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typecasting is what it's called in the film and television industry, and in the real world, it's called branding and specialization. We all find ourselves in a pigeonhole, including companies. Companies can branch out with other divisions, but they still do at the core what hte parent did. Disney launches Touchstone, Coca Cola luanches Dasani, and Hershey buys Scharfen Bergen.


 
Home / Reality Or The Lack Of It  /
The Typecasting Society
typecasting

The price of notoriety: the more notable you are at something, the less you'll be trusted to do anything else


Every Harry Potter fan knows about the Killing, Babbling, and Conjunctivitis Curses.   However, they may not be aware of a more insidious curse, one that really exists, called the Typecasting Curse.  I can't count the number of times I've heard actors discuss being struck by this spell.   An actor appears in a role in a successful series.  When the show is finally cancelled, the actor either finds

pigeonholing  he can't get further work because the public can only see him or her in that one role or

branding  the only work s/he can get is playing an almost identical role in a usually inferior vehicle

It's almost a joke to recite examples, there're so many of them.   Jason Alexander wows audiences as the neurotic and self-loathing George Costanza in Seinfeld for 9 years.   Afterwards, the Costanza character is recycled in other forms for Alexander in two extremely mediocre shows, Bob Patterson and Listen Up.  Neither made it beyond a single season.   Alexander's cast mate, Michael Richards, goes from playing Kramer in a winner to playing Vic Nardozza in a loser, The Michael Richards Show.   Ken Osmond, Eddie Haskell on Leave It To Beaver from 1957 to 1963, is forced to become a Los Angeles motorcycle cop after the show is cancelled.  Few casting directors could see him play anyone but Eddie.   Paul Petersen plays clean-cut Jeff Stone on The Donna Reed Show up until 1966 and becomes stereotyped for this all-American teen role when the era of drugs, love-ins, and protests takes root in the late Sixties.  The result is the end of his acting career.

Any actor or actress so closely associated with a particular role will find it difficult, maybe impossible, to escape from it unless years have passed and a new generation of viewers don't remember the actor in his hallmark role.   From a producer's perspective, it makes perfect sense to cast actors in modified versions of their previous successful roles.   New television series are designed around them, shows which have to play to their known strengths.  Producers would consider those strengths in light of what each person brought to their prior series. 

Could Jason Alexander play a very different role, say, a professional athlete or a rapist?  Alexander is a talented performer, so I'd bet he could.  I'd further bet that few in the viewing public would accept him for the leap.  Michael Richards, Ken Osmond, and Paul Peterson, I'm sure, could also play other roles beyond the ones which made them famous.  That isn't the point.  A casting director's objective isn't to expand the acting range of already known actors.  It's to find someone who best fits the role.  If the actor is too closely associated with an earlier role too dissimilar to the current one being cast, it's easier for the casting director to hire someone who comes in with no prior associations.  If the new role is a retread of something done previously, it's simpler to ask only actors who've played roles like this in the past to audition.  When the creators of Three's Company were trying to think of someone to fill the new landlord role after Norman Fell and Audra Lindley left for their own spin-off, their idea was to cast someone like Don Knotts, which eventually turned into casting Don Knotts himself. 

committed to one-character prison

There's little reason for actors to curse typecasting.    You can't be typecast unless you're already known.    Says Professor Ezra Zuckerman of the MIT Sloan School of management,  "Typecasting provides a route into the [television and film] industry by conferring the minimum level of recognition necessary to continue to obtain work, even if this recognition involves the adoption of a generic identity."  Compare the typecast actor to the vast majority of actors who never get cast in anything notable to get to the stage where they could ever be typecast.   As an actor, which position would you prefer to be in:  regularly employed but doing variations of the same thing or interminably unemployed?

No one well known defies categorization.  Even actors with great range, such as Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis, are typecast -- as actors with wide ranges.  Day-Lewis, in particular, brings legitimacy and Academy Award potential to a film by being in it.  Another way of looking at it is that he would only consider appearing in a certain kind of film, the type which could be up for major awards.  You're not likely to see Day-Lewis cheapen himself by appearing in a teen comedy or science fiction flick, even if he were paid a king's ransom. 

Typecasting is everywhere in our society.  Pretend you're a respected chef in a well known Chinese restaurant.  One day you wish to expand your artistic expression and become a chef in a renowned French restaurant.  Although cooking delicious French food and delicious Chinese food both involve culinary expertise, just as playing both the role of a psychopath and a scientist effectively requires legitimate acting talent, do you think it'll be easy to make a smooth transition?   Plenty of respected French cuisine chefs would be in the queue ahead of you and present less of a risk to the employer.   It doesn't matter if you can whip up amazing coq au vin and foie gras in your home kitchen.  The public sees you as a Chinese cuisine chef.   That is how you've been 'typecast,'  only outside the film and television industry we call it specialization.

It still might be possible to make such a shift.   A much lesser known French restaurant might be willing to give you a chance, borrowing off your stellar chef reputation to enhance the lesser reputation of their business.  This would probably involve you taking a pay cut to be given a chance to stretch your cooking muscles.  Hollywood celebrities, particularly television celebs, do this regularly.  They'll work for cheap in a low budget film to play a role completely unlike the one they're famous for, all in the hopes that if the movie becomes ultra successful, it'll be documented evidence to other producers that they're legitimate actors with range.   This option is the downward shift. 

Another option, much more common,  is the lateral shift -- one makes a move within his own organization.   Say a television actor has aspirations of becoming a director.  There's a fat chance any major film set would be the first to test him, but there's a very good chance his own television series will let him sit in the director's chair for a few episodes.   General  Electric has a practice of moving managers across industries.  In the hotel  business, one can move across directorship roles.   An employer who personally knows the work ethic and innate talent of an employee is in a better position to test that person in different positions than the labor market at large. 

Division of labor became part of the lexicon of modern society long ago, and as societies have become more impersonal and fragmented, the marketing of personal skills comes down to essentially typecasting oneself.  If you were a typical human resources manager looking to hire a new market analyst, would you hire the man who'd worked as a kiteboarding instructor, cell phone salesman, day trader, tour guide, and analyst over the last decade or would you hire the person who'd worked exclusively as a market analyst for the same time period?   Actually, the person who'd held a variety of jobs could well make the better analyst, bringing a much broader prospective to the position, but the person more likely to be hired is the one who exclusively specialized. 

It's not just individuals who are typecast.   Companies are, too.  We have a term for it:  branding.  A company can spend millions of dollars building its brand.  The objective is that the customer will strongly associate that company with an image related to the company's product or service offering.   With Disney, you think family entertainment, cartoons, kids' movies, theme parks.   With Microsoft, software monopolies like Windows, DOS, Word, Excel.  With Hershey, chocolate and other confectionary.   With Hyatt, upper tier hotel properties. 

A company wants its brand narrowly defined.  That's the whole idea.   It's quite possible Hershey could get into software development if it really wanted to, Microsoft into hotels, and Disney into chocolate manufacturing.   There's a term for this, too:  diversification.  Each company has the financial muscle to go beyond its 'typecasting,' but why would it want to?  Even if there are supposed synergies, most of the time they're overestimated.   Financial markets typically condemn diversification moves, and if the company is a public one, hammer that company's stock price for the foolhardy play.   eBay's purchase of Skype in 2005 was one such mediocre diversification move.  Using Skype regularly to call auctioneers when e-mail would suffice made no more sense after eBay's purchase than it did before, and eBay has since sold 70% of their stake. 

When a company does want to broaden its markets, it doesn't fight typecasting.   It works within it.   The Coca Cola Company started out manufacturing a carbonated sugar beverage.   Now they also sell other beverages like water and fruit juices.    These ventures aren't a big stretch from Coca Cola's traditional 'typecasting,' and yet Coca Cola still put some distance between these products and its core ones by launching the juices under the Minute Maid label and the water under Dasani. 

Disney wanted to branch out from kiddie films, so they launched another film division, Touchstone, and later bought the independent film production company Miramax. Touchstone and Miramax weren't tremendous leaps for Disney. 

Hershey didn't branch out into software, a completely unrelated business.  It branched out into artisan chocolates by purchasing specialist chocolate manufacturers like Scharffen Berger and Dagoba. 

Typecasting is a fact of life for everyone and everything.   Faced with a staggering amount of choices, typecasting/branding/specialization helps us narrow the field quickly.  Can you imagine a casting director having to audition hundreds of candidates for a one-off role as a gangster on a television series?  It's a lot quicker to cast an actor already typecast as a gangster.  Everyone already knows the actor can do the job somewhat competently and believably.   If you need to satisfy a quick chicken nugget urge, you could spend time on the internet researching the best places in town for nuggets -- or you could, like most people, visit Kentucky Fried Chicken.  This is how most of us make our decisions.   We live in typecasting societies.  We don't want or can't invest the time and energy to research all the options.    

During a pitch session in Hollywood, one is expected to distill the essence of an idea into one sentence anyone can comprehend.  To make it even easier, projects are described as "previously successful project A meets previously successful project B."  In the world we live in, we're expected to distill ourselves down to one word, the word that describes what we can provide to society.   "What do you do?" we're typically asked upon meeting a new acquaintance.  And that's who you become to society at large -- the doctor, the lawyer, or the gangster or sidekick actor. 

Welcome, my pigeonholed, to the world of typecasting.


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