Friday, February 06, 2015

Friday Questions

Ready for some more Friday Questions?

Dan Ball gets us started.

What's the quickest amount of time you and David had to turn around the most amount of writing?

A rewrite of JEWEL OF THE NILE, starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner. There was a looming WGA strike and they had to have a draft to give to the Moroccan government for approval of shooting in their country. We pretty much had a weekend to rewrite the entire screenplay.

We usually worked with a writers’ assistant taking dictation. We hired two and just rotated them. It was a crazy lost weekend.

Carolyn wonders:

With approximately 5 million actors in LA , why do some shows use the same actors over and over for different characters? We've been watching a LOT of MeTV, and I think, for instance, William Schallert has appeared on _everything_ at least three times. More lately, there is a webpage that lists "repeat offenders" on Law & Order, with some actors guesting four or five times, again, playing different characters.

They keep getting hired because they’re reliable, know the drill, and can give a solid performance. It’s simply a “set it and forget it” deal.  And in some cases, they are favorites of certain showrunners.

But the downside is that these character actors do get over-exposed. There have been many times a casting director will suggest someone for a guest spot and I’ll say, “Jesus, he’s been on every show since the dawn of man.” The last thing you want a viewer to say is “That guy again?” when an actor appears on the screen. It takes the viewer out of the story.

It’s always great when you can discover somebody new, but the truth is, quite often you’re pressed for time. You rewrite a script, add a part, it’s 5:30 in the afternoon and you’re scheduled to shoot the scene first thing the next morning. You don’t have time to hold a casting call. You say, “William Schallert could play this. Let’s just get him.”

I think on LAW & ORDER they have a rule where a guest actor can only appear once a season. But they sure use a lot of people. If you go to any Broadway or off-Broadway production and read the Playbill bios, virtually every actor will have LAW & ORDER on his resume.

Longtime friend of the blog, Wendy M. Grossman asks:

Do you think it's easier for a show that's not recorded in front of a live audience to lose its way creatively? For example, HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER seemed to me to fall off a cliff quality-wise after about season 4 (and had some truly terrible episodes in its last couple of seasons).

There is always the danger of that when you’re no longer held accountable for your episodes. You work much harder to ensure the show is funny if you know there will be 200 strangers in the audience when you tape it. So yes.

But…

You can also be fooled by a studio audience, especially once a show is an established hit. Adoring audiences will start laughing at everything and give you a false sense of security. By the last few years of CHEERS, if I’m being honest, we didn’t have to earn any of the laughs. Norm would just enter and say “Afternoon everybody” and the audience would go into hysterics.  He didn't even say anything funny.  On the one hand it was very gratifying, but also hard to judge what really worked. Home audiences would be less enamored.

And finally, a long one from Steve:

In your post about creating characters, you mentioned making characters real, 3-dimensional people. But one question I've had concerns rather cartoonish characters on terrific shows, such as Frank on MASH, Ted on Mary Tyler Moore, etc.

Ted, for example, was so over-the-top stupid and could never actually earn or keep his job, but most thought of him as a hilarious character (although for me personally, he was often so ridiculous that it took me out of the show to some extent). Frank was such an obvious and pathetic villain. Yes, of course, once a season or so there'd be some episode that would give a Frank or a Ted some more nuance, but for the most part they were cartoons. (And replacing Frank with Charles was, to me, an improvement because although Charles could be ridiculous and a villain, he came across as an actual human being).

Can you comment on finding this balance between a cartoonish side character built for laughs and as a foil, versus the need to have characters who are at least somewhat realistic people?

You’re right. It is a real tightrope we have to walk. There is the temptation to lean towards cartoonish because the laughs come so easily. But those characters can undermine the integrity and quality of your show if you’re not careful. To make them work you need (a) a truly hilarious character, and (b) a brilliantly funny actor to play him. If either a or b is missing, the character won’t work. And if you have a and b it still might not work. 

Frank Burns was a harder sell than Ted Baxter. You could almost buy that a news anchor could get by on looks and delivery alone. I’m sure there are local news producers who would insist idiots like Ted do indeed exist.

But Frank Burns, military incongruities aside -- it’s really hard to believe this guy was an actual doctor. And we made him so incompetent and stupid. I look back and cringe at times.   But dirty little secret – God, he was fun to write.

Larry Gelbart has even said on record that he regrets making the character so one-dimensional and takes the blame. He sympathized with Larry Linville’s frustration in playing Burns.

But I was at MASH when Linville left and was subsequently there for the development of Charles. And the first thing we did was make sure we didn’t repeat the same mistakes. Yes, Charles was the antagonist, but we made him super smart – in fact, a better surgeon than even Hawkeye. He was a worthy adversary. And his superior attitude felt real. Hawkeye and BJ might have felt he was a pain in the ass, but they had to respect him. There was no reason for anyone to respect Frank Burns, and that was the big problem.

What’s your Friday Question?

75 comments:

Hamid said...

I love Jewel of the Nile. It's not as good as Romancing the Stone, which was a hard act to follow, but it's still fun. How much of your and David's rewrite is in the finished film? Would I be right in guessing the Danny DeVito scenes are yours? I love this line:

"They threw me in a jail filled with rejects from the communicable disease ward. Every wacko, drippy, open-sored low-life was in that joint, all of them wanting to hire on as my proctologist."

Was that you and David?

Dan Ball said...

Thanks for the answer, Ken! I can't imagine having to rewrite a script in a weekend, even though I tried it last semester while writing the first draft of another. Looking back on it, I'm not really pleased with either, but I suppose you just have to go with it at some point.

I loved the last question today. Once MASH hits Netflix in a few days, I'll have to hit it up. I've had a hard time warming up to it over the years, but I loved the movie when I watched it a few months ago. Between that and the Ken Levine name being stamped on the credits, I gotta give it another chance. Frank vs. Charles is one aspect I intend to study for sure.

Working in news, I knew two anchors who were two separate parts of Ted Baxter. One was stuck on himself like Ted, but was really extremely intelligent. (He even had the cleft chin!) The other anchor tried to act as goofy as Ted on-air, but he was too smart for it in reality. And he was a good friend.

Carol said...

Regarding Frank Burns:

I read somewhere that one of the reasons Larry Linville left was because he felt that there was no real room for Frank to grow as a character, I guess without ruining that character. However, Margaret was able to mature, and Charles was an ally more than once to Hawkeye et. al.

Do you think if Larry Linville hadn't left, you might have been able to give his character more nuance, or do you think it would have ruined the character, since he really was such a good comic foil?

I'm thinking of the one episode when Margaret got engaged, and at the end, Frank and Hawkeye had a genuine moment together, where Hawkeye was laughing WITH him, not just at him. I always liked that moment.

James Prichard said...

I still think the character of Frank Burns worked very, very well, because I found him self-centered and insecure and childish, but not stupid. And Larry Linville played him beautifully. One of the greatest TV foils ever.

Bill O said...

It was nice to see one of those "repeat offenders" get a little appreciation. Charles Lane, after forty years, in the biz, was on Maude, taped before a live audience. As soon as he walked on, the audience applauded. They didn't know the name, but "It's HIM!!".

Johnny Walker said...

Frank Burns always make those early seasons difficult to watch for me. I too preferred Winchester. Anyone know which episodes that Frank became less buffoonish?

BTW: M*A*S*H is now on Netflix, but, cruelly, they haven't included the laugh-free audio track from the DVDs. Sigh :(

I have vowed never to watch another episode of M*A*S*H with a laugh track ever again.

Johnny Walker said...

Followup Friday Question: What ever happened to Avner Eisenberg? Every review of Jewel of the Nile at the time seemed to mention him as an amazing comic discovery.

Mike McCann said...

Charles Lane, much like the beloved Frank Nelson, was so much fun to watch because he had established an on-screen persona. You almost wonder how he was going to get under the skin of the star. Lane, whether with Lucy, Maude or Petticoat Junction always worked well as the gruff, humorless beancounter or miser (Mr Burns in the flesh). Nelson with that dripping (nearly flamboyant) sarcasm, could (and always did) steal a scene from anyone -- even the greats such as Benny, Hope or Ball.

Stoney said...

You know, for all his incompetence, I don't think we ever saw Frank Burns lose a patient on the operating table. Not that it would work to any comic effect but it does single him out from the other doctor characters on the show, Winchester included, who had to deal with that at one time or another. Probably the closest it ever got was when a near-fatal mistake of Frank's had to be corrected by another doctor and Frank would try to rationalize and justify or just laugh it off. He would probably have as much guilt about it as George Costanza had over the death of Susan Ross.

ScottyB said...

My favorite repeat offender on 'Law & Order: Criminal Intent' was Jay O. Sanders. He went from being a murderer to being the captain running the squad after Jamey Sheridan left the role. Pretty clever promotion, there.

McAlvie said...

First, I rather like it when I see actors I recognize crop up in shows. For shows like L&O with a bunch of new characters every episode, you aren't likely to remember the individual characters anyway, so it kinda adds interest to recognize a face every so often. Sometimes it even adds something to the role. If you are used to a character actor being the good guy, it's that much more striking when they play a character with a dark side.

As for Frank Burns, yes he was a shallow character, but Linville made the character believable anyway. And the older I get the mroe I realize that there are real Frank Burnses out there in the world. It's scary to realize how many people in authority are basically bluffing their way through.

btw, saw that MASH is available on Neflix now and watched the pilot this weekend. That show holds up!

Jeannie said...

Johnny Walker, Avner Eisenberg became "Avner the Eccentric." Saw him perform live several years ago. He was quite good. You can Google him to see clips of his post-"Jewel" work.

Oat Willie said...

There was a PBS special on "MASH" in the 80s and I remember a segment that had Linville explaining that he didn't like his character because it was a "comic contrivance". This was before PBS started censoring the word "shitty".
Any memories of that PBS crew while you were around, Ken? The show focused on the "tontine" episode.

Unknown said...

Living in Chicago, playbill bios were filled with actors who were on "Early Edition", now it has people who were on "Chicago Fire" and "Chicago PD"

Canda said...

I always though Jack Cassidy, who turned down the role of Ted Baxter, would have been perfect for the role - an egotistical narcissist, who is smooth enough to be a news anchor. Ted Knight was just way too cartoonish, and wasn't particularly handsome, or at least handsome enough to excuse his foppishness.

Bill O said...

Cassidy had more of an acidic, sarcastic edge, not as accessable as Knight. And Cassidy had just done his "Ted Baxter" turn in CBS' He And She.

Hamid said...

Is there any actor or actress from the last 80 years who HASN'T been on Murder, She Wrote? Watching a rerun of a Murder, She Wrote episode from the 80s is like watching an extended In Memoriam montage.

mmryan314 said...

This column is perfectly timed because I have been binge-ing on M.A.S.H. since last Sunday when it started on Netflix. The humor, characters, story lines, and actors are astounding. One of the funniest episodes so far, in my opinion,was written by Mcclean Stevenson. Teri Garr, a great comic actress, has also shown up as a nurse.And yes, Frank makes me cringe. The episodes have a lot of heart though.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

In regards to the second question, this is what I've been saying for years... I am so freakin' sick of Neil Patrick Harris, because he's everywhere and you can't get away from him! I give him credit, though, he's managed to avoid your typical sad story of former child stars who turn to alcohol, drugs, partying, thus throwing away their careers and losing their credibility as adults; NPH has managed to keep both his image and his career clean, and for that, I do have a great deal of respect for him... it's just his overexposure that drives me nuts.

Same with Steve Carell, he was everywhere for the longest time, and frankly, I really don't see him as a good actor... voice acting (like OVER THE HEDGE), he's actually pretty good, but on-camera, he's so stiff, wooden, and deadpan, he makes Vince Vaughn and Bob Crane look like Dick York. Jennifer Lawrence? Now that she's shoved in our faces all the time anymore, suddenly, THE BILL ENGVALL SHOW is a cult favorite just because she was on that show, and nobody even really watched or cared about it when it was on like ten years ago.

CarolMR said...

I believe Jack Cassidy played Ted Baxter's brother in an episode of MTM. Perfect casting.

Rick said...

"it’s really hard to believe this guy was an actual doctor"... and now we have Ben Carson. Seriously - whoever is writing his dialog should be shot.

Chris G said...

I watched the first episode of MASH on Netflix earlier this week and it struck me that you could do a really sympathetic take on Frank Burns - you've got this buttoned-down, serious, religious guy who's trying to serve his country in tough circumstances and finds himself overshadowed by clowns and against his better judgment having an affair that he knows is wrong and is worried he's not as good a surgeon as the guys who are making his life a living hell. It could have been neat to see an episode written where Frank was the protagonist (sort of like the "Zepppo" episode of Buffy more years ago than I care to remember).

Greg Ehrbar said...

A few thoughts:

I gotta say, most good characters actors are a welcome sight to me as a viewer because I know they'll deliver. But there are indeed very good actors, writers, producers -- virtually anyone striving for work in any business -- that are not considered because of time and risk. If they are attractive, it does give newbies a chance, though if a "normal" person stands out, they get breaks, too.

The people who become overexposed are superstars who already "have it all," so to speak. Not to deny the talents of someone like Matthew McConnaughey, but "allrightallrightallright," I'm wearying of watching him drive a car. Bring back Toonces!

My big issue with Ted Baxter was when he was downright mean and selfish. He could make life miserable for those around him. However, because of that, "Ted's Change of Heart" was a standout episode.

Alexandra Moltke played "sweet Polly Purebred" type Victoria Winters on DARK SHADOWS and gently refused to return to the role unless she could either become or be recast as a villain because, as she said, "MY character is so stupid" because she was generally clueless about all the vampires and ghouls surrounding her. Dan Curtis told he the viewers needed at least one "good" character to identify with.

Jack Cassidy was considered for the role of Ted. His "Jetman" character on HE AND SHE was a bit of a precursor.


ScottyB said...

OTOH, "those guys are everywhere" is pretty interesting in hindsight. The old Western-themed shows that Me-TV beats to death is especially good for this. Dabbs Greer is my favorite. We grew up with him as the good Rev. Alden on 'Little House On The Prairie', but he showed up a bazillion times as some sneaky, snaky sonofabitch on pretty much every TV Western there was during the 1950s/early '60s. It's pretty fun.

BigTed said...

The trouble with recognizable actors on procedural dramas is that first you say, "Oh, cool, it's that guy [or gal]!" But then you say, "Oh, he [or she] did it, for sure!" (Or in the case of "Law & Order," he or she did the bad thing that turned into the other bad thing.) And 80 percent of the time, you'll be right.

VP81955 said...

Glad you brought up William Schallert, to me the quintessential character actor. I interviewed him in 2002 when he was in New Jersey performing in a play, and it was the best two hours I've ever experienced. (He's also a former SAG president; his father Edwin was a longtime Los Angeles Times entertainment writer who with his wife Elsa wrote for many fanmags during the era of classic Hollywood). My interview with Bill is at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/190884.html.

As "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" developed, Ted Baxter's character gained more texture; he wasn't quite the blowhard he was in 1970, though he remained comedic relief.

Carolyn said...

After all this watching of MeTV, I have an appreciation of some character actors such as Royal Dano. He could be a really sleazy villain or a sympathetic good guy. (The Rifleman comes to mind.)

My favorite, though, is Leo Gordon. He was a great baddie, who wrote himself some good parts. From an article about Leo >> Two of his most memorable heavies were with John Wayne in “McLintock!” and “Hondo”. Leo recalled, “In the scene in ‘Hondo’ where he kills me down by the stream, I reach for my gun and he shoots me. I buckled up and pitched forward. Wayne hollered, ‘Cut! Cut!’ even though John Farrow was directing. Wayne says to me, ‘What was that? When you get hit in the gut with a slug you go flying backwards.’ I pulled up my shirt to show him where I’d really been shot in the gut (back when he was arrested for armed robbery). ‘Yeah? I got hit point blank and I went forward.’”

ScottyB said...

Friday Question for Ken: Were there any secondary actors or characters on any of the sitcoms you were involved with that you thought shoulda-woulda-coulda been expanded and given more of a role as a series went on, and potentially making the show even better as it progressed season to season?

I being this up because the station that shows 'Newhart' reruns is to the point where the entire series made a huge turn when Peter Scolari became a regular and Larry Darryl & Darryl became such a huge ingredient. Someone saw *something* in them when they showed up as pretty much one-shots, but the light bulb over someone's head went off.

Ralph C. said...

"The Rockford Files" would use the same actors as different characters throughout its run on NBC.

mrdj said...

The first repeat offender I became aware of was Allan Melvin on "The Andy Griffith Show", although he wasn't always the heavy. I checked on IMDb and found eight different characters from '62-'67, everything from escaped prisoner to hotel house detective. However, I remember him primarily as Cpl.Henshaw alongside Phil Silvers Sgt. Bilko.

ScottyB said...

@Carolyn: Funny you should mention Royal Dano (besides the fact that he had an awesome-cool name) and Westerns and Me-Tv. Just yesterday, Me-TV showed a rerun of 'Emergency'. Paul Brinegar (Wishbone on 'Rawhide') was in the hospital for something or other and his one visitor was Royal Dano (Gil Favor) was the one guy who came to visit him.

I thought it was a nice tip of the hat to 'Rawhide' and guys who made some pretty good TV inasfar as TV Westerns went.

ScottyB said...

Clarification to earlier comment: It must be a regional figure of speech thing here in Chicagoland. "Going off" means something being flipped on. So when I said "Someone saw *something* in them when they showed up as pretty much one-shots, but the light bulb over someone's head went off.", I meant it was one of those "eureka!" moments.

Dan Ball said...

I love William Schallert and Leo Gordon. I've yet to see a Gordon role that wasn't connected with "Maverick", though. Just from those spots on Maverick or Rockford, I liked his style. William Schallert's been in everything, but it's cool with him. Especially the Joe Dante movies he did.

ScottyB said...

Waxing nostalgic about 'Newhart', does anyone know whether this was a show that transformed naturally on its own with the same writers, or did the series suddenly change after the second season because an entirely different bunch were brought in?

I noticed then and I noticed now, tho, that the whole basic visual feel of the show changed markedly when they went from shooting on tape to film. Things became more warmer and more pleasant, and somehow more, I dunno -- "professional"?

Breadbaker said...

@Chris G.: That's basically what Robert Duvall did in the film. But that was essentially one episode and a much larger cast and once all that was covered, where do you go from there? Plus, he had the advantage of being Robert Duvall.

ScottyB said...

@Dan Bell: I've always loved William Schallert's performances no matter what he was in and no matter how many times he showed up a bazillion times. For me personally, I've always thought that, as an actor, you've totally got something if you keep getting asked to perform.

Which brings me to one of those little network sitcoms that didn't last very long but were still pretty good: 'The Torkelsons', which then morphed into 'Almost Home' and featured William Schallert.

Mike Doran said...

I'm a Fifties kid, growing up with TV Guide, looking through it each week to see which character actors were going to be on each series that week. I was also watching old movies in the afternoons, getting a kick out of seeing these same actors later that night in prime time series.
This current attitude of objecting to actors turning up in different roles in the same show seems to me to be a "modern day" phenomenon, and not a good one.
People nowadays (and not just young people) seem to have no sense of history. We are all the poorer for this.

SER said...

Re: Frank vs. Charles --

Ken referred to Charles Winchester as the "antagonist," which I think is a key point to his success. He wasn't a "villain," like Frank or the early version of Margaret Houlihan. Villains are almost always one-dimensional. Antagonists can be real human beings who simply view the world differently than our protagonist. My advice to writers has been to give your protagonist at least one unlikeable trait and flaw (Hawkeye's self-righteousness was a good source of conflict and a humanizing element) but also give your antagonist at least one likeable trait and admirable quality.

Charles was, as Ken noted, good at this job and genuinely cared about people beneath his gruff exterior.

And my God, the scene when Charles listens to the taped letter from his sister. It's a heart rending performance and he doesn't *say* anything.

@JohnnyWalker -- I think Frank became "less buffoonish" during the episodes when he "lost" Margaret. He was allowed to become a human being. He *loved* Margaret. As awful as Frank was, we can empathize with someone loving and losing.

Early episodes, you got the sense that he was just using Margaret and taking advantage of the fact that he was a "lone port in the storm for her." It was also clear that he was using his wife and had no real affection for her. He was a doctor for the money and was barely competent. And he put himself first above everyone else. It wasn't that he was one-dimensional. It was just that all his dimensions were bad. I think that a character like Frank *could* have worked, but he needed something for the audience to like and respect about him. He could be "regular army" and not like Hawkeye's attitude toward the service. He could even be pro-war but brave and willing to put his life on the line like the other soldiers. But they just made him a bigoted, cowardly hypocrite. This, I think, was my main issue with the movie, and is why I prefer the TV series.

One of my favorite M*A*S*H scenes is Frank's final scene when he looks wistfully at Margaret's departing chopper and whispers, "Goodbye Margaret." Larry Linville does so much with that moment that you know he was capable of doing a lot more with Frank Burns as a character.

Cap'n Bob said...

When I lived in the Bronx in 1965 my kid sister's friend babysat for William Shallert's kids. I forget her name but she was quite beautiful. And of course Shallert was a regular on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

ScottyB--are you saying Royal Dano played Gil Favor? It must have been after Eric Fleming died.

Aaron Sheckley said...

It's a relief to see that even Larry Gelbart felt that Frank Burns was too over the top. His character was far too cartoonish in relation to the other characters and, at his worst written moments, he would really take me out of the story. To Linville's credit though, he could really do something with the few moments he was given to be a real human being and not a caricature; I'll always remember how well he played that heartfelt moment when he said "Goodbye, Margaret" as she flew off with her new husband.

I could never stand the character of Ted Baxter; not because he is a blowhard and a buffoon, but because I couldn't sustain any willing sense of disbelief that the rest of the characters would ever be friends with him. Coworkers, yes, but I could never accept the premise that week after week, these other relatively nice people would put up with his cheapness, vanity, narcissism, and general douchebaggery to others, and still embrace him in their lives. I know it's a standard TV trope, but no matter where it's used (Dr Smith on Lost in Space is a good example), it always strikes a really false note with me, even if the character is funny.

Diane D. said...

The Frank Burns character always took me out of the story too, and I hated that. I really enjoyed Winchester even though he was a jerk, he seemed real.
It was easier for me to deal with Ted Baxter because I never saw any real ill-will in his "general douchebaggery" (OMG that's a funny word) and most of the time I found his cluelessness and the way others dealt with it hilarious.

MikeK.Pa. said...

Cap'n Bob:
Interesting that Jean Byron, who played Schallert's wife on THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, also played a teacher on DOBIE GILLIS.

I'm sure Mr. Schallert, whose most recent work was last year (at 92) on TWO BROKE GIRLS, would get a kick that he's been the object of a blog discussion.

CarolMR said...

I don't think Royal Dano ever played Gil Favor on Rawhide, but he guest-starred in a number of episodes.

chalmers said...


It might be my Simpsons-fan bias, but I think the key behind-the-scenes factor in "Newhart's" improvement was the emergence of David Mirkin.

And I refuse to let any discussion of '50s-'70s "That Guy" guest actors pass without a reference to Burt Mustin. Years ago, TV Land did 15-second inserts saluting him and a few others with similar careers. I was so glad that I finally knew his name rather than "the old guy with the droopy face."


chalmers said...

Once I read an Broadway actor's autobiographical notes in Playbill that read "So-and-so has actually NOT appeared in 'Law and Order!' "

DBenson said...

For a more recent example of the too-easy-to-write dumb character, see "Kevin" on "The Office."

The actor gave him a distinctive, not-as-cool-as-he-thinks-he-is voice. As time went on he became a magnet for dumb jokes. This reached a nadir when a new hire was told Kevin was retarded. She then related to him like a teacher relating to a backwards child, cheerily explaining to him how to work a vending machine.

"The Office" was all over the map on character development. Some evolved interestingly and believably; others drifted into surrealism. Michael Scott was the best case scenario, originally mirroring his unlikeable British counterpart and becoming a sympathetic character who was nonetheless still a pain in the neck.

Jonathan Tucker said...

Ken,

A friend was telling me about an old interview he read with someone who'd written for NIGHT COURT. This guy was talking about how the writers loved John Larroquette's Dan Fielding, but said the danger with a really great character like that is when you get together to pitch ideas, there's a tendency for everybody to come armed with ideas for Dan, almost to the exclusion of the rest of the cast, and that as a writer, you have to remind yourself, before you get reminded, that there are other characters on the show who need storylines, too.

The reason for this, he said (jokingly, I presume) is that writers are naturally lazy and will always gravitate toward the character or characters that are easiest to write for and will avoid whenever they can the ones who are difficult to write for. But, he said, that's not possible to do on sitcoms, which are often ensemble shows, where everybody gets a story from time to time. And even on star-oriented shows, you have to come with storylines from time to time that spotlight supporting characters.

Given that it's probably true that every sitcom is going to have some characters that are easier to write for than others, my question is this:

How do you, as a writer, handle it when you have to write for a character that, for whatever reason, writing for that character doesn't come easily or naturally to you?

DaveMB said...

Here's an interesting story of attempting to develop a TV show:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/02/what-i-learned-trying-to-write-a-muslim-american-cop-show-for-hbo/385186/?utm_source=nl__link8_020615

The Pakistani-American author worked with David Eggers on a show about a Yemeni-American cop in San Francisco. He wanted it to be both a family comedy and a serious cop show, and seems to have run afoul of HBO's desire that it be clearly one or the other.

Any perspective?

tavm said...

That second question reminded me of the movie I saw recently called The Thrill of It All in which the program Doris Day does live commercials for-and which is an anthology series with different characters every week-always has Carl Reiner in a different role and which even Day's children recognize him in! The fact that Reiner also wrote the screenplay was the topper for me especially when he includes this credit: Cameos by Carl Reiner.

kent said...

MASH is the only show I can think of where every time there was a major casting change the show got better. Potter for Henry, Charles for Frank, BJ for Trapper. All improvements. Things like that have killed other shows but MASH just got better. That has to be a tribute to everyone involved.

benson said...

OT...

Quite an honor for Ken...

Rolling Stone named Frasier best sequel.

But a grave injustice occured when AfterMASH was left off completely.

http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/lists/20-best-tv-spin-offs-20150205

Graham Powell said...

I seem to recall a MASH episode where Frank was getting ready to remove a patient's kidney, and someone (Trapper?) pointed to the X-ray and said, "Frank, he's only GOT one!"

That really shocked Frank and he spent the rest of the episode thanking Trapper.

Also, William Schallert has done some very distinguished work, including (I think) the mayor in the movie of IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. His conversation with Rod Steiger that starts off, "What changed your mind about Virgil?" was a classic.

Dixon Steele said...

There was an episode with Frank calling his mother looking for sympathy. He got very quiet and said softly, "They don't like me here either, Mom". It wasn't played comically and was quite poignant, possibly my favorite Frank moment.

One of the few times he was played as a real human being...

Johnny Walker said...

@SER Yes, I did enjoy those episodes. If I'm not mistaken they were the last few he was in, right? I kept watching after that, hoping that Linville would make one last appearance, but he never did.

I think I'll get back to ripping my M*A*S*H DVDs for my iPad so that I have videos without the laugh track, and start watching them again.

MikeN said...

James Best, Roscoe P Coltrane from The Duke Of Hazzard, appeared in several episodes of The Twilight Zone. Dukes of Hazzard had an underrated cast that doesn't get the credit of a West Wing.

Thomas Mossman said...

Watch Adam-12 on Netflix. He guested in a couple of episodes and even wrote a handful of them starting in Season 3, I think.

Thomas Mossman said...

I'm referring to Leo Gordon.

Cap'n Bob said...

I thought the poster who mentioned Royal Dano/Gil Favor was referring to another show, not Rawhide.

As for Kevin in The Office, I thought the story about Holly thinking he was retarded was hilarious and I wish it had gone on longer.

Scott said...

"You think I'm retarded?!?" is a classic line quoted frequently in my household.

-bee said...

I have to disagree about Frank's essentially evil character being a 'mistake'. There ARE actual sociopaths in the world and I don't see how it is wrong to dramatize that

When the show began, Frank and Margaret were both equally odious, but where Frank could not grow - Margaret could. I think this also points out a truth about human nature - some people can grow, some can't.

Frank was hilarious, but after a time his inability to change became repetitive. I think the show made the absolute right call to retire him with odiousness intact instead of trying to 'humanize' him.

I think it was also the right call to bring in a different kind of antagonist for Hawkeye, Charles was a great character too.

John said...

Dixon Steele said...

There was an episode with Frank calling his mother looking for sympathy. He got very quiet and said softly, "They don't like me here either, Mom". It wasn't played comically and was quite poignant, possibly my favorite Frank moment.

One of the few times he was played as a real human being...

2/06/2015 1:41 PM


That was the first show of the fifth season, which probably gave Linville's character the best turn of any of the episodes (they even let him get in a jab at Margaret with Hawkeye and B.J. in he final scene).

The problem was as the season went on with out a partner to oppose Alan Alda and Mike Ferrell's characters, Linville's Burns became not so much a villain as someone who was pathetic -- so pathetic Ken and David even did an episode where Hawkeye and B.J. pretended to fight on Frank's birthday just to make him happy.

There really was nowhere left to go with the character, and as t he tone of the episodes became more serious starting with Season 3, the Burns character was a bit of an anachronism. I'm not quite sure where they could have taken him in Season 6, if Linville had stayed on.

Enric Ortuño said...

Don't take my word for granted but as far as I'm aware he continued his career as Clown artist (with the stage name of Avner the Excentric) and made a living out of it, that it is something to be proud of.
I don't know if he still performs (he must have quite an age) but if you can, go and see his show "Exceptions to gravity", it is a masterpiece of Physical comedy.

Enric Ortuño said...

Sorry, the "Eccentric". That's for answering comments at 6am...

LA GUAPA said...

Frank Burns wasn't anything close to a 'sociopath'. He got nervous and fearful all the time (something real life sociopaths are unable to do).

Boomska316 said...

Friday Question:I always wondered in the MASH finale why they had BJ do the big send-off in he middle of the episode and then bring him back later?

Stephen Robinson said...

I have to disagree about Frank's essentially evil character being a 'mistake'. There ARE actual sociopaths in the world and I don't see how it is wrong to dramatize that

****

SER: The problem, I think, was that Frank wasn't a sociopath -- sociopaths are usually superficially charming, smart, and manipulative. Frank was a joke.

Arguably, reforming Margaret was a loss because the show lost a "regular army" antagonist who could oppose Hawkeye and BJ on legitimate philosophical grounds.

jbryant said...

I totally get that Frank Burns was a limited character and sympathize with Larry Linville's frustration with the role over time, but I must say I found Frank's comical consistency rather comforting as all the other characters developed layers. Making Frank more "sensitive" or "compassionate" would've been a disaster.

To his credit, I never noticed Linville letting his frustrations interfere with his performance; he was great in that role, especially when you consider that almost none of his pre-M*A*S*H credits were comedies. It's a shame that for all the Emmy love the show received they never nominated him even once.

Wayne said...

Reading Stephen Ambrose book The Wild Blue about George McGovern's WWII service flying 35 missions as B-24 bomber pilot.

On page 151, Ambrose says on 50th anniversary of VE Day, he was with Joseph Heller, B-24 bombardier and author of Catch 22.
Heller made astounding statement. "I never had a bad officer."

"But Joe, you created Major Mayor Mayor, Col Cathcart, General Dreedle, Lt. Minderbinder...How can you tell me you never had a bad officer?"

"They are all invention. Every single officer from when I went into the service to going to Italy to fly the missions to when I got discharged, every one of them was good."

Ambrose explains that weak, poor, inefficient terrible officers never got into combat positions. The AAF, the Army, the Navy, or the Marines got them out because lives depended on them.

LouOCNY said...

RE: Frank Burns: I just started going through MASH on Netflix, also, and here are a couple of thoughts. Early on, it sure seems like that they TRIED to establsh Burns not as totally incompetent, but just a suburban GP caught in a place he really shouldn't be. In Chief Surgeon Who?, Blake tells him, when Burns asks him if Pierce is a better surgeon, Blake answers, When the is on, yes!. To a couple of hot shot surgeons like Trapper and Haweye, he WOULD seem to be incompetent. And in the usually chopped tag, there is an OR scene, and it has Trapper asking Hawkeye for some help, but when he starts over to help Trapper, Burns quietly goes, "Pierce, I nee some help with this retraction", or something, and when Pierce goes over to help, he quietly asks Frank, "Ready, Doctor?", and we get the fade out.

THATS how they should have worked it, but as writers will do, they start going for the obvious joke whenever possible.

LouOCNY said...

Speaking of seeing the same people over and over, mention must be made about the Jack Webb Stock Company.

Jack had a habit of using the little group of people all the time - watch a random episode of DRAGNET 6X pr ADAM 12, and will guaranteed of seeing one or two of the following: Virginia Gregg....Art Gilmore...Art Balinger....Howard Culver...and yes, Burt Mustin. In fact, when A-12 was created, Webb just reached into his casting list - Kent McCord (McWhirther) had been in a couple of Dragnets, and Marty Milner had been on the 50's version, and then added William Boyett - who in and out of Mark VII, ALWAYS played cops - as their Sergeant.

cadavra said...

For hardcore types like myself, ubiquitous character actors like Charles Lane, Dick Miller, Edward Brophy, Jack Elam, Thelma Ritter, et al are like family--we're always happy to see them when they show up onscreen, and in theatres they're frequently greeted with recognition applause. There can be no such thing as "too much" of them.

Speaking of "Law and Order," whenever my friend and I go to a Broadway show, we play the L&O game: Before we open our Playbills, we have to guess how many cast members will list L&O appearances in their bios. Whoever comes in less close has to buy the cheesecake afterwards.

Stephen Robinson said...

First off, thanks everyone for letting me know MASH was on Netflix. I've never seen these episodes uncut!

I watched the pilot and "Officer of the Day" and I think Frank is a better antagonist when he's in command or at least has true power over Hawkeye. When he's sort of the angry older brother, he can come off as toothless and Hawkeye almost like a bully in high school for going after him.

-bee said...

>sociopaths are usually superficially charming, smart, and manipulative. Frank was a joke.

Well despite Franks 'unlikability' he certainly seems to have done OK for himself in the end.

But IMO 'sociopaths' are people incapable of empathy, and this was was Frank's major trait.

I don't think it is a 'requirement' of being a sociopath to be charming and likable. Look at Dick Cheney.

Dene said...

Frank Burns wasn't a particularly nuanced character, but he was perhaps the greatest comic antagonist of them all.

Tim Dunleavy said...

Larry Linville did an appearance at my college in 1986 - he basically told the (quite interesting) story of his life and did a Q&A, but he seemed pretty happy about it. (He also made a very funny - but very raunchy - ad-lib about the Student Union girl who ran the event.)

One story he told that I recall: Larry did one day of work on ROOM 222, produced by Gene Reynolds. Gene remembered him, and a few years later, when Gene suggested Larry to play Frank Burns, somebody said "You can't have Linville in a comedy - he's a villain." "He's not a villain," said Gene. The other person replied "Sure he is - did you see him on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE last week? He damn near killed Gregg Morris!"

The Student Union setup a 16mm projector to show an episode he'd brought with him - one that he thought showed off his talents very well. And that episode was... "Margaret's Engagement," the fifth season episode that's been mentioned by several of the commenters here. The man certainly did know his strengths.