Darrell Vickers – Shut Up Kids Part 2: Casting – A Little Dab’ll Do Ya

Very few execs dare to call themselves writers. Sitting alone in a room for hours on end, pounding out words that some future idiot will tear to pieces, is not a lot of fun. It is work of the dullest nature. Drudgery. For many, it is tedium beyond the endurance of saints.  Like having psychotic gnomes drilling birdhouse-sized holes into your cerebral cortex as you stare bleakly at a white computer screen that mocks your suffering. The abject blood-freezing fear of the untyped page has turned even the most talented of scribes to booze, drugs, bocce ball and eventually blessed death.

And yet,… any brain dead baboon and his one-legged mother think they can cast. How many times have you been watching television with the fam and someone has opined, “He’s totally wrong for this movie, Mike Myers would crush that part.” Nobody ever says, “I have a better idea for the ending. I’m going to go and type up a new third act.”

Moving Forward

After our script for Shut Up Kids had been beaten, crushed and julienned into an unrecognizable mess, the wide-tongued Quasimodos at the network finally gave their approval for a pilot to go forth. In reality, it wasn’t even a full pilot. Perhaps we had yet to endure sufficient skull-shattering torment to be gifted one of those juicy plums. Instead we were handed a thriftily priced “presentation.” More on this cost-cutting slight of hand at a later date.

Where was I?

Now that we were in the process of translating these worn and weary pages to the tiny, unflat screen (this was the early 90s), we unfortunately required that other dreaded threat to our precious, gold-encrusted words.

Actors!

I once described the relationship between the humble scribe and our fine thespian community as frighteningly similar to that of a quadriplegic and his caretaker monkey. You can take all the precautions you want. Pour your heart and soul into training and building up that sacred bond. But, on that first night, when everyone else has gone home and all that remains is you and your Simian friend, all you can do is sit there helplessly, waiting to see if he is going to put that spoonful of boiling hot soup into your mouth or your eye socket.

Back to the Beginning

Casting – and I’ve done it a ton – is a grueling and spirit-draining ordeal. Here are a few of the less-than-groovy facets of this age-old showbiz tradition.

1: Having to keep a smile on your face while someone is performing a thespiatorial act of heresy. Forcing yourself to laugh at your lines, as they dribble out of an actor’s mouth, roll down his chin and stain his shirt, just to break up the torturous silence in the room. Then, being compelled to jump up at the consummation of this cringe-worthy crucible and yell, “WOW, that was great!”

“Any tweaks or suggestions?”

“No! For the love of God, please leave now, before I start to cry.”

This abattoir of the psyche gets pushed to the lowest most circles of hell when it’s a famous – sometimes legendary – actor that you’ve admired for years. At first, you’re totally knocked out that Michigan J. Movie Star is auditioning for a couple of galoots from Oshawa. You root for them. Thoughts of hanging out at lunch with an entertainment icon dance about your head. Discussing how you think a scene should be approached with a real live Oscar winner.  Casually mentioning to that girl who rejected you all through high school (and beyond) that you’re hangin’ out with the star of her favorite movie. Yowsa! Who wishes she’d said yes to that Abernathy Shagnaster concert, now?!

But no. From the very first line, those dreams desert you like all your friends when your father’s car runs out of gas while doing donuts in a cornfield. Brilliant, beyond talented, stuck-up-high-school-girl destroying, but not just right for the part. FUCK!

2: Sometimes they’re just too short or tall, too heavy or thin, too old or young for the part or to play against another actor already signed. You know they’re not going to get the job before their ass hits that cheap, plastic seat but still you have to sit there grinning like a self-medicating dentist through the entire dog and pony show.

Side Note:

We had a one-line role for a student. I don’t remember the specific joke but it had something to do with their father being in jail. David, Andrew and I auditioned a bunch of children for the part. The best reading by far was by an African American girl. Well what to do? The best actor deserved the part but can we really have an African American girl, in a mostly white cast, talking about her father being in jail? Gadzooks! For sure, not! It would be racist. But, of course, it wouldn’t be. The part was already written. We’d be just giving the best actress the part – and yet we couldn’t. In the end, we decided to write another joke and give her the role. A joke’s a joke but if it had been an important plot point we would have been forced to give the part to someone else and that would have been a shame.

Back Back to the Beginning:

  1. And this is the one I hate the most. All the networks and studios are shameless, groveling starfuckers. Casting a “name” is a Get Out of Being Fired Free card. If the series completely flops, the spineless, bloodless, vermicular eunuch at the network gets to just thrust up his hands and lament, “Hey, we put Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lawrence in this television “event”. Nobody on Earth could have foreseen it would only last two episodes.”

When David Neuman was originally envisioning the series, he had Dabney Coleman in mind for the lead. The network also coveted Mr. Coleman but they also wanted backups incase a deal could not be struck. So, we sent out the obligatory casting call. Actor after hopeful actor would shuffle into the room and niceties would be expressed. Readings would be performed. More niceties and smiles. The odd “adjustment” was made. And none of it mattered one fucking iota. In the end, the powers that be were hell-bent on casting Dabney Coleman, which is precisely what they did. Now, there have been times in my topsy-turvy career when actors were far from my favorite of human beings but no one, with the exception of Robert Townsend and Rob Schneider, deserves to be demeaned and have their time wasted like that.

We Have A Star!

While Dabney wouldn’t have been my first choice (we had much better candidates left lying on the casting-room floor), it wasn’t the end of the world. He was funny. He was certainly mean. I’ve suffered much, much worse casting fates than an aging Buffalo Bill.

On the eve of his agreeing to be a part of our 22 minute ragtag laugh-fest, the studio plus all and sundry were summoned to the Dabman’s house. He lived in a fairly unremarkable abode on the edge of Brentwood that at one time was owned by Montgomery Clift. Imagine packing that much combined unhappiness within those woody walls.

The House of Dabney

As we, the studio and network execs flaunted our oleaginous obsequiousness, Dabney held court and smoked non-stop. At one point he paused, just before lighting his third or fourth straight cigarette and said, “Don’t worry. I’m quitting smoking tomorrow because of a dare from someone. You’re probably all looking at me and thinking, ‘This guy is never going to last.’” Appropriate sycophantic guffaws ensued.

Dabs was 59 at this point in time and was not what you’d describe as a “clean liver.” Nor did he own one. Word was, he ate dinner almost every night at Dan Tana’s (an old world Hollywood hangout). He would order, without variance, a steak with fettuccini alfredo and wash it down with lashes and lashes of Tanqeray martinis.

In fact, the legend goes on to say that Dan Tana’s used to set up a lectern by the valet service. They didn’t want one of their most profitable guzzlers imbibing in the restaurant after closing time, so they allowed him three al fresco ‘tinis and the eternally-thirsty Mr. Coleman would happily park himself on the sidewalk and sip away until they were done. This was our star.

Once the Dabster was in the bag (in more ways that one) and production jumped into high gear, Andrew and I thought it might be an opportune time to break the news to Johnny, before he read it in the Trades.

So on a Monday, after our regular Tonight Show pitch meeting, we held back as the other scribes emptied out of his tennis pavilion.

“So, we just thought you should know that we sold a pilot to Fox.”
”That’s great. Who’s in it?” smiled our generous boss.

“Dabney Coleman.”

“Well, congratulations guys. Of course you do realize that he’s a prick.”

=DV=

Please scroll down to leave Your Comments, Kudos, and Complaints

DBAWIS_ButtonDarrell Vickers started out as one half of Toronto area band, Nobby Clegg.  CFNY fans may remember the cheery song “Me Dad” which still gets airplay.  From there, he valiantly ventured to L.A. and eventually became head writer for The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  Since then, he’s created numerous sitcoms and animation shows in Canada and the U.S.  He still writes music and has an internet band called Death of the Author Brigade (members in Croatia, Canada and the U.S.)   Mr. Vickers also had a private music mailing-list where he features new and pre-loved music.  Anyone who would like to be added to his daily mailing list, just write him at Radiovickers1@gmail.com

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