Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Firing actors

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.)

There have been times when we’ve had to replace guest actors. Sometimes it’s not their fault. The scripts were too long and their parts were just cut.

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.


Hamid said...

Obviously, if you’re firing two people a day your set becomes Shutter Island

It's gems like this that keep me coming back to this blog every day.

Regarding good actors who were fired, an example of a good decision and a bad decision:

Good one - Replacing Eric Stoltz with Michael J Fox in Back to the Future. Stoltz is a fine actor but doesn't have Fox's likeability and warmth.

Bad one - Michael Keaton being fired from The Purple Rose of Cairo. I do love that film and Jeff Daniels is great in it, but I'd have loved to see what Keaton would've done in the role. Then again, I AM biased, as I'm a huge fan of his and think he should be cast in at least 95% of the films made every year. He's also the definitive Batman. So there, Bale fans.

LouOCNY said...

One of the best cast replacements ever was when Taxi replaced Randall Carver with Christopher Lloyd. A very bland character replaced with with well, the total opposite!

Mr Pond said...

By cheerful coincidence, I was just re-watching this hilariously on-topic gem from A BIT OF FRY AND LAURIE. "I'm having the most terrible difficulty firing somebody..."

RyderDA said...

I'm not in the entertainment biz, but it's truisms of all industries like:

If someone needs to be replaced, the rest of the (staff) knows it too. If you take action you send a message that you’re really looking out for them. And if the replacement (person) is better then everyone’s performance is elevated.

that keep me coming back to this blog every day -- a reminder that TV is a business like any other. Only with cuter people.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Of course, the guy sending Christmas cards for ten years may have been engaging in a much more subtle form of revenge.


Scooter Schechtman said...

Think of this post as a roman a clef. Clues, clues...uh, "square peg in a round hole" Square Pegs! You fired Sarah Jessica Parker! Or Jami Goetz!

Brian Phillips said...

I know of one firing that occurred because this person, a guest star, would have been in the final shot. One of the stars' agents balked and insisted that their client be included in the final shot, whether it made sense to the story or not. This meant that the guest had to go.

Canda said...

While not a firing, I always wondered what the Mary Tyler Moore Show would have been like if Jack Cassidy had not turned down the role of Ted Baxter.

I believe the character would have been less buffoonish, and more real as an overbearing narcissist.

Dan Ball said...

After the tongue-guy story, all I can picture from this post is a series of sketches on SNL where a struggling actor always self-sabotages his big breaks by doing something stupid. Tonguing the star, trying to photobomb the final shot, stealing the stars' thunder, doing unauthorized product placement for absurd crap, live-tweeting while cameras are rolling, etc.

I'm sorry, but tongue guy has me rolling over here. The fact that someone would have the cojones to do that! Brilliant.

You tell some of the best stories, Ken. Again, you've given this industry more depth than I could've hoped to learn otherwise.

Tongue guy...lol

Mike said...

@Dan Ball: Except, in an SNL sketch, the struggling actor would have to do exactly the same stupid thing every time. Otherwise, it wouldn't be a rubber-stamped SNL sketch.

DBenson said...

What I sort of wonder about is when a character is written out of a show, and his/her departure is explained with reference to uncharacteristic bad or stupid behavior.

I remember being a bit shocked when "Mork and Mindy" introduced Georgina Engel as the bride of Mork's eccentric friend, and a few episodes later had the friend casually say "When my wife left me . . . " Would our Georgina do a thing like that? Especially after the show set her up as an endlessly patient and understanding sweetie? That one I chalked up to a hasty and sloppy patch after she didn't work out as a regular. "Mork and Mindy" wasn't a show to dwell on a breakup.

When "Veronica's Closet" dropped a character clearly brought in as Veronica's romantic interest, he was retconned as a jerk when the character's bimbo widow was introduced. A neat device to introduce a new character, or a desire to not only to kill off the old character but any goodwill the audience had for him?

In contrast, Major Burns' off-camera exit from "MASH" was precisely in character; there was no effort to make the audience think better or worse of him. If memory serves, Burns even landed in a cushy stateside job.

Do writers / showrunners ever succumb to the temptation to chew up a departing character because they didn't like the performer, or the circumstances of his/her exit? Or to retcon a departing character as a nice guy because they DID like the performer?

Anonymous said...

Ken -

FYI, over at "Gawker," they've posted writers' salaries for cable and network. http://tinyurl.com/l7njdr6

Dixon Steele said...


I was also a Jack Cassidy fan, but I think it's that very buffoonish quality that made Ted Baxter so memorable. Cassidy was wonderfully waspish, but that wasn't Ted Baxter.

As good as Cassidy was, I don't think anyone could've improved on Ted Knight.

Dale said...

Firing people is necessary at times. I recently had to fire a guitarist. It simply was not working and the ensemble must come first. The livelihood of the group must take priority. The gentleman in question was hurt, but had been made aware a month before that he needed to lift his game. He failed to do so.

Finding the right group of people is not easy. In this case rehearsals are unpaid. People only get paid for gigs. Under these circumstances it is a win just to get 6 people in a room at the same time. That becomes increasingly difficult when a member lags behind or has a bad attitude.

I have been fired once. That it was due to my being injured hurt, in more ways than one. I missed a tour because a leader thought I was involved with a dancer. That was just bad luck. On both counts. :-)

Hank Gillette said...

Do writers / showrunners ever succumb to the temptation to chew up a departing character because they didn't like the performer, or the circumstances of his/her exit?

When McLean Stevenson left M*A*S*H, it seems that the episode was written in such a way to make sure the departure was permanent.

DBenson said...

HG: I know there's a story that the death of Henry Blake was partially to block a spinoff show of the character (Trapper John left alive; a few years later his name was tacked on an unrelated medical series), but the Blake character went out beloved.

I was curious about those occasions where they didn't just close the door, but seemed to want the audience to lose affection for the character in the bargain.

Cap'n Bob said...

I worked for the government for 32 years. What's firing? As for tongue guy, he should have been credited for his realistic performance.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I had heard that Trapper John MD, was based on the movie Trapper John (Elliot Gould), not the TV show Trapper.

Jean said...

Radio is insane. I don't understand it. The decisions made are so out of whack with reality.

Many years back, when Howard Stern was still on "terrestrial radio", here in San Francisco we had a morning drive lady named Darian O'Toole on a FM rock station. She was the number one drive time person, even beating Howard, sort of.

At the time, Stern was on low wattage station out of San Jose, and most of the San Francisco market couldn't receive it.

Didn't stop the radio station from touting it, though. Darian took full advantage of it, getting some acting gigs and comedy gigs. She even got a got great write up in the local paper with the cover of the Sunday entertainment section, the Pink Pages -- her star was rising. The world was her oyster.

About a month after the cover of the "Pink Pages", the stations changed formats -- they went R&B/soul.... and she got the boot.


This was actually the first time I got see this insanity in action, and I've seen it a number of times since....

iain said...

Do writers / showrunners ever succumb to the temptation to chew up a departing character because they didn't like the performer, or the circumstances of his/her exit?

Just a hunch, but I think Chuck Lorre might have have had this in mind when it came to to Charlie Sheen:


"His body just exploded like a balloon full of meat."