'Second position' TV casting on the rise

Kyle Bornheimer, left, Alyssa Milano and Tyler Labine (Getty)

Alyssa Milano among actors with series roles and pilot offers

Casting actors in "second position" on pilots has been on the rise during the past few years.

The process -- in which actors in on-air series are cast in pilots -- also has become increasingly aggressive, with broadcast networks even going after actors whose shows have not yet premiered.

This pilot season, Kyle Bornheimer and Alyssa Milano, stars of ABC's upcoming comedy series "Romantically Challenged," and Tyler Labine, star of Fox's upcoming comedy series "Sons of Tucson," were pursued for pilots. After fielding several offers, Bornheimer signed on as the lead in CBS' hot comedy pilot from "How I Met Your Mother" creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas.

Overall, more than a dozen actors on existing series already have been cast in pilots this year.

Casting executive Marc Hirschfeld, who cast one of them -- "Numbers" star Rob Morrow, in ABC's drama pilot "The Whole Truth" -- is not surprised.

"I think this is probably the most competitive pilot season in about eight years," he said, pointing to the number of broadcast pilots (83) and increased competition from original series on cable.

Casting already committed actors has gone on for years, focused primarily on talent from "bubble" shows, but increased competition in the past couple of years has been driving the number of second-position pilot castings up.

"It can be a bit of a high-wire act when hiring an actor for a pilot that is still tied to another series," Hirschfeld said. "But in this competitive environment, when you have up to 100 pilots casting simultaneously on both cable and network, and you're trying to creatively put together the right cast inside of this pressure cooker -- front-runners for a role being snapped up by a competitor even before you can test them at network -- looking at actors that are tied to bubble shows can be a viable alternative."

For instance, three of the stars of ABC's low-rated sophomore comedy "Better Off Ted" -- Jay Harrington, Andrea Anders and Malcolm Barrett -- have been cast in second position on comedy pilots: NBC's "Nathan vs. Nurture," ABC's "Mr. Sunshine" and Fox's "Most Likely to Succeed," respectively, with co-star Portia de Rossi also in talks for a pilot gig. Similarly, Eliza Coupe of "Scrubs" has been cast in ABC's comedy pilot "Happy Endings"; "The Forgotten" co-star Michelle Borth landed the female lead in ABC's drama pilot "Matadors"; "Numbers" stars David Krumholtz and Morrow have been tapped as the leads in Fox's comedy pilot "Tax Men" and ABC's "Truth," respectively; and "My Boys" star Jordana Spiro was cast as a lead in NBC's dramedy pilot "Love Bites."

Although second-position castings have been on the rise, tapping an actor contractually obligated to a series that has not premiered remains rare.

The most famous example is Jennifer Aniston, who was cast in the pilot for NBC's "Friends" in second position to CBS' comedy series "Muddling Through," which had not launched.

In fact, "Muddling" didn't premiere until July 1994, well after "Friends" had been picked up to series, forcing the marketing department of "Friends" producer Warner Bros. TV to do two versions of the cast's publicity shot -- with and without Aniston.

But "Muddling" quickly was canceled, and Aniston took on the role that would ignite her career and help "Friends" become one of TV's biggest comedy series.

More recently, in 2008, Fox cast Jane Lynch as a guest star on the pilot for "Glee" as she was tied as a regular to another pilot, ABC's "Never Better." She also was booked on Starz's comedy series "Party Down" as a regular.

But after "Better" went away, Lynch was free to become a regular on "Glee" halfway through its first season and leave "Party."

Things were more complicated for Bornheimer, Milano and Labine, who have long-term broadcast series deals for "Challenged" and "Tucson."

In one of the first major pilot offers this season, Labine was approached in January to star in CBS' comedy "True Love."

For Labine, the offer came out of nowhere. Only days before, he faced questions from TV critics about taking the role in "Tucson" while still on the CW's cult favorite "Reaper."

"I didn't jump ship," Labine said at the time. "I was basically being a smart actor, taking a great job that came up in the meantime, and Fox was gracious enough to give me an out with a second-position contract. It was a win-win-win for everybody."

Word of the offer quickly got to Fox and 20th TV, the network and studio behind "Tucson." They had not launched their promo campaign for the comedy, set to premiere Sunday after "Family Guy," and were not thrilled by the prospect of hyping a new series whose star already was attached to a new project.

After an agonizing weekend of mulling his options, Labine turned down the offer out of loyalty to Fox.

Similarly, producers from two ABC pilots -- "Women Are Crazy, Men Are Stupid" from ABC Studios and "Happy Endings" from Sony TV -- reached out to Milano and Bornheimer, whose series "Challenged" has not been slotted but is rumored for early-April premiere behind "Dancing With the Stars" on Mondays.

After Warner Bros. TV, which produces "Challenged," got wind of the offers, it contacted the network and, to show support for the upcoming series, ABC asked its pilot-casting directors not to go out to actors for "Challenged," effectively pulling the offers.

But the "Challenged" stars were fair game for other networks, and CBS mounted an intense campaign to land Bornheimer, offering him three comedy pilots: the untitled Bays/Thomas project, "True Love" and the untitled Tad Quill project.

That put the actor in a difficult position because, while he has obligation to ABC on his current series, he also has loyalty to CBS, which, after years of bit parts, cast him in his first starring role on the critically praised but short-lived comedy series "Worst Week."

He eventually settled on the lead role in the Bays/Thomas comedy.

Nobody is doing anything illegal or wrong in second-position casting, and both sides can make compelling arguments to justify their actions. Producers have the right to go for whomever they think would be best for a role, and actors have to think long term. If an actor misses a pilot season waiting for his or her show to premiere and that show gets canceled, they'll have to wait another year before they get another shot. And if that midseason show is a success, they'll be committed for the duration of their contract.

Conflicts are much easier to resolve when midseason series premiere in January and February, so their fate is more clear by pilot-casting season.

For instance, three of the stars of Fox's recently pulled midseason series "Past Life" -- Kelli Giddish, Nicholas Bishop and Ravi Patel -- already have been cast in pilots: "The Chase," "Body of Evidence" and "Nirvana," respectively. Ben Lawson of ABC's drama "The Deep End," another underperforming midseason series, also landed a pilot in second position, ABC's "Freshmen."

While going after talent attached to series that haven't premiered "can be even trickier," casting executives still try to calculate the risk, Hirschfeld said.

"If a network has cut back on the number of episodes originally ordered for a series, that might be an indication to competitors that the network has lost confidence in the show's creative direction," he said.

That was the case with "Challenged," which saw it order cut from 13 to seven.

"That could create an atmosphere where a competitor might be willing to risk hiring an actor in second position," Hirschfeld said. "Of course, that can backfire in a big way. You shoot a multimillion-dollar pilot with an actor in second position, the actor's other series premieres and does surprisingly well, and suddenly you're stuck with a pilot with a lead actor you can't have."
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