TV movie Special Bulletin, which was Herskovitz & Zwick's biggest credit of the early 1980s. Clennon's final speech as Miles, a monologue about the purpose of advertising delivered to Ken Olin's character (his about to be ex-employee), is the only scene of Thirtysomething that I saved on videotape. Is he a naturally very intense guy, or just good at playing such roles? (I did like him on Almost Perfect too).

Scriptwrecked said...

Ken, how could you forget Brian Cranston!?

Mike said...

Mary Tyler Moore in Ordinary People.

Roger Owen Green said...

Always associate David Morse from St. Elsewhere, where he was sweet, but lost Boomer.

Paul R said...

Damages, third season - Martin Short spends the entire season underplaying a shady lawyer, and brilliantly so.

Michael said...

It was too early in his career, comparatively, speaking, but it's hard to believe that the guy who played Lonesome Rhodes in "A Face in the Crowd" was also a kindly sheriff and a shrewd but bucolic defense attorney. As the old joke goes, dying is hard, but comedy is harder.

Joe in DC said...

Garret Dillahunt is another example, too. He was in danger of being pigeonholed as a heavy (I always think of him first as a Terminator in "The Sarah Connor Chronicles"), but he shows his amazing comedic chops in "Raising Hope."

Brian O. said...

I remember David Morse on St. Elsewhere as a sweet character, too, until tragedy struck. I remember the shift as unsettling but not in a bad way.

Kurtwood Smith was amazing in Robocop. What often goes unreported is that many of his classic lines came from Kurtwood himself. DVD commentary gives him credit everywhere it was due.

Paul Reubens did a nice turn in Blow, too.
(Please no tired Pee-wee jokes. Last year my son met him for his Make-A-Wish and we couldn't have met a kinder individual.)

Dan H. said...

I'm not sure that any actor made such a complete transformation against type as did Leslie Neilson, who played a heavy or serious roles for almost three decades before Airplane and Naked Gun movies.

CRL said...

What about British Hugh Laurie vs. American Hugh Laurie?

Jerry Krull said...

@gottacook - Special Bulletin freaked me out when it was broadcast. You can find the entire TV movie on YouTube. At the 1 hour 24 minute mark it turns really interesting to me to see how news would cover that type of situation - especially those close to the event.

Was it a "great" TV movie? Not really, but the questions it brings to mind on that type of situation actually happening stay with you a long time.

Rick said...

The best example of casting against type has to be the movie "Once Upon a Time in the West".

It opened with a scene where all the children of a large family were preparing an outdoor welcome feast for their father who was soon to arrive with his new bride. They're interrupted by a large group of men on horseback that proceeds to shoot them all down. Only one small boy is left.

The men start to discuss whether they should spare him or not. All this time time the face of the leader is off-camera. One of the men called the leader by name. So he shoots the kid.

The camera pans up from the smoking gun to the face of the leader - and it's Henry Fonda.

Joel Keller said...

Even the producers of Happy Endings were surprised at how goofy and funny Elisha Cuthbert turned out to be, and they're the ones that cast her. Until that show, all anyone saw her do was run and cry and be an overall PITA as Kim Bauer on 24.

BigTed said...

Richard Coyle, who played the goofy friend on the original British version of "Coupling," reportedly quit before the final season so he wouldn't get typecast as a wacky/dumb guy. Now he gets far cooler roles, such as a suave spy and love interest for Piper Perabo on "Covert Affairs."

gottacook said...

Another casting-against-type example: Peter Sellers in Being There - although I gather that he sought the role assiduously.

Jerry Krull: "Greatness" is debatable, but would you at least agree that Special Bulletin was extraordinarily well acted, directed and edited?

KB said...

Michael Gross! From Steven Keaton to a crazed redneck in Tremors to a sinister snob (several times).

rdcobb said...

Joss Whedon always says that if an actor can pull off comedy than he can pull off drama.

And my favorite Adam Sandler movie is "Spanglish". I always watch it whenever I come across it on television.

Mac said...

How about Jack Lemmon? Co-starred in what usually gets voted as the greatest comedy movie ever, yet he did amazing straight work - Glengarry Glen Ross, Save The Tiger etc

wackiland said...

Thanks, Ken. This is an argument I've made my whole professional life.

First, when I was an unemployed almost-child actor who was a leading lady trapped in a character actresses' body. Then, as a studio and talent executive - where I not only went against type, but often ignored things like race & age in trying to find the actor who brought the most to the words on the page. And now, as a talent manager, where I spend hours each day trying to convince overworked casting directors and producers that a new idea doesn't always mean losing the job (climbs down off soapbox).

Love your blog, AND your work!

Brian Phillips said...

Dick Van Dyke was quite good as a comedian that was a bit of a jerk off-camera in "The Comic".

Ted Levine was great as Monk's long suffering police contact in "Monk", but no episode of that series prepares you for the nutter that he plays in "Nowhere Man". I had to be TOLD that was the same actor.

Friday question: Title sequences have shrunken and grown over the years. What are some of your favorites?

odjennings said...

Don't forget Jackie Gleason. Comedian and clown on the small screen, but he gave wonderful, measured, performances in movies like The Hustler, Soldier in the Rain, and Requiem for a Heavyweight.

Brian Doan said...

What would be the term for typecasting out-of-order: in other words, seeing an actor in a signature role late in their career, and only catching up with their very different body of earlier work after that? Andy Griffith was mentioned above, and I'd also note Angela Lansbury. When I was a child, Lansbury was the good-hearted nanny/witch of BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS. When I was an adolescent, she was the writer/detective "Aunt Jess" of MURDER SHE WROTE. It was only *years* after that, that I finally caught up with her extraordinary performance in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, where she's the embodiment of evil. Add to that the seemingly kind, actually venal Mrs. Lovett in SWEENEY TODD, the scheming maid in GASLIGHT, and a scene-stealing performance as a cynical madam in THE HARVEY GIRLS, and *that* Angela Lansbury-- the earlier, funnier, sexier, eviler one-- is the one I'll always adore.

tb said...

Max Baer Jr. (Jethro) really scared me as a redneck sherriff in that one movie, remember that, can't think of the name right now, dammit...Southern Comfort?

Bill said...

Didn't see mention of John Lithgow's turn as a serial killer in Dexter.

Tami said...

@Brian Phillips: You do realize that Ted Levine was also "Buffalo Bill" in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, too, don't you? But I agree with you about NOWHERE MAN!

JED said...

Ernest Borgnine.

Tough guy in "From Here to Eternity" and "Bad Day at Black Rock".

Nice guy in "Marty"

Funny guy in "McHale's Navy" and "Sponge Bob Square Pants" (as Mermaid Man)

Curt Alliaume said...

Jere Burns has had a varied career - he played a jerk in Dear John, a nurturing laid-back father in Something So Right, and the nerdiest of nerdy guys in Good Morning, Miami. He could probably play almost anything.

Mike Doran said...

As a kid in the early '60s, I'd see this curly-heaired, very earnest young leading man on Edge Of Night.

A few years later, I'd see this 30-something handsome guy do wild sight-gag comedy on several sitcoms, one of which had a good run.

A few years after that, I'd see this middle-aged guy playing villains on cop shows, leading up to being the big boss bad guy on the most popular nighttime soap.

And all of them were Larry Hagman.

That's the textbook example.




Marsha said...

Like Mandy Patinkin, Nathan Lane never met scenery he couldn't chew. But look at the lovely subtle work he's doing on The Good Wife right now.

Anonymous said...

Dean Martin in "Some Came Running"

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I can't believe no one's mentioned Ted Danson's compelling work in the first season of DAMAGES.

wg

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Also: early in his career, there was an actor with an unusual face and a shuffling kind of walk. No one knew quite what to do with him, so they cast him as a villain. Repeatedly. In, for example, movies like CHARADE and THE TAKING OF PELHAM 1 2 3. And then one day someone put him in a comedy and he became everyone's favorite lovable schlub, Walter Matthau.

Speaking of which, Basil Rathbone was also frequently cast as a villain before he got stuck permanently to Sherlock Holmes. Sometimes that type-casting can be quite damaging: I believe Margaret Hamilton was never really able to recover her career from playing the Wicked Witch of the West.

wg

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Sorry to type a third message a row. Matthau was of course not the villain in PELHAM. But it was a thoroughly dramatic role - and, contrary to what I said, the one that got him out of the bad-guy roles.

wg

James said...

Walter Matthau, "Fail Safe"

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing some of the test reels of Kathy Bates when they were thinking of hiring her for "Blue Lagoon III - The Autumn Years."
Financing fell through, but Kathy was beautiful, and worked well with Chris Adkins.

Greg Ehrbar said...

• David Morse was excellent, as always, in one of your favorite movies of the year, The Odd Life of Timothy Green.

Lindsay Lohan made a full turn to comedy in Liz and Dick.

Paul Duca said...

I think that just might be why the masses like reality TV so much...it gives them whatever type they want to see...dumb rednecks, vulgar nouveau riche, crude working stiffs, self-serving backstabbers.

Wayne said...

Going against type... Denise Richards in "The World Is Not Enough." The woman who married Charlie Sheen was a nuclear physicist.

DAVID BISHOP said...

Stemming from your post about casting actors against type, what about the case for hiring writers against type? Writers progressing from comedy to drama [or vice versa], or from film to TV [or vice versa]?

Examples off the top of my head: Shawn Ryan went from My Two Dads via Nash Bridges to The Shield. Or Joss Whedon - from Roseanne via Buffy the Vampire Slayer to The Avengers.

David Whitham said...

Patrick Stewart as a flamboyant stage director in Frasier.

Anonymous said...

Wendy M. Grossman: Uh, THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE was made in 1974...after THE FORTUNE COOKIE (Matthau's Academy Award-winning role), after THE ODD COUPLE, after CACTUS FLOWER, after HELLO DOLLY, after PLAZA SUITE...and, for that matter, after CHARLIE VARRICK and THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, two dramas in which Matthau played the heroes. By the time of PELHAM, he had not played a villain in a decade.

Rob said...

Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens.

Brian Phillips said...

Brent Spiner's work in Night Court as a sad-faced rural man didn't prepare me for his work as Data in "Star Trek: The New Generation".

Kirk said...

He wasn't a star yet, so I can't really say it was casting against type, but Fess Parker as the seemingly insane patient in the 1950s giant bug classic THEM.

John said...

For the MASH aspect of the playing-against-type roles, Harry Morgan's debut turn as Gen. Steele in Season 3 wasn't 100 percent against what people were used to -- he had roles before with a bit of an eccentric/grouchy streak -- but the combined characteristics were definitely against how he had played in his previous network series and his movie appearances.

Mike Doran said...

Back in the late '40s, there was a young leading man working in Poverty Row thrillers, alternating between tough private eyes and smiling villain types.
When B-movies died in the early '50s, this actor went into TV, where he somehow became the Perfect Sitcom Dad.
Wanna throw a shock into your Baby Boomer friends?
See if you can dig up some dollar-store DVDs featuring the toughest guy on Poverty Row - Hugh Beaumont.

Jerry Krull said...

Very well acted and directed. Very good TV.

roger said...

Billy West, voice actor extrordinaire (REN & STIMPY, DOUG, et.al.), told a great story about the time he was cast as the Red M&M for the TV commercials. At that time OZ was big on HBO, and Billy's wife showed him a episode and singled out the menacing Aryan Brotherhood leader Schillinger (JK Simmons), and swore that he wasn't acting and was really a racist Nazi type. Billy just laughed at her and said, "He's the yellow M&M!"

Michael Madsen was amused when kids would approach him because he was the dad in the FREE WILLY movies, and their parents would freak out because he was the psychotic cop torturer in RESERVOIR DOGS.

Another commenter pointed out John Lithgow and yes, to go from major bad guys in RICOCHET and CLIFFHANGER to an outright goofball in THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN, that takes talent.

XJill said...

Everyone is giving great examples, I too thought of Garrett Dillahunt - who knew? Also love British Hugh Laurie vs. American Hugh Laurie, I think it's pretty amazing there are millions of people who have never seen him in a comedic role.

Rebecca said...

JK Simmons was also the psychiatrist on Law & Order.

iain said...

"tb said...
Max Baer Jr. (Jethro) really scared me as a redneck sherriff in that one movie, remember that, can't think of the name right now, dammit...Southern Comfort?

"Macon County Line?" I think I saw it as a drive-in double feature with one of the lesser Planet of the Apes movies.

Back to going against type? How about Jerry Lewis, both in "King of Comedy" & "Wiseguy?"

Anonymous said...

I don't care what movies or TV he does, to Ontario natives of a certain age Graham Yost will always just be Elwy's boy.

Montreal Mike

cadavra said...

How about Bebe Neuwirth going from the buttoned-down Lilith on CHEERS to sexpot roles on Broadway?

And I second Nathan on THE GOOD WIFE. Warms my heart to see him reunited with The Goddess Baranski, even if they're antagonists this time. BTW, if you're a stage buff, GW is truly the show to watch. The finest casts on television, bar none; shooting in NY gives them an astounding pool of talent to tap into. One recent episode had as guest stars Neuwirth, Brian Dennehy and Stockard Channing.

VP81955 said...

William Powell almost always played villainous roles in silents. Talking films added a new dimension to his persona -- that erudite, urbane speaking voice -- that transformed him into playing good guy (or likable debonair antagonist) roles.

Mitch said...

I don't know the woman, but I always wondered if Mary Tyler Moore's character in Ordinary People is more like her than Mary Richards is in real life.

Matt Patton said...

One example that comes to mind is Ed Wynn in his wonderful cameo in the 1957 film THE GREAT MAN, as the radio-station owner who gave the (unseen) title character his first big break and, like just about everybody else in that film, lived to regret it (it's not only against-type casting, but a beautiful example of underplaying as well--and it was done in one take, Jose Ferrer, who starred in and directed the film, allegedly broke into tears of admiration at what Wynn gave him in the scene). Another example in the same film would be Dean Jagger and a network executive in the same film; Jagger had mostly played benevolent types until then, this part opened up a whole new career playing low-key villains. He was genuinely chilling.

Sean Connery went brilliantly against heroic type in a 1964 film called WOMAN OF STRAW, where he plays a particularly nasty villain so ruthlessly that he really is bone-chilling. For that matter, his turn as the screwed-up "hero" of Hitchcock's MARNIE is quite unsettling as well (this is a man who essentially rapes his wife on their honeymoon).

Matt Patton said...

tb: The film you're thinking of with Max Baer, Jr. was MACON COUNTY LINE. Wonderfully creepy little "B" movie. There was a much lighter sequel called RETURN TO MACON COUNTY that co-starred a pre-fame Nick Nolte. Who was pretty good.

jsd said...

Kindle version of book purchased!

For another playing-against-type, I think Jeremy Sisto is doing great work on Suburgatory currently.

cadavra said...

If you want to see Connery at his "worst," check out Sidney Lumet's TYHE OFFENCE, which was the actor's passion project. I think it's his best perf ever.

cadavra said...

Arrgghh. "THE" OFFENCE, of course.