Star searcher

Jun 18, 2001  •  Post A Comment

When the TV production units of The Walt Disney Co. were merged under the ABC Television Entertainment Group, Keli Lee found herself thrust into a casting seat, wielding considerable power.
Ms. Lee, the 30-year-old vice president of casting for ABC Television Entertainment Group for the last two years, is an unassuming, roll-up-the-sleeves talent executive who feels more comfortable in the role of collaborator in search of tomorrow’s prime-time stars. In addition to helping make casting decisions for more than a dozen shows produced by ABC TEG’s core production unit, Touchstone Television, Ms. Lee has been working with a bevy of other network series executives, studio suppliers, individual show casting agents, series producers, creators and talent agencies in fielding star talent for ABC’s prime-time and daytime series.
“Not all that much has changed, because we have always had interaction with the other casting directors at the studios around town,” said Ms. Lee, who along with Gene Blythe, ABC Television Entertainment Group’s executive vice president of casting, juggles the casting of more than three dozen shows at any one time during a full TV season.
“The difference now [after the merger under the ABC umbrella] is that we are a little more hands-on rather just than just doing things from a studio-only perspective.”
A crammed Rolodex that includes almost every talent executive in town puts her at the center of the Hollywood universe, but Ms. Lee isn’t one of those power brokers who cares whether her name was mentioned in every “star-attached-to …” deal reported in Tinseltown trade magazines. She and Mr. Blythe prefer taking a quiet approach to their jobs.
“I’ve been working with Gene Blythe for almost six years [the first four-plus years under the former Walt Disney Network Television umbrella banner], and he was always imparting on me how this job is totally about interaction and making collaborative decisions on talent,” Ms. Lee said.
Ms. Lee is partly responsible for the casting of Jennifer Garner in ABC’s upcoming fall 2001 CIA-based drama “Alias.” This actress’s breakout potential has some ad buyers and critics talking about her as the next Jessica Alba (of Fox’s “Dark Angel” sci-fi drama). Ms. Garner co-starred with Ben Affleck in Touchstone Pictures’ blockbuster movie “Pearl Harbor” and held supporting cast roles on The WB’s “Felicity” (from Touchstone Television and Imagine Television) and Fox’s short-lived “Time of Your Life.” Ms. Lee is also satisfied with the casting she and her team did for NBC’s “Scrubs,” also produced by Touchstone. The hospital-based single camera dramedy, devoid of a laugh track, boasts a bevy of young, unproven talent, including lead Zach Braff, who won strong reviews for his performance in “Broken Hearts Club: A Romantic Comedy.”
“Keli is really tireless and tenacious in terms of her commitment to helping actors try to get their big break,” Mr. Blythe said. “Keli could be working on 10 projects or more at the same time, and nothing is ever slacking because of her energy. She really lives her life to the fullest.”
It is also the kind of dedication Ms. Lee, a South Korea-born American, has brought to furthering diversity. When casting series, Ms. Lee and Mr. Blythe make it a point to discuss actors of different races and ethnic backgrounds with show creators and other studio casting directors.
“The great thing about casting is that it is always subjective, and creative people in this town have always been conscious of the diversity issues,” Ms. Lee said. “Everyone who reads a script might have a vision of the characters, but it’s always the job of casting directors … to open up the scope of actors who best fill these roles.