David Schwimmer Initially Passed on Friends — and They Almost Cast ER’s Noah Wyle!
Twenty-five years after he slouched onto TV screens with a comically despondent, “Hi…,” it’s hard to imagine anyone other than David Schwimmer as Friends‘ brainy sad-sack Ross Geller.
But according to Saul Austerlitz’s new book, Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era, Schwimmer was reluctant to sign onto Warner Brother’s sit-com pilot back in 1994.
Friends creators Marta Kauffman and David Crane had actually wanted him for a pilot called Couples earlier, but the network insisted they pick someone else at the time. While writing Friends, though, they kept Schwimmer in mind as their ideal Ross.
“They were ready to offer him the role without even having to audition — a rare privilege for a young, untested actor,” Austerlitz writes. “There was only one problem: Schwimmer did not want to do the show. More than that, he did not want to do any more television at all.”
According to Generation Friends, Schwimmer had hated working on Fox’s failed Henry Winkler comedy Monty and was sick of shooting pilots they never made it to air. He preferred to focus on his Chicago theater company, Lookingglass, and refused to read any TV scripts.
So, Kauffman and David Crane auditioned Noah Wyle, whom they liked, but he landed ER instead. If ER fell through, he’d become available for Friends. Of course, ER became a TV sensation and ran for 15 seasons, though Wyle did guest-star on Friends in season 1 as a doctor romancing Rachel and Monica alongside George Clooney.
Mitchell Whitfield (who was eventually cast as Rachel’s jilted fiancé, Barry) and Will & Grace‘s Eric McCormack also auditioned for Ross. Finally, Schwimmer read the Friends script at the behest of his agent; he “was pleased to learn that their new show was to be an ensemble series, with no designated star,” Austerlitz writes. “This could be a television series that worked a bit more like a theatrical troupe.”
He also took a call from legendary director James Burrows, who pointed out the role had been written with him in mind. He agreed to read for the role and blew the room away. “The role of Ross was like an off-the-rack suit that did not require any tailoring for Schwimmer to wear,” Austerlitz writes. “He could simply put it on. It already fit perfectly.”
Schwimmer seemed to speak to his anxiety about working in television in a 1995 cast interview with Oprah Winfrey. The talk-show host asked how the actors — who famously remained close friends in real life as they sky-rocketed to stardom — first bonded on set.
“The taping of the pilot was probably the first thing [we bonded over],” Schwimmer said. “The reality of the business is that we don’t know if the pilot’s going to be picked up, so everyone was kind of keeping their distance and not really investing too much emotionally in the other people, I think. … There’s also the reality that any one of us could be removed after the pilot. It’s happened a lot in the business.”
He had nothing to fear: Friends lasted 10 seasons and remains one of the most beloved TV shows of all time. However, he’s been open about how the fame affected him and influenced his subsequent career choices.
“It was pretty jarring and it messed with my relationship to other people in a way that took years, I think, for me to adjust to and become comfortable with,” he told The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter podcast in 2016. “As an actor, the way I was trained, my job was to observe life and to observe other people, so I used to walk around with my head up, really engaged and watching people. The effect of celebrity was the absolute opposite: It made me want to hide under a baseball cap and not be seen.”
He added: “And I realized after a while that I was no longer watching people; I was trying to hide,” he continued. “So I was trying to figure out: How do I be an actor in this new world, in this new situation? How do I do my job? That was tricky.”
Once Friends wrapped in 2004, Schwimmer turned to directing and acting on stage. He made a splashy return to the small screen in 2016 as Robert Kardashian in American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson, earning an Emmy nomination.
Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era is on shelves now.