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Thursday, March 10th, 2011

The Lost Roles of Friends

Casting is one of the most important processes in television. Placing the right actors in the right roles can determine whether or not an entire show rings true. Lost Roles is a weekly series that examines the missed opportunities — the roles that could have been — and explores how some casting choices that almost happened could have changed the entertainment industry and the comedy world at large.

While Friends isn't held in high esteem by comedy nerds these days and its influence on modern sitcoms is lacking, it is still very much worth acknowledging the show for its massive success and decade-long ratings dominance. Friends represents the end of an era. After the show wrapped up in 2004, NBC struggled to find a gigantic hit to anchor its Must See TV Thursday night lineup. When attempts by the network to find the next Friends with the similarly-themed Coupling and Joey failed, NBC went a different direction, abandoning the three-camera setup and the laughtrack, as well as the Must See TV moniker. Today, NBC still has a block of comedies on Thursdays but they’re stylistically the opposite of Friends and its ilk, and they’re not blockbuster ratings successes like many of the Must See TV shows of the '80s and '90s. Friends was the last sitcom to finish the year as the #1 television show during its 2001-02 season. Ever since, CSI and American Idol have been winning the top spot, and NBC lost the ratings stranglehold it held on TV comedy for 20 years.

Friends is also noteworthy for being a true ensemble show. Each of the six performers has an equal amount of screen-time; there's no lead. The cast of Friends gelled with each other nicely, and a different cast could have thrown the whole thing out of whack. However, if only one of these roles had gone to a different actor or actress, it wouldn’t have sent the show too far off-course or drastically screwed up the dynamic between the players. Friends was such a huge hit that it turned its entire cast into movie stars, at least for a short period. Remember the era in the mid-to-late ‘90s when even David Schwimmer and Matt LeBlanc were starring in a major studio films? It’s likely that, if the casting had gone differently, anyone who was a part of this hit show would have also been given a stab at a movie career.

Thousands of actors auditioned to be a part of the central cast, and many have gone on to become highly successful in their own right. Let’s take a look at some of the Friends cast members that could have been.

Tea Leoni

The role: Rachel Green
Who got it: Jennifer Aniston
Tea Leoni was the first choice to play Rachel, but the actress passed on the project. Her career didn’t stall though. She was cast as the lead in another NBC sitcom, The Naked Truth, just a year later and that series ran for three seasons. Although The Naked Truth didn't come close to reaching the through-the-roof success of Friends, the show was still a hit for its first two years and gave Leoni the opportunity the play a lead, rather than be part of an ensemble.

While Friends surely would have given Leoni’s career a boost, she was able to build resume of very successful film and television projects without the show's help. If Leoni had played Rachel, she would mostly be offered comedic film work outside of the show, like Aniston and the rest of the cast have been. Leoni has crossed over into various genres successfully, appearing in dramas (The Family Man), action films (Jurassic Park III), and even a disaster movie (Deep Impact). Starring in Friends would likely have precluded her from taking such varied roles, as audiences would have been unable to separate her from her sitcom role. Aniston’s biggest forays into different genres were the thriller Derailed and the dark dramedy The Good Girl, and neither of these came close to reaching the level of success of the lighthearted rom-coms she mainly appears in. Leoni may have been kicking herself at the time for passing up a gig on one of television’s highest rated shows, but accepting the role would have caused her to be typecast. And of course, the most drastic implication of Leoni booking the role instead of Aniston would be that Jennifer Aniston likely wouldn't have become a major movie star without this show.

Eric McCormack

The role: Ross Geller
Who got it: David Schwimmer
Eric McCormack, best known for playing Will on Will & Grace, auditioned “two or three times” for the part of Ross. It’s hard to imagine him playing Ross with Schwimmer’s same neurotic charm, but they do have a decent-enough physical resemblance, making it easier to picture. Also, the tone and rhythm of Will & Grace is similar to that of Friends, so McCormack has since proven he can succeed in a three-camera environment. McCormack would have had different chemistry with the rest of the cast than Schwimmer, but his presence likely wouldn’t have prevented the show’s success.

If McCormack had been cast in the part, it could have prevented Will & Grace from existing. Although Will & Grace was a show that depended on its four central actors, Will was the co-lead. Who knows if the producers would have been able to find anyone else suitable for the part? Without the right actor anchoring the show, Will & Grace may not have become a hit. It’s also possible it could have even stalled in the development process and never made it to air.

Eric McCormack would have received opportunities to star in big Hollywood movies if he had played Ross, and perhaps his career as a big screen actor would have taken off where Schwimmer has found more success in directing and voice acting. Since Will & Grace, McCormack had a recurring role on The New Adventures of Old Christine, starred in a few TV movies, and was the lead in the short-lived TNT series Trust Me. While he is still a busy actor with another TNT drama in the works, Eric McCormack could have had more chances to raise his fame if he had won the role on Friends.

Leah Remini

The role: Monica Geller
Who got it: Courtney Cox
Like Eric McCormack, Leah Remini was another future sitcom star who auditioned for Friends. The producers chose Courtney Cox over her, but that didn’t prevent Remini from starring in a hit primetime show. For nine seasons, Remini played Carrie Heffernan, the wife of Kevin James’s character Doug, on The King of Queens. Although she wasn't cast as Monica, Remini guest starred on Friends a few years after missing out on the part.

It’s tough to imagine Remini as high-maintenance Monica since she typically plays more laid-back and sarcastic characters. If she had played Monica, her sarcasm would be oddly similar to Matthew Perry’s style as Monica’s love interest Chandler Bing. This could have altered the whole dynamic of the show, but Remini has proven she can hold down a big sitcom role. Taking this part could have given her the boost into film stardom that King of Queens never did, but it also could have jeopardized the overall balance of the Friends cast and the show’s success. If she had been cast in Friends, Remini wouldn’t have been able to accept the role that made her famous. Even though Kevin James was the star of King of Queens, Remini was a major part of the show. It’s doubtful the series would have found the same success with a different actress.

Janeane Garofalo

The role: Monica Geller
Who got it: Courtney Cox
Janeane Garofalo turned down the part of Monica and instead ended up on Saturday Night Live for the show’s infamous 1994-95 season. Although Garofalo's stint on SNL didn’t work out, it’s completely understandable why she chose the way she did. On Friends, Garofalo would have been the only stand-up in a cast of traditional comedic actors. Sketch comedy seems like a better fit for her sensibility than a network sitcom, especially considering how well she had done with the format in The Ben Stiller Show. Also, at the time SNL was a comedic institution while Friends, at the pilot stage, was no different from any other new show starting up. It was just bad timing for Garofalo. This was a fallow period in SNL’s history, during which the show wasn’t particularly friendly to women. Garofalo later referred to her season at SNL as “the most miserable experience of my life.” Oddly enough, Jennifer Aniston turned down SNL during that same era to join the cast of Friends.

The big difference that Friends would have made for most of these actors, besides making them filthy rich several times over, would be setting them up for lead roles in future movies and TV shows. Janeane Garofalo, though, didn't need Friends to become a leading lady in movies. Garofalo's supporting turn in Reality Bites was a breakthrough role for the actress and she was able to parlay the success into starring in The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996) and The MatchMaker (1997). These two movies were very similar to the types of rom-coms the other Friends cast members were making at the time, so Garofalo didn’t miss out on the movie stardom that would have surely followed if she had accepted the part of Monica Geller. Also, being the star of a major TV show would have given Garofalo more opportunities to express her political opinions, while drawing larger crowds to her stand-up performances, if she would have chosen to continue performing after becoming a huge TV star.

Jon Favreau

The role: Chandler Bing
Who got it: Matthew Perry
Jon Favreau turned down the part of Chandler before Matthew Perry was cast, but he did return to the show years later on a recurring basis as Monica’s boyfriend. Passing Friends up was ultimately a smart choice for Favreau, as being tied down to the show would have stunted his budding career as a writer/director. The character of Chandler, as Matthew Perry played him, seems different from the types of characters Favreau normally plays. The actor would have been a better fit for Joey, albeit his version of the character would have been a little meaner than Matt LeBlanc’s. I'm picturing something like his hilarious turn in I Love You, Man.

Favreau’s big break as an actor and writer was on the movie Swingers, which he wrote about his experiences as a struggling actor. Had he been on Friends at the time, his acting career would have been going much better, which would have changed his viewpoint. Also, the Friends shooting schedule would have made it tough for him to write and act in the project. Swingers is so tonally different from Friends that it may have been hard for studio executives and audiences to feel comfortable seeing “Chandler Bing” in a movie this raunchy and dark.

Swingers was a breakthrough film for most of the cast and crew, and it’s likely it wouldn’t have existed if Jon Favreau had been busy with Friends. The movie jump-started the careers of director Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity), and actors Ron Livingston, Heather Graham, and Vince Vaughn. Favreau followed up Swingers by directing Made, Elf, and the Iron Man films, and his career as a director would have been in a very different place if Friends was his full-time job for ten years. Both Robert Downey Jr.’s recent comeback and Vince Vaughn’s movie career may very well have never occurred if Favreau had been tied down to Friends for ten years, keeping him from developing his writing and directing abilities.

Jon Cryer

The role: Chandler Bing
Who got it: Matthew Perry

"I was doing a play in London and got a call at 3 a.m. saying 'We've got this show called Six of One, and we'd really like you to audition for it,"' recalls Cryer. "So they faxed me the script, and I said, 'Sure, I'd love to go in on this.' I went in and read with a British casting person; they took the tape and said they'd get it to L.A. So I went home, and a few days later was told the tape didn't get there in time for the network executives to see.” — Jon Cryer

The producers changed the show’s title from Six of One to Friends after filming the pilot. While Jon Cryer was probably unpleased about missing this part, he got a major role in the highest-rated sitcom on the air a decade later when he was cast as Charlie Sheen’s brother in Two and a Half Men. Cryer, who normally plays characters more innocent and naïve than the cynical and sarcastic Chandler, certainly would have a different take on the character. It feels like he’s better-suited to play Joey but he lacks that character’s blatant sexuality.

Perhaps the most shocking side effect of any of these potential castings, especially in light of recent events, is the effect that Cryer’s absence would have had on Two and a Half Men. Men debuted in 2003, while Friends was still in its last season. If Cryer was cast as Chandler Bing, he would have been unable to play second fiddle to Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men. It’s also unlikely that he would have accepted a non-leading role after coming off of a megahit like Friends, since all of the former Friends actors have been the central figures in their TV follow-ups. So, Cryer’s involvement with Friends would have definitely prevented him from taking part in Two and a Half Men, but it’s hard to say how much it would have hurt that show. Charlie Sheen is the lead and seems to be the main draw for the audience, but Jon Cryer not being involved would have still had a significant impact on the show. Since the network is going forward with a Sheen-less version of Two and a Half Men, Jon Cryer’s role is now more important than ever.

Others

Since the producers considered over a thousand actors and actresses for the ensemble, it’s no surprise that several Friends hopefuls were either well-known at the time or would become known later. The major ones are listed above, but here are some of the other actors who auditioned for or were offered big parts on Friends during the casting process:
• Jami Gertz (Still Standing) was offered the role of Monica before Courtney Cox was cast.
• Nancy McKeon (The Facts of Life) auditioned to play Monica and came close to getting the part.
• Craig Bierko (Cinderella Man) was the first choice for Chandler but he turned it down, oddly enough to film a different pilot called Best Friends which never made it to air.
• Elizabeth Berkley (Saved by the Bell, Showgirls) tried out to play Rachel.
• The producers wanted Courtney Cox for Rachel, but she was interested in playing Monica instead and convinced them she was right for the part.
• There is no information out there about known actors auditioning to play Joey or Phoebe.

Bradford Evans is sorry if he got the Friends theme song stuck in your head.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    I'm indifferent to Friends, but you'd be shocked how many "comedy nerds" looooved/still love that show.

    And the only one of these would-be-cast-members that seems out of place is Garofalo. Couldn't even imagine it.

  • robm

    I really do think Friends gets a bad rap. I think it says a lot about the show that the most common complaints I hear is that it was too "white people with problems" and repetitive with certain character ticks and trademarks. Both of those criticisms could easily be leveled at Seinfeld, so perhaps it's just how Friends handled those aspects in comparison. But I think with those being the chief complaints, it implicitly points out just how good the cast and writing was (at least the writing on individual episodes. Like others, I found some of the major arcs to be poor choices that the individual scripts usually overcame).

  • Bradford Evans

    Maybe I was a little off in saying comedy nerds don't enjoy the show. The two or three times I've seen an episode or part of an episode of Friends in the past several years, it's been funnier than I remember it. It's just that most TV comedies have taken a different direction since this one went off the air.