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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Role playing games

To pick up on something I was noting last week, there appears to be some surprisingly strong feelings among some Star Trek devotees against a movie that has any actors, other than William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, playing the characters Kirk and Spock.

Mind you, it isn’t a question of recasting the parts in what some fans might call “real time,” i.e. the 24th century or whatever point in time in future history the last movie or non-Enterprise TV series left off. The reported premise of the prospective eleventh Star Trek movie is that it flashes back to the time when Kirk and Spock were at Starfleet Academy. Presumably, at that point, the characters were in their early 20s, if not their teens. Devotion to thespian continuity in a beloved series of dramatizations is one thing, but there is a long history of characters being played by younger actors when flashing back to childhood or early adulthood. In fact, I’m pretty sure I remember (but can’t be sure because of errant brain cells) an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Capt. Picard and other crew members were aged backwards, at which point their roles were taken over by child actors. Assuming that these fans want this story told at all (frankly, a dubious assumption), how do they want it done? With lots of post-production computer work to take years off the main actors? Actually, there is some problem for more than a couple of Trekkers with the purported film’s very premise because, they claim, there are reasons why Kirk and Spock could not have been at the academy at the same time. Yeah, like a technicality like that has ever stopped a Hollywood studio from going ahead and making a movie if it thinks it can make money at it.

But this raises an interesting question. When, if ever, does an actor “own” the role of a certain character, to the exclusion of any other actor? The short answer is: never. Nothing can stop studio mucky mucks from casting any actor they want in any role, as long as they have the legal rights to that character. But, practically speaking, let’s see if we can discern some guidelines.

First off, it seems safe to say that any character that first saw life in printed form, i.e. novels or plays or comic books, can be played by any actor who wants to take on the role. Some actors may become closely associated with such characters, but it doesn’t seem to preclude other actors from also taking them on as well. Many of us might think of, say, Laurence Olivier, when we think of Hamlet, or of Basil Rathbone when we think of Sherlock Holmes but that doesn’t mean that that legions of other actors haven’t successfully essayed those roles as well. In fact, the casting constraint is more likely to work the other way. Sometimes, when an actor becomes closely linked with a role, audiences do not want the actor to play anyone else. This is what happened to Bela Lugosi, whose name was synonymous with that of Dracula. Despite the effect on Lugosi’s career, many other actors (everyone from Christopher Lee to Frank Langella to to David Niven to George Hamilton to Gary Oldman) has played the old bloodsucker with no problem.

There certainly was some resistance to casting a new James Bond, when Sean Connery abandoned the role, but it never stopped succeeding actors from making tons of money for everyone involved in subsequent 007 flicks. In fact, these days we are as used to seeing a new face on James Bond as TV sci-fi fans have been at seeing new incarnations of Doctor Who. And let’s not even get into how many different actors have played Bruce Wayne/Batman, not only over the years, but even within the series of Warner Bros. movies from 1989 to 1997. No, any character born on the printed page seems fair thespian game.

The same principle seems to apply to film roles that are based on actual people. Don Ameche became closely associated with Alexander Graham Bell and Raymond Massey with Abraham Lincoln. But nothing was to prevent other actors from playing those historical figures, especially Lincoln.

But what about characters that are born on the big or little screen, as opposed to the printed page? Does some right to that role attach to the actor who plays him or her? Obviously, any actor can play any character if the people who own the rights to that character want him or her to. But will audiences always accept casting changes? The answer seems to be yes and no. Some movie characters do get recast in remakes or sequels, although often without commercial and critical success. This may say something about audiences’ attachment to actors in certain roles and/or it may say something about the nature of most Hollywood sequels and remakes. Obviously, the Andy Hardy movies would have made no sense without Mickey Rooney, and apparently the same is true about (grown-up) Indiana Jones and Harrison Ford. But frankly, I have trouble thinking of other examples off the top of my head where a recurring actor in the same role in movies wasn’t part of a similar series or based on another source. When a character is recast in the movies, the studios sometimes try to get around the problem by portraying the character at a different stage of his or her life, as is reported to be the case in the new Star Trek movie. For instance, George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was too popular not to cash in on, and the studio saved a bundle in star salaries by hiring young Tom Berenger and William Katt to do Newman and Redford imitations. Of course, George Lucas did the prequel thing in a really big way for his Star Wars movies, meaning that the only way for an actor not to be recast (even for well-known and beloved characters) was to be playing a robot or a Wookie or, of course, Yoda. Besides, Sir Alec Guinness was definitively not available anyway.

And, when TV shows are used for fodder for movies, it is a given that all the roles will be recast. (Cf. Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard, etc. etc. all the way to the upcoming Miami Vice and Dallas.) The best that surviving original actors can hope for is the standard cameo. The exception to this rule seems to be the rare occurrence when a movie is spun off from a TV show while that show is still on the air. Examples I am aware of include big screen outings of Ozzy and Harriet, the Adam West Batman series (was there a Munsters movie as well?) and, more recently, the X-Files movie. Oh, yes, and the other big exception would be the Star Trek movies. Indeed, fans of Babylon 5 threatened insurrection when rumors had it that a planned B5 movie (which, sadly, never made it into production) would recast some of their favorite characters.

Actually, I can also think of a TV series that had a contemporary big screen spin-off and which also later got remade (albeit briefly) with a new set of actors. Take a bow if you knew about and remembered my old fave Dark Shadows, which employed its repertory of daytime TV actors in the movie House of Dark Shadows (plus a semi-sequel) and which was revived as a primetime series in the 1990s, starring Ben Cross as Barnabas Collins. But that starts to get us into the area of daytime television, and that’s a whole other can of worms when it comes to recasting characters.

It seems that the only way for an actor to really have a firm lock on a character is to be the star of a popular TV show (with emphasis on “star” and “popular”). No one would have dreamed of recasting the stars of I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners. (Strangely, less than a decade after the classic Perry Mason TV series ended, a new Perry Mason series aired briefly, starring Monte Markham. Raymond Burr resumed the role for a series of TV movies running from 1985 until his death in 1993. Burr clearly had a lock on the Perry Mason character, which first saw life in a series of novels.) But this is less true these days than it was in TV’s golden age, since TV shows now tend to be built more around concepts than personalities. But, if the star of a show walks off or is fired or dies unexpectedly, the character usually goes with them, either moving away or even dying (as happened with the uncooperative Valerie Harper’s character in Valerie, which was subsequently renamed Valerie’s Family and then The Hogan Family). For supporting players, however, there has never been any guarantee of owning a character. Even one as prominent as Elizabeth Montgomery’s husband on Bewitched was not above recasting, not to mention the nosy neighbor. A more typical ploy is simply to write the character out of the show and write in an equivalent character (cf. the Woody-for-Coach and Kirstie Alley-for-Shelley Long swaps on Cheers). Indeed, it has become something of a mark of respect for a late, lamented actor to give his or her character a fitting send-off on air. Examples include Michael Conrad on Hill Street Blues, Phil Hartman on NewsRadio, and John Spencer on The West Wing.

Does any of this mean that young Kirk and Spock cannot be played by different, younger actors in a new movie? Of course not. Whether the resulting movie will be any good is another question entirely.

-S.L., 4 May 2006

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