By Betty Goodwin
Special to TelevisionWeek
There must be something in the water cooler on the set of “7th Heaven.”
The WB’s long-running family drama revolving around a minister, his wife and their many children has proved to be a launchpad for a slew of young Hollywood stars. The list of now-established actors whose careers took off after even one appearance on the show is longer than a school height chart.
Two out of the seven Camden family children cut the apron strings to pursue careers elsewhere. Jessica Biel, who played Eric and Annie Camden’s eldest daughter, flew the nest to work in movies, including “Ulee’s Gold,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Blade: Trinity” and this summer’s “Stealth.” Her former television sibling, Barry Watson, is currently starring in his own series on ABC, “What About Brian.”
The ongoing parade of boyfriends, girlfriends, buddies, neighbors and church members who enter and exit the Camden household also has served as a de facto talent pool for Hollywood. After Alison Lohman’s appearance on “7th Heaven” playing a pregnant teen, “The next thing I know she’s doing film,” including “White Oleander,” said Brenda Hampton, creator and executive producer.
Among those who headed for regular roles on other series after guest appearances were Jason Behr (“Roswell”), Kaley Cuoco (“8 Simple Rules”), Matt Czuchry (“Jack & Bobby”), Shiri Appleby (“Roswell”) and Allison Mack (“Smallville”). When Gabrielle Union was starting out, she made a few appearances before landing a role in the film “Bad Boys II.” Before she delved into music, Ashlee Simpson made her television acting debut on “7th Heaven.” Keri Russell had worked on other series, but made a “7th Heaven” pit stop en route to her title role in “Felicity.”
“We’ve had so many people in 10 years. Vicky Huff is the best casting director in Hollywood,” Ms. Hampton said. “Even in season 10, for the smallest role, I’ll see a half-dozen new faces qualified to do the job. She’s an unbelievable resource.”
Asked to name her proudest discovery on the show, Ms. Huff quickly volunteered: Tyler Hoechlin, who plays a Marine’s son now living with the Camdens. “He had done one movie as a child, ‘Road to Perdition,’ and this was his coming out as a man. Now he’s 17. We get calls constantly from people inquiring about him for films.”
Ms. Huff said that because she is usually searching for actors ranging from age 10 to 17, most of the people she sees are new to the business or have limited experience. “The age bracket lends itself to finding raw new talent,” she said. “By the time they’re in their mid-20s and up, a lot of them have been around the audition circuit.
“I think people in the business look to our show to find potential actors because we have so many of them,” she added.
It’s clear that casting directors on other series on The WB are tuning in because so many “7th Heaven” guest stars have landed starring roles on other WB shows.
“A talented young actor will get discovered, and our show hires young people, so it’s a natural thing that they pass through our set on the way to other places,” said Stephen Collins, who plays the Camden patriarch. But few shows launch young people to the degree “Heaven” has.
“It’s a good place to get your chops,” Ms. Hampton said of her creation. “Ask any of these young actors. It’s a very good place to work. They all say that. We are not rushing pages. People are prepared. We have great crew members. There’s no tension or last-minute changes and we are very respectful of each other.
“Between me and Catherine [Hicks, who plays his wife], we make a good hospitality group,” Mr. Collins added. “Being a guest actor on an established set can be so hard, and we have it in spades. But people come to our set and realize, ‘Oh, these people really believe in the show; they really love the show.’
“Other actors pick up on that. You know immediately if people are going through the paces and just picking up a paycheck.” Playing dad off-camera to the young guests, however, isn’t Mr. Collins’ thing: “If you come in and are prepared and don’t scream and you’re dedicated to your work, that rubs off more than a lecture.”
However, there have been times when he’s shared a little advice. “I can remember when one young actor was having a problem about being on time. I said, ‘You may not realize it, but everyone keeps track of these things. It’s very routine for people to call the executive producer of your last series and ask what is he like to work with? Is he on time?'”
“They definitely nurture young actors,” said George Stults, 30, now marking his fourth season as the husband of Lucy, one of the Camden clan. “From Stephen and Catherine, who were veteran actors trained theatrically, to Beverley Mitchell [Lucy], to the Brino quadruplets [who played the Camdens’ twin sons as babies; the twins now are played by Nikolas and Lorenzo Brino], I’ve learned from everyone. They’ve nurtured me from the get-go.” Mr. Stults has worked in television and feature films during the series’ hiatus.
There is a downside to this success, which is that the show must often part with key cast members. Of the regulars who have departed, Ms. Hampton said, “We’d like to keep them around, but young people like to do films, and I understand that. Had I preferred Jessie [Biel] stayed on the show? Yes.” Her character lives on as a Camden, but in a different town.
“We just have to come up with creative solutions for teenagers who want to leave the show,” Ms. Hampton said. Tyler Hoechlin’s character came to live with the family when one of the Camden sons, played by David Gallagher, left the series for college. (He’s back now.) And Barry Watson, now starring in his own series, still returns from time to time.
Otherwise, Ms. Hampton explained, there really are no negatives to the revolving door. Young cast members “bring so much energy to the show, it’s been a pleasure,” she said.