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Thursday, April 14th, 2011

The Lost Roles of Seinfeld

The cast of Seinfeld was a well-oiled machine and still stands as one of TV's all-time great ensembles, so it's no surprise that it took a lot of playing around with different casting possibilities before Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld found their George, Elaine, and Kramer. The cast wasn't even complete by the time the pilot made it to air with Julia Louis-Dreyfus nowhere to be found until the second episode and another actress playing a coffee shop waitress named Claire who was intended to be the fourth member of the gang.

Seinfeld's was an amazing, perfectly-balanced cast, and if any of the four leads were switched out, it would have screwed up the show’s dynamic and could have spelled disaster, since the show was constantly on the verge of cancellation for its first few seasons. Along with other great sitcoms like M*A*S*H and Cheers, Seinfeld posted low Nielsen ratings initially. These three shows are in the upper echelon of American sitcoms, proving that some of the all-time best shows have taken a little while to find their groove and to get popular. It's scary that TV executives rarely show this kind of patience today. That's why NBC's recent track record is so impressive, as they've made a habit of holding onto critically-acclaimed, award-winning shows that don't always score big ratings. Their block of Thursday night comedies (easily some of the best on TV) fall into this category, with The Office, 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Recreation debuting to soft ratings that would prompted cancellation on nearly any other network. ABC or Fox would have had no trouble pulling the plug on these shows six episodes in, before the series really found their voices, but they would have missed out on some shows that eventually found large audiences.

Without further ado, here are some possibilities that were considered during Seinfeld's casting process.

Danny DeVito as George
Yes, that's right. Danny DeVito was considered for the part of George Costanza. While he has a similar body type to Jason Alexander, DeVito's screen persona is closer to evil curmudgeon than neurotic mess. Still, DeVito is a talented comedic actor, and I would love to see what his take on George would have been, even if he wasn't quite right for the part.

It's especially strange that Danny DeVito was even a possibility for the show, considering that none of the parts were given to big name actors. DeVito had recently become a major film star at the time of Seinfeld's debut, starring in back-to-back hits with Throw Momma from the Train and Twins. Back in the ’80s, the attitude toward television was much different, and TV was looked down upon by those in the entertainment industry as being inferior to film. Although DeVito got his big break on TV, it was unheard-of at the time for a successful film actor to jump into a TV show. Some of DeVito's best work has been in television, though, with Taxi being one of the great modern sitcoms and the Seinfeld-inspired It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia still going strong after six seasons. DeVito excels in sitcoms, and although taking this part from the actor who made it iconic would have forever altered TV history and potentially hurt the show, it would have still been fun to watch.

Rosie O’Donnell as Elaine
Rosie O'Donnell and Larry David came up together in the New York stand-up scene, and he brought her in to audition for the part of Elaine. O'Donnell ended up finding a better fit for herself on her eponymous daytime talk show a few years later. If Seinfeld had somehow still proven popular with her as Elaine, it would have prevented her from taking that opportunity but guaranteed her plenty of post-Seinfeld primetime sitcom work. Rosie O'Donnell got the chance to work with her old friend Larry David years later on Curb Your Enthusiasm, playing herself in multiple episodes. She's filmed another guest spot for the show that will air as a part of Curb's newest season this July.

Steve Buscemi as George
Steve Buscemi is an incredibly talented actor and he's given some impressive comedic performances, but he's one of the few on this list to never star in a sitcom (his recurring role on 30 Rock doesn’t count). Despite this, he did audition to play George back when the show was casting. George's baldness is such a huge part of his (and alter ego Larry David's) identity that it's hard to imagine an actor with a head full of hair in the role. Buscemi almost seems like a better fit for Kramer than George. Just when you think Kramer couldn’t get any weirder.

If playing George Costanza had been a successful venture for Steve Buscemi it would have prevented him from taking on a lot of his well-known ’90s acting roles. The Seinfeld part could have caused Buscemi to be stuck as a sitcom actor in the minds of audiences and studio executives and prevented him from taking on the diverse assortment of projects that have populated his filmography. Steve Buscemi's found success in a variety of genres and worked with many of our greatest living directors, and all of this may not have happened if he won the part of George Costanza.

Patricia Heaton and Megan Mullally as Elaine
Patricia Heaton and Megan Mullally found sitcom success years after they auditioned to play Elaine Benes, when they were cast in Everybody Loves Raymond and Will & Grace, respectively. While I'm sure missing out on Seinfeld was disappointing at the time, both actresses found roles they were better suited for, earning themselves plenty of acclaim and recognition.

If either one of these actresses had won the role and found success as Elaine, it would have prevented them from taking part in Raymond and Will & Grace and thrown those shows out of whack, causing a ripple effect throughout the sitcom industry. Even though Will & Grace’s run didn’t overlap with Seinfeld's like Everybody Loves Raymond's did, each member of Seinfeld's cast was so successful by the series’ end that everyone was expected to follow it up with a leading role. A supporting part on Will & Grace for a post-Seinfeld Megan Mullally would have been out of the question. Mullally's found success since Will & Grace as part of two mega-talented cable ensembles in Party Down and Children's Hospital. If she had played Elaine Benes, it would have been tougher for her to blend into these large casts.

David Alan Grier as George
David Alan Grier was also amongst the actors considered to play George Costanza. While Grier is a talented and funny performer, George is such a despicable character that having the only African-American actor in the cast play him would have been a questionable choice. While it's true that the rest of the show’s lead character are rather petty and selfish (this is where much of the humor comes from), George Costanza is easily the worst of them. Seinfeld drew criticism in its day for rarely featuring non-white actors. David Alan Grier's casting would have certainly changed that, but it may have caused some larger problems with the portrayal of minorities on the show.

Booking the Seinfeld part would have caused Grier to miss out on his breakthrough role on the Fox sketch show In Living Color. Grier was a major force on that show, creating some of its most well-known characters. Needless to say, Grier's absence wouldn't have prevented In Living Color from becoming a hit, as the show was brimming with comedic talent. Like the Seinfeld cast members, David Alan Grier had a tough time finding a stable sitcom role after success on a hit series. Since In Living Color ended its run, Grier has bounced between a half-dozen cancelled shows, and if he were cast in Seinfeld, he may have suffered a similar fate that the media would have attributed to the non-existent "Seinfeld curse."

Paul Shaffer as George
David Letterman's bandleader and SNL alumnus Paul Shaffer says in his 2009 memoir, We’ll Be Here the Rest of Our Lives, that he was offered the role of George. Shaffer even claims that Jerry Seinfeld didn’t want him to audition and flat-out offered him the part. Paul Shaffer never called him back as he was very busy at the time. Shaffer does bear a physical resemblance to Larry David, upon whom the George character was based, but it's hard to imagine him in the iconic role. The Seinfeld part would have required Shaffer to leave his post at Late Night with David Letterman and forced Letterman to find someone new to banter with. Paul Shaffer's been more involved in the proceedings of Letterman's shows than most late night bandleaders tend to be, and his absence would have given the shows a different feel. It seems unlikely, but the Seinfeld role could have reinvigorated Paul Shaffer’s acting career.

Tony Shalhoub as Kramer
Shortly after being passed up for Michael Richards, Tony Shalhoub found success with another sitcom part, playing taxi driver Antonio Scarpacci on Wings. Wings lasted eight seasons and Shalhoub was the show’s scene-stealing equivalent to Seinfeld's Kramer. Although each member of the Seinfeld cast was important, Kramer was perhaps more integral to the show than any of the others. He was the one the studio audience rapturously cheered for whenever he slid into the room. That is, until the other cast members asked that they stop doing that. Michael Richards gave an infectious performance, creating one of the most memorable characters in all of television. Shalhoub certainly has enough offbeat bravado to pull off an interesting take on the Kramer character, but nobody could have done it quite like Michael Richards.

Oddly enough, Michael Richards almost ended up starring in Tony Shalhoub’s most famous role after leaving Seinfeld. Monk was first conceived as an ABC show, and execs at the Alphabet Network wanted Richards as the star. Michael Richards didn’t like the script, opting to play a P.I. on the short-lived Michael Richards Show instead. ABC passed the project over to USA, where Tony Shalhoub took over as Adrian Monk.

If Shalhoub had finished up a successful run on Seinfeld in 1998, he would have been expected to follow the show up with another network sitcom, like Michael Richards and the rest of the Seinfeld cast (sans-Jerry) did. Taking an original series gig on a cable network would have felt out of the question and beneath a star of his stature, especially considering how different the cable landscape was when Monk debuted back in 2002. Monk was one of the first shows to prove there was an audience for original series outside of the major networks. Along with The Sopranos and The Shield, Monk helped kick off an era in high-quality cable programming that lead FX, TNT, and AMC, amongst others, to get into the original series game. Had Shalhoub done Seinfeld, he may have ended up in the ABC version of Monk, and the cable revolution of the past decade would have either never taken place or begun with a different series.

Also, I doubt anyone would have wanted to see a Michael Richards stand-up set if he didn't have the Seinfeld fame (let alone film it on a cameraphone), so that's one incident that wouldn't have happened if Shalhoub had won the Seinfeld part. And while we’re on the topic of race, Tony Shalhoub is of Lebanese descent, which would have broken up the Seinfeld cast’s previously-mentioned racial monotony.

The Lost Seinfeld Spin-Off
Back in 1999, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld were gearing up to produce a Seinfeld spin-off based on the Johnny Cochran-inspired, ambulance-chasing lawyer character, Jackie Chiles. The idea for the show came from Phil Morris, who played Chiles on Seinfeld. Morris was planning on reprising the character in this new series, which would have revolved around Jackie in an “austere white law firm.” The show was planned to debut at midseason during the 1999-2000 TV season, but things never came together and a pilot wasn’t even filmed.

I’m not too sure if this would have been a good idea. It seems like, based on the Chicago Tribune piece, Phil Morris was much more enthusiastic about the idea than Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld (or NBC, for that matter). It’s probably for the best that the Seinfeld season of Curb Your Enthusiasm was chosen as the follow-up collaboration instead of this project. Despite this spin-off never getting off the ground, Phil Morris has continued to play Jackie Chiles after Seinfeld's run, first in a series of 1990s Honda commercials written by the Coen Brothers and most recently in several Funny or Die videos last year.

Other Seinfeld casting tidbits:

  • Also considered to play George were Nathan Lane, Kevin Dunn, Larry Miller, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s husband Brad Hall. Character actors Larry Hankin and Steve Vinovich also auditioned for Kramer. Hankin played the character based on Kramer on the show-within-the-show that Jerry and George write.
  • Actress Lee Garlington was intended to be a part of the cast, as a coffee shop waitress named Claire who occasionally gives advice to Jerry and George. Garlington appeared in the pilot episode and her name was in the opening credits. But when the show was picked up, her character was dropped and Julia Louis-Dreyfus was brought in to play Elaine. This is just one of the many inconsistencies between Seinfeld's pilot and the rest of the series. In addition to Lee Garlington subbing in for Elaine, the show was originally called The Seinfeld Chronicles, featured different music, and Kramer was named Kessler. Also, Kramer/Kessler knocked on Jerry’s door before entering. You read that right, he knocked on Jerry’s door!
  • Jerry and George’s fathers were each played by different actors initially. John Randolph played Frank Costanza in one episode only. The scenes were reshot for syndication with Jerry Stiller, who replaced Randolph. Phil Bruns played Seinfeld’s dad, only to be replaced by Barney Martin. His scenes were not reshot.
  • In season two, Newman was originally envisioned as an African-American man who was Jerry’s landlord’s son. Tim Russ (Star Trek: Voyager) and William Thomas Jr. (The Cosby Show) read for the part. Thomas was cast and his scene was filmed, but it was cut from the final broadcast. Larry David did Newman’s voice for one off-camera scene, as that was all the episode called for. This was intended to be a one-time role and never envisioned as a recurring character. Wayne Knight’s Newman came about the following season as Jerry’s neighbor/nemesis, and Knight redubbed the voice for syndication. This original incarnation of the Newman character seems to only share a name with the Wayne Knight character, so it’s odd that the name was reused for what seems to be a completely different guy. But if the writers had chosen to give Wayne Knight’s neighbor character a different name, Jerry’s famous “Hello, Newman” line may never have came to be.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles who is glad Seinfeld worked out the way it did.

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