The director behind big shows like Friends, Will & Grace and Cheers has revealed some of the sets’ biggest secrets.
Jon Cryer was almost cast as Chandler Bing in ‘Friends’, but FedEx ruined his shot.
The Beautiful in pink star recorded an audition while in London and arranged for it to be taken to Los Angeles overnight. But, as TV director James Burrows reveals in his new book, the carrier lost the package and the producers didn’t even get to see Cryer’s audition, paving the way for the Matthew Perry cast.
That’s just one of the stories in Directed by James Burrows, from June 7, about the TV guru’s six-decade career on TV. He has directed over 50 pilots and has been associated with some of the greatest sitcoms of all time, including: friends† Will & Grace† Cab and cheerswhich he co-created.
Here are some of the most surprising stories from the book:
Burrows had to persuade David Schwimmer to take on the role of Ross Geller, which was written especially for him.
“David initially pointed out the friends job because he had a miserable experience on another show,” Burrows reveals about the actor, who previously starred in Monty with Hendrik Winkler.
“He was hesitant to commit to a minimum five-year term, which all sitcom actors must do… He was concerned that the show wouldn’t work together and that his ideas wouldn’t be welcome. We assured him that this experience would be different and that it would be an ensemble.”
To help create camaraderie among the sextet, Burrows borrowed the Warner Bros. business jet. to bring the then-unknown actors to Vegas for some bonding time.
Confident the show was going to be a hit, Burrows told them, “This is your last chance at anonymity. Once the show has aired, you won’t be able to go anywhere without being hounded.” “None of them believed me,” he said. “They didn’t have any money at the time either, so I gave them all a few hundred dollars to gamble.
“I put down $1400. If the math isn’t right, it’s because LeBlanc had no idea how to play craps and he lost his $200 in seconds, so I gave him another 200. They went back to Los Angeles, the show premiered, they never had a chance at anonymity since then, and they each wrote me a refund check for the money I gave them.”
‘Laverne & Shirley’
Burrows writes that there was “tension” between co-stars Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams from the start. Penny was the sister of the show’s creator and producer Garry, and their father, Anthony, and sister Ronny were also producers – apparently making Williams feel like an odd man out.
“Cindy thought the show was too Marshall-heavy and counted how many lines she’d gotten over Penny,” Burrows writes. “The two started having issues with each other, which became public. I was on set when the sh*t hit the fan and the entire writing staff I loved was fired.”
Burrows was impressed by the surreal comedian Andy Kaufman, who played the friendly mechanic Latka. One day, Kaufman’s alter ego Tony Clifton — a vulgar lounge singer figure — would appear in an episode before the producers thought better of it.
When they informed Kaufman’s manager, he said that was fine, but that “Tony” insisted that he be “fired in front of everyone, with a whore on each knee,” the book says.
“Tony” didn’t like being fired and started yelling “and a big fight ensued with everyone yelling and screaming.” Co-stars Tony Danza and Judd Hirsch loved it, Burrows writes, but Jeff Conaway was annoyed by Kaufman’s theatrical performance.
Burrows also reveals that Danny DeVito has found a way to earn extra money on set as grumpy taxi driver Louie De Palma.
“Danny developed a small cottage industry by taking bribes from the company, including me, to announce the names of family and friends when [his character] sent taxis,” he writes. “He had a good side job.”
Meanwhile, Danza was known to be a rascal onstage — he stole the guard’s golf cart and “as well as Fonzie’s motorcycle from the Happy Days set”.
Burrows writes that in the first season of the show about a Boston bar, they tried to get one legend for a guest spot: Lucille Ball to play the mother of Diane Chambers (Shelley Long). Burrows and Charles’ brother went to the star’s Beverly Hills home to discuss the role.
†[We] sat in the living room with Lucy and her second husband, Gary Morton, whom she married after she and Desi Arnaz divorced,” Burrows recalled.
“We gave her the idea. Gary chimed in with something. Lucy interrupted and said, “Gary, remember where you were.” When we left her house, we tried to decide whether Lucy meant ‘Remember where you were in that story you told’ or ‘Remember where you were before you married me.’”
Anyway, “Lucy rejected us” and the role went to British actress Glynis Johns.
Meanwhile, the character Frasier Crane, played by Kelsey Grammer, would only appear in four episodes.
But the moment they saw Grammer’s face on an audition tape, “We all started laughing… He drove out of New York and lived in his car on the Paramount property for a while.” The actor played the character for nearly 20 years, in both cheers and his own show, Frasier†
Woody Harrelson was actually unknown when he was cast as lovable but dumb bartender Woody Boyd. Burrows recalls how the actor’s youthful zest for life revitalized the cast after Nicholas Colasanto, the actor who played barkeep Coach, died of a heart attack.
“Woody brought foosball, water pistols, and spit balls to the set, turning the middle-aged cast into funny monsters chasing each other…” Burrows writes. “That cast was unrestrained.”
Burrows writes that he once asked Harrelson if he could jump over the bar instead of walking around it. He was able to “and it became a groundbreaking moment for both character and show. He was cute doing it, and it pissed everyone off, especially Teddy. Throughout
rehearsal, Teddy tried to jump over the bar. It wasn’t a good time for Ted or the bar.”
Jay Thomas was a stand-up comedian and disc jockey when he appeared in “Cheers” as Eddie LeBec, a Boston Bruins goalkeeper and love interest for waitress Carla Tortelli (Rhea Perlman). One day a caller to his radio show asked him what it was like to be on “Cheers” and Thomas replied, “It’s cheeky. I have to kiss Rhea Perlman.”
“That was it. He insulted Rhea, which meant he insulted us all,” Burrows writes. “He crossed the family. Jay was fired unceremoniously. Since he was no longer on the show, Eddie had to go too. In our world do not sleep with the fishes; you will die a violent but comical death.”
Writers have Eddie play a penguin on a traveling ice show when he is killed by a slow-moving Zamboni machine.
‘The Bob Newhart Show’
Burrows reveals that when he was working on the 1972 pilot for “The Bob Newhart Show,” they discovered that the show was running a little too long. A producer approached the comedian and said, “Bob, can you stop stuttering?” Newhart’s answer: ‘That stuttering paid for my house in Beverly Hills.’”
‘Will & Grace’
Burrows reveals it came down to Sean Hayes and Alexis Arquette for the part of Jack McFarland.
“Jack is based on a man in New York who slept with everyone,” he writes. “By casting Sean, who looks quite innocent and sweet, we didn’t go to the dark side and it made the character much more appealing.
Bob Odenkirk had once signed up to play Grace’s friend Nathan, but at the first table read that the “Better Call Saul” star’s performance was not good. At the time, the actor was best known for the cult hit series ‘Mr. Show” and producers were nervous that he wouldn’t be able to deliver, so Woody Harrelson took the part. Years later, Odenkirk told Burrows that he and his wife had just had a new baby and he was exhausted.
‘Men who behave badly’
In recent years, Burrows has added a “nice clause” to every sitcom contract he’s signed that allows him to unilaterally walk away from a project if he’s not having a good time. It’s only been used once, on the short-lived NBC show “Men Behaving Badly.”
It was based on a British show about two lovely men who did terrible things. Burrows explains that the original show worked because the lead roles were so sweet that the audience forgave their nasty acts. But, he adds, the US version’s first mistake was hiring “Saturday Night Live” alum Rob Schneider — who “was neither sweet nor knew how to play a sweet character, so it turned into a show about a malevolent man who does evil things.
“Nobody could do anything with that. Rob and Ron [Eldard, his co-star] never went up. Every now and then the producers would say, ‘Rob is in his trailer and he won’t come out. Can you talk to him?’ The vitriol got so bad that during a recording, in front of an audience, the cast “walked through the show” saying their lines without emotion,” Burrows writes. “They tried to replace Ron with Ken Marino, but people found it very difficult to work with Rob. I was ready.”
Burrows says in the book that for him, fun is a harmonious work environment without screaming matches or diva tantrums.
“I still believe that kindness is the most important currency in which you can trade, in business and in art… What I think I owe my success to is my way of making everyone in the lifeboat feel like they keep everyone upright.”
This article originally appeared in the New York Post and is reproduced with permission.
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