Who Would Portray Letterman? Ask a Pro

HBO has produced some interesting and challenging pictures, and "The Late Shift," the story of the behind-the-scenes battles to replace Johnny Carson as host of "The Tonight Show," will not be its first based on living people. Since David Letterman and Jay Leno are now seen nightly by millions, it will be an incentive to an actor to play these characters.

Daniel Cerone's story about who might play these and other important parts in the film was entertaining ("Looking for Mr. Letterman," Calendar, March 14). Sure, it's fun to stand around the water cooler and speculate on who might play a particular character. Of the various people interviewed for the article, only one was a professional casting director. But the all-too-frequently overlooked point is that actually filling those roles is the job of a casting director.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a major star in this industry who didn't have a story about a casting director who went to bat to help that actor get seen, to get that first role.

And it's not simply a matter of matching an actor's physical appearance to a role.


I don't recall anyone ever saying that Angela Bassett was a dead ringer for Tina Turner or that Laurence Fishburne was Ike until the performers lit up the screen and told us it was so in "What's Love Got to Do With It." These actors didn't imitate the well-known singers--they took the essence of the characters and made us believe. Another example is the choice of the slender Jeremy Irons to play the more portly Claus Von Bulow. Or think about the decision to have Linda Hunt play a male role in "The Year of Living Dangerously," a role that won her an Oscar.

And look at "BackBeat," the current film that depicts the early history of the Beatles as they rose from the small clubs of Liverpool and Frankfurt. Stephen Dorff, an American, plays Stu Sutcliffe with relentless sexiness while relative newcomer Ian Hart steps into the skin of the icon John Lennon and "acts the gap," really selling the powerful, edgy personality of the young Lennon in an Oscar-level performance, never once making us believe that we are not seeing John Lennon. I'd love to see the lists of possible entries to play Lennon supplied by the water-cooler crowd. No, what I'd really love to see explained is the process that went into finding Ian Hart.

For "The Late Shift," ask anyone outside of the biz to physically describe Helen Kusnick or Michael Ovitz, both key players in the story. A casting director would make a list of potential performers and bring in actors who could capture the total individuality of these people.

The job of a casting director is to know the talent pool, to have a running mental catalogue of the actors out there, known and unknown. The casting director brings actor and director together. If the work is done properly, the viewer walks away never being able to imagine anyone else in the role.

It probably won't be mentioned in the movie reviews, where we often read about the excellent cast or the originality of the casting of a particular character, but it's pretty clear when once again the casting director has done his or her job right. And you can bet it didn't happen around the water cooler.

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