A Life in the Theatre: Casting Director Geoffrey Johnson

Special Features   A Life in the Theatre: Casting Director Geoffrey Johnson
 
Stage professionals look back at decades of devotion to their craft
Geoffrey Johnson
Geoffrey Johnson

"I don't believe you discover actors," the casting director Geoffrey Johnson says. "You give them the chance to audition. They have to have the talent. They have to do it themselves."

For 40 years — nearly 30 of them partnered with Vincent Liff, who died two years ago — Johnson has given thousands upon thousands of actors the chance to audition. And those auditions have often wound up being for Tony-winning or Tony-nominated hits like The Producers, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Cats, Dreamgirls, Contact, Equus, The Elephant Man and Amadeus.

Johnson, who was born in Manhattan, grew up in Westchester and fell in love with theatre as a child. "I came from a family of doctors — my father, my grandfather — but I was taken to the theatre at a very young age. I saw the legendary Laurette Taylor in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie and the incomparable Kim Stanley in almost everything she did, and I was mesmerized. I can still remember the things they did onstage. From then on, I wanted to act."

But his mother had other ideas. "She said, 'Not until you get an education.' So I went to the University of Pennsylvania, and then to Yale Drama School."

He came back to Manhattan and tried acting for several years, "but I wasn't wildly successful." So he "drifted into stage managing" and went to work for the renowned producer David Merrick, "where I was an assistant stage manager on a lot of failures." He was also for a time Noël Coward's United States representative, meeting acting giants like Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Richard Burton and Katharine Cornell. And he became an assistant casting director for Merrick, "which was where I really learned the business." It was Vincent Liff, he says, who suggested they work together. Their first Broadway show as a casting team was the 1975 musical The Wiz.

The casting director's job, Johnson says, "is to bring to the playwright and the director actors who are appropriate for the various roles. To do that, you should have a vast knowledge of the acting pool. And to do that, you have to beat the bushes and go out there and see everything you can possibly see. There's a constant stream of new actors coming into the city."

How does he spot talent? "I hate to say this, because I know it sounds vain, but it's really a matter of taste." That taste has helped some now-famous actors get an early break. One was Kelsey Grammer. "We were casting the television show 'Kate and Allie,' with Jane Curtin and Susan Saint James. We were constantly looking for boyfriends for them. I had seen Kelsey act at The Juilliard School, and I had him audition for a small role — that he won — in Macbeth in 1981 at Lincoln Center. I thought he would be great in the boyfriend role. It was just a guest spot, but after the episode aired, I started getting calls from California asking, 'Who was that guy?' But I didn't discover him. He was a good actor, and he was well trained."

Things haven't all been perfect, Johnson admits. There have been misses as well as hits. "But we had a lot of successes, and there certainly have been more hits than misses."

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