By Cory Barker, Les Chappell, Andrew Daglas, and Noel Kirkpatrick
It’s The Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television by Christine Becker
Chapter 5: The Star in the Story; Conclusion
Noel: So this chapter was, for me anyway, one of the more interesting ones of the book in that it lacked a central star case study. Instead, we get a textual (Playhouse 90) and genre (drama anthology) case study and how stars moved in and out of it. I found this oddly engaging, and, because I’m me, I kept going back to Law & Order while reading it.
Les: And it’s also a chapter where we have some more context, because we’ve already spent some time on anthology dramas. Granted, the focus was on the host (Adolphe Menjou) as opposed to the program as a whole, but it’s still building on our ideas about how the anthology drama slotted into the TV canon of the time.
Andy: There’s also a sense of how TV’s star had risen—at least a little bit— in terms of the caliber of celebrity a top anthology program could land as a guest star. General Electric Theater was able to land Bette Davis, Joseph Cotten, Fred Astaire, Barbra Stanwyck, Gene Kelly, Rosalind Russell, Jimmy Stewart… that’s a murderer’s row.
Noel: As long as they had the budget (or their advertisers and networks were okay with overruns).
Les: What struck me about that list of players was how it provided something of an inverse on what we’ve been expecting. Faye Emerson, Adolphe Menjou, Ida Lupino and Ronald Reagan – they were people who created one specific persona and used that to become successful on TV. A lot of the stars who wound up on anthology programs did so because they were tired of those personas and wanted to do something else. Which spoke to the freedom of TV in those days, something which I think has never quite left the format.
Cory: Yeah, there’s a through-line in the book about how television, despite its lack of cultural clout at the time, really provided actors new, exciting and challenging things to do. If they were willing to risk their careers. One of the best parts of this book and the case study is that it explores both how certain stars had to make one single image work, while others were able to undercut a single image through various television formats (anthologies, sitcoms, what have you). It displays to us that this time in television (like all) was quite complex. There wasn’t a hard and fast rule for how to be successful as a performer, or with a show.
Les: And this may be a result of the examples Chris selected, but I feel like it worked more often than not for them. There seem to be a lot more successes—or at least short-term ones—then there were spectacular failures.
Andy: Spectacular is the right word, since that was what networks dubbed one of the offshoots of the anthology program. NBC in particular in this period began to turn this one-off shows into big-time events.
Les: Speaking of, there’s a quote in that section that jumped out at me: “Initially, CBS was reluctant to join NBC’s spectacular trend: the network believed that predicable, habitual, and economically sound weekly programming was the way to ensure constant viewership, rather than occasional, variant, and expensive specials.” Some things never change, eh?
Noel: Oh how times don’t change. But, yes, Cory, to your earlier point, I think that’s the real value of the work Chris is doing here. And this last chapter is something of a capstone in a very real way because the genre drew in so many stars for a quick paycheck, even if they hated it. And we talk about risk and redefining careers, and I think there’s something very great about this chapter because it emphasizes those narratives, and allows us to draw connections to how the guest star now works in continuing series.
Cory: Television, more so than film (at least it seems), is the space you go to reinvent yourself. That’s how it works today, and it’s cool to see that it was like that years and years ago as well.
Noel: Well, it’s too risky to do it on film. Too expensive. You can do it, sure, but you need to have a star image to fall back on if it flops.
Les: Or one to subvert, as Mickey Rooney and Peter Lorre learned to their satisfaction.
Noel: I very desperately want to see Peter Lorre play a “normal” person. That idea just fascinates me. And speaking of Lorre, what did you guys think about this (apparent) origin of the phrase “stunt casting”, a word I think we use a lot in occasionally different ways now?
Les: I was certainly interested to see this is where it came from, and interested in that I think it’s been cheapened over the years. The implication we get is that it was originally meant as something that lent esteem to the program, an opportunity for both the viewer and the star to have something completely new. Whereas these days, when you hear about stunt casting on a season, more often than not you dismiss it as an attempt for ratings. Especially with the prevailing sense that the networks are the ones pushing for it. (Hilary Duff on Community, anyone?)
Noel: Though, to be fair, Duff was playing against her perceived type there as a Mean Girl.
Les: Okay then, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kate Hudson on Glee.
Cory: More like Jack Black on Community!
Noel: Yes. Very much more like Jack Black on Community. That’s exactly how I think we think of stunt casting now.
Les: I feel like we should just start listing our favorite worst stunt casting moments now. Brad Pitt on Friends!
Noel: Everyone on Will & Grace!
Les: I think Will & Grace did more to kill the stunt casting notion than any show in existence. But Jim Burrows thought that pilot was gold, and it had an ensemble that just clicked! So it was all Zucker’s fault, because Littlefield could do no wrong. Okay, I think I’m getting our book clubs crossed.
Cory: Les, I think your word choice of “dismiss” was a great one. “Stunt casting” is more or less a dirty term at this point, or at best, it has been dirtied. Not only does it play like a play for ratings to jaded viewers and critics, but there’s an overarching sense that this decision is being made for reasons other than story- or character-based. It’s a business choice rather than a creative one. We understand why these things exist but there isn’t the same kind of prestige. Though, let me pose this: Don’t we take stunt casting in drama more seriously than we do in comedy. Or, is stunt casting mostly relegated to comedy in general? It feels to me, when I picture stunt casting, only comedy examples come to mind. You guys only listed examples from comedy. What’s up with that?
Les: I think it’s possible dramas are just better at it than comedy. I mean, look at The Good Wife—to borrow Andy’s earlier term, that show has a murderer’s row of very talented guest stars.
Noel: And they’ve done so by filming in NYC, not LA, where they can get different actors more freely than they possibly could in LA. An inverse of the drama anthologies in the 1950s.
Cory: See though. You just called them “guest stars,” and didn’t refer to it as “stunt casting.”
Noel: But, to be fair, I thought of L&O because they use stunt casting exhaustively. And sometimes it never works. Robin Williams on SVU? EUGH. Jerry Lewis? Oy vey.
Cory: Are we unintentionally making these choices and distinctions? Ddo we call it “guest stars” when it’s good and think it more as “stunt casting” when it sucks?
Andy: At this point I think stunt casting is anything that reeks of commercialism. Like when Britney Spears, in the midst of a full court press to rehab her image, guested on How I Met Your Mother (and, to be fair, was pretty good in a limited role). You can feel CBS grabbing for ratings and Spears grabbing for good press. We know TV is a business, but people always have a distaste when their commercialism is too nakedly commercial.
Les: I suppose I associate “stunt casting” with when they bring in someone who’s a film star that’s big enough and successful enough they don’t need to do TV, and they’re very clearly doing it for the paycheck. And the network’s not pushing what they bring to the show, just the fact that they’re on the show.
Noel: So, yes, Cory, stunt casting is a negative thing, connotatively. Guest stars, after all, get Emmys.
Cory: But who’s to say when someone doesn’t “need” to do TV? This is just a curious distinction that I think we all make, without even thinking about it. Michael J. Fox is an amazing guest star. The dumb stuff they did on Chuck was stunt casting.
Les: I think Chuck had more of a tongue-in-cheek approach to its stunt casting: Schwartz and Fedak picked people they liked and wanted to give fun stuff too. Linda Hamilton, Timothy Dalton, etc.
Noel: Fox’s appearances on Good Wife, however, play against his type. It’s guesting, but it’s classic stunt casting.
Cory: As in, maybe it blurred the lines between guest star and stunt casting, at least how we’ve constructed them in this theoretical exercise? I could buy that.
Noel: Whereas, really, Parker Posey still played Parker Posey. So more of a guest star than a bit of stunt casting, really, maybe?
Les: I think (to tie it back to the book) it comes down to intent and creative control. If you can write a part for a star, and they want to do it, it can still be done well. But if the network’s making you do it to boost ratings, an audience can tell that. And I got the impression for a lot of the early anthology programs, they were thinking about both in equal measure. They wanted to have stars, but they wanted to give stars something worthy of their caliber.
Cory: And to get back to something Noel said earlier about film’s aversion to risk with career reboots, coming to television with the network pushing you along a bit more became and becomes a necessity for some performers. Like, the only recent film actor who I can think of that legitimately rebooted his career is Robert Downey Jr. And he had to do Kiss Kiss Bang Bang first. It didn’t just start with Iron Man. But even he had to try TV for a while because there was nowhere for him to go on the film side.
Noel: WELL. He really started it on Ally McBeal, he just got back on the drugs. I remember when all that happened, too. People were excited, he was clean for a while, and then it all crumbled. He was really good on Ally McBeal, too.
Cory: No, you’re right Noel. TV is a space built for rehab in a lot of ways. The audience gets to spend more time with someone, figure out how their star image is being shaped in a new space and ultimately decide if they want to “accept” them back into their lives if you will.
Les: Why do you think that is? Just because it’s a more intimate medium than the big screen, and one where there’s more regular contact?
Cory: In a lot of ways. It’s that, it’s that the medium allows for the change in image like we discussed and the narrative is allowed to build in the media, in EW and at the water cooler or whatever.
Les: Speaking of Downey, that leads me to a question about how the book’s points fit into the contemporary landscape. How do you all think the notion of film stars coming to TV is perceived to a current audience? Is it, as we discussed, relegated to the role of “stunt casting,” or is there still opportunity/esteem there?
Noel: It depends on the actor.
Cory: And the genre. And the show. And the network. Context.
Noel: Everyone understood that Pitt was on Friends because he was dating Aniston at the time.
Les: They were married at the time, Noel. Shame on you for not knowing that. And he’s apparently admitted he mostly went on there to promote Spy Game.
Noel: Yeah, I think your question rests really heavily on context, Les, as Cory said.
Cory: I think the esteem is there. But it’s situational. When people go on The Good Wife, it matters in some way.
Les: Truth be told, I think we’re in something of a renaissance of film actors coming to TV—not so much as guest stars, but as parts of regular series. And I think the cable model’s done a lot to build that. You see things like Laura Linney on The Big C, or Jeremy Irons on The Borgias—they only have to do 10 episodes a year, and are almost guaranteed some attention from award bodies. Even networks are doing this in a sense, tailoring shows to fit the actor’s schedules. Ashley Judd was a mother looking for her son for ten episodes on Missing, Kevin Bacon’s doing a limited run on The Following in 2013.
Which I think makes a lot of what Chris pointed out in this book more universal than you’d think. The business models have changed considerably in the last 60 years, but a lot of the same opportunities and stigmas are still there.
Cory: This situation is very comparable to what Chris details in the book. Back then, it was the end of the studio system crunching down on the breadth of performers. Now, film is changing where the middle-of-the-road films made with adults and for adults don’t really exist anymore. Kevin Bacon can’t really get a major movie made in 2012.
Noel: Les, I’m not convinced we’re in a renaissance, really. I think we’re just seeing the cyclical nature of film careers ebbing and then going to TV to make a living somehow. And we’re on a bit of a downward slope at the moment as a lot of prominent actors, like the ones you listed, may be seeing fewer film roles. While some folks from TV, like Jason Segel or Steve Carell, are trying to break into movies, away from TV. There’s an exchange of talent happening, and I think that’s just the nature of the intertwined nature of Hollywood’s film and television production practices, as Chris begins to discuss in her conclusion.
Les: That is one change: it’s more of a two-way street than it was in the 1950s. Film stars can become TV stars, and TV stars can become film stars.
Andy: But as she discusses, by the end of the ’50s those plum guest roles were fewer and further between. Budgets slimmed, live programs became less common (eliminating some of the theatrical challenge that appealed to actors). Networks decided they could land profitable audiences with sitcoms and genre fare, particularly Westerns, and the landscape settled into the unchallenging homogeneity that FCC Chairman Netwon Minow would notoriously the “vast wasteland” in 1961.
Noel: So are we seeing similar-ish things today? Like casting directors recycling the same few actors over and over again during pilot season? Keeping some talent circulating but also cheap?
Cory: Emphatically yes. The CW beats this into the ground. On every level.
Les: This is probably the only reason Christian Slater keeps getting work. I think I’d definitely say yes, but at the same time acknowledging that the boundaries between film and TV are far more fluid than they were in the 1950s, again largely thanks to the quality levels cable has brought to the landscape. Now you don’t just have film actors coming to TV, you’ve got film directors directing TV pilots.
Noel: So is that creating a second vast wasteland, to continue Andy’s train of thought?
Cory: I would say that this is a perpetual thing. The repetitive casting and development choices have been present throughout television history. Think about all the pilots George Clooney did.
Les: But of course with Clooney, once he became a big star on ER, you couldn’t pay him enough to get him back to TV.
Cory: There’s also a possibility that because we can or do pay more attention to these things in 2012, it seems like it’s more prevalent.
Les: And again, I think a large part of it does go to the fact that TV has more legitimacy than it had back then. The quality levels that a Playhouse 90 was shooting for have been realized to an extent by the writing and production values outlets like HBO, AMC and Showtime can provide.
Cory: Ultimately, I think this discussion we’ve had today was spurred on by the quality of Chris’ book. Not only does it have fine case studies, nice examples and tons of informative anecdotes, but it emphasizes the fluidity of so many of these things—star image, industrial imbalance, etc.—and mirrors contemporary matters without explicitly saying so.
We’re also happy to announce that the next book we’ll be discussing in this space is Season Finale: The Unexpected Rise and Fall of the WB and UPN by Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton. Thanks to those of you on Twitter who suggested it to us. Those discussions will begin in two weeks, on 8/31.