Maggie Lawson, Eddie McClintock, Chyler Leigh and Christopher Gorham Photograph by Gregg Segal
September 14, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

”GEORGE WHO-NEY?”

There’s a response you haven’t heard following the mention of George Clooney’s name since 1994, when he became a superstar with ER. But it was an apt moniker to describe the preceding decade of Clooney’s career — one characterized by TV mediocrity, failed pilots, and unremarkable guest spots. The few who tuned in to CBS’ short-lived 1992 cop series Bodies of Evidence, or the 1991 sitcom Baby Talk, or 1990’s undercover-cop drama Sunset Beat, weren’t doing so as devoted Clooney fans, and most likely they only recognized him as the handyman in one of The Facts of Life‘s last seasons. Casting directors and network executives, however, all knew his name — and kept employing him because they were sure that eventually George Clooney would find that hit that would make him a star.

Each year, when the networks unveil their new slates of programming, they’re dotted with George Who-neys, actors whose faces — if not names — are vaguely familiar. It’s happened with Lauren Graham (veteran of four series before Gilmore Girls), Leah Remini (who was a regular on four shows before The King of Queens), Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men was his fifth regular gig), and Jennifer Garner (who had major roles on three shows before Alias). A tabloid-friendly face isn’t important in this business. ”You’ve heard the phrase ‘Can so-and-so open a movie?”’ says CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler. ”Very rarely do you hang the ‘opening’ of a TV series on an actor.”

And so networks gravitate toward these reliable, itinerant stars — think of them as a TV farm league — whom they’ve used and reused because they’re so confident these actors will eventually break through. This season’s new series are, as usual, stuffed with them. CBS’ Out of Practice will be Christopher Gorham’s fifth show in six years. He costars with Paula Marshall, who more or less acknowledged to a group of TV critics this summer that she is the high priestess of itinerancy, with failed series like Snoops, Cupid, Hidden Hills, and Chicago Sons to her credit. Carla Gugino, starring this season on CBS’ alien drama Threshold, has four shows on her résumé. Fox’s decades-spanning soap Reunion features Chyler Leigh, who, since 1999, has been a cast member on four series and starred in four pilots that didn’t make the cut. On UPN this fall, Holly Robinson Peete begins work on her sixth show, and ABC’s midseason Fred Savage comedy, Crumbs, costars Eddie McClintock and Maggie Lawson, who have six series, eight dead pilots, and more than 25 guest spots on other shows between them. ”[This life is] frustrating only in the sense that it would be nice to have stability,” says Gorham. ”You spend a lot of time wondering if that paycheck’s gonna keep going. Should I buy the house? Should I redo the kitchen? But I can’t let myself fret too much because I’ve been extraordinarily stable compared to most actors’ experiences.”

An actor landing her first pilot will always slip into fantasies that it could be the next Friends: I could be on this set for years! I could be rich! I could dictate the nation’s hairstyles! And then comes an actor’s first dead pilot. It’s a sucker punch to her dreams: My set’s gone! I can’t believe I just bought that Benz! My agent just told me to change my hair for my next audition so it looks more like Jennifer Aniston’s! When, in 1997, Lawson got the call that The WB had passed on her first pilot, Girls Across the Lake, a sitcom with Cindy Williams, ”I was like, ‘What do you mean?”’ she says. ”’You guys can’t just decide you don’t want to do it right now.’ I didn’t know that’s how it works.” Performers say they never quite get inured to rejection, no matter how many shows they’ve seen yanked away. ”It’s like falling in love with somebody,” says Leigh. ”You want to work really hard at the relationship, but there’s always that chance that you could get your heart broken.”

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