Thursday, May 29, 2014

Could you play him "shorter?"

Casting is such a subjective and horrible process. My heart goes out to actors, especially character actors. Theirs is a life of constant rejection. And usually never knowing why. Someone thought they were too tall, their voice was too high, they had blue eyes instead of brown, they were too hot and it would be distracting. There are a million reasons why an actor doesn’t get hired and only one of those is that he didn’t give a good reading. Most of the time they are rejected for reasons they have no control over. “The next time you go in for an audition play him shorter.”

And if you are lucky enough to get a number of roles then that works against you because the producer will say, “We’ve seen this guy in everything. Can’t we find someone fresh?” Or if you’ve been overexposed on a commercial campaign. The good news is you make a fortune for awhile; the bad news is you can’t play a neighbor mom when everyone in the audience goes “That’s Flo from Progressive Insurance.”

Often there will be two or three actors who are equally good. Any one of them could get the part. So how do you choose? There have been many times when it comes down to literally a flip of a coin. How’d you like your livelihood to depend on a coin flip?

The toughest casting decision I ever had regarding a guest actor came while on MASH. We had an episode involving a USO troop and needed an accordion player.

Seven accordion players paraded into our office. All were great. All could play “Lady of Spain.” All were able to deliver the three lines. They all looked perfect.

There’s no seven-sided coin.

Somehow we selected one and I felt terrible. I kept thinking, how often do these guys get a casting call? Once every three years? Ten?  And what could they have done differently? Nothing.

Meanwhile, the lucky winner got to work two days. At SAG minimum, that’s probably less than a Polka wedding. 

This is why I never hired myself to do a guest role in any show I ran. In addition to the fact that I’m not very good, I always felt I was taking work away from a legitimate actor. It’s hard enough without idiot writers sticking their mugs on TV just for kicks.

The sad thing is I’ve written a couple of characters who were essentially me and actors have played me way better than I could.

So for all the character actors out there every day fighting the good fight, just know that it’s not you. Sometimes we reject ourselves too.


Kyle said...

For your next question blog re: "Frasier"... Why is it that the importance of Roz's job is unevenly depicted? For example, early on she is a producer with 10 years of experience in radio who is nominated for a SeaBee, then later Martin calls her Frasier's secretary? She's also temporarily replaced by Mary, a night school graduate getting hands-on experience in radio. I can't figure out if the job is legit.

Igor said...

Ken wrote: The toughest casting decision I ever had regarding a guest actor came while on MASH. We had an episode involving a USO troop and needed an accordion player.

Seven accordion players...


... paraded into our office.

Spit-take #2.

I wish I knew why "seven" was the perfect number for a gathering of accordion players, though any grouping >4 seems funny from that start.

Then "paraded"... My brother went to a school at which the marching band was a kazoo marching band.

Sure, Woody Allen playing the cello in his school's marching band was funny. Very funny. But not spit-take funny.

Thanks, Ken. Now, I must clean the coffee from my screen.

Mike Botula said...

I guess I'm just glad I never learned to play the accordion. When I did get called to read for a part, I always remember what a wise old friend used to tell me. "When you're working, put your best performance into every thing you do. Remember, you're always auditioning, even when your working." And, he said,"When you're told 'thanks, we'll call you. Just consider it a rehearsal for the next audition." That, thanks to my friend Bob Masson, got me through all of the rejection without totally crumbling into a heap.

Carol said...

the bad news is you can’t play a neighbor mom when everyone in the audience goes “That’s Flo from Progressive Insurance.”

Do they really though? Or is that just what 'Hollywood' thinks we do? Most people I know are happy to see actors we like doing other things.

Carolyn said...

>>And if you are lucky enough to get a number of roles then that works against you because the producer will say, “We’ve seen this guy in everything. Can’t we find someone fresh?”

I don't have cable, so I watch a lot of MeTV, AntennaTV and RetroTV. I noticed that not only did Leo Gordon costar in about every series made in the 50's, 60's and 70's, he wrote a lot of them, too. One of the greatest bad guys ever. :)

Doin' The Time Warp Again.... said...

Years ago, I either tried to suspend my disbelief or blur out the commercial in my mind when they played, but seeing familiar faces on them was definitely a distraction unless it was an actor playing themselves in an endorsement such as Sam Elliott. I'd get taken right out of the flow when I'd see Captain Picard's girlfriend playing the next door neighbor. However if it was someone I really liked such as Mariette Hartley or Anne Stiller & Jerry Meara who were doing a routine, I was just happy to see them. For years, I've streamed the medium and skipped the commercials.

For some reason, I never felt that way about seeing familiar faces on multiple TV shows or movies. As a mater of fact, it was a treat when that happened. It's fun to go back and spot young actors playing multiple roles before their careers took off.

Maybe it was because I invited TV to share my time and the commercials were simply an extraordinarily repetitive intrusion. JL

blinky said...

Seriously, what episode of Dick Van Dyke did you write? Friday question.

chuckcd said...

I had the same thought about the actress that plays FLO.
It's steady work, but will she ever get the chance to do anything else?

Jim S said...


You've been kind enough to share your casting stories, so thanks. But be honest, have you ever found yourself saying something like what is normally associated with the "suits" like he's perfect but my wife doesn't think he's sexy enough, or she's great, but I don't find redheads attractive?

If not, then what's the dumbest reason you've heard for rejecting an actor who was great at audition?


McAlvie said...

“We’ve seen this guy in everything. Can’t we find someone fresh?”

The irony is that the audience really doesn't care. Sometimes it's fun to see a familiar face. If the writing is good and the actor is good, you might be half way through before it occurs to you that there's something familiar ... But I certainly never stopped watching anything because I recognized the actor. If Flo from Progressive can act you'll forget about that pretty quickly, so what does it matter?

Unknown said...

Naturally I have to ask what characters on which show were based on you Ken?

PNW Corey said...

Hey Ken,

Jim S. just gave you a great blog story-line.
"what's the dumbest"...thing you've seen, heard, did, saw, etc.

tim said...

I don't even want to see Flo in a Progressive commercial again. I don't want to see another insurance commercial again. There must be some reason to make irritating insurance ads then play them forever. "It's Jake. From State Farm."

Anonymous said...

You alluded to a topic that is worthy of consideration. People in performances who can't play themselves as well as somebody else could play them.
Jackie Robinson
Muhammed Ali
Alan Arbus (good on MASH but not good enough to play Diane Arbus's husband in a biopic)
I'm sure there are others

Pat Reeder said...

For me, one of the pleasures of watching reruns on Antenna TV is recognizing all the character actors who turn up over and over, often in different roles on the same show. Guys like Charles Lane, Steve Franken, Jesse White (who also became known for a commercial campaign as the Maytag Repairman) and Vito Scotti. I think there must've been a law in L.A. that if you wrote an Italian character, he had to be played by Vito Scotti.

On the subject of dumb reasons to reject actors, back when I was writing industrial videos, we produced a series of sales training videos for a big greeting card company that required a lot of actors. They let me sit in on the casting sessions, but the director ignored my input. That's how one woman who gave by far the best read was rejected because they didn't like that her hair was up that day, and another actor who was clearly the best was passed over because they didn't like the tie he wore to the audition. My pleas that ties and hairdos were easily changeable fell on deaf ears. So I went back into radio, where you can have long, shaggy hair and no tie at all and still play Franklin Roosevelt.

Jay said...

Friday question:
Hi Ken,
I've heard and read all about how rough writers' rooms can be, and that if one wants to be a working TV comedy writer, one needs to have a thick skin and be prepared for anything. What's been your experience with a fellow writer (or, maybe it's been you) who's going through a rough time (read: depressed) and may be a little more sensitive to things? Did his or her fellow staffers been sympathetic or just see this more fodder to throw around the room?

I ask because I am going through a rough time right now and am prone to depression from time to time. I'm not a working TV writer but one of those aspiring types. I know me, and I know that when I'm feeling good and confident in myself and my abilities as a writer, I'm sharp and on the ball with a good balance of being amiable but with an edge. But during my downturns, I'm much more sensitive and distracted than I'd like. So this makes me question, do I have the personality to make it in a comedy writers' room.

Thanks for your time!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I'm currently reading a book I saw suggested here, MAYBE WE'LL HAVE YOU BACK, so this posting is right on point.

However, re commercials there's an easy solution: do *foreign* commercials. Anthony Stewart Head, Rupert Giles on BUFFY, had done quite a series of very popular and well-known ads for Taster's Choice coffee when he was cast. Americans didn't know the difference; my British friends found it a little weird, for about the first 15 minutes.


Brian said...

I would like to add that I also read "Maybe We'll Have You Back" by Fred Stoller and enjoyed it. A good inside look at show business.

D. McEwan said...

"The sad thing is I’ve written a couple of characters who were essentially me and actors have played me way better than I could."

A playwright friend of mine once wrote a play in which he based a character on me. I auditioned for the role, and lost it to another actor. I saw the play, as the author's guest, opening night, and damn it, that guy DID play me better than I did.

Breadbaker said...

Dick Van Dyke went off the air when Ken was 16 years old. Unless he's lied in his autobiography, he wasn't exactly writing television shows at the time. Oh, and you should buy his book so he doesn't have to repeat the plug for it (can you tell I've been around her for a bit? Of course, MY copy of his book was autographed by him at Safeco Field).

Anonymous said...

Thanks for being on the right side of a pet peeve of mine. I do pay attention to the end credits, and do notice when writers are forced-fed into an episode because of their connections, and usually it's painfully apparent because they don't have the acting chops and it shows. They're usually quite stiff, and don't listen to the other actors. I guess it's quite a different experience being on the other side of the camera.
It also seems like the height of cynicism, and lack of respect for your audience if you force in a writer instead of an experienced actor for your own shits and giggles.

mmryan314 said...

@breadbaker- I agree with you about Ken's book 'Growing Up In The 60's'. Wherever one grew up, the book nailed it. I was part of the youth culture at UW- Madison in the 60's. In 2011 I had the opportunity to rejoin the protest movement when the Wisconsin Governor took over. Memories- all good and good reasons and we survived.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The opening of TOOTSIE has a perfect montage of this - Dustin Hoffman being told we're looking for...

...someone younger, older, taller, shorter...different.

"I can be different!"

"We're looking for somebody *else*."

the captchas really have become completely unreadable now.