A decade after its debut, one season 1 casting choice still has many fans scratching their heads, and that's Sami Gayle's Nicky Reagan. Whether they've been there from the show's start or jumped on the bandwagon after a binge-watch, viewers can't quite get over the fact that Gayle didn't always play the daughter of Bridget Moynahan's assistant district attorney Erin Reagan.
While Gayle has played the smart and mature-beyond-her-years Nicky since the first season, she wasn't actually the face of the 's second Columbia University graduate in the show's pilot episode. and actress Marlene Lawston originally played Nicky Reagan in her last recorded screen role. As Lawston and Gayle have little in common in terms of their look, it's hard for fans not to wonder when watching the pilot versus the rest of the series.
One Reddit user noted that while they weren't sure why the actress had been recast, the dramatic difference in their appearances was frustrating. "I don't know what happened, but could they really not find a closer lookalike actor?" .
In the years since the casting swap, CBS hasn't commented on why they made the change, and neither have any of the show's creative talent, leaving many fans to reach out to their local TV columnists with questions about what happened behind the scenes (via ). While the recasting might seem odd, it's actually not all that uncommon. There are plenty of reasons — from narrative changes to cast chemistry — that could have been behind why Nicky Reagan's actress was replaced.
If you're a lover of television, Nicky's recast is probably not your first rodeo when it comes to actor-swaps. , , , , , and many other , especially after their pilots have aired.
That's because pilots act like story pitches, and those can sometimes be flawed in the rush of pilot season. After these first episodes are cast and filmed, they're presented to network executives to evaluate various elements of the completed episode. Sometimes, executives like a lot about a show but take issue with a single actor's performance. It might not be strong enough or even the right delivery for the studio or network leadership. It could also be that the performance is perfectly fine, but the show's creative team has found that the actor doesn't quite "vibe" with the rest of the cast.
"Certainly, the goal is to think that the first actor is going to work in the role, and there's no need to recast," casting director Ross Meyerson, who has worked on CBS series like told .
The casting director revealed that this assumption is part of why you don't see recast pilots. Shooting a pilot can be an expensive endeavor, particularly for something that might not even end up on the air. That means that when recastings occur, the network airs the pilot with the original actor and moves forward with the new actor in future episodes.
"I can't think of a time that we've ever auditioned or tested anybody in second position," Meyerson said. "The studios don't want to take that risk, so I've never shot a pilot with an actor in second position. Reshooting is an expensive proposition."
Considering that Lawston hasn't done any projects since the pilot, according to her , it's likely that she wasn't replaced on by Gayle due to any acting work conflicts. However, the episode commitment may have been more than the original Nicky actress wanted.
But actors can sometimes book a pilot while still attached to another show or even book roles in multiple pilots within the same TV season. That's what happened with actress Sara Rue who was forced to leave her other pilot, after the ABC series was picked up. actor Damon Wayans Jr. had also booked a leading role in the series and shot the pilot before learning that his previous show, , had actually received a second season renewal. Lucky for Wayans, his character was replaced with a completely different character played by another actor, which gave him the freedom to return to the show in his original part after was canceled.
But beyond job conflicts, sometimes actors are simply recast because so much of the story isn't working that their character is no longer relevant. While network executives might only have small tweaks to a pilot, there are times when they and a show's creative team decide to go in a significantly different direction if the series is given the green light. Lawston and Gayle's looks are different enough that they look different ages in the role, which may have been a determinate in the re-casting.
"Sometimes when roles are being recast, it's not due to the actor — it's due to the story," casting director Ross Meyerson told . "It's always a possibility that after they shoot [the pilot], they realize that the storyline doesn't work, and they want to change the character."
With no statement from CBS or any of the talent, exactly why Marlene Lawston departed the role of Nicky Reagan on will remain unclear. But fans have and will continue to embrace Sami Gayle as if she was there from day one.