Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: The original female lead on “Seinfeld” was replaced for not being sexy enough.
Television pilots can be fascinating to explore in greater detail. There is so much attention paid to just this one single episode (as the pilot typically determines whether the network wants to pick the television show up as an ongoing series) that the levels of micro-management on the pilot can go to extreme lengths. This is particularly evident when it comes to the cast of the series, as the pilot is often the first time that people are seeing the actors interacting on a finished product. Thus, very often actors are added or removed after the pilot. In one memorable instance, an actor was digitally added to the pilot of a hit TV series after the pilot had been finished but before it even aired! More often, though, pilots are where producers determine that certain characters don’t work and they get replaced on future episodes. That was the case in the original pilot for the “Big Bang Theory,” where there was an entirely different female lead at first. That was also the case in the original pilot for the hit TV series, “Seinfeld,” where the female lead on the series went in a dramatically different direction after the pilot.
Why did Lee Garlington get replaced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the female lead on “Seinfeld” after just one episode? There are a number of conflicting stories out there, including one that said that it was because the character needed to be “sexier.” What’s the truth? Read on to find out!
The original pilot for “Seinfeld” wasn’t even called “Seinfeld”! It was originally “The Seinfeld Chronicles”. When it got picked up for a short first season as a midseason replacement, the name was shortened to just “Seinfeld” so as to not be confused with a short-lived ABC sitcom of the same time called “The Marshall Chronicles” (featuring a young Adam Sandler).
Originally envisioned as a television special showing how comedians come up with the ideas for their jokes, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David decided to instead remake it as a television pilot, with that basic concept remaining (although dramatically cut down for time constraints – the whole “Show Jerry doing stand-up and then showing where the joke originated” approach was pretty quickly phased out of the show, but it continued for a little bit even after the show went to series) and the rest of the show being based on their actual lives and amusing incidents that occurred to them. The first episode’s main plot was about Jerry having a female friend visit, while Jerry is unsure if her visit was intended to be a romantic one or a platonic one (his sad sack best friend, George, naturally leads him in the wrong direction). The four actors listed in the opening credits were Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Michael Richards and…Lee Garlington.
“Who?” you might ask. Well, Lee Garlington is a character actress who has been working for decades. She was cast as Claire, a waitress in the local diner where Jerry and George always go to eat. She serves up wise cracks along with their food, but also gives them friendly advice. She was intended to be the main female character on the show. Seinfeld and David envisioned the show mostly as just being about the two of them, with Michael Richards’ character as just someone for them to play off of, and similarly that was the role that Claire would serve.
When the show was picked up for a first series, though, (a remarkably small episode order to start with, by the way, just four additional episodes for season 1! NBC, as a whole, did not have a lot of faith in the program. Luckily, there were a few executives who were very dedicated to seeing it succeed, including NBC chief of latenight and TV special, Rick Ludwin, who was the show’s biggest champion at the network), changes had to be made and the character of Claire was the odd person out.
In the book, “Seinfeld Reference: The Complete Encyclopedia with Biographies, Character Profiles & Episode Summaries”, Dennis Bjorklund wrote about Garlington, “After the pilot, her character was dropped to add more sex appeal to the only female supporting role.”
Jason Alexander told a more dramatic version of Garlington’s exit to Billy Bush, explaining that Garlington re-wrote Larry David’s dialogue for her only scene in the first episode, and that was it for her, as David wasn’t going to have that.
However, Jerry Seinfeld and NBC Entertainment Chief Warren Littlefield, both have a much more logical recollection of events (Seinfeld specifically confirmed Alexander’s story that Garlington did re-write her dialogue, but he said that it wasn’t that big of a deal), which is that since the show dealt so much with the characters simply hanging out with each other, that the show needed a female lead that could actually hang out with the rest of them. Your local waitress at the diner isn’t going to be hanging out at your apartment. So the show needed a female lead who could do that. Larry David actually had an ex-girlfriend that he later became friends with, so that was the inspiration for Elaine Benes. Megan Mullaly read for the role and almost got it, but Julia Louis-Dreyfus had a development deal with Warner Bros, the producers of the show, so she got the nod (plus, everyone liked Julia Louis-Dreyfus a lot, as well, of course, just noting that if things were even with Mullaly and Lous-Dreyfus, the development deal likely played a role in who got the gig).
Now, no offense to Lee Garlington, but it is fair to say that Julia Louis-Dreyfus (or Megan Mullaly, for that matter) had more sex appeal than her, but Littlefield and Sienfeld’s recollections are just so logical and normal (and, most importantly, in sync with each other) that I’m willing to go with them that the reason was simply that they needed a female character who would realistically hang out with them in other locations.
So I’m going with the legend as…
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