When people talk about the greatest casts in TV history, inevitably, two of the shows mentioned are Frasier and Modern Family. They also talk about the absolute coup that was casting Kirstie Alley to replace Shelley Long after the fifth season of Cheers, a move that reinvigorated the show, kept it going for six more seasons and led to the show winning a whole bunch more Emmy awards.
Well, the man behind it all is casting director Jeff Greenberg, an indisputable legend who won an Emmy for the first season of Modern Family. It’s his only win, but consider that he has been nominated 14 times, and that’s as sure a symbol as any of how well he is respected in his field.
Now, nearly 20 years after Frasier went off the air, it’s back. This time star Kelsey Grammar is surrounded by a whole new cast, which meant Greenberg once again had to sprinkle his magic dust. The new show premieres on Paramount+ on October 12th.
How did you get into casting in the first place?
Well, I had been an actor out of college. I got a few acting jobs, lived on a shoestring and had 100 job jobs. One day, after I’d been acting for a decade. a casting director friend called me and said, “I just got a movie that starts tomorrow, but my usual assistant isn’t available. So are you free?”
At the time, I was working at Jane Fonda’s Workout for minimum wage, sending out all of Jane’s merchandising at the time for her aerobics business, you know, leotards and tights and pregnancy books. I was in a room with no windows with Bill Paxton, and all we did all day was type labels. So yes, I was available to help out. Well, on that very first day, I not only loved it, I got it. It was like Alice Through the Looking Glass.
I stepped into this other world and loved it. Because of my training as an actor, I knew how to talk to actors. I knew how to dissect the script, how to give notes, how to read with an actor and how to deal with directors. I just had the skills as if I had trained to be in casting. It all coalesced immediately.
Amazingly, your first big solo job was on Cheers, which was not exactly an entry-level gig.
I got what they call in Hollywood a Big Break. It’s usually a series of little breaks, but I had a Big Break, which was when I was friendly with a couple of guys who had assumed the executive producer showrunner status on Cheers, which was already a huge hit. They needed a new casting director, and because of my background, working casting in the theater and on movies, I somehow got that job. I came aboard in the fifth season, and right away I was tasked with having to find Shelley Long’s replacement. I found Kirstie Alley and not only did it work out, it made a big hit even bigger.
Being on Cheers just immediately elevated me to be in that world, and off of Cheers, I got a lot of other work because the producers and writers that came through that just went on to do other things. That’s how I ended up casting Wings, which was my first pilot and became a huge hit for eight years, and then Frasier, and I did that for 11 years. So that big break just led to other amazing things.
What was it about Kirstie Alley that had you so convinced she was the right person to replace Shelley Long on Cheers?
I had just seen Kirstie play Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Mark Taper Forum. She brought great humor to the part that usually doesn’t have that much humor, and she was stunning to look at. I set up a meeting with her and the creators and they loved her. Then they set up another meeting with her and Ted Danson just so they could have lunch together. Then Kirstie came over on a Saturday to Paramount Studios and we had her read with Ted and Rhea [Perlman].
All of this is under complete secrecy. No one in town knew. My own assistant didn’t know. Then NBC made us see more people. So I read hundreds of women. Sharon Stone, Kim Cattrall, Marg Helgenberger and a lot of other wonderful people. When it was all over, [creators] Glen and Les Charles and Jim Burrows said we believe it’s Kirstie and Brandon Tartikoff, who was running NBC at the time and who put Cheers on the air, said, Well, if we can’t trust their taste at this point, what are we doing here? She won an Emmy for that first season, and the show did, too.
You got your first Emmy nomination for Frasier and then got six more for the show. What was it like coming back to the series after 20 years?
It’s only Kelsey from the original show, with all new people. He’s back in Boston with a new job. He’s a professor at Harvard. He lives in a new place, he’s got new characters around him, and he’s trying to mend his relationship with his son. Bebe Neuwirth comes back to do an episode as Lilith, and Peri Gilpin comes back to do an episode as Roz, so we reflect on Frasier and Cheers, but we want to make it its own thing.
By the way, I’m not objective at all. I think the show is just great. I had a fantastic experience. I love the new cast. It’s not exactly Frasier. It’s a beloved first cousin, with the loveliest, most incredibly collaborative people. Kelsey was better than ever, what he can do with a syllable is a masterclass. He’s just the greatest leader. He’s inspiring. He’s awesome. And the new cast is fresh and great. I had a ball, I loved it.
One of the things that makes a great cast, obviously, is chemistry. You look at Frasier and Modern Family, to name two, and that’s a huge part of the show’s success. Is there a secret to putting together a cast that works so well?
You try to do your groundwork. When you’re putting together the cast, you try to get chemistry readings, if you can. Like, we saw Kelsey read with Jane Leeves. On Modern Family, the only characters that read together were Cam and Mitch.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson was the first one we cast. As we were seeing actors play Cam, our finalists, we’d have to go to the network and Jesse would read with three actors. But, you know, we made an offer to Ed O’Neill and Sofia Vergara, but they didn’t read. Ty Burrell and Julie Bowen both auditioned and went to the network, but they never read together and they both got cast at the last minute. So you do the best you can to try to get chemistry readings, otherwise, you just have to cross your fingers. You can’t guarantee the chemistry, you just cross your fingers that everyone gets along.
I finish all of my interviews with the same question, which is, do you have any piece of advice for actors who are auditioning for you?
Master the material, so you don’t need to hold it. And really use yourself. There’s no one like you. If it’s a comedy, try to understand the style of the piece and find the funny in it. On a pilot, that’s tricky because it doesn’t exist yet, but you can ask about it if you’re not sure. You can ask how broad it should be or how real it should be. There’s lots of different levels of that. I guess those are little tidbits of advice.
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