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The price of success

Actors struggle to avoid typecasting dilemmas

Woody Harrelson probably could have made an entire career out of playing slow-witted bartenders. Robin Williams might have made a nice living off variations of Mork from Ork.

Instead, both found work outside the boundaries of those characters, but not without some effort. In Hollywood, you are what casting directors say you are unless you can prove otherwise.

Typecasting is a conundrum for most actors: While they are elated to find a character that brings them success, they also fear being thought of only in that regard.

“I think once you become fortunate enough to find a role people identify you with, you receive a lot of offers to do some variation of that role,” says three-time Emmy winner Dennis Franz, who has made Det. Andy Sipowicz on “NYPD Blue” one of the most indelible characters on TV. “The battle is to fight the temptations. If you want to expand to a variety of roles, then you have to hold out and not just take the opportunities presented.”

Like most television actors, Franz isn’t exactly wallowing in dead time. He has just a three-month window in which to do other projects, and he says he tries to select only those parts that he finds as challenging and fulfilling as the one created for him by Steven Bochco and David Milch.

Included in that list are appearances in features such as “City of Angels” and “American Buffalo,” and the TV movie “Texas Justice.” Such forays into other characters help soften the strong identification he has established not only with Sipowicz but with small-screen predecessors Det. Sal Benedetto and Det. Norman Buntz, both of “Hill Street Blues.”

“What has happened is that because of the success of this show and the character, people are willing to take a chance on me to play other roles,” Franz explains, “not just other cop roles. It has opened doors for me in that direction, which have been welcome departures.”

When Edie Falco goes shopping now, she is practically accosted by fans of “The Sopranos” who have trouble separating her from her character Carmela. She says she is flattered, but she also understands the pitfalls of being so closely tied to one enormously popular role.

“I had never played a mob wife before,” Falco says. “I had never played an Italian-American mother. So it was sort of a new thing. Since then, I’ve been offered about 4 million more Carmela types. On some level, I wouldn’t have cared if all the characters were as smart. The writing on this show is so brilliant.”

Falco, who won the drama actress Emmy last year, has a long list of credits covering a wide range of roles, including the part of a prison guard on another HBO show, “Oz.” Recently, she starred in the indie feature “Judy Berlin,” in which she plays a naive Long Island waitress. The part was tailored for her by writer-director Eric Mendelsohn, a longtime friend.

“Frankly,” she explains, “I’m a lot more Judy Berlin than I am Carmela.”

In her experience, she continues, actors have control over the issue of typecasting. “A lot of actors think that if they don’t take those same types of roles, then they won’t work. But if they hang in there, eventually somebody will come up with something different for you to do.”

There aren’t too many similarities between characters Carmela Soprano and Dharma Freedom Finkelstein Montgomery, yet Jenna Elfman can relate to what Falco has experienced.

“In the first couple of seasons of ‘Dharma & Greg,’ I was getting offered all these wedding-romantic comedy movies about the quirky girl,” Elfman recalls. “I actually knew in the very beginning, when we did the pilot, that the show would be a hit. And I knew (typecasting) was something to look out for in terms of my own career, because I had always planned to do film and TV.”

That plan is in full force. Elfman has carved out a bounteous film career, including parts in “EdTV,” “Keeping the Faith” and the upcoming “Town and Country.” She says one of the reasons she has had success finding roles that are departures from the free-spirited Dharma is that she observed some of the career paths taken by other actresses.

“I learned from other people’s mistakes,” she says. “When I was auditioning and struggling, I would take notice of other actors and actresses and see what their successful and unsuccessful actions were. I laid down my own ground rules that I would not be trapped in the Dharma character.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love Dharma. But I do it nine months out of the year. There are other characters I want to play. And I don’t get a lot of time, so I have to be really picky as to what I decide to do. Also, I try to position myself in film with film actors, not television actors. I want to work with people who are strongly known in the film business. It’s almost like living a dual life.”

Elfman was quick to point out, however, that she is grateful for the success of “Dharma & Greg” because it has positioned her to attract other opportunities.

Brad Garrett is equally thankful for his success as Robert on “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Being recognized for one role, he says, is better than not being recognized at all.

“It means you’re working and you’re doing a character that people are going to remember,” he explains. “Between my size and my voice, I’m not exactly going to blend in. It’s a lot better than working at T.G.I. Friday’s (where he was a waiter at the beginning of his career).”

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