Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Story of a Writer - Part Eighteen C"


If I had my choice, I’d do all my casting from behind a one-way mirror. I’m not comfortable meeting a lot of people. It’s like a bunch of first dates. The actors are trying to impress me, I have to be on my best behavior – I’m not even sure I have a best behavior. The mood in the room is tense, and everyone’s pretending it’s a party. “Have fun with it”? (sometimes said to actors to put them at their ease.) Fat chance.

I have no ability to pretend that the actors were good when, at least as far as what I was looking for was concerned, they weren’t. Anybody can read my face. It’s excruciating knowing what they’re reading is that they stunk the place up.

The casting process can be seriously demoralizing. You think what you wrote is good, but the parade of disappointing performances suggests that you may have been mistaken. The laughs aren’t there, and the moments don’t “pop.” The material is not coming alive the way you imagined it would in your head. If you’re me, instead of doubting the actors, you inevitably begin doubting yourself. And despising the actors for raising those doubts.

Some actors are terrible at auditions, but they’re terrific when they get the part. Unfortunately, they rarely get the part, because they’re terrible at auditions. Some actors are charming from the moment they enter the room. They’re funny, they’re smart, they tell hilarious stories about getting lost on the way to the audition. You’re dancing on air. You’re certain this is the guy.

They start reading, and there’s nothing there. Their winning personality has totally disappeared. It’s heartbreaking when this happens. You want to shake them hard and scream, “Where did you go?”

Am I good at casting? Yes. And no.

I cast like it’s a book. That may not be self-explanatory, so I’ll elaborate. I’ve been told, especially in the case of Family Man, that, with the actors I chose, I was eerily accurate at capturing the essence of the real life prototypes.

People who know my family would say it was almost freakish how they sensed the spirits of my family members in the performers. It was like the actual people were up there on the screen. If finding actors who embody the hearts and souls of the characters means that I’m good at casting, then I’m good at casting.

Unfortunately, casting is more than that. Casting also has to do with, I don’t know, something involving the element of visual excitement. Because the rhythm of the words is what matters most to me, when actors audition, I listen more than I watch. This is not helpful. The actors are auditioning for a television show. Television is a medium people watch.

Radio, they just listen. I’d have been wonderful casting for radio. But this was television. And I wasn’t that great.

Family Man provided the added agony of casting children. If it were up to me, no child would perform professionally in anything. With the exception of show business, nobody that young is allowed to have a job.

“I’d like to be shelf stocker at Albertson’s.”

“How old are you?”



Acting in a show, okay, it’s not working in a coal mine, but it is child labor, whether the kids “just love doing it” or not. The pressure, both the career pressure, as well as the requirements of the job itself, can drive adult actors to bottles, needles, and shoving stuff up their nose. They’re children, for heaven’s sake. They should to be playing outside.

Having children of my own, and knowing how nervous they get sometimes, just going to school, the process of casting children simply ate me up. It was especially excruciating looking for the youngest actor on the show, who, yes, was – because she was in real life – three.

To demonstrate they could handle the professional requirements of the job, the three year-old candidates had to walk into a room full of strangers, alone – without their mothers, or whoever brought them. (I assume they didn’t drive there themselves.) Some of them cried. Some of them froze. And some of them were disturbingly goal-oriented.

“If I get this job, I’m buying my mother a house,” announced one clear-eyed three year-old.

Scary. Scary. Scary. And sad.

Slowly but surely, we began filling the roles. We found wonderful actors. The Dr. M character was played by Mimi Kennedy, who, later, portrayed the “Hippie Mom” on Dharma and Greg. The stepdaughter character was played Alison Sweeney, who went on to “soap” stardom on Days of Our Lives.

The problem was the lead character – the guy playing me. We couldn’t find him. It’s not an easy role to cast. I mean, I’m sitting in the room, waiting for someone to come in and “be” who I already am. Or better. Why not? They’re actors. I’m just the generic me.

Nobody comes in. Nobody who’s me. I wonder where they are. Probably out there, being somebody else. Either that, or I’m asking the impossible.

(Here’s the thing about TV series. You only get one shot at them. You make a pilot, it doesn’t work – that’s it. A project fails, for whatever reason, and it’s done. You move on to other things. A famous manager said the most important word in show business is, “Next!”

Sometimes, the process founders before the pilot’s even made, like, for example, when an essential piece of casting can’t be found. This is not uncommon during pilot season, where multiple producers are pursuing the same actor. Only one place gets them. Everyone else is out of luck.

“We’re having casting problems, but we really love this show. So let’s “table” it for now, and we’ll try it again next season.” Sound familiar? No. Because it never happens. They simply abandon the project. Next season, they’re making completely different pilots. Hardly an efficient process, if you ask me. Note: Nobody ever has.)

We cast all the parts but the Leading Man. If we don’t find him, there’s no show.

At the Eleventh Hour, two promising candidates materialize. The guy who didn’t get it was John Sebastian, yeah, the iconic lead singer from the Lovin’ Spoonful. Terrific guy. Attractive, charming and fun.

That’s not me. Though, as my TV surrogate, he might have been an improvement.

The winner? A magnificent comic clown named Richard Libertini. Here are three things you should look at that will back up this assessment: Richard’s performance in All Of Me (the “Back in the bowl!” scene), The In-Laws (the earlier good version, where he converses with a puppet that he makes out of his hand) and Best Friends (“I dee en doe.” Don’t ask. Just watch it.)

Larger than life characters, executed by a master. Richard’s performances are simply breathtaking. In two ways. “This guy is breathtakingly brilliant!” And “I’m laughing so hard I can’t breathe!”

Libertini understood my comic intentions. His audition said, “I get this.” He wasn’t me. He was bigger than me, both physically and in his range as an imaginer of comedy. Libertini’s true genius lies in his larger than life characterizations. I’m not larger than life. On my best days, I’m “life.” He would play the part with professionalism and skill. But in some ways, we were clipping his wings.

The Family Man cast was now complete. There was only one thing left to do.

Make the show.


Nerdie McSweatervest said...

A magnificent comic clown named Richard Libertini.
You got that right. The In-Laws is a scream, and his performance is terrific. I'm a big fan of Albert Brooks, but I can't bring myself to watch the remake, for fear it will just make me sad.

diane said...

I am so grateful for your blog. For a few minutes everyday I get to step away from my work and completely lose myself in your writing.

Corinne said...

More! More! More!


Fred said...


Too bad it wasn't Zal Yanovsky that could have worked.