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Credit where it's due

TV actors prefer billing that's first, last or with a preposition

Sunday, April 18, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- Everyone wants credit for the work he does, but in the world of TV, sometimes it's not enough for an actor to have his or her name in the opening credits.

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Actors want top billing, but when that's not available, there are other opportunities to make them stand apart from fellow cast members. The key words are "and," "with" or "and as."

The opening credits on "Ally McBeal" list all the stars leading up to Peter MacNicol, who gets "with" before his name, and then Gil Bellows, who gets "and" in front of his name.

"It's an incentive beyond the salary, a perk," said Peter Golden, senior vice president of talent and casting for CBS. "It says, 'We know you're special, we'll give you special billing.' "

Ron West, an agent at International Creative Management whose clients include Juliana Margulies ("ER"), Andy Dick ("NewsRadio") and David Boreanaz ("Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), said first billing is ideal, naturally.

"Second billing becomes second most ideal and, depending on who you ask, third billing or last becomes the next most preferable," West said.

When billed last, the actor's name is usually preceded by "and," which West said is "a way of drawing attention to somebody and distinguishing a particular actor from the others.

" 'With' is thrown in when somebody else requires a certain amount of distinction and the 'and' is already given away," he said.

Then there are more creative solutions. When Christine Lahti joined the cast of "Chicago Hope" in its second season, she got her name put first in the credits -- on alternating weeks. If you watch carefully, some weeks Lahti's name comes first, other weeks Adam Arkin gets top billing.

"That is one way of doing it, but it's a very expensive proposition to change the names in the credits every week," Golden said. "It's a way of satisfying a lot of actors and their deals."

Golden said agents like the perk of a special credit because it makes their client feel like he or she is getting something others are not. Casting directors are happy to give that credit if it means securing a talented actor who fits the role.

Recent special billing includes Heather Locklear, who is listed as a "special guest star" on "Melrose Place" even though she's been on the show as a regular since midway through its first season.

Golden points to the famous "Laverne & Shirley" credits, with Penny Marshall's name in one corner of the screen at the same time Cindy Williams' name appears in another corner.

West said a new series this season, also with co-leads, uses the same method of crediting its stars. In the opening of "Will & Grace," the names of actors Eric McCormack (Will) and Debra Messing (Grace) appear on the screen simultaneously.

"That's considered equal footing," West said. "Neither is considered more preferential than the other. It's an easy way of declaring a truce in the battle of who gets first billing."

On some programs, including "Friends," the cast is listed in alphabetical order, another way to resolve the sticky issue of who gets what billing.

Billing in a series is "a substantive deal point when you're negotiating," West said. "It's not necessarily as substantive as money, but it is something agents and representatives concern themselves with early on in negotiations."

When a TV series comes from the point of view of a single character, that actor will get first billing, even if he or she is not well known when the show premieres (think Calista Flockhart as "Ally McBeal" or Keri Russell as "Felicity").

When it comes to TV show guest stars, the simplest distinction is whether an actor's name appears at the beginning of the show or as part of the end credits, West said.

Even when it's listed in the beginning, there are myriad other issues. Does the actor fall under a "featuring" credit or "guest star" or "special guest star"? Does the actor's name appear on screen by itself or with the name of another actor?

West said some actors have stronger feelings than others about how they get credited.

"My job as an actor's representative is to take advantage of the moment before they have my client under contract and get the best deal possible in as many areas as I can," West said.

Sandy Grushow, president of Twentieth Century Fox Television, said the way actors want to be credited has to do with how they want to be perceived.

"If an actor feels like they have a strong, positive cachet they're loaning to a series, but they are not the star of that show, they may want to be separated from the pack," Grushow said. "I think there is a perceived value, although I don't know that America cares."

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