Monday, July 25, 2016

Pilot Casualties: The Casting Coulda-Beens of Comfort TV

Casting was a critical component in every Comfort TV show. Today we can’t imagine other actors in many iconic roles, yet it’s fascinating to contemplate how close we were to watching Gene Hackman as Mike Brady, Lyle Waggoner as Batman, or Stephen Stills as one of The Monkees.

Once a pilot is shot there is usually no turning back. But post-pilot cuts happen for any number of reasons, as we’ll see in this look at some of the more intriguing examples from the Comfort TV era. We all know how these shows turned out – the more intriguing question is whether they would still been successful without the last-minute change. Let's take a brief glimpse into an alternate classic TV universe. 

Mark Hamill as David Bradford
Eight is Enough
Shortly before filming began on the show’s second episode, Mark Hamill had a rollover car accident on a highway off-ramp, fracturing his nose and cheek. As he was too injured to come back he had to be replaced by Grant Goodeve. And he was never heard from again. 

Would it have worked?
Probably, based on the pilot, though it would have been a different series. Grant Goodeve is a year younger than Hamill but on the show he appears older and more mature. David has several verbal altercations with his father in the first season, and with Goodeve those scenes play like quarrels between two adults. Hamill plays David more like Willie Aames would play middle son Tommy – a hotheaded teenager with an antiestablishment attitude.

And consider this: if Hamill had been a better driver, we wouldn’t have this version of the theme song.

Sharon Tate as Billie Jo Bradley
Petticoat Junction
No pilot was requested for this series, which CBS purchased sight unseen based on creator Paul Henning’s success with The Beverly Hillbillies. Sharon Tate was given the role of flirtatious Billie Jo Bradley, and appears in early publicity photos with the rest of the cast. 

But when the network discovered Tate had also posed for some much racier photos, she was dropped and the role recast with Jeannine Riley.

Would it have worked?
Without any footage it’s hard to tell. The series featured three Billie Jos in seven seasons, so it was certainly durable enough to survive no matter who was cast (Riley was replaced after two seasons by Gunilla Hutton, who one year later was replaced by Meredith MacRae). However, based on Tate’s somewhat stiff and unmemorable Beverly Hillbillies appearances as secretary Janet Trego, she wasn’t yet ready for a series lead.

Liberty Williams as Tabitha Stevens
Bewitched fans might enjoy the original Tabitha pilot more than the version with Lisa Hartman, as the story offers parallels to the first Bewitched episode. Here, it’s Tabitha “coming out” as a witch to a significant other, who retreats to a bar to ponder his new normal.  But when it didn’t work ABC scrapped the entire concept and started over – new supporting characters, new workplace, and even a spelling change – in this pilot she’s “Tabatha.” 

Would it have worked?
Considering the series didn’t last with Lisa Hartman, it was likely beyond saving. But Liberty Williams was hardly the weakest link in a show with multiple issues. You may not be familiar with her but if you’ve seen Joyce Dewitt on Three’s Company you know the type – similar look, similar plucky charm. And yes, a brunette, which is a superficial objection to her playing a grown-up Erin Murphy, but still one of those details that bothers me, like changing Bruce Banner to David Banner on The Incredible Hulk.

As for Liberty, billed for most of her credits as Louise Williams, she later tested for and almost got the role of Shirley in Laverne & Shirley, then went on to voice Wonder Twin Jayna in Superfriends.  

Tim Dunigan as Templeton Peck
The A-Team
Dwight Schultz (Murdock) has often told the story about how he was certain he was going to be fired from The A-Team. It was Tim Dunigan who kept reassuring him throughout filming the pilot that his job was safe and he was going to be fine. Ironically, it was Dunigan who was replaced by Dirk Benedict, when producers decided he looked too young for the role of a Vietnam vet. 

Would it have worked?
Not this time. In the pilot Dunigan assumes a number of roles as the team’s resident con man, from a priest to a millionaire cowboy. And it just doesn’t resonate. This was material that had to be played with a wink, but his scenes with the rest of the team lacked the camaraderie that sustained The A-Team through years of repetitive scripts. According to IMDB he quit acting and now works as a mortgage broker.

Elizabeth Ward as Carol Seaver
Growing Pains
Elizabeth Ward had appeared in a couple of lesser-known ABC Afterschool Specials prior to being cast as Carol Seaver in the original Growing Pains pilot, shot in 1985. She didn’t click with test audiences, and was replaced by Tracey Gold, who hesitated to come back after being rejected once already. She changed her mind and rejoined a series that aired for seven seasons. Elizabeth Ward guest-starred in a Simon & Simon episode the following year, and never got another job. It’s a rough business. 

Would it have worked?
I think so. In the original pilot Ward was even more bookish than Gold in the show’s early seasons, but there’s no reason to assume she couldn’t have guided Carol through adolescence much like her replacement.

Susan Lanier as Chrissy Snow
Three’s Company
Three’s Company needed three pilots before finding the right combination of roommates. John Ritter was there from the start, and was originally joined by Valerie Curtin and Susanne Zenor (playing Samantha, not Chrissy). Pilot #2 brought in Joyce Dewitt, and Susan Lanier as Chrissy Snow. Neither pilot ever aired, though both are available on various Three’s Company DVD releases. 

Would it have worked?
I may be in the minority here, but I think so. To be fair, we may not be seeing Lanier’s best effort, as she was called in as a last minute substitute for another actress invited to audition. And if you’ve seen her in other shows playing similar characters, it’s clear she has some comedy chops. But at the time Suzanne Somers had more experience and professional credits, and one can’t deny the chemistry she developed with Ritter and Dewitt.

Louie Anderson as Larry Appleton
Perfect Strangers
There was never any doubt about the casting of Bronson Pinchot, as Perfect Strangers was developed (after several false starts) around his offbeat immigrant character. Finding the right foil would be critical, and the network’s first choice was comedian Louie Anderson. 

“They hated me,” is all Anderson said in a TV interview about the filmed and then buried pilot. Mark Linn-Baker, invited to test after a guest spot on Moonlighting, proved a more popular choice.  

Would it have worked?
Having not seen the Anderson pilot it’s difficult to speculate, but I would guess that ABC made the right call. Perhaps the objective was to develop a modern-day Laurel & Hardy with this duo, but Anderson’s persona of a self-deprecating gentle giant was already in place from his standup – if he played Larry that passively it would not have worked opposite Pinchot’s more manic Balki. Certainly he could have been asked to try something different, but on a TV series it’s always the actor that shapes the character more than the character dictates an actor’s choices. Sooner or later writers would have started playing to Anderson's traits, which are different from those that Mark Linn-Baker brought to the role.


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    BTW, Bronson Pinchot was engaged to Marcy Walker for a short time.