TV URBAN LEGEND: "Seinfeld's" original female lead was replaced for not being sexy enough.
Television pilots can be fascinating to explore in greater detail. So much attention is paid to a single episode, as it typically determines whether a network will order the project to series, that the levels of micro-management can be extreme. That’s particularly evident when it comes to the cast, because the pilot is often the first time the actors are seen interacting in a finished product. Thus, actors are frequently added or removed after the pilot.
In one memorable instance, an actor was digitally added to the pilot after it was finished but before it aired! More often, however, pilots are where producers determine that certain characters don't work. That was the case in the original pilot for “The Big Bang Theory," where there in which there was a different female lead. That was also the case in the original pilot for the hit sitcom "Seinfeld," where the female lead went in a dramatically different direction after the pilot.
Why was Lee Garlington replaced by Julia Louis-Dreyfus on "Seinfeld" after just one episode? There are a number of conflicting stories, including one that contends 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"! Instead it was "The Seinfeld Chronicles.” When it was picked up by NBC as a midseason replacement, the name was shortened to just "Seinfeld" so as not to be confused with a short-lived 1990 ABC sitcom called "The Marshall Chronicles" (featuring a young Adam Sandler).
Although it was initially envisioned as a TV special depicting how comedians come up with ideas for their jokes, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David decided to instead remake the project as a pilot, with that basic concept remaining but the rest of the show based on their actual lives (the approach of showing Jerry doing his stand-up routine and then depicting how the joke originated was greatly reduced due to time, and was eventually phased out as the series progressed).
The pilot’s main plot was about a female friend from out of town visiting Jerry, who’s unsure whether she has romantic intentions (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. Garlington is a veteran character actress as Claire, a waitress at the local diner where Jerry and George always go to eat. Intended to be the main female character, she serves up wisecracks along with their food, but also gives them friendly advice. Seinfeld and David envisioned the show mostly as just being about Jerry and George, with Michael Richards' character simply as someone for them to play off of. Claire was to serve a similar function.
When “Seinfeld” was picked up for a remarkably small order (just four additional episodes), NBC as a whole didn’t have a lot of faith in the show. Luckily, though, there were a few executives who were very dedicated to seeing it succeed. Changes had to be made, Claire was the odd person out.
In his 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." But Alexander told a more dramatic version of her exit to Billy Bush, explaining that Garlington rewrote David's dialogue for her only scene in the first episode, and that was it for her.
However, Seinfeld and NBC Entertainment Chief Warren Littlefield have a much more logical recollection of events (Seinfeld specifically confirmed Alexander's story that Garlington did rewrite her dialogue, but he said it wasn't that big of a deal): Because the show dealt so much with the characters hanging out together, it needed a female lead that could actually spend time with the others. The waitress at the local diner isn't going to hang out at your apartment, so the show needed a female lead who could do that. David actually had an ex-girlfriend that he later became friends with, providing the inspiration for Elaine Benes. Megan Mullaly read for the role and almost got it, but Julia Louis-Dreyfus had a development deal with “Seinfeld” producer Warner Bros., which helped her to clinch the role.
“Sex appeal” may be in the eye of the beholder, but Littlefield and Seinfeld's recollections are so logical (and, more importantly, in sync with each other) that I'm willing to go with them that the reason was simply they needed a female character who could realistically hang out with Jerry and George in other locations.
So I'm going with the legend as ...
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