May 15, 2014 – A few months ago, a friend brought my attention to an article that appeared in 2012 in American Airlines’ magazine, American Way. It was a profile of a two-time Academy Award-nominated actor whose career was (and still is) nothing short of red hot. In the article, this actor mentioned a pilot in which he’d been cast early in his career, way back in 1997, explaining that he’d been fired on the third day of shooting because “…the producers decided he looked too young for the part…”
A little background: before Push was an acclaimed “novel by Sapphire” and the basis for the film Precious, before it was a 2009 movie starring Dakota Fanning, it was a short-lived, execrable TV series on ABC. I can report this with confidence, being its creator and show runner. I had developed the pilot with some very colorful Brits who were having their Fifteen Minutes with American television, not unlike the leads of Showtime’s brilliant Episodes. My wacky colleagues from across the pond brought me a concept for a sexy, soapy series about college-age Olympic athletes juggling their fierce competitive natures and the rigors of training with the day-to-day realities of university life, studies, love, sex, relationships, and all the difficult challenges already built into that transitional period from teen to young adult. I’ve never cared much for sports, and was surprised that the idea had been presented to me of all people, but as I began to read some biographical material about these young champions, I became fascinated with their psychological makeup, and saw the potential for a great series that would explore real characters and competition, both in and out of their chosen athletic disciplines. The script was well received by ABC and subsequently ordered to pilot with Ken Olin hired to direct. Thus began one of the longest and most painful ordeals of my career. The ensuing months of writing, shooting, and ultimately getting the series on the air the following year is rich fodder for a whole chapter in my memoirs―if not a full scale tell-all book of its own. So I’ll save the bulk of the lurid details for one of those, and get to the gritty.
Victor Yates was the anchor of the show’s ensemble cast. He was a talented gymnast whose career had been cut short by an injury sustained while competing on the high bar during the then recent 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In the pilot, he’d been hired to coach the male and female gymnastics teams at a fictional prestigious sports-oriented college in Southern California (it was a TV show, after all, not a documentary). The entire point of his character was that he was only a year or two older than the athletes he’d be coaching, and casting the role proved nearly impossible. We needed not only a good actor, but one with a body who could pass for a former gymnast, and quickly learned the truth of our casting director’s words: “God does not give with both hands.” After a seemingly endless parade of gorgeous but wooden young men, an actor finally walked in who proved the exception to those words. He nailed the audition, aced the test for the network and studio, and was whisked into hair and makeup.
I want to go on record as saying I was really proud of the script for that pilot. And I was equally excited about the cast of mostly unknowns we assembled to play the swimmers and runners and gymnasts and divers. More importantly, I saw so much story potential which could easily fuel the journey to the coveted 100 episodes. And we had a lead who wasn’t just good, he was perfect for the part. Production began in March, 1997, and the second or third day of filming―the most expensive on the entire shoot because we were recreating the men’s gymnastics competition from the recent Olympics―I received a very disturbing call on my shoe-sized mobile phone. It was from one of the network development executives overseeing the pilot. I exited the huge pyramid shaped arena at the school in Long Beach where we were shooting, pushed through the hundreds of extras playing other athletes, coaches, judges, and, of course, the sold-out crowd, until I was finally outside where I could actually hear what was being said on the other end. Flabbergasted is as good a word as any to describe my reaction. Fury is another.
“Well, we’ve been watching all the dailies and I have good news and bad news. Which would you like first?” “The good, I guess,” I answered, apprehensively. “Okay, the good is that the show looks terrific. Ken’s doing an amazing job, and for the most part, the cast is fantastic.” “For the most part…?” “Yeah,” she replied quite casually, “we need to recast Victor.”
Now, never mind that “Victor” was the star of that day’s shoot where we were spending thousands upon thousands of dollars to film a flashback to his tragic accident at the Olympics. Our actor’s scene work in the previous days’ dailies had been spot on. He looked amazing in his gymnast uniform. He was not only handsome, he was a damn good actor to boot. I repeat, he was perfect for the part. Naturally, I protested and told the development exec that she had lost her mind. What could the network possibly find wrong with him? The answer was stunning: “He looks too young. In some cases, younger than the other athletes he’s supposed to be coaching.” “But that’s the whole point!” I argued futilely. “He should be their age. That’s his central conflict!” It was almost as if no one at the network or studio had actually read the script they’d bought, so I fought against this harebrained decision. I argued. I refused. I caved.
To make an already long story short-ish, I couldn’t fire him myself. Ken rose to that unpleasant task. An actor himself, he knew how to communicate the bad news to a fellow thespian and so he did most of the talking when we called our shining young Olympian into the producers’ trailer at lunch time. Me? I’m not ashamed to admit that I stood in the corner and quietly wept as we were forced to crush the soul of this talented young man. To his credit, he handled it with incredible dignity and maturity, and in his grace, won my lifelong admiration.
We scrambled to cobble together the rest of that day’s shoot, then had more frantic casting sessions over the weekend, ultimately finding a replacement that seemed to please the “suits.” The pilot had its problems as most do―and I certainly don’t fault the actor we cast as our lead―but I was more or less pleased with the result, all things considered. Of course, after those months of off screen drama, ABC didn’t pick up the show for the fall season, but once the dust had settled, I got the call that they wanted to retool and reshoot the pilot as a midseason replacement series. I was forced to recast most of the male roles―again, over my most passionate objections―and add a “vixen” character to slink around the women’s gym and stir up some soapy trouble (I have to admit, Jaime Pressly nailed it). By the time the show premiered, I had been fired for “being too difficult” (translation: I fought the network every step of the way trying to make a good show all the while they were screaming in my face that they didn’t care about character development or rich storytelling, they just wanted “Sex! Sex! Sex!” [actual quote] and “Melrose Place in Spandex!” [ditto]). Push was viciously skewered by the critics: “Like many a locker room, this show often stinks,” “Perhaps the more fitting title Putrid was already taken,” and the most succinct, “Laughably bad.” It’s premiere set a record Nielsen low in its time slot in the history of ABC, and my disastrous little show was mercifully cancelled after only two episodes aired. That summer, they decided to burn off the 8 episodes that had been produced, but when its re-premiere repeated its rating performance from the first time around, the show was abruptly yanked from the schedule. I’m now fond of telling people I created a show that was so bad it was actually cancelled twice.
But back to our original Victor. Over the years, I’ve followed that young actor’s career, and swelled with an almost paternal pride tinged with pure vindication when he got the first of his two Oscar nominations. I’ve always believed that the show would have been an entirely different experience had we kept him in the lead. And now, should his people Google his name from time to time to see what the masses are saying about him, I hope they’ll find this blog post and tell him that it most certainly wasn’t the producers who fired him from that pilot. Far from it. It was the network. This producer was―and still is―a huge fan of an actor named…
…Jeremy Renner. Though I’ll admit, getting fired from that pilot may have been the best thing that ever happened to him. Stay tuned…