Thursday, March 09, 2017

Casting decisions -- good and bad

Here are some Friday questions by reader Jim S. following a recent piece on casting.  I thought it would make a good stand-alone post.

How did you learn how to do it? What was the best bit of casting you did? The worst?

There’s no way to “learn” how to cast. It’s just a matter of judgment. You do have to develop a sense of putting an actor’s reading in perspective however. Sometimes great actors give lousy auditions and other times mediocre actors shine in auditions. You try to see through that. It's not easy. 

I don’t buy the notion that you should excuse an actor for being nervous. If he’s nervous now imagine how he’ll be in front of a camera or camera and studio audience.

But when an actor gives a tepid reading you have to determine if that’s the best he can do, or if it’s worth giving him an adjustment and letting him do it again? I’m always open to that. I just don’t want to miss someone because I was too hasty in dismissing them. You get a feel for that over time.

It's tough for actors because they they're shooting at a moving target.  They get their sides (their scene to read) and try to determine from those few pages just who this character is and how he should be played.  Sometimes they'll read and you like a certain quality the actor brings but he was off-the-mark.  You then give them an adjustment and sometimes they'll hit the bullseye.  I always think it's a good idea for actors to ask the producers before their reading if there's anything they should know, or any particular way they see this character.

But even then you have to be open.  You may see a character one way and an actor comes in who is not at all what you pictured but gives a really fascinating reading.  You have to be willing to consider the possibility that this new way to go is better than what you envisioned. 

As a producer, I try to make actors as comfortable as I can when they come in to read. I want them to do well. It’s in everybody’s best interest. I don’t understand producers who just sit behind desks scowling. But I don’t think I “learned” that. That’s just common sense to me.

Best casting? I guess Tom Hanks and John Candy in VOLUNTEERS. Nancy Travis was pretty inspired for ALMOST PERFECT. And both John Astin and Katey Sagal for THE MARY SHOW.

I’m not going to say who the worst was because I don’t want to embarrass anybody. But there have been times when I’ve had to fire actors, and in a few cases it was because I was way off-base in hiring them for that part in the first place. Like I keep saying, casting is an inexact science.

Were you ever forced to take someone that turned out to be great? Terrible?

On AfterMASH the network insisted we take Wendy Girard and she was fabulous.

Again, I don’t want to name names but a network forced us to take a certain actor to star in a pilot and he was terrible. He pretty much killed the entire project.

So it happens either way.

Did you ever consult with your wife? Your rabbi, your bowling buddies?

Not really. Unless an actor is on tape, my rabbi, wife, etc. doesn’t have the chance to see them. I may run a name or two by them to get their reaction, but generally I have to rely on my partner or the other people in the room who saw the reading.  My bowling buddies don't know shit. 

Trust me, there are many times I just don’t know and I really appreciate the feedback from others whom I trust. Having a good casting director also helps a lot. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some of the best. A shout out thanks to Sheila Guthrie, Jeff Greenberg, Sally Stiner, Barbie Bloch, Steve Kolzak, Molly Lopata, Sandi Logan, and Michael Donovan.

What's your Friday Question regardless of what day it is?


Peter said...

One of the worst casting decisions EVER was Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane in Superman Returns. Granted, it wasn't a great movie, but her Lois was really cold, unlikeable and unpleasant.

Nothing against Bosworth. She's a terrific actress, but was totally miscast.

Bill in Toronto said...

Ken, a couple of Friday questions.

1. Why doesn't a flailing network like NBC or Fox hire proven showrunners like the Charles Brothers or a somebody with some drama successes to greenlight its program schedule, rather than "execs"?

2. I've stocked up on protein shakes and Gatorade and now am 2/3 through Powerhouse (the CAA book). Did you post a review?

VincentS said...

Sure you're being fair to your bowling buddies, Ken?

VP81955 said...

At the time you cast Katey Sagal (some two years pre-Peg Bundy), she was probably better known in the industry as being related to the twins from Iowa on a short-lived NBC sitcom from 1984.

And were you really in a bowling league, or was that simply a figure of speech? When I lived in Washington in the early '80s, I was in a league, and one of the others in it were Jody Powell, Jimmy Carter's former press secretary, and his wife. Good people.

Mike Barer said...

When I think of casting, I think of the divergent characters that Betty White played in TV comedies. She was the man hungry hussy on Mary Tyler Moore, than the prudish senior on the Golden Girls. I think it really spoke to her versatility as an actor.

Glenn said...

I agree with Peter about Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns but I have to add Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor to that list. Great actor, but for me, but he totally missed the mark on this one.

Steve Bailey said...

Friday Question: I'm currently enjoying Katey Sagal's supporting turn in "Superior Donuts." It struck me that she's been in quite a lot of shows (though I'm sure you can say the same for many actors). How do actors -- and, of course, those behind the camera such as yourself -- deal with getting chemistry going with an ensemble for several seasons, only to have to shut down and start over when a series is cancelled?

Bryan said...

Ken, Friday question for you. Have you been watching This is Us? If so, I wonder what your opinion is, especially in terms of a second season. While the show can certainly border trite at times I have really enjoyed it and have been sucked in by the characters. However, as the season 1 arcs are closing I am starting to doubt they could pull of that same kind of thing next season. Did the show peak already?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

>>I don’t buy the notion that you should excuse an actor for being nervous. If he’s nervous now imagine how he’ll be in front of a camera or camera and studio audience.>>

I've seen numerous people for whom there is a vast difference between nervousness over getting a job and nervousness about *doing* the job.


estiv said...

Mike Barer, apparently for Golden Girls Betty White was offered what became Rue McLanahan's part, but asked to switch roles just to avoid playing a part too much like Sue Ann Nivens. She had to ask for the chance to show her versatility.

VP81955 said...

estiv is right, and it occasionally happens on TV. Beth Broderick initially was cast as the man-hungry Aunt Hilda on "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," but decided to play the more sober, brainy Aunt Zelda character -- a departure from her earlier, flirty roles -- and Caroline Rhea got the Hilda role. It paid off for both in years of residuals.

Chuck Cavender said...

Greatest casting ever? David Hyde Pierce teamed with Kelsey Grammer as the Crane Brothers. I still believe they are related.

Andrew said...

Maybe this thread can become a list of "worst casting" for TV or movies.
Can't think of any TV ones off the top of my head.
Movies that quickly come to mind:
Glory - Matthew Broderick
Kevin Costner - Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Sofia Coppola - Godfather III

Gary said...

Ken, here's a Friday (or Thursday) question: I can't recall ever watching a TV show or movie and thinking that someone was truly a "bad actor." To me, they all seem believable and very natural. The only bad acting I've ever picked up on is when a non-actor, such as a professional athlete, does a walk-on part. Then it's usually pretty obvious they're speaking in a stilted manner.

It would be great if you would "name names" as to which professionals you consider to be bad actors. But I doubt that you'll do that. Instead, can you explain what some of the traits or habits are of a bad actor, which tip it for you? I'd like to watch for those in the future!

Anonymous said...

Few people remember it or think about it if they do, but one of the greatest casting decisions in TV history was the four stars of The Beverly Hillbillies. For nearly a decade they remained in character for what must have been very difficult dialogue and accents.
In less demanding roles, Raymond Bailey and Nancy Culp were very good at least until later on but the four mains were superb.
So natural you never thought twice.

DBenson said...

There was an attempted Americanization of the scifi comedy "Red Dwarf". The British creator noted that the network cast a handsome actor as the hapless central character. He could accept the actor, but was upset that the network wouldn't let him rewrite to script for a better fit. Jane Leeves, by the way, played a deadpan computer interface.

And of course the "Cheers" legend is that John Ratzenberger came in to read for Norm, realized he wasn't going to get it, and successfully pitched a new character -- the inevitable bar knowitall -- for himself.

Unknown said...

Agree with Glenn, Kevin Spacey was miscast in Superman Returns. I think that Kevin Spacey is a terrible actor, you can see the cogs turning when he acts. I've never believed a single performance of his.

Andy Rose said...

Friday question:

I've noticed that often actors who miss out on a starring role in a sitcom later get a big guest role on the same show. On Cheers, Fred Dryer (who lost the role of Sam) was on a few times as a friend of Sam's who hits on Diane, and Julia Duffy (who lost the role of Diane) had a guest appearance as a friend of Diane's who hits on Sam.

Is this because the producers are already familiar with these actors and genuinely think they'll be best for the guest role, or is there a deliberate effort to give them some work as a consolation for losing the main gig?

Johnny Walker said...

What do you think of the method that directors like Woody Allen, David Lynch and Christopher Guest employ where they just sit and talk to actors they're auditioning? They all manage to get great performances.

Andrew said...

@ Unknown re Kevin Spacey:
Wow, couldn't disagree with you more. How about L.A. Confidential? Even the death scene alone is incredible (and very believable).

Terry Benish said...

Hi Ken, I thought one of the most inspired casting choices was
when Oliver Stone cast John Candy in JFK. His performance was
out-sized, no pun intended.

Made me think of Sidney Greenstreet, but slimier and more

Makes you wonder what might have ensued.

Unknown said...

Andrew: Like I've already said "I've never believed a single performance of his"

Unknown said...

Gary's comment about athletes "acting" reminds me of Leonard Maltin's review of "Safe At Home!" with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris: "The stoic poetry of Jack Webb's acting pales beside that of M & M ..."