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In Top of the Rock, his new memoir of the golden age of NBC’s Must See TV in the ’80s and ’90s, former network president Warren Littlefield emphasizes the role of good casting in the making of a hit show, pointing to numerous “what if” moments. Imagine how different these six beloved Must See TV characters would have looked if these actors had gotten the role instead of the person who ended up with it.
Nicolette Sheridan as Will & Grace‘s Grace Adler instead of Debra Messing.
Creators David Kohan and Max Mutchnick were down to three actresses to play the role of Grace. They staged a final weekend of auditions with all three at their house before making their choice. Eric McCormack, who had already been cast as Will, recalls one audition in particular: “Nicollette Sheridan said: ‘Any notes? Anything?’ [Director] Jimmy [Burrows] told her, ‘Wear tighter pants.’ ”
Craig Bierko as Friends’ Chandler Bing instead of Matthew Perry.
NBC had a lot of trouble finding the right actor for the role of the sarcastic quick-witted Bing that Perry made famous. The leading contender was Bierko, who eventually passed on the role, opening the door for Perry. Remembers Littlefield: Thank God! There was something Snidely Whiplash about Craig Bierko. He seemed to have a lot of anger underneath.
Janeane Garofalo as Friends’ Monica Geller instead of Courteney Cox
The part of Monica Geller would have looked very different if the creator’s first choice had taken the role. Creator David Crane: “When we originally wrote the role, we had Janeane Garofalo’s voice in our head — darker and edgier and snarkier.” Crane admits in the book that the nurturing den mother quality Cox brought to the role improved the character.
Rosie O’Donnell as Seinfeld‘s Elaine Benes instead of Julia Lous-Dreyfus.
Originally, the show was going to revolve around the male leads: Jerry Seinfeld as himself, Michael Richards as Kramer, and Jason Alexander as George Costanza. But the network believed the show needed a woman character for female viewers to identify with. George Shapiro, a producer, says, “We got a note that we needed a young lady. Rosie O’Donnell read. A whole lot of people read before Julia.”
John Lithgow as Cheers‘ Frasier Crane instead of Kelsey Grammer.
The Cheers team wrote the part of Crane for Lithgow, but he didn’t want to do a TV series then. “I just said, ‘No.’ … I barely even remembered that” request, recalls Lithgow. “It was like swatting away a fly. … I just wasn’t going to do a series.” Lithgow eventually agreed to do a TV series, starring in 3rd Rock from the Sun (1996-2001).
Fred Dryer as Cheers’ Sam Malone instead of Ted Danson.
For the part of ex-athlete Malone, NBC looked to a number of former pro-athletes-turned-actors. The leading contender was former NFL player Fred Dryer. In fact, the character was originally supposed to be a former football player. Littlfield admits that if it had been up to the network “suits” Dryer would have gotten the role, despite his limted acting experience. Intstead, the part went to Danson and the character was changed into a former relief pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. Dryer later appeared on an episode of the show as a sportscaster who was friends with Malone.
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