HALIFAX — The term “showkiller” can send a chill down the spine of any TV star. Just ask Eric Balfour.
The California native is among a handful of actors and actresses who have occasionally been singled out by critics as “showkillers” — people who practically guarantee a series will not catch on with audiences.
“I kept auditioning for television shows that went to pilot, the network picked it up and it went on the air,” says Balfour, currently shooting the Showcase and Syfy drama Haven in Nova Scotia.
“For whatever reason, those shows didn’t stay on the air. And there was a moment when everyone went, ‘Oh, it’s Eric…”’
The 33-year-old has found success in independent films as well as recurring roles in such long-running series as Six Feet Under and 24. But a string of short-lived shows, including Hawaii and Sex, Love & Secrets, put him on some showkiller short lists.
Landing a role in a Dick Wolf legal drama in 2006 seemed like Balfour’s ticket to renewal. But when even Conviction failed to win a renewal verdict, critics pounced.
That’s unfair, says Balfour. He argues that he has no control over writing, producing or scheduling, suggesting, “people in the press sometimes can be malicious and sensational.”
Part of the showkiller rap can be blamed on the semi-annual network press tours in Los Angeles, where cast members and producers are paraded out on stages each new season. Many critics in that room keep seeing the same faces every year, and after a few flops, the “showkiller” tag starts to surface.
Paula Marshall is a prime example. While her press tour appearances are usually winners, she seems to have bad luck landing a series that sticks. Critics generally rooted for her in the 1998-99 series Cupid, but it was cancelled after 15 episodes. Within eight years, she starred in six different series that lasted less than a season, including Snoops (1999) and Hidden Hills (2002). Gary Unmarried was her first series to be picked up past the first season; it was just cancelled at CBS.
The good news for actors like Balfour and Marshall is that Hollywood casting agents keep seeking out these same actors for series roles. Many of the stars recently announced for the upcoming 2010-11 TV season are familiar faces, with William Shatner, Tom Selleck and Jim Belushi all part of the mix.
You wouldn’t call Ed Asner a showkiller, but beyond his two long-running hits, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant, he has had roles in a dozen flops, including The Bronx Zoo, Center of the Universe and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.
Popular TV stars such as Robert Urich (Vegas, Spenser for Hire) and Harry Morgan (MASH) also had more hits than misses. Even Bob Newhart struck out before and after his sitcom classics of the ’70s and ‘80s.
All of the actors on the long-running hit Friends were in flops before striking sitcom gold. Matthew Perry, who returns in the NBC mid-season series Mr. Sunshine next season, was pretty much ignored on such forgotten comedies as Second Chance, Sydney and Home Free. Matt LeBlanc, coming back to TV in the cable series Episodes, suffered through TV 101, Top of the Heap and Vinnie & Bobby.
Hollywood A-Lister George Clooney paid his dues in several short-lived shows before breaking through in ER. He even appeared in a previous hospital series called E/R as well as such forgotten shows as Baby Talk.
Then there are the many actors who shot pilots that were never picked up. Adam West, one of the biggest TV stars of the ’60s as Batman, was so typecast as the caped crusader he couldn’t get arrested as a series lead in the ’70s and ’80s.
In 1991, he starred as a washed up TV star who thinks he’s a real crime fighter in the NBC pilot Lookwell. Despite being written by Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel in their pre-Late Night days, it was never picked up as a series. West, who re-emerged in recent years as a voice-over star in animated sitcoms like Family Guy, figures he shot five or six pilots that suffered the same fate as Lookwell.
Balfour says his problem was appearing in pilots that successfully landed on schedules. “If I’d just done pilots that didn’t get picked up, nobody would ever have talked about it. The fact that I made a choice and actually picked the right series that got picked up all of a sudden became a negative for a while.”
By joining cast mates Emily Rose and Lucas Bryant on the supernatural drama Haven, Balfour figures he has a shot at snapping the jinx.
The series, which premieres on Showcase July 12, is generating good buzz through production of its first 13 episodes. Unlike network series — where the stakes are higher and instant success is demanded — the cable drama is pretty much guaranteed a full season run.