The Lost Roles of ‘Parks and Recreation’

Parks and Recreation has one of the strongest and most eclectic comedy ensembles ever assembled, but as with most shows, the network and the producers looked at a lot of different actresses and actors before deciding on the group they wanted. When the show originally began gearing up for production in 2008, pretty much every other comedic performer in Los Angeles tried out for the show. Here’s a collection of known actors who auditioned for Parks and Rec but didn’t get the roles they tried out for, including one actress who went on to win an Oscar, three different guys who almost played Ron Swanson, the romantic lead Nick Offerman was originally supposed to play before he was cast in his iconic mustachioed role.

Nick Offerman

Prior to being cast as macho Parks Department boss Ron Swanson, Nick Offerman was up for another role on the show. Here’s Offerman telling Scott Aukerman about it during an episode of Comedy Bang Bang last year:

“I was reading for another part that ended up sort of becoming Paul Schneider’s part, named Mark Brendanawicz. At the time I was reading for it, though, it was a slightly different character, and it seemed like it was going great. They had me do a chemistry read with Rashida [Jones] because it was going to end up being … romantic. It was a much younger [character], somebody more our age, and it was more of a giggly, normal, sarcastic guy. And everything was going great until they showed a tape to NBC, and NBC said, “Uh, no we said, ‘Handsome.’ We said, ‘Handsome guy” … That came to a screeching halt. I was in a Big 5 Sporting Goods parking lot when I got this call that it’s over with this part and I was really crushed.”

Things worked out in Offerman’s favor, as he ended up landing a role on the show that was perfectly suited for him, though I am curious to see what him playing Rashida Jones’s normal guy love interest would have been like.

Matt Walsh

On the same Comedy Bang Bang interview (above), Nick Offerman reminisces about how NBC insisted on auditioning a bunch of actors to play Ron Swanson after they had already said they want him for the part, specifically mentioning UCB co-founder and Veep star Matt Walsh:

“[Ron Swanson] was not conceived of initially for me, but it quickly became me in their heads. Then, NBC said, ‘We would like to give Nick this role, but first, we’d like to spend five months auditioning every other dude in town’ …  Everywhere I would go in town, people would talk to me about this part. They’d be like, ‘Oh my God, did you read for that part? I did. It’s the greatest part,’ and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, no, I heard about that. Good luck. Take it easy’ … It would be terrible karmically, and it would be jinxing myself [to say I had the part].I was doing the monologues at [the UCB improv show] ASSSSCAT … and all of these great comedy veterans in town are sitting there doing the show. And somebody says, ‘Oh man, did you guys hear about [Jason] Mantzoukas’s pilot? Blah blah blah, super funny.’ And then, Matt Walsh says, ‘Forget about that. Who’s gettin’ that part of Amy’s boss?’ And everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God!’ All these guys were like, ‘Yeah, I read twice!’ ‘Aw, they had me back in!’ The whole room was so excited, talking about who’s gonna get this part. I went outside and stood on the sidewalk and like silently cried. It was like, ‘I can’t even…fuck.’ I’m so verklempt I can’t say anything to these guys [like] ‘I think I’m getting that part, you guys.’”

Octavia Spencer

According to Retta, who landed the part of Mercedes-loving office staffer Donna Meagle, Octavia Spencer auditioned for the part when she did. Retta recalls, “Octavia Spencer and a lot of other of my ‘types’ were there.” This was, of course, a few years ahead of Spencer winning an Oscar for her role in The Help, so she’s doing okay even though she didn’t book this particular part.

Ben Schwartz

Before being cast as Tom Haverford’s sleazy partner in crime Jean-Ralphio, Ben Schwartz auditioned for another part on Parks and Recreation during the show’s second season. Schwartz told Splitsider about his original audition: “I had a meeting about maybe playing the love interest [to Leslie Knope], but I was obviously too young. Mike [Schur] and I hit it off, though, and [writer] Katie, [Dippold] who’s another UCB person, was in the room too. I remember leaving and them saying, ‘We’re going to find a way to get you into this world.’” Louis C.K. wound up winning the role of Leslie’s cop boyfriend Dave, but Schwartz would be brought into the show a few episodes later as Jean-Ralphio, a role he’s reprised on the show 11 times after his first appearance and one of the show’s breakout minor characters.

Ellie Kemper

Ellie Kemper, a star from Greg Daniels’s other NBC comedy The Office, said on The Today Show in 2009 that she auditioned for a role on Parks and Rec and was passed over before being hired as a cast member on The Office during that show’s fifth season a few months later. Kemper doesn’t mention which part she was up for, but it was presumably Rashida Jones’s character Ann Perkins or Aubrey Plaza’s character April Ludgate. While the Parks and Rec audition didn’t yield Kemper a job on the show, it led directly to her being cast in The Office.

Tom Lennon

Reno 911! and The State star Tom Lennon told us during a recent interview about reading for the part of Ron Swanson:

I read for Nick Offerman’s role, and it was a bummer because Greg Daniels and the creators did not come. Greg Daniels wasn’t at my audition or whoever was sort of running the show at the time. I remember thinking, ‘Oh that’s a bummer’ because I had a pretty great audition then I found out later it had been written pretty specifically for Nick.

Kulap Vilaysack

During the same episode of Comedy Bang Bang mentioned above, Scott Aukerman said that his wife Kulap Vilaysack (Childrens HospitalWho Charted?) also tried out for a role on Parks and Rec. Aukerman remembers, “She auditioned for that show, as did a lot of people in the comedy scene when that show came out.” He doesn’t reveal which part she tried out for, but it was most likely either Rashida Jones or Aubrey Plaza’s characters.

Mike O’Malley

According to co-creator/showrunner Mike Schur, actor Mike O’Malley (Glee, Yes Dear) “was very nearly cast as Ron Swanson” back when Parks and Rec was ramping up for production in 2008. O’Malley succeeds at playing masculine guys like Ron Swanson, but Nick Offerman nails the role and it’s hard to imagine anyone playing the part so perfectly and, more importantly, growing such a perfect mustache. Mike O’Malley wound up guest starring in an episode of Parks and Rec last year as a guy renting Leslie Knope a bunch of campaign vans who was a bit of a dick.

The Lost Roles of ‘Parks and Recreation’