Tuesday, January 14, 2014

"I Saved Ted Danson's Career"

Ted Danson is one of the most successful (starring in two long-running series, Cheers and Becker, and now CSI), recognized (15 Emmy Award nominations – two wins) and beloved TV performers, ranking second in TV Guide’s list of the top 25 television stars of all time.

And there is a distinct possibility I could have nipped all of that in the bud.

I was still doing Best of the West when they started casting for Cheers.  Ted auditioned for the lead role in my series.  I passed on Ted Danson.

And the rest is television history.

You’re welcome


Let me say at the outset – wait, let me say something before the outset.  If you can do that, and if it’s your blog you can do anything. 

Ah, the exhilarating power of it all!

A persuasive argument can be made that casting is the most crucial element in the series development process.  I once wondered aloud around Major Dad star Gerald McRaney what it most essentially was that made the series was so popular.  His laconic but on-the-money response:

“They like the guy.”

The man was right.  A show gets an enormous lift and benefit of the doubt (if it’s not that great) if the television viewing audience “likes the guy.”  (Or gal.)  In that regard, let me quickly acknowledge that with Major Dad, by far my most successful series outing, the star was not the product of an extensive and painstaking casting search.  The “Leading Man” was already in place and the series was constructed around him.  (So I get no credit for picking him.)

Truth be told, my signature approach to casting is unique and historically unhelpful.

I cast like it’s for radio. 

Frequently, I do not even look at the actors when they’re reading for me.  I mean, I already saw them when they came in the door.  Why do I have to keep looking at them?  Are they are going to suddenly alter their appearance in mid-reading? 

So, while they’re auditioning for me, instead of watching the actors, I turn my head to the side,

And I listen.

What am I listening for?  I am listening to hear is they sound like I write.  The rhythm.  The timing.  The inflection.  The understanding tone.  I write in a specific manner – call it “Earlishly.”  If the actors, skillful as they may be, cannot execute the material as I imagined it sounding, they cannot – and should not – have a part in my show. 

(This same standard would also apply for the writing staff.)

You can discern whether it’s happening based on the laughs they elicit at the audition.  If they’re a square peg struggling to fit in a round hole – no “ha-ha.”  If they innately “get” it, or if their substantial acting gifts allow them to successfully simulate “getting it” – they may well experience an ecstatic and delighted show runner sliding hysterically out of his chair.

The problem is, it’s television, where, unlike the listening show runner, the viewing audience is actually looking at the actors.  For a show to succeed, responding to some mysterious combination of talent and charisma, that audience must take those actors enthusiastically to their hearts.

As they unquestionably did with Ted Danson.

The man I unceremoniously turned down.

Do I regret turning Ted Danson down? 

No I do not.

If I had a “Casting Sheet” with “Ted Danson” listed along with the dozen or so other candidates coming in to read for the part that day, beside Ted’s name, I’d have scribbled the words,

“Good, but too modern.”

Best of the West was a comedic tribute to TV and movie westerns.  So the lead character, Sam Best, had to sound not only like the way I write.  They also had to sound like cowboys.

Ted Danson does not sound like cowboys.  (A view substantiated by the fact that Danson’s success does not include any noteworthy westerns.  So there.)  

Ted’s reading for the Lead Role in Best of the West, as best as I can recall more than thirty years after the fact, was “Standard Ted Danson” – a smoky, meandering delivery, idiosyncratic hesitations and a characteristic predilection towards mumbling.  That’s not the way cowboys talk.  Nor is it the way the characters I write talk. 

So, 0-for-2, “Thank you” and goodbye.

And on to stratospheric success in some guys I knew’s (the Charles Brothers) series called Cheers.

That’s how it goes in this business.  Wrong for one part, spectacularly right for another.

Though I have subsequently bumped into him on numerous occasions, I have never told Ted Danson how integral a role I played in his enormous success.  I suppose it’s not too late.  If any of you out there know him…

Nah, leave him alone.

Let him think it was all him.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

William Goldman says in one of his books about the screen trade that often when someone becomes a star it's because someone *else* made a mistake (Humphrey Bogart getting CASABLANCA when Ronald Reagan turned it down; same movie, Ingrid Bergman got lucky when Ann Sheridan (!) turned it down). And countless others.

Goldman also writes, as you do, about the vital importance of getting casting right. *After*, of course, you've gotten the WRITING right. :)


Canda said...

Not to contradict Ms. Grossman, and Mr. Goldman, but I don't believe Reagan was ever seriously being considered for CASABLANCA. George Raft, however, did turn it down.

I remember reading that Lucille Ball wanted Fred and Ethel Mertz to be played by Gale Gordon and Bea Bernadet, who were the neighbors on her radio show, MY FAVORITE HUSBAND. That would have been a very different dynamic.

Of course, many of us recall that Carl Reiner originally wrote and starred in the pilot of the Dick Van Dyke Show, and was told by a friend that it all worked well except for the lead. So, he recast himself. I believe Mary Tyler Moore was cast, because Reiner couldn't exactly remember her name from the audition, but remembered he liked that girl who had 3 names. If she had just been Mary Moore, she may not have gotten the part.

Bobby Heiss said...

While I thought McRaney was a good fit as the Major, I watched the show for the girl. Polly was the more interesting character with more ground to cover (in a relationship with the major). And, she was a whole lot better looking.

I imagine Ted Danson could play a cowboy. After all, Joel Higgins did. They are actors! But you're right, it was good that he was free for Cheers!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Canda: Snopes agrees with you (http://www.snopes.com/movies/films/reagan.asp), so I withdraw that detail. (Which I can't off-hand confirm was one of Goldman's examples, so don't blame *him*.)


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Canda: Further reading of the Snopes article says that George Raft wasn't up for the role either. It was written specifically with Bogart in mind.