Thursday, March 25, 2010

"Story of a Writer - Part 30B"

Kristin was about a sunshiny, eternally hopeful Oklahoma girl who comes to New York to become an actress. To support herself while she pursues her dream, Kristin works as, what they used to call a secretary, for a successful, risk-taking, building developer – a Donald Trump type, but with less hunger for the spotlight, and normal hair.

The parts of the series’ regulars had all been cast, except for one – the role of the developer. We were looking for an actor who could play the polar opposite to the “Kristin” character, who was energetic, perky and, most importantly, exceedingly – some might say excessively – moral, the result of her intense – some might say fanatical – religious commitment.

It was the classic American match-up – the small town “straight arrow” versus the New York City “whatever it takes.”

Hard as we tried, we could not find the right actor for the part.

A digression is now required for me to explain the insanity involved in the casting process during television’s “Pilot Season.” Even though Kristin was not technically a pilot – contractually, the show had been guaranteed a slot on the schedule – still, it was competing against pilots, being produced at the same time, for the best actors from the finite number in the talent pool.

Let’s start with “available.” Some actors are theoretically available, in that the show they’re currently working on is about to be canceled, freeing them to take another job. However, there are certain network presidents who view the television business as a “zero-sum” struggle – meaning, “If your network gains, then mine automatically loses.” Guided by this philosophy, these network presidents will retain a contractual “hold” on an actor, even though they have no further use for them, until after “Pilot Season” is over, keeping them “off the market”, and, as such, unavailable to the competition.

It would be wrong to say that network presidents are entirely lacking in natural gifts. Unless you don’t see uncaring ruthlessness is a gift.

Aside from that charming strategy, “Pilot Season” casting’s biggest problem involves too many jobs chasing too little top-line talent. Which brings me to the major “I don’t get it” of the entire process.

First, the standard disclaimer: I’m not in it anymore, so I don’t know if they still do this. But when I was working…

You see all the actors the casting director determines are suitable for the role. There is no one left to bring in. The best people available have already come through, and none of them has precisely fit the bill.

What’s the natural thing to do?

If you really like the show – it demonstrates real promise in every regard – and the only thing that’s keeping it out of production is that you’re unable to cast one of the roles, it seems to me the smart, albeit disappointing, thing to do would be to delay production until that right actor comes along. What do, or at least did, the networks do?

They abandon the show entirely.

They threw it away. They loved the idea, but they couldn’t cast one of the roles? “See you later.” No, not “See you later.” “See you. Never!

I recall that with All In The Family, some series regulars were re-cast, I believe, at least partly, because the project had been moved to a different network and they were “retooling” and trying again. But this situation is the rarest of exceptions. Traditionally, you fail at your first effort in the casting process, and that show is history.

Why is it like that? If they believe in the show, why don’t they postpone production and try again later? I have no idea. You’ll have to ask them.

As a television veteran, you’re aware that this is the deal, and you don’t want your show to go away. You believe in the show. You’ve invested your time, your effort and your creativity in getting it to the point of production. You want it to have a chance. Plus, of course, you want to work. If the project goes away, so, parenthetically, do you.

We had auditioned all the proposed candidates. None of them were right. Well, one guy was right – Anthony LaPaglia. (This was before Without a Trace.) LaPaglia hit all the right notes for the character who would play opposite Kristin. He was physically imposing, gruff without being frightening, subterraneally human, adept with the comedy, and “on the money” as an actor. He reminded me of Ed Asner, portraying Lou Grant. Unfortunately – I was told this afterwards, I wasn’t there – LaPaglia’s network audition was disappointing, and he was dropped from consideration.

We had nobody. Meaning the Kristin project was headed for oblivion. Then, an actor, whose series had just been cancelled, unexpectedly became available. We brought the guy in. He was charming, handsome, funny and smart. Eureka!

We had found our Male Lead. We knew the network would approve him. The show was saved.

The trouble is, he was fundamentally the wrong guy.

The actor lacked the necessary (comic) intensity, bringing, instead, a lighter, less “dangerous” quality to the role. If we were making a musical comedy version of Kristin, he would have been perfect. (The guy could easily have starred as Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls.)

With the decision to cast him, the “titanic clash of opposites” element, which would have given the show its engine and its essential balance, was permanently out of the picture.

We made other mistakes with Kristin. But miscasting the “Male Lead” – though it kept the show from disappearing – was, arguably, the most damaging decision of all.

1 comment:

Joey said...

What a shame -- it sounds like it would have been a memorable series.