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In the world of TV casting, nothing's set in stone

Actors learn to roll with the punches as networks reshuffle the deck to come up with a series with staying power.

November 11, 2002|Mark Sachs | Times Staff Writer

The year was 1995, and for the creative team behind the fledgling sitcom "NewsRadio," the news was all good. On the strength of the pilot episode, the show had been given the green light from NBC, and a March premiere date was penciled in.

But there was one nagging problem. Some executives close to the show thought one of the ensemble characters, a technician named "Ted," wasn't quite right, and they decided to replace him with comedian and actor Joe Rogan. The character was renamed "Joe," and the popular series would roll merrily along for five seasons and nearly 100 episodes.

After the show had run its course, Rogan's good fortune continued, and he eventually landed another high-visibility assignment as host of the current NBC ratings juggernaut "Fear Factor." As for the actor-comedian who lost out after playing "Ted" in the "NewsRadio" pilot, he bounced around making spot appearances on talk shows, until one evening on "Late Night With David Letterman," the actor so impressed the host that the comic was staked to another shot at a series.

This time, Ray Romano managed to hang around past the pilot stage, and since 1996, his "Everybody Loves Raymond" series has become CBS' gold standard for sitcom success.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 13 inches; 496 words Type of Material: Correction
Actress' name -- An article in Monday's Calendar about television casting misspelled the name of actress Jayne Brook as Jayne Brooks.

Casting changes don't always turn out so neatly, however, and for that reason -- and many others -- it may be among the most avoided topics in Hollywood.

Several of the new fall series underwent significant personnel shuffling in their first weeks, perhaps most interestingly in the ABC sitcom "Life With Bonnie," starring Bonnie Hunt. The actress has said that she originally wrote the role of her doctor-husband for longtime pal Mark Derwin, but when he had problems getting released from his duties on the daytime soap "One Life to Live," Brian Kerwin ("Beggars and Choosers") was brought in to take over.

Kerwin was on board for the pilot episode, but shortly thereafter, Derwin discovered that his soap opera character had suddenly slipped into a coma, and he was available again. So Kerwin was sent packing, the pilot was reshot with Derwin, and the series got off to a solid start in the ratings.

But the strong numbers out of the chute didn't make the subject any more palatable for Derwin or Hunt, normally among the most approachable of stars. Both declined interview requests on the topic, yet back in July, during a gathering of national television critics in Pasadena, Hunt and Derwin did touch on the changes.

"Actually, you know, Mark and I worked together on [1995's] 'The Bonnie Hunt Show,' and we wanted him from the beginning to be in this role," said Hunt. "He wasn't available. Brian was. And Brian kind of knew that maybe it would change. If that worked out, it was OK with Mark because he was working on 'One Life to Live.' But the greatest moment was when I called Mark and I said, 'You know, I think the network is going to make a change, and we're going to bring you in.' And he said, 'Oh, it's perfect timing, because my [soap opera] wife just threw me out a window and I'm in a coma.' "

Derwin sounded a little unsure that the changes would stick.

"Well, you know, that's up to ABC," he said at the same press gathering. "I just want to thank them for allowing me to come and do this show, because I'm in the middle of a contract with 'One Life to Live,' and for them to allow me to work with Bonnie again, I couldn't be more grateful. I think they have some thoughts on that, but right now, my coma is so deep that who knows when I'll wake up."

As for the ousted Kerwin, he may go on to have Romano-sized success of his own, but for now his press rep said he won't be discussing the situation.

The thinking in Hollywood seems to be that if you are on the losing end of such a talent upheaval, you don't want to advertise the fact any more than necessary. And even if you're the actor who comes out on top, waxing gleeful in an interview might be perceived as dancing on someone else's grave. Merely trying to eke out a living as an actor is enough to give anyone a healthy dose of paranoia, and a positive outcome one day could easily turn around and bite you the next.

The pressure on "Life With Bonnie" may be more acute than elsewhere because of ABC's need for new hits, and indeed, as the ratings softened, the series' writing staff was cut loose after just a handful of shows.

With the season well under way, the other networks have some evidence for how their own changes are panning out. On the WB's "Birds of Prey," Sherilyn Fenn ("Twin Peaks") was dropped in favor of Mia Sara after filming the pilot. The same network's resurrection of the 1960s series "Family Affair" began with Luke Benward in the role of Jody for the hourlong opening episode, only to switch -- without explanation -- to Jimmy "Jax" Pinchak for subsequent episodes.

After filming the pilot, "Good Morning, Miami" swapped Burke Moses as its pompous talk-show host Gavin Stone for Matt Letscher, thought to be a better love match for the show's criminally cute hairdresser played by Ashley Williams.

You almost needed a scorecard to keep track of the early changes in Fox's "John Doe." Out: Meat Loaf Aday, Elizabeth Lackey and Azura Skye. In: William Forsythe, Jayne Brooks and Sprague Grayden, respectively.

Cast in, cast out. In network television, plugging the right actors into the right roles is always a work in progress.

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