Thursday, November 04, 2010

Adventures in pilot casting

The most important decisions you as a producer/creator/writer/whoever will make is casting. Everything else can be fixed. But the wrong people will kill you. On the other hand, the right people can send your project soaring. This is why networks today routinely replace actors in pilots. These decisions are often the result of testing but truthfully, actors are given a quick hook today if they don't score immediately in rehearsal.  Too quick in many instances, if you ask me.

Okay, on to THE MARY show.  You can see the pilot here.

We had several advantages while casting that show. We had a firm series pick-up. This made our project more attractive. Also, there was less network interference. We were asked to bring two choices for each role to CBS when we felt we were ready. And even then, in a couple of cases, we only came in with one person. The other big advantage we had was Molly Lopata, our extraordinary casting director.
Molly discovered Katey Sagal. Our other choice for the part was Kathy Bates, who was also marvelous but Katey just seemed so fresh. Kathy Bates survived the rejection by winning an Oscar. (Aside: You should see Katey in SONS OF ANARCHY. She’s amazing. As is Ron Perlman. And I love the fact that this series about bikers stars two Jews.)

Proud to say John Astin was my idea. We had been searching for months for the theater critic role. Lots of excellent actors came in and played him very pompous, and that was a major facet of the character. But the danger was he could become insufferable. John brought a sweetness, goofiness, and dignity to the role. John came in, started reading, said "Ed LaSalle" and that was it.  We knew he was the guy. We didn’t even bring him to the network. CBS approved him over the phone.

For the part of Lester, the shady guy that Mary’s friend Susan was engaged to, we pictured James Tolkin when we wrote the pilot. He too came in to read and was exactly what we imagined.  That's so nice... and rare when that happens.

Finding Susan wasn’t so easy. We must’ve read at least a hundred actresses including Sandy Dennis, Brenda Vaccarro, Susan Strassberg, and Janet Margolin. We had a wealth of riches. Ultimately, we went with Carlene Watkins who had been so funny in one of the great underrated sitcoms -- BEST OF THE WEST.

But the big challenge was Frank. He had to be handsome, charismatic, could hold his own comedically with Mary (not an easy feat), and be a potential love interest. Here too we read at least a hundred actors, maybe more. Robert Loggia, Jerry Orbach, Robert Vaughn, Ron Liebman (who played him “scary”, an interesting but disturbing choice) were among them. It seems like any leading man who starred in a series between 1965 and 1982 came in to read. 

James Farentino’s name was mentioned and honestly, we were skeptical. We had never seen him do comedy. Molly believed in him so we saw him and were very pleasantly surprised. So surprised that we didn’t believe it. We brought him back. He was even better.

But we were still nervous. Dabney Coleman’s name was mentioned. This intrigued us. Both David and I were huge fans of BUFFALO BILL (and if you haven’t seen it, Netlix it today!), knew he could pull off the comedy, but our concern was that he usually played villains. This character had to keep you guessing. Was he really a cad or just testing people to get the best out of them? We were relatively sure he could pull off the charm but we still needed to see it. Plus, we had never met the gentleman.

And here’s where it gets sticky. A few months before when we were looking for directors there was one we had our eye on. We had never worked with him but were fans of his work. We contacted his agent who said the director wouldn’t meet. We had to make him a firm offer first. To us that was ridiculous. We needed to see whether we were on the same page. The agent held firm. So we moved on.

Next we came up with Danny DeVito. He had directed some TAXIS at the time. Unfortunately, he had that same agent who told us the same thing as before.  No offer, no meeting.  We said fuck that. We knew Danny personally. He’s married to Rhea Perlman who we worked with for years on CHEERS. So we called Danny. He read the script, loved it, and wanted to do it. Now the agent calls us furious for going around him.

Anyway, guess who Dabney Coleman’s agent was. Yep. His client would not meet. There was no way we were going to say hello to our leading man for the first time at the table reading. The network was excited about Dabney. But we wouldn’t budge. Dabney didn’t have to read. Just meet with us, have a cup of coffee. The agent still said no. We enlisted Mary’s help. She had played tennis with Dabney. She called on our behalf and he really wanted to do the part but was entrusting the negotiations to his agent.

This was the day before we were going into production. At 5:00 we said we couldn’t wait anymore and went with James Farentino.

I’ll never know how Dabney Coleman might have been in the role but I think we caught a break. Jimmy was everything we wanted and much much more.

So that’s how we cast the show. Again, thanks to Molly Lopata. 

And here’s the epilogue: For the last ten years I see that agent in my gym. I know who he is and he knows who I am. You’d think it would be very awkward. But it’s not. We get along great. Yeah yeah, I know – that is sooooo Hollywood.


Steve said...

Great blog entries on Mary. The first time I saw Ken on TV, he was a talking head a few years back on some TV Land retrospective series. Don't remember the concept, but it was something about the Mary show.

Mac said...

Love it. I imagine chatting with the agent in the gym to be like a scene from The Larry Sanders Show.

gottacook said...

I didn't play the Mary pilot clips, but I believe that by James Tolkin you really mean James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland in Back to the Future).

Steve said...

Very interesting to read about the casting process. Ken -- have you ever discussed with that agent why/how he screwed that up with his ridiculous demands?

As I said in a comment to the post with the pilot episode embedded, I was expecting to like this but I really didn't find it funny at all. I literally didn't come close to laughing once. It was not stupid and annoying like so many other sitcoms, but this episode just wasn't funny. I am very curious to know what others think.

wackiland said...

"CBS approved him over the phone." Would that could happen now. Would that the network would trust a casting director to even look at someone not on a pre-approved list (forget showing that person to anyone, they aren't even allowed to LOOK these days).

Thanks again, Ken, for reminding us that there was a time when there was still some "show" left in "show business".

FilmBuffRich said...


What kind of online service is THAT?

Kirk said...

I think John Astin is one of the great underrated comic actors, perhaps the greatest underrated comic actor. If I haven't seen the opening credits of The Addams Family in a long time, I laugh at him just nodding his head.

Anonymous said...

I loved Best of the West!

DW said...

This just in from an interview with Jessica Alba in the December 2010 Elle magazine:
"Good actors, never use the script unless it's amazing writing. All the good actors I've worked with, they all say whatever they want to say."

By Ken Levine said...

How would she know? She's not a good actor.

Anonymous said...

Ok, maybe you get along great with that agent today, but I'd be curious how Dabney thought his career really panned out by that "strategy"....

A_Homer said...

John Astin is great, but he essentially plays John Astin. It's hard to actually place where he's from, he's got this slippery combination of voice, dialect, face, sort of Peter Lorre like. That being said, in this role he seemed to be ready for a career based on Fred Willard-type roles, but then none apparently came.

Skip said...

I too thought Farentino was very good in the role. One of my favorite lines from the show went to Tolkan -- he talks about losing his virginity at an early age and then says, with a shrug, "You grow up fast in the circus."

Bob Claster said...

It would be nice to get a reaction to what you've written from that agent, even if he had to post it anonymously.

And yes, BEST OF THE WEST was wonderful. Someone should dig up some of those forgotten treasures (anyone recall BAKERSFIELD, PD?) and air 'em occasionally.

Matt Patton said...

John Astin can be a very good serious actor as well. Many years ago now (1996, I think), I saw him when he was touring in a one-man show about Edgar Allen Poe. The first-act closer, when Poe talks about discovering that his beloved wife is dying, was a heart-breaker.

One bit from MARY I will always remember; Farrentino listing her many virtues as a reporter, smiling wistfully, and then adding "if only you were easy . . ."