Jeff Greenberg takes you inside the casting trenches of 'Modern Family,' 'Frasier,' 'Cheers,' and more

Jeff Greenberg probably could paper the Earth several times over with the number of head shots that have crossed his desk. The Emmy-winning casting director of ABC’s Modern Family (who also cast CBS’ new comedy Superior Donuts) boasts credits that include Cheers, Frasier, Wings, My So-Called Life, and Ugly Betty. What is his guiding philosophy on securing the right person for the right role? “I try to find the 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,” he says. “And always have a backup plan, always have someone in the wings, just in case.” Greenberg is currently shopping a book, Callback, which details his adventures in the casting profession, and right here, he auditions some key anecdotes from his colorful career.

The actor he helped break through
Greenberg gave early guest gigs to Kristen Wiig (on I’m With Her), Zooey Deschanel (Frasier), and Millie Bobby Brown (Modern Family), and facilitated a breakthrough moment for Meg Ryan back when he served as a casting assistant on Top Gun. “I brought her up to our casting director for the role of Goose’s wife, Carole,” he says. “I actually knew Meg’s work from an episode of Charles in Charge! She came in and grabbed her big break.” But he’s perhaps proudest of guiding Eric Stonestreet into his role as Mitchell’s clown-loving husband, Cameron, on Modern Family. “He had been auditioning for me for 10 years. I remained a fan, and he was always good,” notes Greenberg. “We had a very hard time casting that part, and 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.”

The casting cast-outs from the past that are hard to believe now
There are too many to mention, but here’s a fun one: He once auditioned a little-known actor named Brad Pitt for a guest role on Cheers. “My only note was ‘Not funny,'” Greenberg says. “For the part, he wasn’t funny—he’s been funny since.” Greenberg also passed on an All New Mickey Mouse Club alum named Keri Russell for the role of Model No. 1 on My So-Called Life a few years before she scored with Felicity. “But in my casting notes, I wrote, ‘Star to be,'” he says. “I tracked her career and observed what was inevitable. It was that apparent.”

ABC's "Modern Family" - Season Eight
Credit: Richard Cartwright/Getty Images; ABC

The actor that he fought the hardest for
Shortly after Greenberg took over Cheers‘ casting in season 5, he faced a formidable challenge: Shelley Long announced her exit. “It was on my shoulders to find the new leading lady,” he 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.” (He also suggested casting Long as Jay’s ex-wife on Modern Family.)

The show for which he auditioned the most actors
To cast the lone female role in the pilot of NBC’s Seth Green-starring 2006 sitcom Four Kings, Greenberg saw 637 women, including Jessica Chastain, Busy Philipps, and Krysten Ritter. (The part went to Kiele Sanchez.) He also auditioned 336 actors for the four main male roles, including Channing Tatum, Max Greenfield, Sebastian Stan, and Zach Gilford — as well as Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Segel, and Josh Radnor. “How I Met Your Mother was casting at the same time,” he notes, “and wisely plucked all three.”

The recasting that hurt the most
Frasier turned out to be the easiest pilot that Greenberg has ever cast. Except when it came to the role of Frasier’s producer, Roz, which, as many Friends fans know, was originally filled by Lisa Kudrow. “[The producers] said, ‘We’ll see any type, age, ethnicity,’ so I brought them all of these great comic actresses, and we whittled it down,” recalls Greenberg. “Kelsey [Grammer] came in and read with five or six of them, and our two favorites were Lisa Kudrow and Peri Gilpin. We tested them at NBC, and they chose Lisa. She was great.” But when a test audience was brought in for a pilot rehearsal, the producers detected an imbalance in the show. “There was so much good confrontation in the scenes at home and a palpable sort of tension,” she says. “At the radio station, not so much. And they figured out it was because of Lisa’s version of Roz. You could see Kelsey [as Frasier] was going to be able to railroad her and do what he wanted. She was sort of spacey, and she was funny. But there was not going to be the conflict there. Plus, her version of Roz interfered a little with Jane Leeves’ version of Daphne, which was a little daffy. There were two daffy women, and when you’re doing auditions, you don’t see it all together; you do them in little puzzle pieces, and then you fit them together.”

At this point in the process, Jim Burrows, the show’s director/producer, had an idea. “Not knowing who else tested for the part, [he] said, ‘You know who you need in this part? You need Peri Gilpin,’ remembers Greenberg. “He had worked with her a few times, and he said, ‘You don’t f— around with Peri. She holds her ground.’ They knew that she could go toe-to-toe with Kelsey, so we made the change, and it was horrible because I’m friends with Lisa. We loved Lisa. She didn’t do anything wrong, but I had to make that call to her agent. And then I spoke to her, and she was, of course, the classiest possible person in the world. She said she understood. … It was a dark day.” After conferring with Gilpin’s agent, Greenberg then broke the good news to her himself. “I found Peri was eating at Orso [a former Hollywood mainstay], and I had her brought to the phone in the bar, and said, ‘What are you doing tomorrow? ‘” he recalls. “She said, ‘Nothing.’ And I said, ‘You want to come be our Roz?’ When I showed up for rehearsal the next morning, she was wearing Lisa’s costume saying Roz’s lines. They didn’t even have time to dry clean the clothes. She was just Roz. That turned out to be a happy ending finally for everyone, because the next year, Lisa got Friends.”

NEXT PAGE: Matthew McConaughey was almost the Reiki massage expert on Modern Family — and the casting regret involving George Clooney

The Modern Family guest role that could have gone a half-dozen different ways
In season 2, viewers saw James Marsden as Barry, the Reiki massage expert who was crashing in Lily’s castle in Cam and Mitchell’s backyard. But the role was originally imagined with another famous face who was also all right, all right, all right for the part. “We had Matthew McConaughey wanting to do it, and he was the prototype when they were writing it,” Greenberg says. “But we couldn’t make dates work. We then made offers to Matt Dillon, Steve Zahn, Mark Wahlberg, and Owen Wilson. But one by one, they didn’t work out until we made our offer to James Marsden, who had been on our list from the beginning, and the stars aligned. As happens more often that not, the right actor ending up getting the part. He was hilarious.”

The most nervous actor he’s ever seen
Greenberg was a casting assistant on the 1984 film The Philadelphia Experiment when a young woman named Melanie Griffith walked through the doors. “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 apparently overcame her fright rather quickly, earning notice in another 1984 movie, Body Double, for her role as an adult-film actress.

The role for which he threw a casting curveball to his bosses
Greenberg singles out Amy Hill’s role on Téa Leoni’s NBC sitcom The Naked Truth. Why? Because it was written as a male photographer. “Amy Hill is a fantastic actress,” he notes. “I brought her in without asking would it be okay, and it was just a very interesting way to go. Sometimes I do that, and I just don’t ask permission. I don’t want them prejudging it.”

The most stressful day of work he’s ever had
The final episode of Cheers was the second-most-watched series finale in TV history, and “it was as emotional a day as any of us has ever had in television,” explains Greenberg. “It was a tough day to get through.” Especially for Greenberg. Check out this hell day: “They had written a surprise guest star role for Danny DeVito to come and be a tire salesman from New Jersey who whisked Carla Tortelli [played by DeVito’s wife, Rhea Perlman] away out of the bar to a new life,” he says. “On the day we were going to shoot the show, I got word that Danny wasn’t going to do it. They never told me why, and I went, ‘Oh, well, I guess they’ll cut that scene.’ But [series creators] Glen Charles, Les Charles and Jimmy Burrows said, ‘Actually, we prefer for you to find another name actor to do it.’ I found this out at about noon, and we were shooting the show starting at 6 p.m., and while everybody is wandering around, kissing, crying, and drinking champagne, I went into crisis mode. Now, these are the days where you’re faxing pages to people on that curly paper that came out [of the fax machine]. We were faxing pages all over town to people who were interested and available … and I ended up getting Joe Mantegna — who was working on a movie across town — to agree to do it. He read it and was a fan of the show. In fact, years before, he had auditioned for the role of Nick Tortelli that Dan [Hedaya] had ended up getting. I arranged for a car to pick him up, and he was going to shoot the show. I went to tell Jimmy, ‘It’s all in place! Joe Mantegna’s going to do it!’ and I knew Jimmy was a fan of his. He said, ‘There’s too much going on. I think we should cut the scene now.’ Lesson No. 242: In casting, it’s never over till it’s over. After that, nothing has ever freaked me out. It was like, I can do anything if I could do that.”

The toughest Modern Family role to cast
Greenberg auditioned 232 people for jester dad Phil Dunphy, including Tony Hale and Steven Weber. Ty Burrell—fresh off the busted pilot Fourplay—was the first person that creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd brought to ABC, but the network balked. “The phrase that the networks often use is that [an actor has] ‘baggage,'” says Greenberg. “And he had a matching set of luggage, a steamer trunk, and a few hat boxes because he was associated with that project, in which nothing worked.” After Burrell was screen-tested in the pilot’s BB-gun scene, “Steve McPherson, who was the president of ABC, said, ‘I was wrong. Ty is phenomenal.'”

The easiest Modern Family role to cast
That honor goes to Sofia Vergara, who scored the part of Gloria, Colombian firecracker and wife of family patriarch Jay (Ed O’Neill). “When Steve and Chris went to pitch the show to Steve McPherson at ABC, Steve and Chris knew [ABC] had a holding deal with Sofia, so they thought that was something in their favor to get ABC to buy in,” says Greenberg. “ABC, on the other hand, thought it was incentive to get Chris and Steve to do the show there because they had Sofia Vergara.” In fact, she was offered the role without an audition, and the table read confirmed their instincts. “Everything — and everyone — worked,” he says. “It just fit her like a glove. It’s the most perfect piece of casting.”

The actors he hopes to welcome into the Family
Nathan Lane, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Jesse Eisenberg are a few names that Greenberg has checked off his wish list. He hopes to find roles for Modern fans like Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Garner, Lady Gaga, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Julianne Moore, and David Schwimmer. Who’s No. 1 on his long list? “I’d love to see Dustin Hoffman play Phil Dunphy’s one-of-a-kind uncle,” he says. “I’ll leave it up to Dustin and our brilliant writers to come up with what kind he’s one of. He feels Dunphy-esque to me.”

The casting regret that still haunts him
This one goes all the way to the very top of the Hollywood food chain, back when this now-famous actor-director was closer to the bottom: “I gave George Clooney what I think turned out to be his least favorite job of all time—the 1991 sitcom Baby Talk, costarring, yes, a talking baby,” says Greenberg of the short-lived series based on Look Who’s Talking, the big-screen comedy which he also cast. “Every time I see George, the wound reopens, and he roasts me a bit. I’m sorry already, George, okay?”

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