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‘Sex, Drugs, and Pilot Season’: A Review and Interview with Infamous Casting King Joel Thurm

Sex, Drugs, and Pilot Season is an extremely fun book that really lives up to its title. Written by Joel Thurm about his adventures as a casting director for decades in Hollywood, he covers everything from Broadway to Burbank. If you’re looking for a book that tells interesting, and sometimes downright raunchy, stories about some of your favorite celebrities from an angle you’ve never heard before, this is the book for you.

Early in his career, Joel Thurm cast prestige projects like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Bob Newhart but is also quick to point out he was an early champion of David Hasselhoff as well. Joel later worked for Aaron Spelling, casting so many iconic shows like Charlie’s Angles, Fantasy Island, Starsky and Hutch, and The Love Boat.

Joel Thurm cast Taxi, Cheers, the movie Airplane, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Grease. He helped launch the careers of Ted Danson, John Travolta, and Danny DeVito, to name only a few. Joel also helped reignite the careers of some old but not forgotten stars like Pearl Bailey, Peter Graves, and introduced the world to the deadpan comedy styling of Leslie Nielsen.

This book is full of so many stories about our favorite film and TV starts that it’s hard to single them out.

The chapter on how John Travolta starred in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (one of the highest rated TV movies ever) is almost too crazy to be believed.

As is the one on the iconic movie musical Grease (everyone loved Olivia Newton John and all miss her deeply). The chapter on The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Meatloaf passed out naked) is a must-have for fans of the cult film.

One of the most poignant chapters in the book surrounds the ‘80s series Gimme a Break starring Nell Carter. Joel was more than just an advocate of Carter’s work, they became very close. Fun fact: an offhand remark by Joel that Brandon Tartikoff didn’t take as sarcastic led to the creation of the show which ended up running 137 episodes from 1981-1987.

I spoke with Joel over Zoom from his home in the Laurel Canyon section of Los Angeles.

FOG!: Hello Joel, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us about your hilarious book.

Joel Thurm: It’s my pleasure. So glad you found it funny.

I laughed out loud several times. My jaw dropped a few times, too.

I’ll take that as a compliment.

You should! Before we jump right in, I have to ask, is that the house in Laurel Canyon you mention so much throughout the book?

It’s been through a lot of changes over the years…so has Laurel Canyon* for that matter. I’ve lived here long enough for this neighborhood to get chic.

*Laurel Canyon, once considered shady, is the home of many celebrities throughout the years from Jim Morrison to Quentin Tarantino. It’s also the sight of the infamous Wonderland Murders portrayed in both Wonderland and Boogie Nights.

So much of this book resonated with me. I feel like you cast my entire childhood.

I cast a lot of people’s childhoods…but I am extremely proud to have worked on some of the finest and funniest TV and film.

And musicals, and movie musicals.

You mean The Rocky Horror Picture Show? Or Grease?

Love to hear about them both but Rocky Horror is one of my favorites.

Flopped, hardly made a dent before they started the midnight shows, up in Seattle I think, that’s what saved it. I think it might be still running in town here someplace. Is it running where you are?

Sure is! What was it like casting Rocky Horror?

Well, we already had Tim (Curry) from the London cast, no one has ever done the part as good. And Meatloaf came from the musical here in L.A. But we needed a Brad and Janet. I remember asking Barry Bostwick to audition for the musical but he was hoping to do movies, so he told me…maybe half joking, “call me if you ever make it into a movie.” So, when we did, we did. Susan Sarandon was clearly the right fit. Janet is a character that has to go from sweet to slut in 30 seconds.

Barry Bostwick as Brad and Susan Sarandon as Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show

And Grease?

No matter what anyone tells you, Sandy was ALWAYS Olivia Newton John’s role. I’ve heard various things throughout the years, on the internet and in magazines, and they have no idea what they’re talking about.

I found your words on her very touching.

I loved her very much. We all did. She was as nice and kind as she seemed. I’m still hurt by her passing.

FOG: And her working with Travolta?

As it appears on film. The two of them fit together and bring out the best in each other.

Image courtesy of Teller Report

She was older than John, not by a lot, but older. It didn’t matter, it just worked so well.

Speaking of famous pairings, I was surprised to find you had to fight for Ted Danson and Shelley Long as Sam and Diane in Cheers.

The room was split 50/50 between William Devane, who was a terrific actor, and as described on the page, fit Sam Malone to a tee, and Ted Danson who I favored. NBC Chairman Grant Tinker favored Devane. After all the discussions, I managed to turn the room to Ted.  The final thing that turned the room to Ted was me getting vulgar with Tinker and saying:  “You’re right Grant, Devane is one of our greatest actors BUT he is not as right for this part as Ted. More women in America will want to fuck Ted rather than Bill.” That did it.

Danson says, and I’m quoting, “Thank you for pretty much everything in my life.”

Ted is very sweet to say that. Him hitting a home run on Cheers helped us both, I’m sure.

Joel at a recent Los Angeles book signing with Marilu Henner (Taxi) and Ted Danson (Cheers)

Of all the celebrities you’ve helped along the way, I found it curious you began your book talking about David Hasselhoff in your chapter entitled, David Hasselhoff: Blame Me.

It’s the prologue of the book. I put the Hasselhoff chapter first because it would set the tone of the book in the reader’s mind. I wanted to do that for a few reasons… first of all David is a super guy. He was always nice and I have nothing to do with his current reality TV stuff, but in the three things I got him, they helped launch him to a pretty high place. I wanted to show an example of an actor that did just fine working on things people didn’t always think would fly.

They didn’t want him for Knight Rider.

Universal wanted Nick Mancuso.  Brandon Tartikoff came up with Hasselhoff and since I did not have a better idea, my job was to make Brandon’s idea happen. Nothing against Nick, or David for that matter, but this was a show about a talking car. This wasn’t prestige TV. I knew if they cast Nick he’d want better writing, deeper stories, and less talking car. Those instincts weren’t wrong, they just weren’t right for a show about a talking car. I convinced them on casting David and it was the right call. At least all those posters and lunchboxes back me up anyway.

The Hoff himself.

You forgot the albums in Germany.

He even toured with the fucking car in Germany! He was everywhere. As far as I know he’s still a hit over there.

I think it’s important to point out how you were a champion of colorblind casting before that term existed.

I had one of my former assistants (Angela Campolla*) go through scripts looking for ways to include diverse actors that the writer/producers could live with. We’d find places to put people of color, or women. When I started in casting if a character like a doctor or cop wasn’t specified that usually meant Caucasian by the writer. At least it had been that way for years. Since it wasn’t specific, I brought in different people for the part. It wasn’t always about color. I pushed to hire Danny DeVito for a small part on an episode of Starsky and Hutch. The description of the character wasn’t Danny believe me, but he came in for it and nailed it. It helped lead him to Taxi, a character also not written for someone who looked like Danny.

*Joel’s assistant Angela Campolla was a former actress turned casting director. Fun Fact: another one of Joel’s assistants left casting to pursue acting – Catherine Keener.

It’s hard to imagine someone else playing that part (Danny DeVito played Louie De Palma the dispatcher on Taxi).

It is. Same with Ted as Sam on Cheers, or the entire cast of Taxi, or Ricardo Montalban on Fantasy Island. People come up to me all the time and saying exactly what you just said, “I can’t imagine anyone else ever playing that role!” I clearly agree with them.

They originally wanted Orson Welles for Mister Roarke on Fantasy Island?

Orson Welles was a thought but the one we really wanted was James Mason who said yes, then no, then yes again before finally a final no! I’m happy we got to cast Montalban. He was a former leading man in the ‘50s who had recently worked on one of the Planet of the Apes films. He came at the right time. And did a great job.

He was also another example of colorblind casting.

That’s true. The original descriptions for Roarke and Tattoo, were not Ricardo Montalban and Hervé Villechaize, but now they’re icons.

Image via Flick Direct

What’s next for you?

I am currently working with playwright Fred Shahadi (BOX Off-Broadway, and of course, Force of Geek) on adapting Sex, Drugs, and Pilot Season into a one-man stage show. We hope to tour it around the country and then who knows? Think it’ll make a good TV show?

Absolutely!

*  *  *  *  *

It was great speaking with Joel Thurm about his adventures in casting. We barely scratched the surface of some of the incredible stories in his book. Joel speaks on serious topics in the book as well like the MeToo movement, which he was way ahead of.  Joel worked on casting for The Cosby Show and discusses his thoughts on Cosby and his take on the infamous “casting couch.”

Sex, Drugs, and Pilot Season is more than just a fun entertainment romp, it goes a long way toward pulling back the curtain on a side of show business that most people never get to see. I highly recommend this hilarious and surprisingly moving book.

 

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