Of all the brands scattered across the Hollywood landscape, few have burned as long and as brightly as Central Casting. When someone is said to come “straight out of Central Casting,” entertainment insiders and outsiders alike know just what they’re talking about.
Or do they?
Central Casting, opened its doors in 1926 and in the ensuing 90 years has been the preeminent facility for background actors, body doubles, and stand-ins around the U.S. It’s such a generic brand that many are surprised to learn it’s actually a business.
“It makes me laugh,” says Jennifer Bender, Central Casting exec VP. “People think it’s a joke.”
It’s not. With more than 100,000 active background actors —“extras” is so yesterday — in its database across four offices, L.A., New York, Atlanta, and New Orleans, Central Casting remains the most prominent casting house in the business.
“We like to see ourselves as a company that’s leading the way,” Bender says. “We’re full-service, training background actors, offering enrichment classes.”
Central is also the only one-stop shop in the industry to both place background actors and handle their payroll.
The more specialties actors can offer – juggling, dancing, costumes – the more in demand they are. When Showtime’s “The Big C” wanted real-life cancer patients, or “Deepwater Horizon” director Peter Berg wanted real oil rig workers, Central provided.
“Central Casting has the bulk of opportunities for television, film and the occasional commercial,” says longtime background actress Jo El Skore, who has appeared in productions ranging from “Seabiscuit” to “Dr. Ken.” “And I never have to go looking for my paycheck.”
Originally formed under the direction of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America president Will Hays, Central sought to organize and regulate the influx of extras in the budding industry. During its first six months of operation it had placed more than 113,000 background actors; in 1927 it opened a division for African-American actors.
The company has built an actor database, helped regulate working conditions and wages, and provided an entryway for upcoming stars. Future Oscar winner David Niven registered in 1935, for example.
Central’s fortunes have always been tied to the vagaries of the industry. Its registry took a hit for many years after World War II when studios brought casting in-house.
But Central came through for some big productions — 1969’s “Hello, Dolly” boasted a parade of 16 units and 3,108 extras; 1979’s “The Rose” required 12,000 rock fans.
The company was acquired by Production Payments Inc., the West Coast subsidiary of Talent & Residuals (itself owned by Intl. Digitronics Corp.) in 1976. In 1991 IDC merged with Draney Information Services to form Entertainment Partners, Central’s present owner.
Bender notes that casting today is becoming more precise. “The days of casting a New York street scene with 100 random people are gone. It’s now an art form where directors often want to hand-select or pre-interview people because they want a very specific look. … We’ve even looked for a man with one eye and one arm. If it exists, we’ll find it.”