This M*A*S*H guest star headed up NBC's casting in the Eighties
Dennis Erdman spilled the beans on how Eighties TV casting really worked, and why he eventually quit.
Next time you watch the M*A*S*H episode "The General Flipped at Dawn," pay attention to the 17-year-old patient with the bad head injury who Hawkeye tends to.
Once out of surgery, the young man asks Hawkeye, "Am I going to have a bad scar?"
Hawkeye jokes that the patient’s scar will look like a Z, like Zorro.
The young man breaks into a broad smile in response, after which Hawkeye scolds him, instructing him not to laugh for three days.
The actor in this scene, Dennis Erdman, is not well known, but for a period of time in the Eighties at NBC, he was responsible for casting all the network’s shows. And he got that gig because no one else wanted it, which he says is basically the story of his life.
When Erdman turned 18, it was 1974, and he had just seen a Broadway show that deeply affected him called Equus.
Because he liked the show so much, he showed up randomly for an open call for understudies and because he’d acted a few times before, he got hired on.
He was only meant to stay an understudy, but then the production struggled to cast the role, and in the end, Erdman told The Los Angeles Times in 1988 that "because they couldn’t find anyone else – it was really by default – I took over the role."
From there, things escalated quickly for Erdman, when he was offered a director job at a theater after he moved to Los Angeles.
Again, Erdman said he was only hired because the theater was "scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to find someone and offered me the job."
Seemingly always willing to take whatever job was asked of him, the next request that came through was to help a different theater cast a couple shows.
Erdman said sure, and the next thing he knew, the vice president of talent at NBC was calling up and telling him, "He needed somebody at NBC. Would I be interested?"
That’s how Erdman came to be manager of casting at NBC in the Eighties.
Then in 1988, Erdman took control and decided to end his accidental casting career and choose the destiny he really wanted: directing for the stage.
Erdman said he couldn’t help thinking about how many people end up working in jobs they don’t really like, and ultimately he decided that it was worth the risk of leaving his successful network executive career to pursue his real passion.
"I’m constantly seeing people who are doing something with their lives other than what they’d intended to do," Erdman said. "For instance, does anybody really think to themselves, ‘I want to open a shop that sells picture frames or become a court stenographer?’ Thank God we’ve got those people. But I’d be curious to know how many of them really wanted to work on the Calypso with Jacques Cousteau."
He was scared that directing wouldn’t work out, but he was also sick of coddling TV producers who he said sometimes had unrealistic casting expectations.
If you ever wondered about the politics of Eighties TV casting, Erdman spilled this dirt:
"Most of the time at the network, you work with terrific people and terrific projects. But every once in a while, material comes along that’s insulting to anyone’s intelligence. You’ve got a producer who wants Tom Hanks and Teri Garr for the leads, and it shoots in Anchorage, Alaska, between November and March. … And the universe of actors that a network is willing to go with to carry their shows is very limited."
But perhaps the job he liked least of all was acting.
Erdman only appeared onscreen four times in his brief film acting career. M*A*S*H was his first TV appearance, followed by roles in The Rookies, Barnaby Jones and B.J. and the Bear.
On M*A*S*H, we found his youthful exuberance charming, but in Erdman’s own assessment of his acting, he never felt he brought much to any of those roles.
"The reason I don’t act is that I couldn’t bring the character to life within myself," Erdman said. "I always felt very uncomfortable, unequipped. I’d watch myself on TV and think, ‘There are people who could do it better.’"