Small role can turn into permanent spot on call sheet

Chris Pratt remembers when he found out his first season guest stint on the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation” — as dimwitted layabout Andy, girlfriend to Rashida Jones’s Ann — was being turned into something permanent.

“(Showrunner) Mike Schur said, ‘We have this nice cliffhanger, not knowing whether or not you come back,’ ” recalls Pratt. “I was like, ‘And …?’ He said, ‘Oh, oh, we’ve got a five-year plan for Andy.’ He said it like it was somehow not life-changing information. I went home and had a secret celebration.”

Pratt’s joy was partly because the move from guest actor to regular is special territory for an actor. It’s a sign that he or she didn’t just season a show’s mix, but came off an essential ingredient. Other examples from this year include Giancarlo Esposito’s poker-faced meth kingpin Gustavo on “Breaking Bad,” Alan Cumming’s oily portrayal of a political strategist on “The Good Wife” and Walton Goggins’ memorable menace as Boyd Crowder on FX’s “Justified.”

“It’s a tricky balance,” says Vince Gilligan, creator-exec producer of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” of the guest actor’s lot. “From an actor’s point of view, the intention is to blow everybody away with good work. But on a show like ours, good work equates to less is more, so it’s not the totality but the potential you’re looking to get across.”

For Gilligan, it meant instant recognition that Esposito’s frightening dignity as Gustavo — who first showed up in season two — was worthy of becoming a third season fixture.

“My writers and I had in mind that Gus could become very important, but when you’re working with new people, there’s always a trial period,” he says. “But Giancarlo, his intensity, his regalness, it recalled ‘The Godfather,’ which is a touchstone for us. It was everything I wanted and more.”

Of the option to bump a guest actor up, Pratt, who had the same promotion to regular happen to him on “Everwood,” says it’s an understandable insurance for a studio.

“I’ve learned to be a realist about it,” he explains. “Of course, 90% of the time it’s, ‘We’re not going to keep you,’ or ‘If somehow after we kill you, you come back, you’ll be a regular.’ “

And yet, reincarnation is exactly what happened to Goggins, whose bank-robbing Boyd went from shot dead at the end of the “Justified” pilot (which was also the conclusion of Elmore Leonard’s original short story, which the show is based on), to a recovered thorn in Kentucky lawman Raylan Givens’ side in the hit cable drama.

“We knew we had something special,” says “Justified” showrunner Graham Yost about Goggins’ casting. “Then FX said, ‘Guys, what’s coming out of testing is that people are disappointed when he dies, that they think he’s a great foil for Raylan. Could we keep him alive?’ We said, ‘That’s a no-brainer.’ “

Goggins’ magnetic villainy and ability to keep you guessing as to Boyd’s motives gave the writers the ideal counterweight to Timothy Olyphant’s good-guy cool. His work didn’t just light up the screen, it inspired the writers.

“Not only do Raylan and Boyd have a history, but the fact that Raylan can see through Boyd, and Boyd knew that, led us into a new part of the story for us that wasn’t in the Elmore short story,” says Yost. “The big arc became Raylan and Boyd. As soon as we landed on it, it just opened up so many ideas for stories and gave a coherence to our first season.”

Gallery: Guest stars in the mix

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