Pilot season beckons for the usual suspects

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If a network has a pilot with a strong male lead this season, chances are they have an offer out to Paul Rudd, Peter Krause, Jeremy Sisto, Simon Baker, or Gabriel Macht.

The five--along with Alias veteran Michael Vartan, who last week signed on to do an untitled ABC drama, and perennial favorites Christian Slater and Steve Zahn--have been keeping a great number of pilots on hold.

What the actors have in common is that they're in their 30s, they are good looking, and they are accomplished.

"They have a body of work that proves their ability to be who we want them to be," says Sharon Klein, head of casting at producer 20th Century Fox TV.

And they all fit the description of the male lead most shows are after, which Klein describes as "32-38, a guy's guy who is accessible and has good looks."

So far, all have passed on several pilots. But network and studio executives are not deterred.

They've made it an annual ritual to kick off the pilot casting season by reaching out to a group of five to six thirtysomething actors, mostly guys who have never or rarely done television.

"Once in a while, one or two will shake loose," NBC's head of casting Marc Hirschfeld said. "You don't want to go with your fourth choice because you were gun-shy about your first three."

After a lengthy courtship, Hirschfeld and Klein two years ago persuaded Jason Lee to give TV a chance with an NBC/20th TV comedy pilot called My Name Is Earl. And it took CBS a couple of years of trying, but this season, the network finally landed Stephen Dorff on a pilot, the drama Skip Tracer, which he also helped develop and executive produces.

Klein and Hirschfeld believe that the great demand for thirtysomething lead actors stems from the fact that a lot of the show creators are of that age who are writing about the characters they know best: themselves and their friends.

"There is dearth in that age category," Hirschfeld said. "We're chasing the same people, and it seems like we are all chasing each other."

To alleviate the shortage, US network and studio executives look across the pond. Englishman Damian Lewis stars in NBC's drama pilot Life, Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau landed the title character in Fox's pilot New Amsterdam, and Scotsman Kevin McKidd is meeting for the leads on several projects.

While breaking a new actor is a possibility, some lead roles "need an incredibly charismatic actor who has star power, and it is unlikely for that actor to come out of a relatively unknown talent pool," Hirschfeld said.

The high demand is jacking up prices.

"There is a massive premium for leading men," a talent agent said.

In the past two years, ABC and Touchstone TV signed two consecutive deals with Jason O'Mara, most recently shelling out close to $1 million to have him available for their pilots.

While not at the same magnitude, there is a wishful-thinking period at the beginning of the pilot season for leading ladies, too.

Jordana Brewster is red hot this season, fielding numerous offers, with Lucy Liu and Debra Messing also in high demand with multiple offers. And there is Christina Applegate, who is at the top of the TV casting directors' wish lists every year.

But there are just not that many female-lead shows out there. For example, only four of the 11 pilots picked up by 20th TV so far have female leads.

In the next week or two, TV's most wanted actors will make their choices. A few will say yes and many will pass, prompting casting directors and executives to widen the characters' age range or look at relative unknowns.

Who knows--the next Johnny Depp, George Clooney, or Bruce Willis might be just a screen test away.