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Casting Call : Joel Thurm’s Sex, Drugs & Pilot Season Casting Call

by G.W. Mercure

The origin story for Joel Thurm’s new share-all memoir, Sex, Drugs & Pilot Season: Confessions of a Casting Director, is a weed-fueled post-dinner raconteur turn with actor Joaquin Phoenix.

“He said, ‘Man, you’ve got to write this shit down!’,” Thurm recalls.

And he did. Thurm’s career in the movie industry spanned five decades and included cameos by everyone from Rock Hudson to Jerry Seinfeld. His achievements in casting include tagging John Travolta for Grease; finessing Susan Sarandon into The Rocky Horror Picture Show; and rounding out the rosters for almost every network television series from the 1970s through the 1980s —a golden age.

Granted, it’s a field that isn’t measured much by suckers for superlatives, but Thurm’s career must be in the conversation about the most successful casting careers. Asked how it got that way, he cites his passion for films and television, his unbound curiosity, and his early-and-often exposure to films of all kinds. “The greatest escapes, absolutely,” he says. “I went to a lot of movies and I watched a lot of television growing up,” he says. “From the time my mother took me to my first show at the local movie theater at The Biltmore Theater in Brooklyn, for 25 cents. And then I would stay for the adult shows afterwards. I would hide in the bathroom. I was encouraged to do this by my mother.”

But the book isn’t about Thurm, really—although it gets to be an intimate portrait at times. And it’s not about name-dropping, which, as most name droppers will, Thurm tries to preclude. But he was a casting agent, after all, so he gets a pass. And if his prose is employed to impress a reader, it does so with its sturdy dedication to darn good stories about very interesting people with fascinating careers, and its respect for its audience.

“Literally in my mind, the only thing that was coherent there was a David Hasselhoff story because I knew I had a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he says of the book’s bare beginning.

“So that’s how I started. And from there, it just took off.”

One of the delights of Thurm’s book is that there is something for everyone. Perhaps the aforementioned Rock Hudson resonates with you, or Thurm’s unique seat for the long rise of Joaquin Phoenix; or his perspective on how Family Ties presaged the presence of big film actors in television series. You can go a little heavier, into the ragged end of Chris and Susan Sarandon’s marriage; you can go way lighter, into Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. If that’s still not turning you on, skip the narrative and go straight to the book’s long addendum with its alphabetical catalog of projects Thurm worked on and his insights into and memories of those projects.

“I will not dictate how anyone reads my book,” says Thurm. “I don’t care how they read it: upside down, sideways, in the bathroom, wherever. As long as they read it.”

Thurm is appearing at East End Books this Tuesday where he will give a reading and talk about his experiences. As anyone who has reflected so carefully about the past, Thurm has insights into the present, and the future, of film and television. On the transition to a streaming model, one in which prized film actors regularly switch between the big and the small screen, he is practical. It was inevitable.

“Well, I always knew what the model was in England,” he says. “Big stars went back and forth from doing big movies to little television shows. And it always amazed me that that didn’t happen here. Obviously it finally has happened.” He continues: “George Clooney, he was still on ER and did that movie with Jennifer Lopez. Kind of a quasi detective thing in Miami [1996’s Out of Sight]. He did the movie as a movie star while starring in a television show. So then after that the door was open.”

As much as Sex, Drugs & Pilot Season is a delight for television and film fans, casual or fanatical, its stories seem to draw on something that they’re just not making anymore. Thurm feels that, too.

“You’d gather around the watercooler and talk about what you saw the night before. I don’t think we’ve lost it but it’s… “ Thurm wanders in his thoughts, insights, and memories. He draws on the occasions of broad success for streaming television series: Succession; Game of Thrones; The Sopranos; Breaking Bad. He relents that it is a time in which choice, although a desirable thing, isn’t necessarily serving any sense of community, shared memory, shared experience.

“…Now with so much programming, it’s really hard. It’s really hard for that to happen. When we only had three channels, and people watched the same things, I honestly think that brought the country together,” he says. “The streaming is not helping bring it together.” Indeed. But nothing else is either. It’s a loaded thought.

“It’s really hard to find things!” he protests. “Why
isn’t there a TV Guide for streaming – there should be!”

With so many classic television series available via streaming services, and the handy addendum at the back of Thurm’s memoir, maybe now there is. Joel Thurm will appear at East End Books Ptown, 389 Commercial St., on Tuesday, July 11, 6  7 p.m. For more information and tickets visit

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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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