Jeff Greenberg
UCI drama alumnus Jeff Greenberg has found big success behind the scenes as one of television's most influential casting directors. He's helped populate sitcoms with some of their most memorable characters, from the snooty Niles to the effusive Cam. Photo: Toby Tucker

When Jeff Greenberg, casting director for “Modern Family,” first tried to sell the network on actor Ty Burrell for the part of Phil Dunphy, the doofus dad on the hit television show, the executives balked. “We had to keep bringing him back” for auditions, Greenberg recalls. “They didn’t see it at first.”

The suits eventually adopted his choice for Phil, and Burrell has gone on to win critical acclaim, legions of fans and an Emmy for his role.

It’s not the first time Greenberg has had the last laugh when it comes to finding funny actors. For nearly 30 years, the UC Irvine drama alumnus has cast some of television’s most successful sitcoms.

His credits include “Cheers,” “Frasier,” “Wings,” “Ugly Betty” and now “Modern Family,” for which he too won an Emmy — for outstanding casting for a comedy series in 2010. He has also cast hit films such as “Father of the Bride Part II” and “Look Who’s Talking.”

“My job is to find all of the actors needed to bring a script to life,” Greenberg says. “I try to achieve the creators’ artistic vision.”

It’s a demanding role. “Modern Family,” for instance, was challenging to cast because of its ensemble of quirky characters.

“One of the hardest was Manny Delgado,” he says. “The creators wanted an 8- to 12-year-old child who had the vibe of a 40-year-old. Finding a young actor who could handle that sophisticated language was tough.”

Greenberg saw 190 kids for the part and brought eight of them in to meet the producers. Rico Rodriguez won the role after six auditions, getting laughs with his innocent face and worldly dialogue.

Mitchell Pritchett, the show’s uptight attorney, was one of the first characters to be cast, but finding the perfect Cameron Tucker, his emotive gay partner, took more work. (Classic Cam line: “I’m sort of like Costco. I’m big, I’m not fancy, and I dare you not to like me.”)

“We just kept bringing in actors. Eric Stonestreet could really make us laugh,” Greenberg says. “He’s nothing like his character on-screen. He has said that before ‘Modern Family,’ he never had an acting job for more than three days.” Stonestreet also won an Emmy — for best supporting actor in a comedy series in 2010.

Greenberg has a talent for recognizing talent. “Sometimes I can sense when someone will be funny,” he says. “You read the material. You talk to the writers to get the characters’ specific ages, looks and vibes. Then you bring in a billion actors to see who will interpret the material the best.”

Among his greatest coups was casting David Hyde Pierce as the snobby Niles Crane in “Frasier.” “I’m very proud to have found him. He’s such a genius actor,” Greenberg says.

He also convinced the producers of “Cheers” to cast Kirstie Alley as the neurotic Rebecca Howe after Shelley Long left the show. Alley had never done comedy before, but Greenberg had been impressed with her performance in an L.A. production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

“Shelley Long was brilliant, but Kirstie re-energized the show,” he says.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in drama from UCI in 1972, Greenberg was as a stage actor for 10 years. Like many in the theater, he survived by waiting tables, working in stores and hotels, and doing odd jobs.

“I was in a constant quest to stay employed,” he says. Then Greenberg was hired by the casting office at the Mark Taper Forum and found his calling.

“I loved having a steady position and being involved in casting — it’s creative and fun,” he says. “I also knew how to talk with other actors and writers and deal with directors.”

One of his first major assignments was as casting assistant on the 1984 B movie “Angel: Honor Student by Day, Hollywood Hooker by Night.” “Very classy,” Greenberg jokes.

His big break came when David Lee, a producer on “Cheers” with whom he’d done summer stock when both were in college, recommended him for the show’s casting director. The producers wanted someone with theater and film experience who would bring in actors new to television. From then on, Greenberg never lacked for work; more scripts came to him by referral and reputation.

“In this job, you have to know how to deal with people and have a high degree of diplomacy,” he says. “It’s incredibly stressful because you’re serving many masters — the producers, the studio and network, the show’s creators, the actors — and trying to make everyone happy.”

Greenberg attends a lot of live theater in search of new faces.

“I look at stage actors who tend to do the kind of material I’m drawn to,” he says. “Besides being uber-organized, I have a strong memory for actors and details.”

He prefers to cast sitcoms over dramas and plans to continue working with humorous material.

“If a casting director’s first high-profile job is in comedy, he gets typecast as funny,” Greenberg says. “It’s just like being an actor.”

Originally published in ZotZine Vol. 4, Iss. 7