Writer Joel Stein was working out at the gym when he was approached by producer Max Mutchnick (of WILL & GRACE) to audition for the starring role in an ABC sitcom pilot. The problem was, Joel wasn't an actor and had never acted before.
Max insisted I come in, and even though I was well aware that I cannot act, I agreed. As soon as he sent me the script, I started figuring out how to deal with my upcoming money and fame. Within minutes, I pictured myself usurping Max's authority and threatening to leave the show unless they made the writing darker and artsier. This was despite the fact that the script was way better than anything I've ever written, none of which is at all dark and artsy.
He did the audition but didn't get the part.
The part wound up going to Josh Cooke, who had the advantage of being an actor. And ABC didn't wind up putting it on the air anyway. But I still needed to find out how I did, so I called Max. "You're too cerebral," he said. "You thought about what you were doing. Actors are dumb for a reason. They don't think, they just be. It's like when you make love. You just have to do it." It's as if Max has been secretly talking to my wife.
Stein's story reminded me of the time I also was approached to act in a pilot…though I didn't know at first I was expected to perform in a part. Let me explain…
Five years ago, a friend of mine at TVLand called me up to say they were doing a talkshow pilot called TV KITSCHEN starring Martin Mull & Fred Willard, who were brilliant in the classic talkshow spoof FERNWOOD 2 NIGHT. My friend wanted me to be a guest and to talk about one of the worst unsold pilots ever. And if the series went, my "unsold pilot" report would be a regular feature.
It sounded like fun. So I picked a pilot, the horrific TARZAN IN MANHATTAN (Tarzan befriends a cab driver named Jane and teams up with her Dad, a private eye played by Tony Curtis, to fight crime). The idea was that I'd screen some clips and chat about the show with Mull & Willard. I'm pretty comfortable being on camera, and in front of a studio audience, so I wasn't too nervous about it.
Two days before shooting a script arrived at my house…and I discovered that TV KITSCHEN shared more in common with FERNWOOD 2 NIGHT than its two stars and talkshow format. It was an entirely scripted show, written like a sitcom, and I had dialogue to memorize. I would be, in effect, playing a character named "Lee Goldberg."
The problem was that I'm not an actor and I would have to hold my own with Mull & Willard, who are not only professional actors, they are comic geniuses. I was terrified.
I quickly called up the producer, who convinced me not worry, that it would be fun, and that all I had to do was be myself…as long as I stuck to the script, of course.
My fear was outweighed by my curiosity. What would it be like to act? Besides, I knew I was perfect for the part. Even if it was a disaster, it would be a memorable experience. So I decided to do it. I spent the next two days running my lines with my wife and my writing staff on MISSING, trying to say them naturally, as if I was me just being me. I was a very unconvincing me.
The shooting day arrived. The set looked like the kitchen in a suburban home with a few TVs scattered around it. I was greeted warmly by my friend, the writer/producer, who immediately took me over to the director, Ted Lange, who is best-known for playing the bartender on THE LOVE BOAT. Lange immediately decided I was dressed all wrong for the part and sent me to wardrobe, where they tried to make me look like a college professor. I suggested that a cardigan sweater might be a cliche and that it wasn't something I felt that Lee Goldberg would wear. We had a short discussion about the Lee Goldberg character and I won the cardigan battle.
I was then sent to make-up, where I met Fred Willard, who I'd met before when he did a guest-shot for me on DIAGNOSIS MURDER. Much to my surprise, he remembered me and the episode and we had a very nice chat. He also told me not to be nervous because he and Mull weren't going to stick to the script anyway.
I spent the next several hours sitting in the bleachers (the studio audience, really a bunch of hired "extras," had already left after recording their reactions, applause and laughter) watching them shoot. Each time Mull & Willard deviated from the script, Lange made them do it again, as written. As a writer, I appreciated it. But as an objective third party, it was obvious that the improv stuff was much better than what was on the page and played more naturally, too. And Mull clearly knew it. His discussions with Lange were getting more and more tense. Don't get me wrong, Mull was polite and professional, but his anger and frustration were clear.
Then it came time for my scene. We did a rehearsal, where I was stilted, awkward, and horrible. At least, I felt that I was. Lange had no notes on my "performance," just instructions regarding blocking (where I would be and when and where the cameras would be). Mull & Willard were very nice. While they lit everything, I chatted with Mull & Willard, who expressed to me their frustration with the script, and then we discussed unsold pilots that they had done, FERNWOOD 2 NIGHT and other stuff.
When it came time to shoot, I felt much more relaxed with them and the scene played much better (from my POV) than I thought it would. And I know it was because of the chat we had. Our "fictional" conversation became an extension of the one we were having off-camera. They put me completely at ease. I've often wondered if they did that on purpose or if things just worked out that way.
I saw the pilot a few weeks later and didn't cringe with embarrassment when I saw myself. I wasn't great, but I wasn't awful, either. I would have preferred to be myself rather than play myself, but all things considered, the bit played okay.
But the pilot didn't get picked up and with it the likelihood of me developing a cult following and my own wildly successful LEE GOLDBERG SHOW spin-off died as well.