Part Two: Casting a TV Serial Calls For Ear for Talent, Eye on Budget

Casting a television series beyond the running characters is a delicate operation, performed weekly in the rather frenetic surgery of the producer’s office.
I sat with producer Mort Abrams and several of his associates while they cast a recent episode of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
Abrams was worried. “We have eight running parts in the show,” he said. “We’re going to have to cut down. We can’t pay as much for individuals.”
One of the important roles in this particular episode, “The Children’s Day Affair,” which was telecast last Friday, was an Italian girl named Anna, a social worker shepherding a group of children to a placement agency.
Read for the Part
Three actresses were awaiting anxiously in Abrams’ outer office to read for the part. They had been carefully culled from a long list prepared by the casting director that included every actress he considered a possibility.
Such a list is compiled for each character in teach show. The producer then goes over the list, knocking off names because they are “too expensive,” “not right for the part,” “not available.” The others are checked out by phone to see if they are interested and willing to work for the fee that can be paid. Those that remain on the list are then invited to “read” for the part.
Readings were done for Abrams and his director for this episode, Sherman Marks. Each of the girls was received and heard with courtesy that at times bordered on courtliness.
Marks and Abrams sat on a couch. The candidate sat on a chair opposite. Every effort was exerted to lighten the atmosphere and make the actresses feel at ease.
“Would you take the hot seat dear? If we don’t like this reading, you know, we push a button and … Now, do you have any questions about the character before we start?”
All three girls seemed to read quite well, but Abrams and Marks were in immediate agreement on a tiny pert young brunet named Susan Silo. As she left, Abrams said: “Stay in touch today, dear.” When she was gone, he told Marks: “I like Susan.”
The director agreed and stepped outside to send her immediately to the wardrobe department for costuming—and to tell the other two actresses that this wasn’t to be their day. More often than not, this is a heartbreak business.
Meanwhile, in Abrams’ office, the phone was jangling constantly. Most of the time the casting director—in a near-by office—was on the other end.
“Have you made the offer to Eduardo Cianelli? He did? Good, good. Buy it. Now what about…? No, I don’t think so. I’ve used her in several shows. She’s not the actress she used to be. She’s not loose. Age is a threat to her. She doesn’t work enough, and she has to keep busy to be free.
“What’s your reaction to…? She’s in New York, but we could swing a deal for her. But there’s no surprise there. We know exactly how she’ll play it.”
Protocol Involved
Two other principal roles remained to be cast, one male, the other female. Both of them involved a delicate question of protocol: at what point in his career is a performer insulted if he is asked to read for a part?
Certain highly successful players would obviously never be asked to read; they would simply be offered the part on the strength of their reputation and previous performances. Another much larger group would be asked to read as a matter of course because they hadn’t yet made it.
But between these two extremes is a rather large assortment of actors and actresses who are accomplished professionals but of tenuous enough reputation that they still must compete for parts.
In the Hollywood pecking order, some of them are insulted if they are asked to read for a part. Producers are sensitive to this feeling and reluctant to rock the boat—but also anxious to cast their show.
On this day, the UNCLE producers agreed to cast the male part without a reading session by hiring veteran actor Warren Stevens. But they decided to offer several actresses the opportunity to read for the female role.
Two of them did. They were treated gingerly. Every effort was exerted to leave the impression that the group had gathered for a pleasant little tete-a-tete, and this fiction was preserved to the end.
After much discussion, it was decided not to use either of the actresses who had read for the principal female role but instead to exercise an option held on an actress named Jean Cooper.
Then followed reading sessions by two elderly Italian actors, by a blond German girl with a great taking decolette, and by a dozen small boys who were herded into the room and asked, one by one, to hide behind the desk and sneak up on the director. They weren’t told they were being cast to play villains.
When they left, director Marks said: “I think the kid in the middle was probably the most objectionable. None of them hit me as a kid I’d want to punch in the nose, though. Let’s get some more in tomorrow.”
Abrams winced. “Okay. Otherwise, I think we’re all set. Now for the bad news—budget time.”
An accountant and assistant director were ushered in, carrying several sheaves of papers crowded with figures. Abrams reacted to the figures as if he had been set upon by a trusted friend.
“Why do we have to have decorators? I can’t stand that. We’ll have to make other arrangements….How many foreign cars are we renting?…Well, why don’t you get some Volkswagens? Don’t we get them free?
“What’s that $900 for a recording session for the choir? Why can’t we do that right on stage?…I don’t care if the music department does think it’s Mickey Mouse…Can we get by with six kids? We can make them look like 12…Okay, okay, let’s make it eight.”
The show was still $2,100 over the budget when the session broke up.
“We’ll meet at 9:30 tomorrow to cut the rest of it out of the prop budget,” promised Abrams to the back of the departing accountant.
The shadows were deepening about the cavernous sound stages at MGM. Most of the workers had gone home. Abrams still had to work with a film editor on a troublesome problem for an upcoming show. Then he had to audition a choir for the show I was following.
Camaraderie of Cast Conceals Pressure to Complete TV Show
The “Man From UNCLE” cast and crew is one of the more relaxed in Hollywood.
Superficially, there seems to be a constant air of easy going camaraderie among them. But underneath, always, is the constant pressure to get the show done—on time and on budget—so another show can be started. These are the realities of filming a television series.
Each segment of UNCLE is filmed in six days. The cast and crew work a five day week: thus each show runs one day into the following week. At the start of the fall television season, UNCLE was about 10 shows ahead of the game. By the end of the season, it will be frantically turning out products for use almost immediately.
The show I was watching—“The Children’s Day Affair”—spent its first two filming days shooting outside, on the “back lot” at MGM studios in Culver City.
The script had been carefully broken down into a shooting schedule, and there was extreme pressure on the director to complete each day’s schedule. Otherwise, the show would be overtime and over the budget, and the schedule for the following show would be out of synchronization.
Director is Busy
Director Sherman Marks, a veteran of several dozen major motion pictures and television films, is a small, mustached, soft spoken man who persuades rather than badgers, consults rather than orders. He was everywhere on the set, checking locations, lights, props—and finally, people. Occasionally he even found a moment to talk with me.
“It’s difficult,” he said, “to keep a line of emotion when shooting out of sequence. But we can’t afford to do it any other way. We have to clean up our outdoor shots all at once.
“This is a great show to work, though. There’s no temperament here. Never. We can’t tolerate temperament on a filmed television show. We just don’t have time.”
All the people I had seen around the production conference table two days earlier—the prop, art, costume design directors—were now hovering about the set, overseeing their specialties, from the first time I met the actors and actresses.
Jean Cooper turned out to be a tall, well proportioned blond with luminescent blue eyes. She held a cigarette in her teeth. Warren Stevens—a slender, dark, good looking man with a cleft chin—was quiet and rather withdrawn. Leo G. Carroll and Eduardo Cianelli, both veterans of 50 years in the theater, found on another the first day of shooting and were inseparable thereafter.
Stars’ Styles Differ
The two stars of the show—Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin—had entirely different styles around the set. Vaughn was almost always in evidence, wandering about rather impassively, doing more listening than talking, leaving an impression of slight boredom.
McCallum was less in evidence when he wasn’t immediately involved in shooting. He wasn’t aloof. When on the set, he exchanged easy wisecracks with the crew. But when he wasn’t needed, he usually disappeared inside his dressing room. And—one might suspect—inside himself.
There was a comfortable relationship between Vaughn and McCallum. They apparently felt no compulsion to seek each other out or make small talk with one another. When they came together naturally, they exchanged sophisticated wisecracks in the uncle genre. Otherwise, they went about their own business—in their own way.
Crises developed periodically and were resolved with varying degrees of pain. Jean Cooper’s hairdresser went to the wrong set and the second morning a search had to be made for her and a car sent after her.
Director Marks, meanwhile, had to improvise a shooting schedule. He simply couldn’t tolerate the half hour’s delay while Miss Cooper got her hair arranged.
“We know when we’re behind even a few minutes.” Marks told me. “It’s like D-day every day. If the wardrobe is 20 minutes late, we’re sunk.
“It’s not like making a motion picture. There’s a much more leisurely pace in the movies. The director can sit around and talk over a scene for an hour. He can ask himself: If I do it again, can I get it better?
“We can’t fish for a performance in television. We do it until we get it right. But we can’t do it over and over, hoping for an unexpected nuance.”
Always the oppressive hand of the budget hovers over every action.
At the end of the first day’s shooting, I followed Marks while he set up a shot for the following day. An UNCLE agent would be gunned down on a rooftop. He would roll down the roof and directly into the camera.
In the gathering dusk of the MGM back lot, Marks discussed the scene with the stuntman who would do it. He was standing atop the building with the assistant director, while Marks framed the scene from below.
It seemed that there were different prices of different types of falls. Coming down headfirst was more expensive than rolling down. While Marks debated camera angles, his assistant haggled price on the rooftop. The finally agreed on what would be done.
“I’ll wear a special suit so I don’t get splinters,” said the stunt man. “All I need are some cardboard boxes at the bottom.”
The next morning, I joined Abrams in a screening room to look at the “dailies”—the uncut and unvarnished film taken the day before.
The producer looks at the previous day’s filming each morning. This is how he keeps in touch with the show. Normally, he doesn’t go to the set unless some emergency calls him there.
Abrams liked the dailies and said so. He liked them so much that we went to the set to tell the cast and crew—and also to tell them the news that a Nielsen television rating of 30 major cities had put UNCLE in first place and that CBS had canceled “Slattery’s People,” which was running opposite UNCLE on Friday nights.
“You know what they’re putting against us?” chortled a crew member. “Art Linkletter. They must be giving up.”
Vaughn and McCallum showed no elation. Later in the day they sent a telegram of regret to Dick Crenna, the star of “Slattery’s People.”
“It’s a good show,” Vaughn told me. “It’s a shame it has to go.”