Sunday, October 29, 2017

Switched at birth of pilot

It’s not unusual for there to be major changes during the production of a TV pilot. I’ve helped out on many, coming in to do punch up, and I’ve seen pretty much everything.

Characters change. On Tuesday the best friend suddenly becomes the sister. At the first table reading mom and dad are both present. By mid-week dad had died ten years ago and it's just mom. The scene at the coffee shop is gone replaced by one at a bank and the waitress is now a teller.

Actors are fired and hired all the time.  It's quite frankly brutal (and often unnecessary). I helped out on one pilot where a new actor was hired every day to play one particular role. It was a horribly written role. 

But the strangest pilot I worked on was this:

I think it was about two married couples and the guys worked together. It’s been a long time and the pilot didn’t go. Patrick Warburton was one of the guys. I had never seen him before but remember thinking, “Wow! This guy is a find!”

The runthruogh was uneven and the assembled writers went back to rewrite and eat Red Vines late into the night.

Traffic was bad the next day so I arrived for the runthrough just as it was about to begin. The first scene was a married couple in bed. Except now Patrick Warburton was in the bed. I thought, “This is weird? We’re now saying that Patrick is sleeping with his best friend’s wife?” The dialogue was pretty much what we wrote last night. Not only was there no explanation of why these two people were having an affair, the dialogue made no sense in this new context.

After the scene I cornered the creator to ask, “What the fuck?” That’s when I learned that the decision was made after we had left the night before to just flip Patrick and the other guy. So now Patrick was her husband.  Yeah, that's fine, Patrick's funnier, but the problem was that these were two very different characters. So the rest of the runthrough was completely weird. Imagine Charlie Sheen and Jon Cryer just switching roles one week on TWO AND A HALF MEN.

When something doesn't work is it because the joke is bad, the actor didn't deliver it well, you don't believe that actor having that attitude, or you just remember it better yesterday with the other guy saying it? 

The rewrite that night was insane. I wasn’t the only one confused. The creator would say, “We need a line for Fred,” I’d pitch something and he’d say, “No, that’s a Gary line,” and five writers would say, “Which one is Gary again?” We couldn’t keep the two actors and the two characters straight.

Like I said, the show never aired. Whose decision it was to make the flip I do not know (but I suspect the network).  I totally forget who played the other guy and clearly Patrick Warburton has gone on to prove he’s a gifted comic actor.

Actors switching roles is not unheard of certainly. It happens in the theater a lot, especially if there is a company of actors. The director will mix and match until he arrives at the best combination. And there have been cases on Broadway where two stars will just flip roles. Art Carney and Walter Matthau did that in the original ODD COUPLE. But I had never seen it in a pilot.

Thank goodness one of the characters didn’t also have multiple personalities. I’d probably still be in that writing room trying to figure it out.

29 comments :

Paul Duca said...

Walter Matthau originally wanted to play Felix, because he considered it the greater acting challenge

ScarletNumber said...

I think the most recent revival of the Odd Couple would have worked better with Matthew Perry as Felix, but since Oscar was the star as the talk-radio host, he wanted to be Oscar.

VP81955 said...

Perhaps the best known cast switch of recent decades occurred on "The Golden Girls," where Rue McClanahan and Betty White swapped parts in production. Betty thought her character was too similar to man-hungry Sue Ann Nivens on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and thus took Rose from Rue, who liked playing a more assertive role. (Remember, she was on "Maude" with castmate Bea Arthur.)

Here's another case, though this wasn't a full swapping of parts: On "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," Beth Broderick was initially cast as Aunt Hilda, a witch equivalent of some roles she'd played on earlier sitcoms such as "Hearts Afire." She successfully lobbied to play the brainy Aunt Zelda instead, paving the way for Caroline Rhea to take the Hilda role. (In a third-season ep, magic "walk a mile" moccasins enabled the sisters to briefly swap personalities, enabling fans to see how Beth might have portrayed Hilda.)

Arthur Mee said...

In the totally obscure early 90s sitcom "Morton & Hayes" (which was a black-and-white recreation of a 1940's comedy team a la Abbott & Costello, or Olson & Johnson), Kevin Pollack played Morton.

But in the pilot, aired about a year earlier than the main series, he played Hayes.

Carroll said...

Sounds like that pilot had incompetent writers who couldn't keep up. Two characters...complicated stuff.

blinky said...

Off topic but still.
I haven't seen the first episode of Cheers since the 80's and even then it was probably on VHS on a shitty tube TV.
I decided to see it on Netflix last night and WOW! There was a level of production that is absolutely a lost art. There is nothing on like that today: the film quality, the writing, the story telling, the plot development. the character introductions.
I saw every episode when it aired but never saw it like I did last night in full resolution.
Wow...just wow!

Rinaldo said...

I can't find any evidence that Carney and Matthau ever swapped roles in The Odd Couple, nor have I ever heard (and I was around back then) that they did it. I don't doubt that there may have been productions of the play in which this happened, especially in a rep situation, but not (as far as I can tell) this one.

Similar things have indeed happened onstage with other plays though. A famous Richard II by the RSC in which the king and the rebel aiming to dethrone him swapped roles at every performance. More than one production of Shepard's True West had the brothers switching roles at some point during the run. And just last season on Broadway, Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternated as Regina and Birdie in a production of The Little Foxes.

Buttermilk Sky said...

The most significant switch in movie history must have been THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931). Donald Cook was originally cast in the lead, but after a couple of days William Wellman decided he should change roles with the newcomer playing his sidekick, named Cagney. And the rest, as they say...

David Schwartz said...

I worked on a cartoon series in the mid 80's called, "Defenders of the Earth." It was a show about Flash Gordon, Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom. The show also focused on the children of these characters (who I believe were teenagers). Anyway, I wrote an episode of the series and turned in my first draft. A few weeks go by and I don't hear anything from the story editors. Eventually, I call to find out how the script was received, or if they need a rewrite, etc.

I get one of the story editors on the phone and he sounds frazzled. He tells me that the entire show is being switched around. One of the characters who had a son is how going to have a daughter. The other character's daughter is now going to be his son, etc. He tells me that they have to go back and rework about 20 scripts before they can get to mine. I should just sit tight and he'll have notes for me once they get the other scripts rewritten. I should be prepared for a significant rewrite.

I forget how long it was before I heard from him, but when I finally did, apparently everything that was changed was switched back to how it originally was, and no reworking was needed. I imagine they figured out it didn't work the way they were switching it around, so they changed everything back. And by the time they got around to my script, there were no major changes needed because everything was back as it was!

MikeN said...

Courtney Cox was originally cast as Rachel. She decided Monica was the better fit.

Mark said...

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frankenstein_(2011_play)

Frankenstein is a stage adaptation by Nick Dear of the novel of the same name.

Its world premiere was at the Royal National Theatre on 5 February 2011, where it officially opened on 22 February. This production was directed by Danny Boyle[1] with a cast including Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, with the two lead actors alternating the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature. Frankenstein ended its run on 2 May 2011

Rob said...

I can't find any evidence that Carney and Matthau ever swapped roles in The Odd Couple, nor have I ever heard (and I was around back then) that they did it. I don't doubt that there may have been productions of the play in which this happened, especially in a rep situation, but not (as far as I can tell) this one.



At this post on his blog, Mark Evanier touches on that:

https://www.newsfromme.com/2003/11/12/more-on-art-carney/

According to Evanier, Matthau himself was the one who claimed to an interviewer that he and Art Carney would occasionally switch roles during the Broadway run of THE ODD COUPLE, but Evanier notes that the story is apparently untrue.

sanford said...

I am sure that I read some where that Matthau and Carney switched roles for one performance. Tried doing a search but couldn't find anything.

Kendall said...

Not really "role switching" but I was wondering what you thought about what Kevin James had to say about replacing his wife's character with Leah Remini on Kevin Can Wait. He basically said that when they started breaking stories for the second season, they had run out of ideas and definitely couldn't see making a third with the husband/wife premise. Was this a lack of creativity on the writers' part, the creator's unsustainable premise, or CBS wanting a known commodity that had worked before?

Edward said...

Whoever made the decision to replace the original children in "Married with Children" and hire David Faustino and Christina Applegate should receive an Honorary Lifetime Achievement award.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kdAotCUyw0

VP81955 said...

To Buttermilk Sky:

You've got everything right on "The Public Enemy" except the actor's name. It was Edward Woods, not Donald Cook, who swapped with James Cagney.

Donald Benson said...

On "Wizard of Oz", Buddy Ebsen was originally cast at the Scarecrow -- a good fit for his gangly farm boy persona -- but was shuffled to the Tin Man when Ray Bolger aggressively sought the Scarecrow part. Then he was nearly killed by the silver-colored makeup and benched, although his voice supposedly remains on a few vocal tracks of Dorothy and friends singing together.

Another casting change was Gale Sondergaard. Originally cast as a glamorous Witch of the West, the script began changing and they began to pile on ugly witch makeup. At some point either she or the studio said "enough" and Margaret Hamilton was brought in -- and had her own close call when her makeup caught fire.

There's also a story that when the Marx Brothers did a live tour to test scenes for "Night at the Opera" or "Day at the Races", a couple of the brothers traded parts at least once to see if anybody would notice.

Mike said...

@David Schwartz: Defenders of the Earth - I watched that here in Blighty. Battle of the Planets was better. The cartoon I really enjoyed was Conan, though. And Planet of the Apes, which was strange. Just one detailed picture, scanned, over & over again.

@Ken: What about returning to work the next morning and finding both men in bed together? Why not? Programme could have been a big hit. Nothing to lose.

Gary said...

I recall reading that when Walter Matthau originally said he wanted to play Felix because it was more of an acting challenge, the director told him, "Walter, you're playing Oscar. You can act on your own time."

Diane D. said...

Amen to the comment above about CHEERS. The problem is you're spoiled forever for any show that comes afterward. Thank God for Netflix.

cadavra said...

The PUBLIC ENEMY switch created a bigger problem: the early scenes depicting the two men as teenagers had already been shot, and so Frankie Darro, who was cast because of his resemblance to Cagney, ended up playing Woods as a teen. It can initially throw you if you don't know the backstory.

Mike said...

“Charlie’s Angels” was developed for Kate Jackson, who was supposed to play the “streetwise” Kelly, raised as an orphan. The first half hour of the pilot focuses on Kelly. Shortly before they began shooting, Kate decided she wanted to play Sabrina, written as more glamorous. So Kate’s vehicle began with a half hour showcase for Jaclyn Smith, who wound up playing Kelly.

Later on, Sabrina became more streetwise, and Kelly became more glamorous.

Mike Doran said...

Role-switching in stage productions happens quite a bit when there are two star roles.
Tony Randall often told of how, in the original Broadway Inherit The Wind, Paul Muni and Ed Begley Sr. would sometime trade off Drummond and Brady, in order to shake things up.

Years later, when Leonard Nimoy was touring with Sherlock Holmes, he'd occasionally switch with Alan Sues as Moriarty for a night.

In TV, Gavin MacLeod originally came in to read for Lou Grant on MTM.
When Ed Asner won Lou, MacLeod took Murray, who was originally supposed to be Mary's antagonist; he subtly steered the character in the other direction.

LouOCNY said...

There's also a story that when the Marx Brothers did a live tour to test scenes for "Night at the Opera" or "Day at the Races", a couple of the brothers traded parts at least once to see if anybody would notice.

The story is actually better than that - The Marxes were on the "A Day at the Races" tryout tour, and Chico's 20 year old daughter Maxine came to some of the stops watch the boy's shows. So they were in Salt Lake City, and one afternoon, Harpo and Chico decided to switch roles for Maxine - meaning Harpo had to actually speak on the stage, for the first time in 25 years. So they did it. They see Maxine later, and asked her how they were - only Maxine had decided to skip that matinee and go shopping. She always said that it was the one thing in her life she regretted...

Wendy M. Grossman said...

In his autobiography, Harpo says that as kids Chico would run around getting more piano playing jobs than he could do himself and would send Harpo, who always got fired - but paid - the first day.

It's my considered opinion that Art Carney, unlike Lemmon and Matthau, could have played Felix OR Oscar equally well.

wg

powers said...

I read that in the Christmas time classic movie,"The Bishop's Wife,"Cary Grant was to portray the minister while David Niven was going to play the role of the angel come to Earth to assist the minister.
Both actors quickly realized that they should switch roles with one another because they were better suited to those parts.

Myles Warden said...

There was no conflict with the husband and wife and no real unique POV that the kids were coming from. Just a normal happily married couple with regular kids. To make it worse Kevin had no job so he literally had nothing to do. Premise proved to be unsustainable. The semi hook of the daughter and her boyfriend moving wasn't enough for the whole show. Now, if you watch the 2nd season it's basically a clueless single father simultaneously trying to get his new career off the ground. Way more premises for stories and gives the kids a lot more to do as well.

cadavra said...

Almost forgot: The recent Broadway revival of THE LITTLE FOXES had stars Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternating the roles of Regina and Birdie...a clever way to get people to see it twice!

Mike Doran said...

One more Marx Bros legend:

Every now and then, Groucho would get a little testy and dodge a performance.
When that happened, Zeppo would don the makeup and costume, and the audience never knew the difference.
Everything I've ever read about Zeppo seems to indicate that he was at least as truculent as Groucho in private life (their marital histories are remarkably similar).
So there too.