Here’s another Friday Question that warrants its own post. Since it’s a sensitive subject I choose not to name names. Please respect that and not fill the comment section outting the names or speculating on the names. Who they are is not relevant to the question. And we're now in the holiday season, dammit. Thanks.
The question comes from Jeff:
Have you ever had to fire an actor?
Yes, on several occasions, along with my partner David Isaacs. In one case the actor was a good friend and the network demanded he go. Our one stipulation was that we be honest with him – that it was their decision, not ours. The network was fine with that.
To make matters even worse, the actor was 3,000 miles away at the time so we had to do it over the phone. (At least we didn't text.) He was extremely gracious about it. That was the only time in my entire life I left work at 3 in the afternoon and went to a bar.
On another series of ours the star (who wielded enormous power) insisted we fire two of the cast members. To make this situation worse, it was during the Christmas hiatus. So when do you fire someone around Christmas? Before? After? I’m sure the star would have said “during.” We did it shortly after, giving each actor the same speech. One was so relieved to be out of that show he sent me Christmas cards for the next ten years. The other was so furious she didn’t speak to me for five years.
I’ve fired very few actors considering the number of years I was in a position to do so, but ironically as a freelance director I’ve had to direct several of them years later. Including the one who wouldn’t speak to me. That was awkward. Fortunately, she accepted my olive branch and all was fine. She was great in the episode, which reminded me that she was also damn good in our show. We should have stood our ground. Of course, I can say that now in hindsight.
But since that Christmas massacre we have taken more stands. In the case of the first actor I mentioned, we had absolutely no choice. Either we fired him or they cancelled the entire show. We had a cast and crew of well over a hundred people we were responsible for and didn’t feel it was right to cost all those people their jobs and income because of our righteous indignation.
However, during a pilot, the network wanted us to fire one of the stars after the third runthrough. We refused. We believed in her, had seen a hundred other candidates, and if she didn’t test well after the pilot was shot we would be happy to reopen the conversation, but at that point in the process we insisted we stick with her. The network begrudgingly relented (today networks would just shut down the show), the actress rose to the occasion, and tested so well she was the reason the show got picked up at all. To the network president’s credit, he admitted he was wrong and thanked us for believing in her. (He was also wrong when he cancelled the show later that year, but he hasn’t apologized for that.)
Usually if an actor gets fired mid-week it’s no surprise to them. They’re clearly struggling. Here too, maybe they’re terrific actors but just not right for the particular role. Square peg in a round hole (if I may coin a cliché).
In one case, however, a guest actor during a rehearsal kissing scene, stuck his tongue down our star’s throat. When I found out about it I went right down to the stage and fired him on the spot. That was a rather easy firing.
On a show I didn’t work on, the showrunner came into the room one day and announced the decision had been made to fire one of the series regulars. She was not well liked, but it was still going to be a gut wrenching scene and he was dreading it. One of the other writers waved his hand wildly and said, “I’ll do it! Let me do it!”
Early in my career I worried that if I fired an actor the rest of the cast would freak. It would create an atmosphere of fear and paranoia. But what I learned was this: If someone needs to be replaced, the rest of the cast knows it too. If you take action you send a message that you’re really looking out for them. And if the replacement actor is better then everyone’s performance is elevated. Obviously, if you’re firing two people a day your set becomes Shutter Island, but if you’re just completing the final piece of a puzzle, that benefits everybody.
Look, it’s never easy to fire anybody (except maybe tongue-guy), but it’s particularly hard firing actors because what they do is so public. But as I always say, casting is the most important decision you will ever make on a project. Everything else can be fixed. And sometimes you don’t know until you see it.
And I'd say 80% of the time (maybe even more) it's not that the actor was bad, it's just that he was not right for this role. Most actors will have stories of being fired -- actors you'd KILL for. I helped out on a TV pilot once that due to network decree replaced Tim Robbins. Think that network would like a Tim Robbins show today? And sometimes getting fired from one project leaves you available to be hired on a better one.
Still, just writing this post I have the urge to go to a bar again.