Special to The Times

Jon CRYER'S nose is in a splint. He's just finished swapping one-liners with Charlie Sheen for their new sitcom, "Two and a Half Men," and is strolling over to his trailer on the Warner Brothers lot for lunch. "They've decided on this show that it's funny for me to be injured. Every episode, I've been injured in some way, and in 'Getting Personal,' they lit me on fire one week. For some reason, that's funny."

Cryer is clearly psyched about re-teaming with Sheen on the CBS sitcom, describing their chemistry as "a cross between Felix and Oscar and sort of a Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin thing." But unbridled optimism is a luxury he won't allow himself. That's because "Two and a Half Men" is Cryer's sixth network series. None of his previous five previous sitcoms, including the aforementioned 1998 Fox show "Getting Personal," lasted more than one season.

"I get into a nice delusional state where I kind of think that this was all just one long show where I just have big two-year hiatuses and for some reason they just keep changing the name of my character."

Cryer is exaggerating, but self-deprecation rather than wide-eyed hype is to be expected. Cryer is, after all, a prime-time survivor, and like a couple of dozen others, he's mastered the Zen of cancellation and learned to pop up on network programs with cuckoo-clock regularity.

Besides Cryer, old reliables on new shows this season include John Larroquette, who stars in his seventh sitcom, "Happy Family"; David Sutcliffe, who plays the civilian boyfriend to the famous actress in his fifth sitcom "I'm With Her"; Jason Bateman, who stars in his eighth TV show, "Arrested Development"; Mark Harmon, who plays the leading man in "Navy NCIS," his seventh series since joining the "St. Elsewhere" cast in the mid-'80s; Breckin Meyer, who's back for his fourth series in the family sitcom "Married to the Kellys"; and Holly Robinson Peete, headlining her fifth series, "Like Family."

Working his way through a cheeseburger, Cryer explains the mind-set that keeps him and his cohorts from getting jaded, depressed or otherwise fed up with the vagaries of network television. "You can only do the thing and hope it works out," he says. "Executives are insane in this business, and actors are insane, because we are all held responsible for things we really have no power over. Once you step back from it, then you can kind of enjoy the craziness."

Cryer hasn't always demonstrated such equipoise. He was crushed in 1989 when his first series, "The Famous Teddy Z," bombed in the ratings. "That show was ordained within the industry as the big hit of the season before it was even on the air," he says. "I got caught up in everybody saying, 'This thing is going to be huge.' When it became apparent four weeks in that the show was not going to be a ratings success, I took it very personally. In retrospect, that was unhealthy and self-destructive and dumb because if the show had been a success, it wouldn't have been just because of me, and because the show didn't run very long, that wasn't up to me, either."

The experience, Cryer says, "changed my whole outlook. I've given up trying to handicap [the chances of success] or any of that stuff."

Which doesn't mean Cryer is entirely anxiety-free come pilot season. He loved the script for "Two and a Half Men" and turned down two competing offers in the hopes that he'd eventually be invited to try out for the series.

"All through the [pilot] season I'm thinking, 'When am I going to get my 'Two and a Half Men' audition?' I call my agent and he says, 'Oh, they're a little resistant, they want to see new faces,' which by the way is the one drawback of having shows that get on the air. When you do a pilot and it disappears, it's no harm, no foul. If you do something that does get on the air but then doesn't get the response they had hoped for, it changes everybody's opinion, for some reason."

A too-familiar face

Indeed, TV producers are constantly weighing the benefits of familiar talent against the novelty of a fresh face, according to John Levey, senior vice president of casting for John Wells Productions. "There does become a point when people get punished for having had a career, especially as you get to be past 35 or 40. Suddenly some executive who's younger than that will say, 'Oh, I've seen him a million times, can't we find somebody new?' And that's completely unfair. Actors are like quarterbacks. They get too much credit if a show succeeds and way too much blame when it fails. What if the idea's not fresh? How do you score?"

Even if -- or because -- the concept is original, adventurous series often fail to deliver requisite numbers, leaving actors like Jason Gedrick in the lurch. Gedrick has starred in six short-lived dramas, including "EZ Streets" and "Murder One." Both were heralded for their innovative approaches to storytelling. Neither lasted long.

This fall, Gedrick enjoys the rare luxury of a second season, courtesy of "Boomtown."

"I understand the business aspect of television," he says. When a series is axed, Gedrick says, "There is disappointment because as an actor you want to fulfill the potential of each show, but you can't control it. This whole industry is like a casino. It's one slot machine after another, one table after another, and you just keep putting your chips down, hoping you get that great hand."

Odds are so weighted against success -- only four or five of this fall's 35 new series will likely get renewed for a second season -- that it's hard for programmers to stigmatize actors even if their bios are riddled with flops. Prime-time casts are rife with returning stars because familiarity breeds confidence, not contempt, among most casting agents and producers.

In 1998, for example, Charlotte Ross had three failed series on her resume (anyone remember "The Five Mrs. Buchanans"?). Levey nonetheless cast her in the drama "Trinity." "Charlotte is a perfect example of somebody you go to every year," he says. "She's beautiful, sexy, she's done comedy and drama. You look at her and think to yourself, 'She's going to hit one of these times -- let's hope it's with us.' "

"Trinity," as it happened, lasted only a few episodes, but after one more miss -- the Showtime series "Beggars and Choosers" -- Ross finally found her hit in 2001 when she joined the cast of "NYPD Blue."

"The reason the same people resurface year after year is because they're good. They rise to the top," says Levey, who helped cast George Clooney in "ER." The unofficial patron saint of veteran TV performers, Clooney starred in several failed pilots and short-lived series before finding the right role on the right show in the right time slot.

Levey says, "You might have a bias: 'Oh, God, that guy's been around so long he doesn't really interest me much,' but the great thing is to be surprised and be wrong."

That said, Levey admits, "There is a point when experience and familiarity move past an asset to being a deficit. It's an issue of perception."

Juggling projects

To maintain some semblance of career stability in the face of shifting industry perceptions and unpredictable ratings, most television actors who are in it for the long haul keep several irons in the fire.

Gedrick has developed his own pilot projects and acts in independent films. Cryer writes screenplays. And Diane Farr, who previously appeared on three series and acted in two other pilots this year before winding up as Holly Peete Robinson's co-star in "Family Matters," says most of the actors she knows are inveterate multitaskers. "If I look at everybody on this set, we all have two or three or four things in the basket."

She continues, "I hope 'Like Family' has a really long run and we all get to evolve together, but I'm also in the middle of writing a one-hour drama that I'm going to pitch next week, and I'm working on my second book, and when I was on 'The Job,' I wrote a sitcom and sold it to Warner Brothers.

"I call it the throwing-spaghetti-at-the-wall theory of acting. I like to keep my fingers in five pots."

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