Adapting The Office for American television was a Herculean task that seemed destined to fail at first. The original UK version was such a beloved and popular international hit that trying to remake it seemed futile. Showrunner Greg Daniels and his team managed to pull it off, defying expectations by creating a worthy successor to the original series and one that both paid homage to its predecessor and carved out its own unique comic identity, as well. Although many factors came together to turn The Office into a great success, the cast is a large part of what makes the show work.
Greg Daniels’s adaptation was a high-profile project and many big names were offered parts or lobbied for them. Also, several actors and actresses that were cast in the show tried out for other roles originally. With the first installment of Steve Carell’s two-part exit airing tonight, it’s an appropriate time to examine some of the Office casting choices that almost were and how they could have impacted the show.
Paul Giamatti as Michael Scott
Paul Giamatti, hot off the success of Sideways, was the first choice to play Michael Scott. Giamatti was offered the part, but he declined. Giamatti’s a very talented comic actor, but let’s face it: The Office probably wouldn’t have been able to run seven years without Steve Carell. Although he was already admired by us comedy geeks at the time of his Office hiring, Steve Carell was largely unknown by the masses. Paul Giamatti was an established movie star, and his presence may have raised expectations too high. The Office became a great show in its second season, but putting Giamatti in the lead might have caused fans and critics to treat the truncated first season with greater scrutiny. Like many classic sitcoms before it, The Office took a few episodes to find its footing and discover its voice, but the combination of a major star like Giamatti and the prestige of the original series may have caused the public to pass swift judgment. Plus, Giamatti’s characters tend to be much smarter than Michael Scott. He’s played guys that are on par when it comes to eccentricities and emotional neediness, but Steve Carell nails the “dumb guy” routine in a way Giamatti can’t.
Missing out on The Office would have hurt Steve Carell’s career, but he was making headways in the movie industry at the time of the show’s debut. His first leading role (The 40 Year-Old Virgin) on the big screen came the same year The Office started, and not being tied down to The Office would have left him more time to devote to following it up with other movies. If he’d taken this part, Giamatti would have missed out on a few of the big movie roles he’s taken in recent years and maybe even his acclaimed miniseries, John Adams.
Hank Azaria as Michael Scott
Hank Azaria was said to be interested in the lead role, and if he had won the part, it may have reignited the Simpsons actor’s live action acting career. An obvious highlight of Azaria hypothetically taking the role would be the actor turning his amazing abilities with funny voices and characters into the not-so-good comedy Michael Scott performs around the office. In his live action roles, Azaria has a little bit of an edge to him, and this may have caused his Michael Scott to come across as a meaner character. Carell plays Michael Scott with a certain sweet and pathetic energy that helps the audience to forgive him for all of the awful things he does, and I’m not sure Azaria is capable of pulling off this delicate balancing act with the same degree of success.
Martin Short as Michael Scott
Renowned comedic performer Martin Short also expressed interest in the Michael Scott part. If Short had managed to play the character a little more subdued than his typical high-energy manic roles, his Michael Scott could have been very effective. Short’s shown he can handle a serious role in Damages, and these skills would have helped him to keep Michael Scott as emotionally grounded as Carell does. If The Office had been a hit with Short, it could have revitalized his movie career and kept him away from tripe like The Santa Clause 3. Though, he would have missed out on his Emmy Award-nominated role on Damages, too.
Bob Odenkirk as Michael Scott
Bob Odenkirk was also amongst the actors interested in the role that went to Steve Carell. Odenkirk has tremendous abilities as both an actor and writer, and he could have brought a lot to this show. His version of Michael Scott would have been very different from Carell’s interpretation (and probably rife with that trademark Odenkirk anger). But, like the other actors on this list, he wasn’t made for the part like Steve Carell was. On the other hand, The Office role would have been a boon to Bob Odenkirk’s career and allowed him to get a lot of his own projects produced, which would have been great news for comedy fans everywhere. Odenkirk found an acting role better suited for him just a couple of years ago, when he began playing sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad. Winning the Office part would have forced him to miss out on that one, if his run as Michael Scott had been a success.
Rainn Wilson as Michael Scott
Before he was cast as Dwight, Rainn Wilson auditioned to play Michael Scott. He’s admitted his performance at the try-outs was a “bad Ricky Gervais impression.” I’m not sure how The Office would have worked with Wilson as the lead. His persona is a little too strange to anchor a show like this. It’s for everyone’s best interest that he settled into the part he was born to play and introduced the world to the best possible version of Dwight Schrute.
Matt Walsh as Dwight Schrute
Matt Walsh auditioned for the role of Dwight but lost out to Rainn Wilson. Walsh has shown he can play similar roles in the past and he would have been an interesting choice here. He’s been largely confined to cable series and bit parts in big movies in recent years (The Hangover, Role Models), but starring in The Office would have certainly bolstered his fame. All four of The Office’s main actors were able to parlay their TV stardom into major movie roles, and Walsh would have had opportunities to do the same. If he’d found success in this high-profile role, Walsh’s fanbase would have carried over to the UCB theaters, which he co-founded, drawing even larger crowds to the highly-popular comedy hubs.
Angela Kinsey as Pam Beesly
Angela Kinsey, best known for playing Angela on The Office, originally auditioned for the role, but the producers felt she was “a little too feisty for Pam.” Kinsey’s shown she’s adept at playing the snooty character Angela, and after seeing her in this sinister role, it’s hard to picture her as sweet and innocent Pam. As with most of the supporting cast, the Angela character was something the writers and Kinsey fleshed out as they were producing the first few episodes. The character is so ingrained in Kinsey’s performance that it was even named after her. If Kinsey had won the Pam role, she wouldn’t have been able to play Angela and the character may never have existed. Angela is such a perfect romantic foil to Dwight and the show wouldn’t be the same without her. Can you imagine The Office with Rainn Wilson as Michael and Angela Kinsey as Pam? Weird.
A couple more Office cast members auditioned for different parts than the ones they eventually received. Kate Flannery, who plays Meredith, originally tried out for Michael’s boss Jan Levinson, and Brian Baumgartner, who plays Kevin, auditioned for Stanley.
Nick Offerman as various characters
Before being immortalized as Ron Swanson on Parks and Recreation, Nick Offerman tried out for The Office a few times. Offerman had this to say:
“I had auditioned for The Office a lot when it started up and I had been in for some guest star stuff and, unbeknown to me, a few years into The Office I was reading for one of their guest star roles. It went so well that one of their writers, Mike Schur, wrote my name down. They offered me the guest star role but I couldn’t do it.”
Offerman wasn’t clear on which parts he auditioned for, but I could imagine him being effective as Stanley, David Wallace, or even an oddball version of Charles Miner. Nick Offerman would have been a fine addition to The Office’s universe and he would have been able to bring something new to the table while still gelling with the sensibility of the show nicely. However, it’s probably for the best that he didn’t take any parts that would have prevented him from playing Ron Swanson a few years down the line.
Mackenzie Crook, Martin Freeman, and Lucy Davis from the British Office
Plans were made for these three stars of the original series to make cameos during the American Office’s third season, but scheduling conflicts prevented this from happening. A star of the UK series finally made it on this past season when Ricky Gervais guest starred as David Brent in a face-to-face encounter with alter ego Michael Scott. Gervais is set to return for the American Office’s two-part finale, which airs on May 19th.
…and the New Boss
A lot of names have been thrown around to replace Steve Carell after his exit next week. With the most crucial character in such a popular comedy departing, it’s no wonder the producers have considered a wide berth of possibilities. As of this writing, we still don’t know who will be replacing Carell next season, but several big names have been kicked around. Many of these are just rumors with little credence to them, but Danny McBride, Rhys Darby, Harvey Keitel, Will Arnett, Tim Allen, Ricky Gervais, James Spader, and Catherine Tate have all been mentioned at one point or another. McBride, Darby, Arnett, and Allen are locked down to other series or pilots, so any of them joining the cast seems unlikely. Showrunner Paul Lieberstein mentioned wanting Harvey Keitel, but it seems like he just threw the name out as a lark. Ricky Gervais has said he’s not interested, leaving James Spader and Catherine Tate as the only possibilities that have been mentioned. It’s more than likely that none of these actors and actresses will be chosen and the new boss on The Office will either be 1) somebody already on the show who gets promoted (Dwight, Andy, or Darryl) or 2) somebody whose name we haven’t heard yet. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.