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There’s an influential Hollywood website called The Ankler. It gets its name from “ankling”, a word coined by Variety, the ancient Bible of the business side of show business. Someone who “ankles” a studio is laid off, but leaves under their own power; a normal, unemotional job separation. The opposite, in Variety-ese, is getting “axed”—flat out fired, and escorted off the studio lot by security, with dueling lawyers sure to follow. It doesn’t often happen to the stars, but when it does, it’s a big, public, messy deal. This is particularly true when an entire show is shaped around them: Charlie Sheen, Jeremy Clarkson, and Roseanne Barr are recent examples. We’ll get to them.
Some actors are fired because of problems they caused on the set. Others, simply because they were miscast to begin with, or couldn’t seem to give the performance that the film or TV show needed. And with many others it simply came down to money.
On-set misbehavior got Clayne Crawford fired from the Lethal Weapon TV series, where he played Riggs, the character that Mel Gibson played in the film. Most of the show’s crew quietly applauded the move, but there is a contingent of Team Crawford that attributes the firing to reverse discrimination and political correctness. After all, they point out, his black co-star, Damon Wayans, was no shrinking violet either.
Wayans, not considered one of the warmest or friendliest of actors, was chilly and remote with co-workers, but professional. He knew his lines, hit his marks and went back to his trailer. By contrast, Crawford had screaming fits, one of them in full view of the public while the show was filming local locations. Christian Bale got away with it on the Terminator: Salvation set, but power-wise, Clayne Crawford is no Christian Bale.
A famous early case of on-set problems was Steven Hill, the first leader of the Mission: Impossible team. Show creator Bruce Geller fought to cast him; Desilu’s empress, Lucille Ball, had her doubts. Hill brought an impressively dark and brooding presence to the role. But he began to cause production to fall behind schedule because of his increasing observance of strict Jewish laws. He had to leave early on Fridays before sunset, a problem for filming as daylight hours dwindled in the winter. He wanted special linings sewn into his on-camera wardrobe. The demands started to raise hackles, which Hill interpreted as hostility to his religious faith.
The irony, of course, is he was surrounded by other Jews—Geller, Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, all of the writers, not to mention most of Desilu—who got fed up with him. There are common-sense exceptions to Sabbath rules for people whose roles in society require it—policemen, soldiers, doctors. By the Sixties, Hollywood’s large Jewish community had managed the issue for a half century, at least for Conservative and Reform Jews. But that wasn’t good enough for hyper-observant Steven Hill, so he was replaced by Peter Graves.
Sometimes it’s not the actor’s fault: they were miscast. Though it’s forgotten now, in 1975 Robert De Niro was fired from a movie that had already started shooting, Bogart Slept Here. According to Neil Simon, De Niro was a fine actor who simply wasn’t funny. Simon was able to rewrite the script, which two years later became The Goodbye Girl.
A similar case that’s much more familiar is Eric Stoltz’s firing from Back to the Future. This was a very difficult decision because it was six weeks into filming, requiring much of it to be totally redone. Sets had to be rebuilt, supporting actors brought back. It’s hard to find another example of a reshoot that major that doesn’t involve the sudden death of an actor, or an actor’s involvement in serious offscreen criminal scandal, like All the Money in the World and Kevin Spacey, or Frogman with O.J. Simpson.
It was also painful because there were no outside causes to blame, no diplomatic way to avoid the fact that Stoltz’s performance was the problem. And by all accounts it was a good performance; Christopher Lloyd (Doc) and Tom Wilson (Biff) attest to it. But it wasn’t funny, not even a little bit. Stoltz saw it as a straightforward science fiction story with a wistful, dreamlike Fifties setting. Bob Zemeckis, Bob Gale, and Steven Spielberg made one of the gutsiest decisions of their careers, and the results back them up.
Some actors are replaced over money disputes, and in those cases, making after-the-fact judgments about whether they were quit, fired, jumped or pushed is often harder. Crispin Glover (“George McFly”) didn’t come back to BTTF II, Richard Castellano (“fat Clemenza”) didn’t come back to The Godfather Part II, and Robert Duvall didn’t come back to The Godfather Part III, because the studio wouldn’t meet their salary demands.
Ditto Suzanne Somers (Three’s Company), Farrah Fawcett-Majors (Charlie’s Angels), Melina Kanakaredes (CSI:NY). In a rare case of the actors winning, the original Duke boys on The Dukes of Hazzard quit/were fired and replaced, but the ratings suffered so badly that they got rehired. But usually, the actors lose. George Eads and Jorja Fox tried it on CSI and came back without a raise. Hawaii Five-O’s Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim provocatively added a race card to their salary fight, but still lost.
Then there are star replacements that, deservedly or not, became public relations trainwrecks. Usually it’s a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back type of thing. Charlie Sheen was known to be trouble long before he was signed to star in Two and a Half Men. His character in that show, Charlie Harper, is a caricature of an amiable Malibu celebrity known chiefly for drinking, gambling, and bedding lots of women. In other words, he was playing himself.
Show creator Chuck Lorre knew that it was a calculated risk working with someone with Charlie’s erratic behavior, but for the first couple of years Sheen kept his real-life drug use and whoring off the front pages. Finally, he couldn’t resist testing the limits and exceeding them. Yet he was the star, and the role was him. What could Chuck do?
He fired him. Lorre knew that it would be tough to keep the show going with someone else. But at a certain point, he had to take the chance. He rolled the dice with Ashton Kutcher playing a different character, and won four more years of life for his show.
Jeremy Clarkson is a slightly different case; he isn’t an actor. Well, not really, although like fellow Brit reality show king Simon Cowell, Clarkson’s forceful personality made him a TV star. He had every reason to think he was the indispensable centerpiece of his show, Top Gear. But he was so obnoxious to his bosses, not to mention the show’s staff, that after a few too many wearying fights, they canned him. Yes, they knew it would be hard to retain a good part of the show’s audience without Clarkson. But after a certain point, the producers emphatically decided “life is too short”, far too short to keep putting up with him, so they came to a parting of the ways.
Both Sheen and Clarkson recovered, going right on to other, similarly-themed shows, Anger Management and The Grand Tour (and now Clarkson’s Farm) respectively. By all accounts, this time they showed up on time and did their jobs professionally. This can be taken as a rebuke to the people who fired them: See, you idiots, if you’d treated me right to begin with, I would have behaved. But it can also be read as the performer ruefully facing reality: If I hadn’t been a jerk, I’d still have that show. Probably there’s some of both.
In May 2018, there was the bizarre, out of nowhere drama of the ABC television network versus Roseanne Barr.
Barr sent an arguably racist Tweet about Valerie Jarrett, by then the all-but-obscure chief advisor to Barack Obama. Actually, it wasn’t just arguable: it was offensive, but cryptic enough to possibly skate by with excuses about sleeping pills or supposedly hacked phones. By 2018 Jarrett did seem a peculiar subject for a drug-hazed, multi-multi-millionairess TV star to be obsessing about at two in the morning. Unfortunately, for a crucial couple of days Roseanne wouldn’t back down. “I’m a comedian!” But she wasn’t making a discernable joke.
Yes, the wokesters had it in for her. No surprise. But the key thing is the normies didn’t see a reason why they should jump to her defense. Roseanne made a big splash with her newly revived show, but it was season one; she hadn’t rebuilt a mass audience yet.
Hundreds of millions of dollars were at stake, for Roseanne and for ABC, but the network was too stiff-necked to quickly work out a backstage agreement, and Barr was too stiff-necked to make a real apology. She finally did after it was too late. For example, she could have made a well-publicized 3-week retreat to a rehab clinic, re-emerge in public life at the end of the month with an Oprah interview, and make a $50,000 contribution to a women’s group fighting Ambien addiction. There were plenty of ways she could have handled it and kept her show. But Roseanne was too much of an egomaniac to do any of that. She misjudged her strength and lost.
Some stray facts had a strong role in how this played out. It was the end of May, almost at the very end of the TV season, and before much had been done to prepare the next one. In short, strategically it was the weakest time of the year for any star to press her luck against a network, because season one’s production was about to shut down anyway and the show wasn’t due back on the air for three months.
Also, ABC wasn’t just any old network. It was a relatively small, if highly visible, part of The Walt Disney Company. Embarrassing problems can affect the image and income of the entire company, from theme parks to cruise ships, as it has learned to its chagrin. ABC likes to present itself as the family network, just as the CW features teenagers, and NBC favors urban singles. ABC has also made an effort to be perceived as the most black-friendly of broadcast networks. The head of programming was black. None of this was unknown to Roseanne. Once the Tweet became public—that is, instantly—ABC didn’t have the option of ignoring it.
Every time an actor is fired, there’s a whole branch of alternate reality: how different casting would have sometimes led to a different cultural reality. Suppose there had been no Archie Bunker. The real world of America’s 1970s was changed by the success of All in the Family and its offshoots. The real world of America’s 2020s could have been changed by the success of Roseanne, which was beginning to emerge as something unique, something different; a show set between the coasts with three-dimensional characters who earned laughs by acting out seldom acknowledged truths.
There was already an example of how to handle the situation. When Valerie Harper quit Valerie, she didn’t expect the studio and the network to be able to continue as Valerie’s Family, and then The Hogan Family. But they did. So it wasn’t unprecedented for ABC to take Roseanne and simply turn it into The Connor Family.
I wish there was a happy ending to the story. At the time, it looked like it might have turned into a case of “go woke, go broke”, but it didn’t: The Connor Family just got renewed for a fifth season.Published in