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Troupers are Easily Trumped When Actors Flood the Market

The recasting process is merciless when thesps from busted pilots become available

For actors, sweating out TV’s development season doesn’t end when their pilot gets picked up to series; instead, officially unveiling the fall lineups introduces one final hurdle to the process: Recasting.

The broadcast networks’ annual scheduling ritual has always possessed Darwinian elements, as hundreds of pitches give birth to script orders, which are thinned down to pilots before a relative few receive a greenlight to become series.

Actors, however, aren’t out of the woods at that stage — a window when studio execs start calculating bonuses and literary agents can slap high fives. That’s because the dozens of pilots that didn’t make the cut join canceled shows to create a vast pool of performers who hoped to be employed during the coming season and now aren’t. Those free-agents allow execs and producers to explore opportunities to possibly “upgrade” their talent, while exhibiting about as much fidelity as lottery winners who realize they might suddenly be eligible for a younger, hotter spouse.

Rejection has always been a part of life in Hollywood, but very little approaches this portion of the pilot game in terms of sheer cruelty — akin to Lucy yanking away the football at the last minute from poor Charlie Brown.

Perhaps no single example captures this ruthlessness more than the tale of Mel Gorham, who in 1997 sold NBC on a pilot loosely based on her life as a Cuban-American actress who leaves Miami to pursue her dreams in Manhattan. Titled “Union Square,” the show was not only ordered but landed the coveted timeslot between “Friends” and what turned out to be the final season of “Seinfeld” — about as choice a piece of real estate as primetime could offer, back when NBC’s Thursday lineup boasted the label Must-See TV.

A few weeks later, in the midst of celebrating her coup, Gorham received notice her role was being recast (execs cited poor testing). Constance Marie replaced her, which didn’t spare “Union Square” from first-season cancellation.

Sometimes such changes save the day, but more often they tend to be a zero-sum game, causing one to wonder in hindsight why execs went to all the fuss and expense. Already, Parker Posey has exited the just-ordered NBC comedy “The Family Guide,” following last year’s decision to recast the female lead in “Animal Practice,” which was suprising only because all the buzz surrounded the monkey, not the people.

While critics hardly represent a significant consideration in such decisions, it’s worth noting sometimes-minor substitutions compel them to go back and re-watch many series scheduled in May, an experience that can’t help but feel a trifle numbing on the second or third exposure to the same material.

Admittedly, it’s hard to fault programmers for wanting to provide projects with what they deem as the best possible chance to succeed, and the cutthroat nature of pilot casting does place undue strain on the system: Although there’s never a shortage of actors who want to work, execs invariably cite a shortage of those with the chops, stamina and charisma to carry a show, particularly with the explosion of original production for cable and now even the Web.

Still, it’s hard to think of a more deflating prospect than waiting months to find out whether you’re going to be drawing a regular paycheck, only to be told for whatever reason — including opinions registered by a few dozen people listlessly turning dials in a Las Vegas testing facility — that the network has decided, in baseball terms, to bench you and hand the ball to the left-handed phenom instead.

Actors get lots of attention for behaving crazily, but given how arbitrary such casting changes can appear — and to have something so tantalizingly close taken away — it’s understandable that playing the waiting game can drive one a bit loopy.

So for thesps who have run this far in the sometimes-baffling pilot race, good luck with the home stretch. And if for some reason you’re not able to finish, don’t waste time on bruised feelings. After all, it’s nothing personal; it’s strictly, brutally, business.

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