Michael Bluth could have been played by Ben Schenkman. Think about that as you binge-watch season four of “Arrested Development” this week.
One of the previous casting directors for 20th Century Fox, Marcia DeBonis, told IFC that her proudest achievement was placing the three New York hires: Will Arnett as G.O.B., Tony Hale as Buster, and Jessica Walter as Lucille — and not getting her way when it came to the part of Michael. “Ben Schenkman came in for the part of Michael, and we sent in the tape for him, and they wanted to fly him out, to test him, and a week later, they suddenly started testing Jason Bateman instead,” she recalled. “I was furious, and I called them, and they said they would still test Ben, but that if they didn’t test Jason that week, they were going to lose him. And I was like, ‘Who the fuck is Jason Batemen?’ Because, remember, this was his comeback. And sure enough, they loved him, and Ben didn’t even get to test.”
Of course, once she saw the finished product, “I realized I was wrong and Jason couldn’t have been more perfect for it,” she said. “I was apologizing to everyone, ‘I’m sorry I was such a bitch!’ because I had been apoplectic about it.”
DeBonis, however, had previously had someone else in mind for Michael Bluth — Will Arnett. DeBonis had known him “forever,” but she wasn’t aware of his capacity for comedy. “He was beautiful,” she said, “but because he was so cute, I wrongly judged him as the cute guy.” At first, she thought he would be a good fit, but Arnett wasn’t available because was in the middle of a play, so she let it go. But three or four weeks into the casting process, “Arrested Development” was still having a hard time finding someone for G.O.B., and so they started checking on people who previously weren’t available but whose schedules might have freed up. And with the table reads already in progress, the part needed to be cast right away. Luckily, Arnett’s part in the play was over, so in the space of a day, “we got him in [for a cold reading] that afternoon, and he totally got it, very much by the seat of his pants,” DeBonis said. “And he made Gob what he was. I didn’t get what G.O.B. was — the arrogance of being a dick and still being likeable, clueless with an edge, with something still vulnerable about him in a weird way — until he did it. I didn’t know how funny it was, until he did it.”
Walter, DeBonis had to convince to test for the show, because she was more of an “actor of reputation” than the others being considered. “I don’t think she understood the tone of the show at first,” DeBonis said. “Nowadays, everything’s a mockumentary, but back then, there wasn’t a lot. So I got the first breakdown, which was a very bare bones run-and-gun piece, with a loosie-goosie feel, and I said to her, ‘This is like ‘Spinal Tap.’ Because the Christopher Guest movies were the closest thing to this. And once I explained that to her, she totally got it.”
Hale, DeBonis discovered doing a funny dance to Styx’s “Mr. Roboto” in a Volkswagen commercial, an origin that was later used as a joke on “Arrested Development.” “I was like, ‘That guy is so funny!'” she recalled. “I tracked him down, and I was just smitten with him. I thought he was so special.” DeBonis had tried Hale for a number of parts over the years but he was never quite right (“he’s interesting and off,” she said), but this was one where she knew he would be just right. “They wanted off!” she said with glee. “Finally, here was a part where Tony wouldn’t be considered too offbeat.” Hale was the first person she put on tape for consideration for Buster, and then the network flew him out for his audition. Buster wasn’t a big role in the pilot, but he added some “deep-seated sweetness” to the mix of abrasive characters, and what Hale brought to the character was a way to make Buster seem “more clueless than dumb,” DeBonis said. “You just want to take care of him.”
“I never thought in a million years that this pilot would get picked up,” she said, laughing. “It was so new and different and unique, and sometimes new and unique just doesn’t get picked up. So the fact that this all worked was a great surprise.”