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Reflections on Star Quality From a Golden Age of ‘Junk TV’


Stop to think about the movie and TV characters which are most permanently seared into the American psyche, and their impact isn’t a function of screen time. Often, the effect on audiences is immediate: Think Tim Curry’s first appearance in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” or Stockard Channing breezing into Rydell High alongside her fellow Pink Ladies.

Whether or not they were memorable due to their abrasiveness (Danny DeVito in “Taxi”), their rebellious streak (Ms. Channing in “Grease”) or their ability to unravel a crisis with a slice of cheesecake (the titular golden girls of “The Golden Girls”), every actor who eventually went on to make Hollywood history first needed to clear the hurdle of a casting department. And for lots of the largest movies and TV shows of the last half century, Joel Thurm was a central a part of those teams, handpicking the actors whose performances would resonate for a long time to come back.

In his newly released memoir, “Sex, Drugs & Pilot Season: Confessions of a Casting Director,” Mr. Thurm, 80, details what he saw in stars like John Travolta, whom he forged in “The Boy within the Plastic Bubble.”

“I knew he wasn’t Vinnie Barbarino,” Mr. Thurm said of managing to look past the actor’s biggest role to this point, on the ABC sitcom “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

With the ability to spot the je ne sais quoi that many consult with as star quality is a skill, one which Mr. Thurm has capitalized on throughout his 35-year profession.

“The most effective example I even have is when someone walks right into a room and has something special that you just haven’t seen in other people,” Mr. Thurm said in an interview this week. “Are they astoundingly beautiful? Are they so incredibly good-looking? They might be bad-looking! It’s individual; you’ll be able to’t really explain it.”

That “it” factor is the common denominator amongst all of the stars who go on to develop into household names, in accordance with Mr. Thurm, who said he had seen it immediately in Farrah Fawcett when she auditioned for the role of a stewardess on “The Bob Newhart Show.” She didn’t get the part, but Mr. Thurm said he had known “there was something special about her.” He also immediately saw it in a 17-year-old John Travolta when he met him in Latest York.

“He had a presence, and you’ll be able to feel it,” Mr. Thurm said. “They’d that little extra something.”

On the time, Mr. Travolta was most popular for his role on “Welcome Back, Kotter,” and producers wouldn’t move ahead with “The Boy within the Plastic Bubble,” a TV movie, unless an enormous star signed on to the project, Mr. Thurm said. He spent plenty of time with Mr. Travolta’s manager sitting on his “back deck getting melanoma and reading scripts,” Mr. Thurm said. When the script got here up, they each lobbied Mr. Travolta, who agreed to sign on. Mr. Thurm later forged Mr. Travolta in “Grease,” and the remainder is Hollywood history.

Mr. Thurm, who retired from a full-time casting position with NBC in 1990, hasn’t kept especially close tabs on the celebs of today, but he does know enough to acknowledge that they have a tendency to skew young.

“They’re all 12-year-olds,” he said. “I even have only seen them once they’re already stars. Ariana Grande, she’s already a star.”

Whether or not star quality has modified since Mr. Thurm began his profession, Hollywood itself definitely has. Along with snippets of back-room scenes detailing how a few of TV’s most beloved characters got here to look on a few of America’s favorite sitcoms, “Sex, Drugs & Pilot Season” can also be crammed with personal anecdotes that may — at minimum — raise eyebrows in a world reshaped by the #MeToo movement.

As a gay man living in Hollywood within the Nineteen Seventies, ’80s and ’90s, Mr. Thurm often found himself in situations that nearly definitely wouldn’t fly today — like massaging the actor Robert Reed’s back after he needed to undergo several hair treatments for his role “The Boy in The Plastic Bubble.”

“I began to rub his back, then I rubbed, you recognize, began rubbing somewhat lower,” Mr. Thurm said of Mr. Reed, best known for enjoying Mike Brady in “The Brady Bunch.” “He was just miserable on the set because he was not used to not being the focus.”

In his memoir, Mr. Thurm also details an encounter together with his teenage idol, Rock Hudson. At a celebration with other gay men in Hollywood, Mr. Hudson motioned to Mr. Thurm to follow him to a room upstairs.

“I used to be so anxious and nervous that my body below the waist couldn’t cooperate,” Mr. Thurm wrote.

It was a moment he has never forgotten.

“I saw each movie that he ever did and so even to search out myself at that party, I assumed was amazing,” Mr. Thurm said. “That is my introduction to Hollywood.”

Besides detailing his sexcapades, Mr. Thurm also takes full accountability for “the damage you might have suffered while watching David Hasselhoff,” he wrote. He initially forged Mr. Hasselhoff as Snapper Foster on “The Young and the Restless” in 1975. He later forged him in “Knight Rider” — a high-water mark in what he described as an era of “junk TV” — after a contentious standoff with producers, who originally wanted Laurence Olivier. (“Yes, David Hasselhoff and Laurence Olivier on the identical list,” he wrote.)

The memoir is just not nearly Mr. Thurm’s dealings in Hollywood but his upbringing: growing up on a kosher milk farm in East Latest York. Attending Hunter College in Manhattan when it was nearly an all-girls school. Hanging out in Greenwich Village in its bohemian heyday. Flunking out of school and traveling through Italy in his early 20s.

“To me, it was just my experiences — you recognize, growth going through life and growing up,” Mr. Thurm said. “I haven’t any regrets. No one died.”

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