Monday, October 28, 2013

Switched at birth of pilot

It’s not unusual for there to be major changes during the production of a TV pilot. I’ve helped out on many, coming in to do punch up, and I’ve seen pretty much everything.

Characters change. On Tuesday the best friend suddenly becomes the sister. At the first table reading mom and dad are both present. By mid-week dad had died ten years ago and it's just mom. The scene at the coffee shop is gone replaced by one at a bank and the waitress is now a teller.

Actors are fired and hired all the time.  It's quite frankly brutal (and often unnecessary). I helped out on one pilot where a new actor was hired every day to play one particular role. It was a horribly written role. 

But the strangest pilot I worked on was this:

I think it was about two married couples and the guys worked together. It’s been a long time and the pilot didn’t go. Patrick Warburton was one of the guys. I had never seen him before but remember thinking, “Wow! This guy is a find!”

The runthruogh was uneven and the assembled writers went back to rewrite and eat Red Vines late into the night.

Traffic was bad the next day so I arrived for the runthrough just as it was about to begin. The first scene was a married couple in bed. Except now Patrick Warburton was in the bed. I thought, “This is weird? We’re now saying that Patrick is sleeping with his best friend’s wife?” The dialogue was pretty much what we wrote last night. Not only was there no explanation of why these two people were having an affair, the dialogue made no sense in this new context.

After the scene I cornered the creator to ask, “What the fuck?” That’s when I learned that the decision was made after we had left the night before to just flip Patrick and the other guy. So now Patrick was her husband.  Yeah, that's fine, Patrick's funnier, but the problem was that these were two very different characters. So the rest of the runthrough was completely weird. Imagine Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer just switching roles one week on TWO AND A HALF MEN.

When something doesn't work is it because the joke is bad, the actor didn't deliver it well, you don't believe that actor having that attitude, or you just remember it better yesterday with the other guy saying it? 

The rewrite that night was insane. I wasn’t the only one confused. The creator would say, “We need a line for Fred,” I’d pitch something and he’d say, “No, that’s a Gary line,” and five writers would say, “Which one is Gary again?” We couldn’t keep the two actors and the two characters straight.

Like I said, the show never aired. Whose decision it was to make the flip I do not know (but I suspect the network).  I totally forget who played the other guy and clearly Patrick Warburton has gone on to prove he’s a gifted comic actor.

Actors switching roles is not unheard of certainly. It happens in the theater a lot, especially if there is a company of actors. The director will mix and match until he arrives at the best combination. And there have been cases on Broadway where two stars will just flip roles. Art Carney and Walter Matthau did that in the original ODD COUPLE. But I had never seen it in a pilot.

Thank goodness one of the characters didn’t also have multiple personalities. I’d probably still be in that writing room trying to figure it out.


Dan Ball said...

I remember reading the other day that Bea Arthur was originally hesitant to do GOLDEN GIRLS because she felt like Betty White and Rue McClanhan would be playing too close to their previous roles on MTMS and MAUDE, so Betty and Rue swapped roles on the pilot. Betty became Rose the Clown and Rue became Blance the Man-Chaser. That totally worked for Bea and TV history.

Mike said...

Rachel and Monica switched actresses I think. Definitely Courtney Cox was supposed to be Rachel, and she decided she wanted Monica instead.

Dave said...

Mike: "she" decided? Since when do actors who aren't the heavyweight must-have star get to choose their own roles?

Bill said...

Another great "switch" occurred in the Sam Shepard play True West when Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly switched parts every other night during its run on broadway.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Dave: They may not make the final decision, but if an actress says to a casting director, I feel more at home with Rachel/Monica than the part you've cast me in, don't you think they'll consider listening?

In this case, I believe *both* actresses agreed they felt more comfortable playing the other character. And, as history has shown, they were right!


RCP said...

I read recently that Gavin MacLeod had been the first choice to play Lou Grant but as he told the producers, he couldn't believe himself in that role and felt he could do more with the role of Murray Slaughter.

In real life, according to Rue McClanahan, she was the demure one and Betty was the sexpot.

Paul Duca said...

Walter Matthau WANTED the role of Felix, because he considered it more of an acting challenge.

Mark said...

A couple more for you:

From Wikipedia:

"According to an introduction to [Ride the High Country] on Turner Classic Movies, the original casting was for McCrea to play the Gil Westrum part and Randolph Scott to play Steve Judd. After reading the script the two men agreed that a switch of roles was in order."

"Its world premiere was at the Royal National Theatre on 5 February 2011, where it officially opened on 22 February. This production is directed by Danny Boyle[1] with a cast including Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, with the two lead actors alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. Frankenstein ended its run on 2 May 2011"

Anonymous said...

I've always heard that William Hopper was supposed to play Perry Mason, and Raymond Burr would play Paul Drake, and they were switched on the first day of filming.

chuckcd said...

And Ray Bolger and Buddy Ebsen switched roles for the Wizard of Oz, but Buddy had a bad reaction to the silver makeup and was hospitalized.
Jack Haley then replaced Buddy Ebsen.

D. McEwan said...

Yes, such role-flipping does sometimes occur in the theater. I have a rare copy of the theater program for the legendary production of Romeo & Juliet where Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud alternated the roles of Mercutio and Romeo each night.

I saw the National Theater production of Frankenstein where our two current Sherlocks, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch, alternated roles. The night I saw it Benedict was the monster (A much larger and more-intersting role in that version; Dr. Frankenstein is barely in Act I at all) and Miller was Dr. Frankenstein. I tried also to get tickets to see it the next night also with the roles switched, but that night was sold out.

In one of my very favorite movies, The Comedy of Terrors, at almost the last minute it was decided to have Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone switch roles. The reason always stated for this switch was that Karloff was not in good enough physical condition to handle the part. (It is always stated that it was Karloff's suggestion to switch the roles.)

This does not hold water, since it is quite clear in the finished movie that most of Rathbone's physical work was handled by a double (as was much of Peter Lorre's in the same movie). Indeed, in much of Rathbone's most-physical scenes, he is not photographed above the waist at all, though there is not supposed to be any mystery as to who is wielding the axe about the house. And Rathbone did, in fact, die well before Boris Karloff.

What is inarguable is that the role Rathbone played in the finished film was a much-better role for him, making superb use of his magnificent voice, while Karloff is clearly better cast in the role he plays in the finished film. (Where his reading of the line: "Yanked their brains out with a hook," has made me laugh every one of the dozens of times I've watched this delightful farce.) Mentally switch their roles and the movie loses a good deal.

Pamela Jaye said...

not a swap perhaps but I'm reminded of Ellen Pompeo's recent comment about Isaiah Washington was up for the role of Derek, and she "didn't want him" (as if it were her choice to make) so Patrick Dempsey was Derek and Isaiah was... well he was still in the show. Putting that info together with what Isaiah said on Larry King (after he was fired and could actually say anything), it's a bit easier to see why things blew up there.
(I believe Ellen's desire not to be in an interracial couple on the show was that it was "too close to some." Literally. Her husband, (to be, at the time) Chris, is black.)

At the time of the Larry King interview, I thought IW was just too big for his britches - trying to take over the role of whichever AD is responsible for the actors being there on time. But I guess he was pissed off at being passed over as the star...

Winky Orlando said...

Mark: The motivating factor behind the switch in "Ride the High Country" was that both men, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, were planning to retire. (Scott never acted again; McCrea went on to narrate a documentary and make a cameo in one of his son's movies, before playing a lead once last time in a 1976 movie.) Because McCrea was considered the more versatile actor, the producers wanted him to play the morally compromised Judd, and Scott to play straight arrow Westrum. However, McCrea did not want to end his career playing a turncoat, while Scott took the position that he had played guys like Westrum a couple of dozen times before and this was his last chance to play something different.

Winky Orlando said...

thesoundofonehandtyping: I have never seen that claim before, but I have read an interview with Erle Stanley Gardner (author of the Perry Mason books) that directly contradicts it. He said that his contract gave him approval of the cast. The producers wanted Van Heflin or Fred MacMurray as Mason. Raymond Burr was approached to play Hamilton Berger (presumably because of the similarity to his role in "A Place in the Sun"), but he insisted on being allowed to audition for the role of Mason as well. This was intended as a mere courtesy, but when Gardner saw the audition, he stood up and shouted "That's him! That's Mason!"

Winky Orlando said...

I was going to add, as an example of role swapping in the theater, the famous story about the original Broadway production of Jean Anouilh's "Becket." Laurence Olivier played Becket, and Anthony Quinn played King Henry II. Supposedly, towards the end of the run, they were both feeling bored, so they decided to swap roles--decided between themselves, without telling anyone; the rest of the cast (and, indeed, the rest of the world) learned of this only when the curtain went up that night.

However, I thought to search for verification of this on Google first, and of course I learned that it never happened. The truth is more banal: Quinn left before the run finished, and the producer decided to have Olivier take over his role and bring in a new actor (Arthur Kennedy) to play Becket. Oh, well.

LouOCNY said...

one of the classic Marx Brothers legends is this:

For the first two films the brothers did for Irving Thalberg and MGM, A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES, they would have the movies basically plotted and scripted, and then take it 'on the road'; where they do several vaudeville type shows a day to sharpen the gags/timing of the key comedy scenes in the movie.

The legend is that in say, Salt Lake City, Chico's 18 year old daughter came to visit. She faithfully attended every show - except - in the middle of her visit, she decided skip a show and go shopping. Bad idea - she comes back to the theater when that show was over, and both Chico and Harpo were unusually anxious to ask her how the performance was. When she said she had went shopping, they were crestfallen - it seems, just for her, for that one show only, they had switched roles!! Betty Marx always said after that it was the biggest mistake of her life!

VP81955 said...

I have read an interview with Erle Stanley Gardner (author of the Perry Mason books) that directly contradicts it. He said that his contract gave him approval of the cast. The producers wanted Van Heflin or Fred MacMurray as Mason. Raymond Burr was approached to play Hamilton Berger (presumably because of the similarity to his role in "A Place in the Sun"), but he insisted on being allowed to audition for the role of Mason as well. This was intended as a mere courtesy, but when Gardner saw the audition, he stood up and shouted "That's him! That's Mason!"

Gardner had not been happy with the Perry Mason films Warners made in the mid-1930s (about half a dozen were made, and pre-Code fave Warren William played Mason in four of them). Gardner believed the cinematic Mason was too much a Nick Charles clone and the character was too comedic. There was a Mason radio series in the '40s which Gardner had more input into (I forget who played Mason on radio), and when the TV series was prepared, he worked closely with producer Gail Patrick (yep, the woman who played scheming sister Cornelia in "My Man Godfrey") and the series became a long-running hit.

Another famous role switch came in William Wellman's "The Public Enemy," when Edward Woods was persuaded to swap parts with the guy who had been slated to play his actor named James Cagney. You know the rest.

estiv said...

I heard somewhere that Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty switched roles before filming started on Ishtar. Not sure it would have made much difference to the film's financial prospects if they hadn't...

DBenson said...

Another recasting story: For "Stanley and Livingston" (1939) they had Tyrone Power slated for the star part of Stanley. They sent a second unit to Africa to shoot footage with a stand-in, selected for his resemblance to Power and imitating Power's walk. Back in Hollywood, the studio dropped Power in favor of Spencer Tracy. So after going to the trouble of matching expensive second unit footage so closely to Power, they were only able to use the bits where the stand-in was really far from the camera.

On the flip side, a planned Abbott & Costello comedy, "Fireman Save My Child," had already shot stunt footage when Costello had to bow out for medical reasons. So to save the stunt footage -- a big part of A&C movies with the comedians growing older -- Universal replaced Bud and Lou with standup comic Buddy Hackett and straight actor Hugh O'Brian -- roughly the same physical types as Bud & Lou.