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How I Made It: TV casting director Lori Openden

Now head of talent and casting for the CW, Openden networked before it was called 'networking' and helped create stars and hits on major TV networks.

September 05, 2010|By Joe Flint, Los Angeles Times

The gig: As executive vice president of talent and casting for the CW, Lori Openden finds all those pretty people who fill the network's teen-angst shows, including "The Vampire Diaries," "Gossip Girls" and the highly anticipated "Nikita" and "Hellcats."

Hardscrabble roots: A native Angeleno, Openden grew up poor in a tough Baldwin Hills neighborhood, where she was raised by a single mother and went to Dorsey High School. "We didn't have any money.... We struggled to get by, and I knew anything I wanted to do I'd have to pay for myself."

Learning the ropes: In high school, Openden got the theater bug but quickly realized she enjoyed being behind the scenes critiquing the actors rather than being onstage with them. After graduating from Cal State Northridge, which she paid for by working as a nurse's aide, Openden got an entry-level job at William Morris Agency. "I was a secretary; we were not assistants in those days." She made the most of it. "I took the minutes of the television department meetings. I knew everything going on."

The big break: At William Morris, Openden networked before it was called "networking" and hustled her way into a position with legendary sitcom producer Danny Arnold. Within two years, Openden, then 24, had risen to head of casting for his hit ABC comedy "Barney Miller."

"It was an amazing promotion that would never happen today," Openden says, because the industry has become much more corporate. "In those days, though, if Danny Arnold trusted me and wanted me in that job … I got that job."

Hoop dreams: Openden's next move was to Grant Tinker's MTM, producer of some of the most acclaimed television shows, where her casting credits included "The White Shadow" and "Hill Street Blues." The former, a drama about an inner-city school, took Openden back to Dorsey High, where she tried to find actors who could also dunk.

A couple of big discoveries: After leaving MTM, Openden went independent and landed the NBC hit "Cheers" as a client. She made her mark early when she cast a then-unknown Woody Harrelson. As "Cheers" character Cliff Clavin would say, "In another little-known fact," Openden also cast Michael Richards in a memorable bit part that stayed with her when she moved on to her next gig, which was as a casting executive for NBC.

Without her there might not have been an "ER": Openden spent almost 15 years at NBC, rising to senior vice president of talent and casting. She played an integral part in that network's long run at the top of the ratings. Shows she helped make hits with her eye for talent included "Seinfeld," "Friends," "Law & Order" and "The West Wing." But Openden's time at NBC may be most remembered for her belief in a medical drama called "ER," about which many NBC executives had doubts.

Recalled Openden: "We were all in a screening of 'ER,' and afterwards, many of the top executives were very upset about it." They feared "ER" was too "smart" for television and that the pace was too fast. Openden got up and said, "I can't believe we were all watching the same pilot.... I loved every second of it." Her outspoken support had a big hand in persuading others at the network to reevaluate the pilot, and the rest is history.

What she hates: Openden is not a fan of reality shows and so far has been lucky enough to have avoided the challenge of discovering the next Snooki or the Situation. "Those people definitely serve a need, but it's not something I look forward to doing."

Room for improvement: As head of casting for a network known for hot young women, Openden is becoming increasingly aware of the gulf between what people look like on television and what they look like in real life. "We're really going to try to do a better job of casting our shows with more real-looking people, not just beautiful people."

Personal: Openden lives in Northridge with her husband, a school counselor. While she long ago gave up the health profession for Hollywood, her daughter is a registered nurse and her son is an autism specialist. Openden has cast a few medical shows in her time, although she says her doctors are better-looking than the ones in real life.

joe.flint@latimes.com

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