Showrunner-star couplings key
It’s the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum: Is it an actor who makes a show successful, or is it the overall quality of a show that turns an actor into an Emmy nominee?
Would “House” be “House” without Hugh Laurie? Would “Rescue Me” be the same show without Denis Leary’s smarminess? Could anyone else have played Tony Soprano besides James Gandolfini? And is it the concept of “Monk” that makes Tony Shalhoub an Emmy fave, or is it Shalhoub himself and what he personally brings to the role?
“Being that I’m in casting, I’d have to say that the actor makes the TV show,” says Dawn Steinberg, senior VP of talent and casting for Sony Television, adding with a laugh, “Somebody who works as a writer may think differently.”
In Steinberg’s estimation, the abovementioned actors are irreplaceable performers who must get credit for star turns that make their respective shows what they are.
“Perhaps somebody else could have played Tommy Gavin,” Steinberg muses, “but it wouldn’t be the role that it is without Denis. It’s the same for Gandolfini and his role as well.”
Steinberg stresses, however, that she doesn’t discount the value of great writing in elevating an actor’s performance.
“The beauty comes in when the writers actually listen to the actor and his tone and his inflections and what he does best and start writing toward that actor,” she says.
Citing “Friends” as an example, Steinberg relates that while some of the actors were more natural comedic performers than others, the writers did such a good job of playing to each cast member’s strengths that everyone “wound up looking like a comic genius.” (Ultimately, five of the show’s six stars were Emmy nominees and/or winners.)
As for three-time Emmy winner Shalhoub, Jeff Wachtel, exec VP of original programming at USA Network, says there is no denying that “Monk” creator Andy Breckman gave the actor the role of a lifetime in the obsessive-compulsive private detective. But then Shalhoub ran with it, Wachtel says, putting an imprint on the role that only he could and rising from well-respected character actor to lauded leading man.
“I like to say that Andy builds the
diving board every week, and Tony jumps off,” Wachtel says. “So it’s really a marriage of the writer and the actor, and I think in the best of the marriages — (“House” creator) David Shore and Hugh Laurie, Andy Beckman and Tony Shalhoub, David Chase and James Gandolfini — you find somebody who has created an extraordinary and original voice and then somebody who can really bring that to life.”
Ask Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment, if she even could picture an actor other than Gandolfini more perfectly realizing the tortured mob boss at the center of “The Sopranos,” and she insists, “No. No way. He was it. If somebody else had done it, it would have been totally different.”
But can Gandolfini be given sole or even primary credit for making Tony Soprano an iconic character and, in turn, the cable series a classic? Doesn’t series creator Chase, who brilliantly transcended the tried-and-true mobster stereotype by writing a rich, complex character for Gandolfini to portray, deserve kudos for transforming the thesp into the three-time Emmy winner that he is?
The credit has to be shared, Strauss maintains.
“It’s a marriage, and I think both of them would acknowledge that,” Strauss says, noting, “You can separate the fibers of it. Jim brought an unquantifiable amount of something I can’t even describe, and David put those words on the page. He put it down there for Jim to respond to in the first place, and then he pushed Jim.”
Katie Jacobs, executive producer of “House,” is also of the belief that the credit for both a show and an actor’s success at Emmy time has to be spread around.
“I don’t think ‘House’ would work on this level at all without Hugh. For sure, I can say that the character would not be what it is today without Hugh because of his comic sense of timing, his musical ability and the fact that as an actor, he invites you into his inner life,” Jacobs says.
“But I can also say with 100% certainty that the show would not be the same without David Shore,” Jacobs adds. “David is brilliant at writing about what’s going on inside House, those more soulful scenes. So it’s really the two of them.”
Jacobs points to other series that exemplify this creative interdependence between actor and series creators and writers.
“I have seen (Shalhoub and Gandolfini) do phenomenal work before taking on the roles that now define them. But I have to imagine that the reason why their characters are as fully realized as they are is because the show’s creators and writers played to their actor’s strengths,” Jacobs says, concluding, “That’s what the best series TV offers — really smart writers taking advantage of brilliant actors.”