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Guests gravitate toward top skeins

Producers, actors look for best possible match for parts

The actress had guested on only one primetime series in her life — some minor work on “Laverne & Shirley” nearly 25 years ago. But this season, “Huff” executive producer Robert Lowry decided to give her a chance.

And just like that, a relative TV unknown named Anjelica Huston got herself a role on the small screen.

It wasn’t stunt casting — not in the pejorative sense of the term, anyway. Rather, the Oscar winner’s rare foray into television illustrates the almost giddy eagerness of producers and actors to find the best possible match for a part — no matter how unusual the circumstances.

Huston loved the show. Lowry wanted someone who could be counted on to handle a complex guest appearance. So why not make a match?

“That was a very important role,” Lowry says. “I created a character who once had a successful Beverly Hills practice, but became bored by it because all people did was complain about their hair, and returned to a city hospital. To be able to believe that her character … could manage successfully in a city hospital, that’s a big range to ask for in an actor, and Angelica just nailed it.”

Two-time Oscar nominee James Woods, who memorably checked into “ER” this season with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, had been almost as absent from episodic television in recent decades as Huston. So it’s not surprising that when “ER” first approached Woods, it was simply to gauge his willingness to do the show at all. When he didn’t say no, “ER” exec producer John Wells and his scribes offered to write a character specifically for him.

“Then they sent me the script,” Woods says. “Honestly, it’s astonishing. I read it, and I went, ‘Oh my God, it’s as good as anything I’ve ever read in my entire life.'”

The success of these guest appearances can be addictive. Huston will reappear in the “Huff” season finale, Lowry says. Woods found his “ER’ experience so exhilarating that he says it was “the single determining reason” why he took the lead role on the upcoming CBS series “Shark.” He also had a funny guest spot in the season premiere of HBO’s “Entourage.”

As the epitome of brilliant guest casting, Mark Dawidziak of the Cleveland Plain Dealer cites Hal Holbrook on “The Sopranos” in the role of an ailing scientist with a philosophic bent. Though Holbrook has been nominated for 10 Emmys, winning four, his last nomination came in 1978. His appearance received scant advance promotion or attention.

“(You needed) somebody who has the authority of a Hal Holbrook, somebody who can be a voice of all science, and yet be very human and very sympathetic at the same time,” Dawidziak said. “It wasn’t a very flashy guest spot … but it was the performance that held the episode together. Take him out of that episode, and the episode falls apart.”

“Veronica Mars” showrunner Rob Thomas, who — among other bold choices — brought “Police Academy” and “Three Men and a Baby” star Steve Guttenberg as a child molester, has made a habit of giving  meaty roles to actors who made their names years ago. But like many other producers, Thomas doesn’t feel obliged to nab a celebrity.

For one of his most critical guest parts of this past season, Thomas went with relative unknown James Jordan. Even though Jordan’s character, a mentally disturbed war veteran, was killed off, Thomas was so impressed by the performance that he is contriving to bring Jordan back in a future role on “Mars.”

“When you get a young actor to play unhinged and a little crazy, the opportunity for bad acting is so rife,” Thomas says. “The performance (by Jordan) we cut into the show, I think, is amazing, but there were six other performances he gave that would have been equally amazing.”

As long as the fertile creativity in primetime television continues, don’t look for the number of quality guest performances to taper.

“Sometimes what you can’t find in film is right there on the small screen,” says film vet Christina Ricci, who guested on “Grey’s Anatomy” this season as a frightened paramedic holding a bomb securely inside a man’s chest.

The only limits, as far as Ricci is concerned, are with the shows she has grown closest to.

“I would never actually want to be on them, because I don’t want to ruin the fantasy world they created,” Ricci said. “When Lenny (Jerry Orbach, of “Law & Order”) died, I cried for a day.”

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