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In The Big Bang Theory: The Definitive, Inside Story of the Epic Hit Series, author Jessica Radloff reveals in the forthcoming oral history of the comedy that Marisa Tomei, Tara Reid and Elizabeth Berkley were all considered to play the role of the lovable neighbor that, ultimately, after a table read and busted pilot, went to the fan-favorite actress.
Radloff’s oral history (due Oct. 11 via Grand Central Publishing) features interviews with 40 people including co-creators Chuck Lorre and Bill Prady, longtime showrunner Steve Molaro and stars Cuoco (Penny), Johnny Galecki (Leonard), Jim Parsons (Sheldon), Simon Helberg (Howard), Kunal Nayyar (Raj), Melissa Rauch (Bernadette) and Mayim Bialik (Amy).
Below, The Hollywood Reporter shares a sneak preview of the untold stories that readers can expect with this exclusive excerpt that offers a rare glimpse into what could have been for what became television’s longest-running multicamera comedy of all time. And tune in Friday to TV’s Top 5 for an interview with Radloff about her book and the other big reveals she uncovered in her reporting for it.
Now that the roles of Sheldon and Leonard were in place, it was time to cast the female lead, Katie. The character’s name was originally Penny (“Sheldon and Leonard encounter this woman on the street; she’s a lucky penny,” Prady explains), but at the time, CBS had another pilot in contention with a character called Penny and asked Lorre and Prady to change it to something else. They obliged. But even with a new name, the character of Katie was nothing like the character of Penny that audiences would come to know and love. Penny was bubbly with a Midwestern innocence and optimism; Katie was cynical, down on her luck, and off-putting.
Ken Miller [casting director]: Kaley Cuoco went to the network and tested for the first pilot of Big Bang. She’s so sunny and bubbly, and they just loved her, but she just didn’t bring the dark qualities. She just wasn’t the essence of Penny in that first incarnation.
At twenty years old, Cuoco looked a bit too young for the more experienced Katie, who first appears sitting on a curb, crying over a breakup as she talks on her cell phone.
Kaley Cuoco (“Penny Hofstadter”): I loved the role, and I loved Chuck. I had worked with him when I was fourteen or fifteen on a pilot called Nathan’s Choice. I know Chuck really wanted me for the role of Katie, and I was definitely bummed when I didn’t get it, but I kind of have a way of moving on because you have to.
In fact, in the very early days, Marisa Tomei was considered for the series and actually auditioned with Jim Parsons.
Jim Parsons: I had the part of Sheldon for a long time before everything was settled. I read with Marisa Tomei. Johnny was cast by then, but he was doing a play in New York. I had come back to read with her. I remember going to the snack room after we were done and telling Ken and Nikki [Valko, casting director], “I’ve never been in someone else’s audition before!” And they said, “Well, she was kind of really auditioning you.” And I went, “Oh, that makes sense.” But oh my gosh what a different world that would have been.
Bill Prady: Tara Reid also came in for the role of Katie, and I think Elizabeth Berkley went to network for the role, too. She was terrific.
Amanda Walsh, a Canadian actress who was starring as Jenna Halbert on the short-lived ABC dramedy Sons & Daughters, was also brought in for the first round of casting.
Amanda Walsh (“Katie”): Sons & Daughters was on the bubble for a possible second season, but it wasn’t looking good. I went in for the role of Katie for Big Bang and had a really positive first audition, and I loved the script. But I wasn’t cast.
Jodi Lyn O’Keefe, best known at the time for movies like She’s All That and Whatever It Takes, auditioned for Katie, and got the role. Iris Bahr, who had credits ranging from Friends to Curb Your Enthusiasm, was cast as the secondary female character, Gilda, a fellow scientist who harbored a crush on Leonard and who also had sex with Sheldon at a Star Trek convention.
Bill Prady: Jodi is just a terrific actress, and she later appeared on the show as a prostitute that Wolowitz meets in Vegas. Jodi is who you want if you want somebody who can give you a tough, street-hardened woman who plays that character real. She’s just a remarkable woman, and I love everything that she does. And Iris Bahr is a wonderful woman, and I’m still in touch with her.
With the cast now in place, Johnny Galecki thought it would be helpful to spend time bonding with Jim Parsons ahead of the table read and tape night. Although Katie and Gilda were featured prominently in the pilot episode, the show’s premise was really centered around Sheldon and Leonard.
Johnny Galecki: I asked Jim to come meet me the afternoon before the first table read because we didn’t know each other that well yet. It’s always an odd thing when you have no history with someone and all the sudden you’re playing their best friend. I like to do what’s called accelerated bonding, where you just share a lot with each other. That often requires some wine to open up and be that honest with one another within, like, six hours. [Laughs] And so, we did. We had many bottles of wine and learned we had so many things in common, including that our grandfathers worked for the railroad, and both of our fathers had passed away at a very early age. I think we both passed out on my living room couch at one point. And then we woke up and went to the first reading. Apparently, it went well. [Laughs]
The cast, producers, writers and executives gathered that next day for the show’s first table read. It seemed to go well, but unbeknownst to the actors, the producers felt something wasn’t clicking.
Jim Parsons: We did that table read, and I thought Jodi was great. Afterward, me, Johnny, Jodi and Iris were going to meet at some restaurant. I was new to L.A. and got lost trying to find the place when Johnny texted me and said, “Hurry up, Jodi got fired.” I mean, we had just done the table read thirty minutes earlier. Johnny, Iris and Jodi were already there when Jodi got a call from her agent saying she was being let go. I hadn’t done a ton of table reads in my career by that point, but I’m not an idiot — I know when someone’s not good. And Jodi was great. I was stunned. But they realized during that table read that the character’s approach to the other characters was too harsh, too whatever, even though Jodi, in my opinion, nailed what they had written.
Johnny Galecki: We were at a Mexican restaurant, and I got there first, and then Jodi walked in and told me she had been fired. I thought she was kidding. She was like, “No, I’m not kidding.” I was like, “You’re a really good actress because there’s just no way.” She finally convinced me that she was being honest, and I was like, “Shit, let’s get you a margarita.” And she said, “I don’t drink.” I was like, “I’m so sorry! I just poured salt into the wound.”
Nikki Valko: Jodi Lyn O’Keefe was so good in the original pilot as Katie, but it was just a totally different character. [Jodi] brought a darkness, which just didn’t work, so she was replaced after the table read. We had to recast in three days, so I remember holding auditions Easter Sunday.
Re-enter Amanda Walsh, who had auditioned already but didn’t get the role, and was still waiting on the fate of ABC’s Sons & Daughters. Walsh had a very different look than O’Keefe, and the casting directors hoped it might be a better fit for the character.
Amanda Walsh: I got this call from Nikki and Ken’s office that they wanted to see me again on Sunday morning, which was rare. So I went and auditioned again, and they said they wanted to test me at Warner Bros. on Monday morning. It was very, very quick. Then on Monday, I went into Mary Buck’s office, who was the head of casting at Warner Bros. Television, and all the other executives were there. The audition went really well and was a lot of fun, and then I went to wait in this little room. Not long after, Chuck came out, shook my hand, and said, “You got it.” Usually, you wait to hear from your reps, so this was an exceptional moment. And it happened so fast, I can’t remember if they said, “You start tomorrow,” or “You start this afternoon.” Either way, we hit the ground running.
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For more inside stories, check out Radloff’s book, The Big Bang Theory: The Definitive, Inside Story of the Epic Hit Series, due Oct. 11. Click here to preorder.
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