'Firefly' at 15: How a Canceled Show Became a Cult Favorite

Firefly Season 1 - H 2015 - one time use only
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It was the unlikeliest of invitations. Writer-producer Tim Minear had gotten to know fellow TV wunderkind Joss Whedon while working his Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff, Angel, and one day in 2001, Whedon approached him with what had to be one of the stranger requests he'd ever had.

"He told me, 'I have a spaceship and I want you to come and play in it,'" recalls Minear, who now runs FX anthologies American Horror Story and Feud.

That craft turned out to be a pilot Whedon had written called Firefly, which he saw as a TV twofer: part space opera and part Western. Whedon was a fan of the John Wayne film Stagecoach, about a group of strangers traveling together in the Old West, and this new show was to be a nod to that 1939 movie. Meanwhile, a former executive producer on Angel as well as Buffy — Gail Berman — was the head of entertainment at the Fox Broadcasting Co. And she was very eager to get whatever he wanted to do next on the air as soon as possible.

"I wanted him on the network," recalls Berman, now president and CEO of production company the Jackal Group. "I remember going to the Buffy offices to talk to him about that. He said he'd think about it and not too long after that, I went back and he gave me this fully fleshed-out idea to consider. I was surprised that it was a space show. I didn't think that's where he was headed, but I also thought, wherever Joss is going is where I want to go."

Where he went was a sci-fi series that took off Friday night, Sept. 20, 2002, on Fox. And then crash-landed in less than a season. Despite being on the air for such a short time, Firefly has become a cult phenomenon that only seems to get more popular as the years go by. As the show celebrates 15 years since its premiere, THR spoke with some of the stars about everything from their uncomfortable outfits to a controversial lunch rule to how the fans have shown their thanks over the years.

In the Beginning

Minear: I knew this show felt special and important, but I didn't realize what it was going to be at that early stage. It really wasn't until we were into the making of it that it hit me. Once the show was cast and the spaceship (Serenity) was built, then it was a different story. It has been a very complicated process up to that point because Fox didn't like the pilot. They made Joss go back and add some humor. He did what he could without damaging the pilot, but they never really understood what Firefly was and never loved it. This was all happening right before the 2002 upfronts, and the network was trying to decide if it was going to go for another season of their sci-fi show Dark Angel or pick up this Joss Whedon space show. They couldn't see in their head what an hour of this show would look like and told us they weren't sure we'd get a pickup. Joss and I said we'd write a first episode over that weekend before the announcements and they said OK. Then we asked ourselves, "Are we crazy? Can we do this in two days?" But we spent two days at Joss' Mutant Enemy office, where we broke the story and each wrote half of the episode. And by Monday morning, we had written the "Train Job" episode [which was written as the show's second episode but aired as the pilot Sept. 20, 2002] and the network liked it. And we got picked up.

Berman: Firefly had an incredibly good pilot script, very ahead of its time. I remember it generating a lot of excitement inside the company and we were hopeful it was going to be a brand-new franchise for us. And when it came to casting, Joss was also very forward thinking as he always was. He put together a remarkably intelligent and diverse group.

Getting to Know You

Gina Torres (Zoe Washburne): I was given an outline, but no script, when I auditioned. It was a detailed outline from Joss, and it ran through the big strokes and pieces of scenes that would potentially be in the actual script. I remember thinking, at the very end of reading the outline, though this was a sci-fi show, there were no aliens and no mutants. It was an intriguing take, a sci-fi Western. So I said, "OK, I'll meet." Buffy and Angel weren't a part of my world, but I knew that the guy who created them had had great success. When Joss called me in to read, he said I was just coming in to see producers. Right from the beginning, this show was unlike anything I had experienced. There was no script and one guy auditioning me.

Sean Maher (Simon Tam): The material I was given was the scene from the pilot where Simon explains to the crew what had happened to his sister — the "I am very smart" speech. Given that there wasn't a script, my first question when I met Joss to audition was, "Can you tell me about the show?" He proceeded to paint this extraordinary picture of this wonderfully unique world he had created. I was sold.

Alan Tudyk (Hoban Washburne): I was doing a play in New York when my agent sent me a description of the pilot. I had a friend who'd done a Buffy episode, and when I asked about Joss and if I should go in for a show of his, the answer was the most emphatic "yes" you could get. I did a test on DVD but then forgot about it. Then, I ended up out in Los Angeles for another audition and was about to come home when my agent said they wanted to test me for this show Firefly. I'd forgotten what it even was at that point, figuring that if my audition DVD wasn't in the trash it was at least trash adjacent. But a week after I went in, I got the part.

Adam Baldwin (Jayne Cobb): I knew nothing about the show until I auditioned. I loved Westerns and shoot-'em-ups when I was little. I would watch them with my dad, so that was great. I put on a grumbly voice in my audition, kind of like in those old movies, and they let me just go with it in the show.

Summer Glau (River Tam): I'd just booked my first job as an actor, working for Joss on Angel. I was still a full-time dancer, trying to be an actress and downplaying the fact that I was a dancer. I'd snuck into callback for Angel and ended up playing a ballerina. That was my introduction to Joss, who let me dance on national TV. We had an immediate bond! He has such a different style from anyone I'd read or auditioned for. He let me be myself. He told me on my last day of Angel that he was writing a new pilot and told me a little about it. A month later, I got called in to audition for it. There wasn't a lot to go on. I remember there were only two pages of dialogue for me but no script. Joss writes in such a specific way and I have such a specific reaction to his dialogue, thought, so that was enough. I just knew who River was and how to bring that across. When I finished, Joss turned to (casting director) Amy Britt and said, "That's how you do it!"

The Name Blame Game

Tudyk: We didn't do a lot of press for the show initially. The promos that were done bothered a lot of people. When they promoted us on Fox, they used that Smashmouth song, "Walking on the Sun," which didn't represent our show at all! Their way of marketing didn't match the show we were making. I'll never forget when they first sent some of the promos to us — they used a scratch track for the voiceover but the announcer mispronounced our names. So on the set, we started calling each other by those mispronounced names.

Good Food, Good Friends and Clowns

Glau: Joss really wanted us to bond. He wanted that family rapport. That's why he had a dinner for us all before we started. At this point, I was used to eating instant mashed potato soup and other delicacies like that just to survive. And suddenly, there I was sitting with all these people who had worked for years, in the sort of fancy restaurant I'd never been to before.

Jewel Staite (Kaylee Frye): That dinner felt like the beginning of what could have been a 10-year run. The fact that we all got along so well was such a great feeling, and we were pretty giddy that night as we pounded lots of wine. Joss was really confident about the show so we all just thought it was the start of something that was going to change our lives. Of course it ended a lot sooner than we all thought, but it did actually change our lives.

Maher: I remember that dinner fondly! That was the first time I had met most of the cast. There were so many first impressions and the first time I realized what a special group this was. Jewel and I drove back to our hotel together and I remember how out of place we both felt, her a Canadian and me a New Yorker.

Baldwin: That first cast dinner was at Valentino in Santa Monica. Thank god Joss picked up the bill! I sat across from Ron Glass (Shepherd Book), which was amazing to me because I'd been a big fan of his going all the way back to Barney Miller. He just sat there, looking very Zen, observing the energy of the place. He was very present but not saying much so I wanted to engage him. I asked him what the key is to keeping a series going and keeping everyone friends. He said, "Keep it about the work. Don't let petty squabbles and personality clashes get in the way. Be giving." When he said that, I could see it really hit home for all of us. Also, at some point, I started talking with Alan. I knew he'd gone to Julliard so I asked him what his favorite thing to do in school was and he said, "Getting to play the clown." Then he started talking all about clown theory, which I knew nothing about.

Tudyk: I just explained that clowns are fucking brilliant and they get a bad rap! I tend to try to school people about clowning a lot. I'll admit that the career move I regret not taking is becoming a clown. But I'm talking more about clowns in theater and more of that artistry. In my definition, they are children that have never been told no. They aren't silly, big-shoed, goofy, frightening people making animals out of balloons at parties. They're children who are mischievous and like to get into trouble. They're bawdy and inappropriate and selfish. I enjoyed enlightening everyone on the topic.

The Little Show That Couldn't

Baldwin: The good news for us was that we were going on the air. The bad news was that Fox really only had two hours of primetime real estate open at the time, Wednesday and Friday nights at 8 p.m. They also had two other great one-hour pilots that year, John Doe and Fastlane. And our pilot was two hours, which didn't help us. Two-hour episodes are tough when it comes to holding audience attention spans. Meanwhile, American Idol was the big kahuna that sucked up all the oxygen publicity-wise. That left us as The Little Show That Could at 8 p.m. on Fridays. We were fighting a battle from the get-go.

Tudyk: We were always hopeful that people would find us. We were, as a group of actors, what the show itself was: people who were completely outnumbered but didn't give up. At one point, we even got picked up for part of our back end and that was encouraging for all of us. We could have been canceled but they decided we could make three more or something like that even though the ratings sucked. They kept preempting us for baseball and then some Adam Sandler movie. Which got better ratings than we were getting!

Maher: It wasn't until we were picked up for our back two [episodes] that I really wondered how much support we had from the network. We all felt it, but we still had faith that we'd be the dark horse. 

Staite: We were all aware that we were the underdog. The people upstairs rarely came to visit the set or give any sort of indication that they had our backs. It was probably my sixth series at that point so I had a pretty good feeling that we were going to be canceled. I remember driving home from work one night along Sunset Boulevard and one of Fox’s other new shows, Fastlane, was having this huge premiere party with a red carpet and press and everything. I just drove by it, like, “Cool… I better start packing.” But hey, they don’t have Fastlane conventions now, do they? 

Baldwin: Despite the ratings, we were all really tight as a cast. I don't think Nathan (Fillion, who played the group's leader, Mal Reynolds) gets enough credit for helping pull us through. He was the quintessential No. 1 on a call sheet. I will never forget how he showed up at my 40th birthday party and it was right after we'd just met. He came without even knowing me.

Staite: We liked each other so much, we would spend our weekends together. It was usually at Nathan's house, swimming in the pool and playing Pictionary.

Tudyk: This was a terrible sign right from the start: Fox made us pay for our lunches. We'd have to go to the commissary to buy it and that wasn't worked into the schedule, so we had to make it over there and eat in costume sometimes. Which was very weird. I've never had that experience again on anything else I've done.

Glau: We used to get all these pieces of mail left on our trailer steps. This was my first experience with fan mail and you can't imagine how it feels to have that love showered on from people you've never met. I got all kinds of gifts and art and fan fiction. My favorite was the fan art, and there were people who took time to cross-stitch and needlepoint portraits of River. Someone even made an action figure of her by hand.

Minear: That day we got canceled is one I'll never forget. I was directing an episode called "The Message" and had the whole cast on the bridge of the Serenity. Joss showed up, pulled me aside and said, "We're dead. We're canceled." I asked if we should tell everyone or keep shooting. We decided to tell everyone, stop shooting and come back the next day. He made the announcement and everybody went out to get rip-roaring drunk. When we finally came back to work, I had to direct Nathan, Gina and Jewel in a scene where they were sitting around a table laughing uproariously. They were laughing about Tracey (Jonathan M. Woodward), who they think is dead. It was like an Irish wake with the characters drinking and telling funny stories. I have to admit, it was hard for us to pretend something was funny. It shows you what great actors they were because watching that scene, you'd never know we'd just been canceled.

Baldwin: My daughter was on the set the day we got the news, doing her homework. An AD knocked on my door and said to get to the set because we'd just been canceled. I looked at my daughter and just thought, "Oh shit!" The finality was more shock than surprise because we knew we were near last in the ratings. The finality of it, the timing of it...that's what hit me. I had a young family and having to deal with news like that in circumstances like that sucks. I just thought, "I've got money saved but now what?"

Torres: We had to shoot for a whole week after we got the news. That was hard to do. One of the little games we played in those final days was that providing little Easter eggs, liking coming up with innovative ways to flip the bird. Like a scene where I tucked all my fingers but one into my pocket.

Something Good Coming From Something Awful

Berman: Canceling the show was really tough. The look of the show was so unique and so fresh…there wasn't anything like it before or since on TV. The art direction, which was absolutely Joss' vision, was spectacular. It had an Asian feel, a Western feel, a futurist feel. It was a remarkable example of how to see the future on television. It doesn't come up a lot in conversation for me these days, but it does come up plenty when I'm around fans at places like Comic-Con. Fans will never give me credit for putting it on the air, but they will blame me for canceling it. Firefly has a remarkably big fan base. It's unusual for a show that lasted a year and was canceled gets to make a movie but that's what happened for Joss. He got the film Serenity made in 2005.

Torres: The miracle of this whole experience is Serenity. The fact that the movie happened at all defies all reason. We'd all been getting calls that it was possible, and then Joss invited us all to dinner to say it was actually happening. It was so great to go back and do that, and we had the best time making the movie. I still recall during the shoot that Alan and Nathan commandeered two golf carts and started racing them. We shot at Universal, and they loved racing around and doing gunplay just for fun. They'd try to run each other off the road, and people on the tourist trams would get an extra thing to tell the people at home about. That was that kind of fun atmosphere we had on the set.

Maher: We went to Comic-Con in San Diego to promote the film in 2004 and Joss had cut together a preliminary trailer for the fans. The cast stood backstage while he played it and I remember the roaring of the crowd was like something you'd hear in a sports arena. We walked on the stage one by one and it was overwhelming. I was holding Morena Baccarin's [who played Inara Serra] hand, saying, "Holy shit!" She responded with, "Fucking crazy, right?"

A Con-vincing Comeback

Glau: A year after the show was canceled, I got invited to go to England for a convention. I didn't know what conventions even were at the time. Joss tried to explain it to me because he had so much experience with them through Buffy and Angel. I remember going and just being blown away by how many fans come out to support a show that hadn't lasted a year. Then it all snowballed. Now, every so often at a convention, someone will get a marriage proposal right in front of me. People will tell me they've had Firefly-themed weddings. I've even been invited to a few, which is the highest honor.

Minear: The biggest sign that the show never really disappeared was five years ago, when we did a panel at Comic-Con after having been off-air for 10 years. I remember looking at my hotel window the night before and seeing a line around the block that turned out to be for us! Fans had spent night out there, and it was so packed in the hall the next day that they were turning people away. The enthusiasm was amazing. Comic-Con is not usually about nostalgia. It's about what's the next big thing that's about to be launched. And yet, all these people showed up in this big hall see an old, canceled show's cast and writers.

Staite: The size of that crowd at Comic-Con and that roar we heard when we came onstage solidified the fandom we had even though we had been told no one was watching our show. Clearly somebody was wrong. Even now, when I see people show up in droves at conventions wearing Firefly costumes, it puts a lump in my throat. The other day, my two-year-old was playing with a set of Firefly nesting dolls I was given. He pointed to the Kaylee doll and said, “Mama!” And I just thought, Yeah, I’m doing my part in creating a new generation of Browncoats.

Baldwin: That was definitely when it finally hit me that this had become more than just a canceled show for people.

Tudyk: Comic-Con was definitely a milestone, but we'd all gone to conventions since Firefly had been on the air. And not just a couple. A lot! Morena, Jewel and I were traveling the world. I was meeting young people who weren't even alive when the show was on the air, these four- and five-year-olds whose parents were the fans telling their kids, "You might want to check this out." As sci-fi fandom has grown, Firefly seems to have become one of those genre staples. Maybe it's because it was so short-lived. Maybe it's because Joss is so big now. It's almost like if you want to be a nerd, which is a cool thing to be these days, and you haven't seen Firefly, you will be shamed.

[Editor's note: Joss Whedon, Nathan Fillion and Morena Baccarin declined to participate in this story.]