Searching for the next Gandolfini

The time it takes to reach TV leading-man status can be an instant for some, a lifetime for others.

Longtime Brit thesp Hugh Laurie was a relatively unknown actor in the U.S. before “House” catapulted him into the role of a two-time Golden Globe winner. After a few minor parts in Stateside television productions and as a mousy dad in “Stuart Little,” Laurie is now one of the biggest TV stars on the planet.

Christopher Meloni, on the other hand, came up through the ranks of supporting players before being tabbed by Dick Wolf to be the top crime-solver on the popular procedural “Law & Order: SVU.” He first appeared on the HBO series “1st & Ten”in 1989 and then made his way up the ladder with guest arcs in “NYPD Blue,” “Brooklyn South,” “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Oz” before teaming with Mariska Hargitay on “L&O.”

Though it’s been a long road to top-tier status, Meloni says the approach is the same.

“In my mind, even when I was playing supporting characters, I thought I was the lead,” he says in discussing his approach to the craft. “As an actor, it boils down to essence. You listen and break down a scene. You’re really just focusing on your own work. They don’t teach you in acting class to be a lead or supporting character.”

Casting directors around town have a tough time pinpointing what exactly about an actor’s DNA makes that person able to leap from supporting player to top billing.

“Regardless of their look, they have to have the gravitas and charisma to carry the audition or do it on a screen test,” says Marc Hirschfeld, executive VP of casting at NBC. “If that happens, it can be fairly clear.”

“The sunshine has to be on you, the planets must be aligned and there must be good writing,” adds Dawn Steinberg, casting topper at Sony.

Over at Fox, casting VP Sharon Klein says it’s impossible to define what makes a leading man. It’s not so much about the actor’s good looks — though that certainly doesn’t hurt — but what the character brings to the table.

“It’s such a personal thing to figure out what compels me,” she explains. “Obviously being talented and handsome are important, (but) it’s about who’s keeping me watching. Who’s captivating me?”

James Gandolfini, who just ended his amazing 86-episode run of “The Sopranos,” probably wouldn’t be considered GQ material — and had almost no TV experience before David Chase saw something in him — yet his role as head of a Mafia family is so absorbing and powerful that it attracts audiences of both sexes, and that falls into Klein’s qualifications of successful leading men.

“You want to pick someone who a man wants to be and a woman wants to do,” she says.

Sitting in casting sessions during pilot season can lead to heated discussions about choosing the most appropriate actor for leading-man roles. Sometimes a producer will have someone specific in mind. That’s great if everyone agrees it’s a good fit, but it can ultimately make the process more complicated and difficult if others in the room don’t see that person as right for the job.

“There are a lot of cooks, especially when you’re doing pilots,” Hirschfeld says. “You have to build a consensus. It can be a lively discussion. The producer might come in with someone as their first choice, but to us in the room there’s another actor who’s right for the role.”

As for the current crop of actors who have potential to carry a show on their own shoulders, Steinberg sees “Entourage” breakout Jeremy Piven, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“Grey’s Anatomy”) and former “Malcolm in the Middle” dad Bryan Cranston as breakout possibilities.

For his compelling turn in “Lost,” Terry O’Quinn is ready to make the jump as well, says Hirschfeld, and he calls Jason Isaacs of Showtime’s series “Brotherhood” “a guy who could become the next Gandolfini.”

Of course, the downside to a steady career as a supporting player are the question of familiarity and whether viewers will buy the fact that their favorite actor of many years in one show is suddenly switching gears — sometimes even shifting from comedy to drama, or vice versa.

“We ask ourselves if the actor has been overexposed,” Hirschfeld says. “The ultimate question, though, (is): Is he someone that we believe enough in to be the lead in the series?”

Networks and studios may have their say, yet it’s ultimately the audience that determines who’s ready to make the transition and who’s not.

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