Casting Director Jeff Greenberg Reflects on His Casting Adventures

May 31, 2017

Emmy-winning casting director, Jeff Greenberg recently shared a number of intriguing stories about the stars he cast–and didn’t cast–over the past 30 years of his prolific career.

Greenberg is best known for his work on Frasier, Modern Family, Cheers, Wings, My So-Called Life, and Ugly Betty. And more recently he handpicked talent for the new sitcom Superior Donuts. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Greenberg explained that he always tries to find an actor who “enhances what’s on the page, who not only fulfills the vision of the writer, but brings a dash more–someone who is fresh. And always have a backup plan, always have someone in the wings, just in case.” Here are just a few of the many casting adventures he reveals.

Eric Stonestreet had been auditioning for him for 10 years

Over the span of a decade, even though Stonestreet was passed on several times, he remained on Greenberg’s radar. “I remained a fan, and he was always good,” the casting director says. When it came to casting the role of Mitchell Pritchett’s husband, Cameron, the task proved to be a challenge. But Greenberg proudly recalls guiding Stonestreet into the Modern Family role. “Eric created the alchemy the role needed by finding the funny and grounding it with his mother’s spirit, so that the mix of the masculine and feminine sides of the role were entwined.”

He passed on Brad Pitt and Keri Russell

Years ago when Greenberg was casting for a guest role on Cheers, a little-known actor named Brad Pitt auditioned for the part. “My only note was ‘Not funny,’” Greenberg recalls. “For the part, he wasn’t funny–he’s been funny since,” he clarifies. Similarly, when he was casting for the part of “Model No.1” on My So-Called Life, Keri Russell auditioned but wasn’t selected. “But in my casting notes, I wrote, ‘Star to be,’” he remembers. “I tracked her career and observed what was inevitable. It was that apparent.”

He fought hard for Kristie Alley on Cheers

Greenberg took over casting on Cheers in season five. But it wasn’t long before the pivotal star of the popular sitcom, Shelley Long announced she’d be leaving the show. “It was on my shoulders to find the new leading lady,” Greenberg recalls. “They wanted someone diametrically opposed to Diane–someone ballsy and dark, an ice queen. I had seen Kirstie Alley in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ and she brought such humor to that play. She was just so stunning. She was my first idea. I fell on my sword for her, and the network was resistant. Rightly so. They hadn’t seen her do it. She didn’t have a comedy background; she was a dramatic actress. But we just stayed the course, and I was so committed to it. It was gratifying when it worked out…It rejuvenated the show.” 

Melanie Griffith’s audition-room nerves were painful to watch

Serving as a casting assistant on the 1984 film The Philadelphia Experiment, Melanie Griffith came to audition for a role. “She was the most scared person to this day I’ve ever seen in my life,” he recalls. “She was visibly shaking. Your heart broke because she was forcing herself to do it.” Griffith’s career had stalled due to drug and alcohol addictions, and she was trying to make a comeback. Although Greenberg passed on her, she fortunately pressed on with auditions, and soon thereafter was cast in Body Double which earned her critical acclaim.

Jeff Greenberg authored a book entitled Callback which details many more of his industry experiences from giving Meg Ryan a big break in Top Gun to the disappointment of having to turn down Lisa Kudrow in Frasier.