Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The weirdest example of stunt casting

Here’s a Friday Question that resulted in an entire post.

Joseph Scarbrough asks:

I see that occasionally, shows will do episodes where one of the characters actually has some kind of a connection with a real life celebrity (i.e. Felix Unger apparently was the one who discovered Richard Dawson, or Aunt Esther turns out to be B.B. King's old flame, etc.) What's the process for scripts like that? Do the writers just come up with these ideas? Are they mandated by the networks as rating boosters? Do the celebrity guest stars get any kind of say in how they're used in the script?

This is called stunt casting and networks love the concept because it spikes ratings. In almost all cases, the celebrity is approached before the script is written. Once he or she commits then the process of crafting the script begins.

A lot of times celebrities play themselves because they’re not great actors. And you’d be surprised how many of them are such bad thesps they can’t even play themselves. We also try not to give them punchlines. Don’t place the comedy burden on linebackers.

There are exceptions of course. My partner, David Isaacs, and I wrote the CHEERS episode starring Johnny Carson as himself. He was fantastic. And a very pleasant surprise was former Boston Celtic, Kevin McHale. This guy was a natural. He was so funny we not only gave him jokes; we brought him back for a second episode.

This is not a new practice, by the way. In the early ‘50’s I LOVE LUCY featured such guest stars as William Holden and Harpo Marx playing themselves.

The most bizarre case of a celebrity wanting to play himself was on FRASIER. The producers were looking for an actor to play Martin’s partner. Martin (FRASIER’S dad) had been a cop. Ben Gazzara, a fine actor, was approached to play the role. He said he would do it but only if he could play himself. The producers reminded him that the part was for a police officer in Seattle. Gazzara still insisted. So the reality was supposed to be that in between acting gigs, Ben Gazzara would head up to the Great Northwest and fight crime alongside Martin Crane. For reasons I can’t fathom, the producers were uncomfortable with that. They wound up going to another actor.

That said, if I was running BROOKLYN NINE-NINE, I might consider seeing if Daniel Day-Lewis could play himself as a member of the squad. Hey, he only does one or two movies a year. I’m sure he could get a leave of absence from the force every now and again to film LINCOLN. Fox needs help launching their comedies and this could just be the ticket. You know me, always looking to help. You’re welcome.


Jim S said...


Reading this entry brought up a question for me. What is the edicate for taking a snapshot. Back in the day when I worked in Washington as a congressional aide, it seems like every politician had what we staffers called an "I love me" wall, in which the congressman or congresswoman in question would have pictures of him or herself on the wall with various celebrities or politicians or famous generals of rank.

So did you ask for a snapshot with Kevin McHale or John Cleese? How do you feel when strangers want snaps with you?

Amy K. Bredemeyer said...

I thought that Martin had always worked for the Seattle police force, recalling the only mention of him in San Francisco was when he was in the service and when he went there for a short trip with Duke. Did he once live in the Bay Area?

Neil said...

The best one: Meadowlark Lemon owning the sporting goods store (in Portland, no less) on "Hello, Larry."

kent said...

As I recall, Seinfeld originally tried to use George Steinbrenner as himself but he couldn't pull it off so he was recast.

Mike said...

Daniel Day-Lewis stars in the remake of undercover cop Baretta. In every episode, Baretta is so focussed on portraying his cover accurately that the criminal escapes and is caught accidentally by a passing member of the public.

Mike said...

Isn't Steven Seagal a plastic copper? (Or is Steven Seagull Birdman?)
We've got something here. Call Lewis's agent.

The Courtship of Eddie's Dogfather said...

@Ken: Please don't tell me that you forgot FRASIER is set in Seattle, not San Francisco!

Hank said...

If Martin worked in San Francisco, why did he know so many cops in Seattle? How was he able to call in favors? Not only was the name "San Francisco" misused, Ken went so far as to say "bay area."

From Wikipedia: Go check the cites if you really need to.

The son of a police officer,[2] Martin was born in Seattle in 1932[1] and is a lifelong resident of the city. His great-grandparents were Noah Crane and a scullery maid from Russia.[3] He may be of Irish descent, as he and Frasier once sing the song "Danny Boy" while bonding over a beer. At the age of 19, Martin joined the U.S. Army, and saw combat in the Korean War. After returning home Martin joined the Seattle Police Department, and would remain in this capacity until being forced to retire due to injury in his late fifties. He served in various roles including several years on mounted patrol,[1] and attained the position of Homicide Detective. He was married to Hester Rose Crane, a forensic psychiatrist whom he met in 1952[4] at a murder scene.[5] They remained married until her death from an unspecified illness in 1987,[4] some six years before Martin moves in with Frasier.[6]

DBenson said...

I always liked how fairly known entertainers would play themselves on sitcoms, and the story always had them being bigger than the Beatles AND suddenly the all-time favorite of some cast member. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" had Chad and Jeremy playing a fictional duo called The Redcoats, but had them do a callout to their real identities at the end.

There were a few cases where series stars who were big in real life would be a "guest star" on their own show,. One of the hour-long "Honeymooners" had Ralph and Norton trying to get Superstar Jackie Gleason for a lodge show. And a very odd episode of "Mork and Mindy" had Mork being mobbed by fans of Robin Williams. Mindy uses the resemblance to get her and Mork backstage at a theater for an interview, where the "real" Williams -- played very quietly -- gets advice on dealing with fame from Mindy and himself (special effects). Not sure if it was absurd self-indulgence or sort of an on-camera therapy session.

The British series "Extras" was packed with real-life celebrities, all playing unflattering versions of themselves. Patrick Stewart's gimmick was showing off his own movie script, about a man with the power to make women's clothing disappear. He's a little too enthused about it.

Recently "Garfunkle and Oates" had Weird Al Yankovic on for a clever cameo. It was heavily promoted, and the promos showed his ENTIRE scene. Marketing ripoff or shrewd satire of stunt casting?

JYYD said...

Dear Ken Levine,

My name is Jemmy Y.Y. Dynamite and I would like to happily inform you that my client, a certain Sir William Axl Rose, has agreed to be working on a new pilot with you!
The show should either be centered around him in the lead, which should then be a hit show in the veins of "The Big Bang Theory" but with a twist: What if the nerds were cool rockstars who get all the chicks!? So funny!
Or the aforementioned rock legend would be a supporting character of Yoda-like importance who has the best lines - maybe in a period piece.
In both cases Sir Axl likes to retain the last word in all casting and creative decisions. Of course, he will only demand standard rock legend fees and accomodation.
You can send us your firsts via email to so we can give you notes and make the thing funny.
Sir Axl hasn't yet decided what network the show will be airing on but that is of minor importance.
You CAN believe this is happening - we are very excited you are working for us as well!


Jemmy "dubble-Y" Dynamite

ps: The "dubble-Y" stands for "Y ain't ya writin already and what are you waitin for! HAHA just kidding! I see we're kicking it off real good! Will be hearin' from ya!

pps: I was just informed that Sir Axl doesn't want to do a TV show anymore. His favorite bandana fell accident to a whisky-fountain fire caused by one of Sir Axl's pet bald eagles crashing into one of the "Slash-Sux" light installations. So, we're out! Good luck finding a new star for your weird "thing".

pps: Do send the first draft though, as it is our property.

JYYD said...


Your stupid comment section doesn't do indents at the beginning of paragraphs when you only press and now my letter looks like a donkey ass wrote it.

Your luck, I dont care anyway!

JYYD out!

JYYD said...

Dear KL,

PPPS: There was a typo, we apologize, where it said "first draft" we meant to say "polished script". Thanks.


Mike said...

I would totally watch that Brooklyn Nine Nine.
Daniel Day Lewis likes to get totally into the personality of his character. What happens if he plays himself?

Anonymous said...

On The Simpsons they wrote an episode for Tom Cruise, and then he backed out. Now the episode is just a randomly voiced Tom being Bart's Big Brother.

Chris Muir said...

On Bones (a guilty pleasure for me) they have embraced one bit of stunt casting fully. There was a reveal that ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons is one of the character's father. I've actually enjoyed the episodes he's in because he's so stiff playing his loose self.

Cap'n Bob said...

I have a favorite new word: edicate.

VP81955 said...

Brady Anderson, Mark Langston and Steve Sax all appeared on "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," the first two as themselves.

And speaking of "Sabrina," another form is reuniting cast members from an earlier series. When I met Beth Broderick at a memorabilia show not long ago, I asked what acting gigs she had done lately. Beth mentioned she has a recurring role on "Under The Dome" (and presumably will be part of the cast next season), and also noted in passing she had guested on "Melissa And Joey." I figuratively kicked myself for not immediately saying, "Stunt casting!"

Charles Emerson Losechester said...

Re: The Simpsons and anonymous stuntcasting

To quote Lisa: "Dustin Hoffman, Michael Jackson--of course they didn't use their real names, but you could tell it was them!"

Anonymous said...

Psych also did an episode that reunited the cast of Twin Peaks, one of whom had already appeared as a minor character. Major stretch trying to get him into the episode.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The stunt casting trope I really hate is the BIG STAR who plays themselves and all the regular characters humiliate themselves by suddenly becoming unable to act like normal human beings in the star's presence. Even if Hollywood celebrities do get this all the time, I'm sure it's a minority of people who behave that way, and it just smacks of a) a lack of creative ideas and b) whining about how tough celebrities have it.

BIG BANG THEORY achieved a nice balance of the awe in which the characters held Stephen Hawking while letting them be themselves.


Mark said...

The various Lucy shows came to rely on the humiliate-yourself-to-meet-big-star formula. Often, those stars' account of the filming was more entertaining than the episodes. The most eloquent may come from Richard Burton's diary:

"Those who had told us that Lucille Ball was ‘very wearing’ were not exaggerating. She is a monster of staggering charmlessness and monumental lack of humour. She is not ‘wearing’ to us because I suppose we refuse to be worn. I am coldly sarcastic with her to the point of outright contempt but she hears only what she wants to hear. She is a tired old woman [Ball was fifty-eight at the time] and lives entirely on that weekly show which she has been doing and successfully doing for 19 years. Nineteen solid years of double-takes and pratfalls and desperate up-staging and cutting out other people’s laughs if she can, nervously watching the ‘ratings’ as she does so. A machine of enormous energy, which driven by a stupid driver who has forgotten that a machine runs on oil as well as gasoline and who has neglected the former, is creaking badly towards a final convulsive seize-up. I loathed her the first day. I loathed her the second day and the third. I loathe her today but I also pity her."

But the funniest has to be from Joan Crawford:

"And they call me a bitch."

Hamid said...

This is off topic but I see that giant intellect Kirk Cameron has a new, ahem, "film" out in which, according to reviews, he spends the duration preaching about how us nasty secularists and atheists are all in a conspiracy to stop Christians enjoying tinsel, hot chocolate and Santa's elves, culminating in a hip-hop dance crew appearing out of nowhere to dance and speak ebonics.

Sounds truly hilarious, all of it unintentional. It's playing in a limited engagement at selected theatres, which I'm guessing are located in states where IMAX science education films are edited to remove references to evolution and copies of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ are stocked in the documentary section of stores.

I just saw The Imitation Game, a beautiful film about Alan Turing, the code breaker who cracked the Enigma code in World War II and invented computing. Thanks to his work on Enigma, historians estimate the war was cut short by two years and 14 million lives were saved. But instead of being celebrated as a hero, after the war was over, he was persecuted and prosecuted for being gay.

Turing was a genius who helped save millions of lives and invented computing. In contrast, Kirk Cameron is a moron with less intelligence than a bag of sand who's contributed zero to humanity except spreading hate about people like Turing and making propaganda. I have a feeling the audiences going to see his latest puke won't be the type to see The Imitation Game, not least because they probably think John Wayne singlehandedly won the war.

Al in Portland said...

"Brady Anderson, Mark Langston and Steve Sax all appeared on "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," the first two as themselves."
How do you know Sax didn't play himself? Did he fail to make a throwing error?

Charles Jurries said...

Stephen Collins (7th Heaven) and Bill Cosby have been accused of some terrible things, and the repercussions have been in part taken out on their current projects and/or shows in syndication. As someone whose worked on many legendary TV series, do you ever wonder if something will come out to distort, even temporarily, the show's legacy? (Something like the Stephen Collins or Bill Cosby allegations.)

Hank said...

Stephen Collins, Kirk Cameron, and the Duggars are all common white trash. Bill Cosby is trash of a different sort. In fact, everyone on Growing Pains is trash. Drug addicted sex perverts. Ever since the news hit the National Enquirer about Alan Thicke snorting meth off homeless men's hipbones, we do not allow that show in this house.

Alan C said...

I enjoyed Keith Hernandez playing himself on Seinfeld. It was the episode where they did a takeoff on the Zapruder film.

Not long ago I saw a hilarious old Jack Benny episode with Jimmy Stewart. Of course Benny played himself too.

Pseudonym said...

One of my favourites is Eva Gabor almost playing herself on HERE'S LUCY. This line still cracks me up:

LUCY: Do you have any sisters?
EVA: Boy, do I have sisters!

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Speaking of Stephen Hawking, how can anybody forget his cameo on TNG, in the episode "The Host"?

Dan Ball said...

So if this is considered "stunt casting" what do you call the selection process for stunt performers?

Also, it's a good thing Ben Gazzara didn't want to be stunt casted into THE BIG LEBOWSKI.

Best stunt-casting: Leonard Nimoy on the SIMPSONS.

Johnny Walker said...

I have to wonder: Couldn't you just have named the character "Ben" and then never mentioned the fact that he was a famous actor? :)

Love the Daniel Day Lewis idea.

Hamid said...

Hank, you're thinking of Max Wright from ALF. He smoked crack with some homeless men, not Alan Thicke.

Still, it's always good to give Growing Pains a miss anyway.

Mary said...

David Simon tells a moving story of how Robin Williams saved NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street: NBC had effectively cancelled Homicide after the low-rated first season [...] Barry and his partner at the time, Mark Johnson, had secured Mr. Williams as a last-ditch stunt-cast to save the show. [...]the mission here was to have the leading comic actor of his generation carry us up to the mountaintop with a thirty share."

It's a really fascinating TV-writing story. Williams wasn't playing himself in this case, but a grieving husband of a murder victim.

"The arrival of Mr. Williams required some rewriting — given that we had divided the scenes equally between the stricken family and the three young men complicit in the robbery-murder. One does not acquire Robin Williams in order to have him off-screen in every other scene, and so, Tom and Jim Yoshimura set to work writing additional pyrotechnics for the guest actor and trimming back on the intricacies of the relationship between the three suspects. By the time they finished, a little over half the pages of our original script were still in evidence."

Hamid said...

Just read the sad news that Mike Nichols has died. RIP.

Bruce100 said...

One of the big examples of stunt casting is surely the entire career of Vinnie Jones.

In the UK, he was know purely as a particularly in your face, untalented, thuggish football player whose main claim to fame was grabbing the testicles of another more talented player. He parlayed that image into a part in Lock, Stock..., a prominent place on the UK poster for the film and the rest is...

IIRC, Robin Williams was excellent in that ep of Homicide.

Mike said...

Who is the picture at the top? He looks like the guy from Lost.

Nick said...

Friday question: Some shows are big hits but aren't that influential on what follows. I'm curious if you think MASH was influential as, say, All in the Family, and where you see its influences in today's TV shows.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I really had no idea that there was something you could call this thing by. That's interesting. And I see now that the celebrity guests do have a lot of say-so in how these scripts turn out... I almost kind of figured these particular episodes would be mandated by the networks as rating boosters... I could imagine an exec leaning back in his chair saying, "This show's slipping, so let's throw so-and-so in for the upcoming sweeps, he's really in-demand right now... we'll say he's Alice and Bob's second cousin twice removed, or something like that."

And somebody previously mentioned I LOVE LUCY... ah yes, the infamous Hollywood story arc. Then again, even before the Hollywood arc because, there was that painful-to-watch two-parter where Tennessee Ernie Ford becomes the Ricardos' house-guest, and he called Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel his cousins, lol.