Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Ellen Lubin Sanitsky: A Conversation

Ellen Lubin Sanitsky was the primary casting director for most of Quantum Leap's five season run. Currently she works on "the other side" as a talent manager who represents actors.

NS: How did you get involved with the show?

ES: I got very, very, very fortunate because it was the best show in the world to cast. Back in those days, a lot of studios had on-staff casting directors, and I was on staff at Universal Television. There were about 7 or 8 of us there, and Quantum Leap was one of the shows I got assigned. I was very fortunate because for 5 years it was like doing a little independent movie every 10 days. There were only 2 series regulars and it jumped around in time and location, so we got to use all different types of actors. I don't think there was a better television gig than Quantum Leap. I couldn't have been more blessed or fortunate to have worked on it.

NS: What is the process like to cast an episode?

ES: You get a draft of the script whenever it's ready, or you get a list of character breakdowns. Then we would submit the openings to a service used by episodic television called Breakdown Services, and everyone in town who subscribes would get a running list every day of shows that are casting. I did a lot of pre-reading which means me alone getting to know the actor in a room, and then I'd decide who I was bringing in for the producers to see. Let's say I saw 20 actors for one role, I may choose 6 of those actors to audition for the producers. Nowadays, a lot of this is done on tape where Casting will put actors on tape for producers.

Back then we really did it much more old school and in person, so I would have afternoon casting sessions with the producers, director, and writer. I'd bring in my top choices for each role and then we'd all decide who was the best for that part. The producers in this case involved with casting were Donald Bellisario and Deborah Pratt.

NS: Would you normally have people in mind for a role and reach out to them?

ES: At times, yes, but it all depends -- casting works both ways. Agents and managers would come to me to pitch their client, and if I didn't know them I had to decide if I wanted to pre-read them. And sometimes I'd know an actor well enough that I didn't need to pre-read them. Now it's online, but back then it was hard copies and pictures and resumes.

NS: Well, I have some specific guest stars I'd like to ask you about, but before I do that, is there anyone in particular that stands out to you?

ES: I remember casting John Cullum.

NS: That was the first person I was going to ask you about!

ES: That was a big deal in the Man of La Manche episode. That was pretty special and great.

NS: My mom is a big fan of his from his role in Shenandoah, and his performance in that Quantum Leap episode stands out as being really good.

ES: Well, he's one of the all-time great Broadway actors with a voice that can slay anyone, so getting him for a role like that was pretty awesome.

NS: Another guy who stood out to me for giving an awesome performance was Diedrich Bader as a biker gang leader, and later he appeared in Office Space.

ES: Well, look at his career -- he's done pretty well for himself. Very talented. There were a lot of actors who did Quantum Leap who went on to have pretty amazing careers.

NS: Jennifer Aniston was one.

ES: That's right! She played a nurse if I remember correctly.

NS: You could tell she had some star power.

ES: Absolutely. Without question.

NS: Another episode I recently watched had a young Neil Patrick Harris, and I recently talked to the director of that episode, Harvey Laidman, who said Neil was shadowing him as an aspiring director.

ES: That's correct, I remember that! He was even in the casting room at that time. He wanted to learn.

I think it was my second or third episode I ever cast, I remember bringing Brad Pitt in to audition for a role that he didn't end up getting. About a week later he got Thelma and Louise.

NS: Let me check and see what episode that might have been.

ES: I remember Alice Adair was in it.

NS: Honeymoon Express!

ES: It was exactly Honeymoon Express!

NS: Another guest star was a 10 year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

ES: Crazy, right? And that was before he got 3rd Rock from the Sun.

Brooke Shields did an episode as well. NBC loved her so much that I think it led them to create the show Suddenly Susan.

NS: Any other memories or final thoughts?

ES: From a casting perspective, it was probably the best television job one could get. I was really fortunate and very lucky, and I loved the people who I worked with. I loved Deborah Pratt -- she was amazing. The writers were all wonderful. Scott Bakula couldn't have been a nicer, sweeter guy to work with. Everyone who went to work on that show loved it. It really was a gift to me, and I feel very proud of it.


  1. QL Mom appreciates that you mentioned how much she likes John Cullum. Great phone interview view.

  2. Very good interview. She remembered a lot and clearly had a lot of passion for the show. I'm still a little unclear how the casting process works. Are the scripts really out there long enough for actors to read about the specifics of the roles before the auditions? I'm guessing certain "types" are requested in trade magazine advertisements but those must be on pretty tight publication deadlines in order to get enough actors to show up in the pre-production stage of a weekly TV show. I wonder if the "20" number she threw out in reference to the number of actors who show up for a role is a hypothetical. I would think in anything related to Hollywood, there would be hundreds of aspiring actors showing up just to get a walk-through role but perhaps that's not necessarily true for TV.

    Great story about Brad Pitt almost being in "Honeymoon Express" but ending up seizing his breakout role from "Thelma and Louise" after being denied the part. Reminds me of how Cuba Gooding, Jr. would have been on the hook to do "The Coltons" had it been picked up but his movie career was just about to soar after his breakout role on "Boyz N The Hood" that summer.

    Sounds like it was a great overall environment on the set, much like "MacGyver", which would hard to maintain given the rigid production timelines and the considerable margin for error. Seems like an environment that would be conducive to egos clashing and tempers flaring. That probably did happen from time to time and some people undoubtedly had less satisfying experiences on both series, but generally speaking it sounds like a positive environment for most involved.

    1. I bet you're right that there's probably hundreds of people eager for any role, and there must be some process by which the casting director can whittle it down to 20 right off the bat before seeing anyone.

  3. And it's a credit to Ellen and the casting department that they had hardly any guest stars that did not do at least a decent job (in fact I can't think of any off the top of my head). MacGyver, on the other hand, had several guest performances that were pretty weak.