Saturday, March 09, 2013

Richard Burton & Jack Elam offered the same part

Here's a belated Friday Question time:

From Chris Andelman:

My question is about writing episodes for guest actors. Do you ever sign them first and then write with them in mind?

Yes, but not always. The CHEERS staff had an idea for a character they thought would be great for John Cleese. He liked the idea and agreed to played it. Peter Casey & David Lee then wrote a brilliant script.

When my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote the Tonight Show episode of CHEERS we had Johnny Carson going in. We kind of insisted on it.

A hot show will attract hotter guest stars. The Zeitgeist Factor is huge. Britney Spears did a HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER (back when Britney Spears meant something). I doubt they could have gotten her for ACCORDING TO JIM. Julia Roberts did FRIENDS. We couldn’t get Iron Eyes Cody for AfterMASH.

It always helps to hear the actor’s voice in your head as you write but most times you’re not afforded that luxury. You write a character and hope it will attract a big name.

In the first year of CHEERS David Lloyd wrote a wonderful episode called “The Spy Who Came In For a Cold One”. It’s about a larger-than-life figure who comes into the bar. Richard Burton had just done an episode of SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN (I think he and Lee Majors were friends) so we thought, “Let’s get him.” Burton passed. I forget who came up with this brainstorm but we then offered the part to Jack Elam. He was that terrific character actor with the wandering eye who always played scruffy characters, usually killers in westerns. I’m sure it’s the first time the same role had ever been offered to Richard Burton and Jack Elam. Elam passed. And we wound up with Ellis Raab, a rather flamboyant theatrical actor – who couldn’t have been more dissimilar to either Burton or Elam.













For the “Hot Rocks” episode of CHEERS, David and I thought we had Celtics’ star, Larry Bird. So we concocted a story where Rebecca thought he stole her earrings. Bird then dropped out. So we went with the next logical choice -- Admiral William J. Crowe, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But if I had to break it down I'd guess you go to the guest star before you write the script 70% of the time. Maybe 71%

27 comments:

craig m said...

Ken, was there a Frasier episode written with John Cleese in mind? I recall watching an episode at the time thinking that was the case.

Michael said...

Just to show stunt casting sometimes doesn't work, I always thought the worst episode in the two-decade run of Law & Order was when they wrote one for Benjamin Bratt's then-girlfriend, Julia Roberts. Yet you wonder about the Mary Tyler Moore classic with Walter Cronkite--the order it went in. I read that Cronkite didn't ask permission from the president of CBS News, Richard Salant, who found out with the rest of the country, and when he asked Cronkite why, Walter replied that he knew Salant would have said no.

Terrence Moss said...

Ellis Raab was GREAT in that episode.

Chris said...

What do you think about http://tvtropes.org/

The wikipedia of Television show tropes.

Chris said...

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AcceptableTargets

Here's an interesting article, amongst thousands of others, just to give you a glimpse of the website.

tb said...

Interesting that Bird declined, but Kevin McHale didn't

Anonymous said...

Oddly eough, when Britney Spears guest-starred on HIMYM, the show wasn't a hit. Instead, HIMYM was a bubble show that had only managed to narrowly avert cancellation during in its first two seasons.

It was Britney Spears' guest role that turned the show into a hit for the first time, spiking the ratings to a then-series-high.

The show subsequently grew thanks to syndication and became the megahit that it is today.

Oliver said...

(Sorry, reposting because I forgot to leave a name)

Oddly enough, when Britney Spears guest-starred on HIMYM, the show wasn't a hit. Instead, HIMYM was a bubble show that had only just managed to avert cancellation during in its first two seasons.

It was Britney Spears' guest role that turned the show into a hit for the first time, spiking the ratings to a then-series-high.

The show subsequently grew thanks to syndication and became the megahit that it is today.

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

That's a great episode, and I think Ellis Raab did a great job. Hard to picture Jack Elam playing it, but I bet it would've been good. Hard to imagine Burton, for me-- maybe because I think A Spy Who Came in from the Cold may be the only movie I've seen him in.

What surpasses me is the notion the Six Million Dollar Man and Cheers ran at the same time, I think of them as being two different eras of TV.

D. McEwan said...

And John Cleese went on to win an Emmy for that Cheers guest spot, indicating that he brilliantly played a role that was carefully tailered to him. (If Jack Elam had won an Emmy for playing a role carefully tailered to John Cleese with zero rewriting, then-a you got somthin'!)

Julia Roberts also did a Murphy Browne, which was very zeitgeisty 20 years ago.

Ellis Rabb was indeed memorable and perfect in that role, but he lacked the excitement that a big name guest star like Burton would have carried. There were no promos ballyhooing: "Eliis Rabb guest stars on Cheers tonight! Must See TV!"

In your final example, the pull-out improved it. What on earth could be funnier than Rebecca thinking Admiral William J. Crowe stole her earrings? Yes, thinking a famous basketball player stole her earrings is funny, but thinking they were stolen by the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is about The Funniest Thing Ever. Thinking Queen Elizabeth stole them wouldn't be as funny as thinking Admiral Crowe did. That was one of those "Made Me Laugh All Week Just Remembering It" episodes.

Kryten said...

I guess this would be a Friday question. Back when you asked us what our favorite sitcoms are, you came away from it saying you had a number of new sitcoms to sample as a result of our lists. I remember you specifically mentioned Red Dwarf as one you'd like to check out. Did you get to sample any new sitcoms and what did you think of them?

YEKIMI said...

@ D. McEwan: Murphy BROWNE? Guess that was the version shown in an alternate timeline of Earth. The one I remember here was called Murphy BROWN. ;-}

Breadbaker said...

Perhaps Burton declined because the Welsh drink their beer warm.

Johnny Walker said...

John Cleese was so great, I'm surprised the character never returned -- He would have been great for Frasier, too.

Johnny Walker said...

Hmm, the first page I read (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/AcceptableEthnicTargets) has some serious issues:

1. It thinks WASP males are sometimes discriminated against in films -- The ultimate example? Caddyshack. (Whaaa?) There's just so many things wrong with that assertion, I can't be bothered to list them all.

2. While someone thought it was important to list WASP males, nobody thought to include: Red heads, Southerners, Canadians. And they're just the first three that came to mind when I think of who are often mocked in sitcoms.

Johnny Walker said...

For those who enjoy listening to screenwriters talking about their craft, here's an incredibly thought-provoking lecture from Charlie Kaufman I stumbled upon. I think it's well worth your time...

https://soundcloud.com/bafta/charlie-kaufman-screenwriting-lecture

LouOCNY said...

I always wondered if the writers at BARNEY MILLER made a point of writing parts specifically for their legions of semi-regular bit players - as opposed to the Scanlons/Martys who were characters that show up a few times. I mean people like Libertini...the great Phil Leeds..Florence Halop, etc.

Craig Edwards said...

I just watched The Spy Who Came in for a Cold One - working my way through Cheers for the first time - and have to say Ellis Raab was meh in the role, Terence Moss notwithstanding. That part CRIED OUT for a big name - and it needed a Richard Burton, or a George Lazenby (at the time - probably the only movie 007 who would have done a TV guest spot, though Roger Moore would have been wonderful), or a TV spy like Robert Vaughn, or Robert Culp. Raab said the words, and brought a nice melancholy to the later scenes - but wow it would have been better with a known quantity.

Jake Mabe said...

Richard Burton actually appeared (I think in a cameo) on Lee Majors' later series, "The Fall Guy," which ran on ABC during the early years of "Cheers'" network run.

http://www.leemajors.co.uk/a/man.html

Mike said...

Simpsons wrote an episode for Tom Cruise where he plays Bart's Big Brother, but then he backed out and the episode is largely forgotten now.

Mike said...

Gotta agree with D. McEwan on this one. This may be one of those instances where it's good the first choice couldn't do it. I remember that Cheers episode, and Larry Bird would've been funny, but there's just something about Rebecca thinking somebody like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stole her earrings -- I mean, she really believed it -- that is just hilarious.

And I guess that sets up an interesting Friday Question: Have there ever been any times in your experience on shows where a Plan B, for say a guest actor or even a location shot, turned out better than you could've possibly hoped even your Plan A would've been?

Barry Traylor said...

I enjoy watching Jack Elam in films more than I ever did Richard Burton. I still smile when I think of the character he played in Support Your Local Sheriff with James Garner. Come to think of it Harry Morgan was in that one also.

Unknown said...

Hmm, 6 Million Dollar Man ran from 74-78...

Jerry Bloomfield said...

I have a Friday question. Over on his blog, http://whatever.scalzi.com/2013/03/11/a-compilation-of-the-weeks-rabble-rousings-on-contracts-and-advances/ John Scalzi has been talking about contracts and advances for authors. What about in Hollywood, in TV and movies? What makes a good contract and what should a writer look for?

Johnny Walker said...

Huh! I just discovered that WASP isn't meant to be taken literally.

Mark said...

I read that they did write a script for Cleese to return to Cheers, but he turned it down. So the character was rewritten and recast with John McMartin for the episode "The Visiting Lecher" (McMartin's character is an old colleague of Frasier's, similar to Cleeses's).

chuckcd said...

Robert Wagner would have been good for that role.