Puberty, growth spurts affect character development
When Linwood Boomer wrote the pilot for “Malcolm in the Middle,” he never considered the practical aspects of producing a series about a boy genius. Once in pre-production, he realized how difficult it would be to find a child actor capable of pulling off the script’s technical requirements.
“Frankie Muniz was on the tape from New York the second day of casting,” Boomer says. “The technical facility he brought to it was necessary because we were doing all these complicated camera moves so he had to hit like six different marks while he’s looking into the camera and acting like he’s talking a person, really relating to it.”
Muniz is now 20 and a couple months older than Justin Berfield, who played his older brother Reese. When Muniz auditioned, he was 12 playing a 9- or 10-year old — though their onscreen ages were never revealed. For good reason.
“If they said I was 12, then I couldn’t do something a 15-year old would do, and if I was 15 I couldn’t do something a 12-year old would do,” Muniz says.
“I wondered how old Dewey was myself for a while, but I found out somewhere toward the middle of this season that Dewey was 12, so I’m glad I finally got a number for that,” says Erik Per Sullivan, 14, who’s spent half his life playing Dewey.
Child labor laws limited the kids’ schedules, which included three hours of school a day. To work around that, the oldest brother, Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson), was in military school.
“We had to have that character to make our days,” Boomer says. “We’d work the kids until the clock ran out on them and then we’d start doing Chris’ scenes at the military academy. For the first five years of the show — until Frankie and Justin turned 18 — Chris never came in to work before 6 at night.”
A new problem emerged with the third season: adolescence.
“Justin and Frankie came back from hiatus with new voices. We knew it was coming, so we decided to write to it. Let’s see if we can write adolescent stuff for them instead of little kid stuff,” Boomer recalls. “Some of the pranks and vandalism wasn’t as cute with teenagers doing it, so we had to cut back on that.”
“As we started growing in real life,” Muniz says, “they started working that into the show. Playing basketball, going to high school, girls … stuff like that. It gave the writers more places to go and a lot more options.” Storylines like Malcolm working at Lucky Aid with his mother and Reese running away to join the Army wouldn’t have worked with younger kids.
In the fourth season Jane Kaczmarek’s real-life pregnancy caused the writers to add a fifth son, Jamie, to the fictional family.
“We took about three months of production time to figure out if we could write with a baby or if it would change the show in a way no one wanted. By the time we figured out how to do it, Jane was already nine months pregnant,” Boomer says. “We decided we could make this baby sort of like Swee’Pea from the old Popeye cartoons — Swee’Pea on the girder!”