By Paige Wiser, April 28, 2011
When “The Office” premiered as a midseason replacement in 2005, Steve Carell was in a no-win situation. The original British series was so brilliant, so beloved, that even thinking about remaking it was blasphemy.
The former Second City actor had the task of following Ricky Gervais’ act as the most repulsive manager to ever buy his own “World’s Best Boss” mug. If you haven’t seen it, pony up the $8 to watch it on Netflix. Gervais’ David Brent is so uncomfortably awkward to watch that you’ll squirm in your seat.
Even Paul Giamatti passed on the chance to play Brent’s American counterpart, Michael Scott. But Carell sank his teeth into the role with the enthusiasm of a rabid dog. He achieved the impossible: He paid respect to the original but created his own lovable loser. After the first episode, people stopped comparing the two.
Tonight, after more than six seasons, Carell is leaving the show — and some poor sap is going to have to follow his act.
“Michael Scott is just a walking, dumb heart,” says Kate Flannery, who plays boozy Meredith on “The Office.” “I think that Steve really fought for Michael Scott’s heart, and that’s what makes our show so great.”
From the start, Carell’s character was more sympathetic than Gervais’ version. You were cringing at the same time you wanted to hug him — or put him out of his misery. “Do I want to be feared or loved?” Michael Scott asks early on. “That’s a good question. I want both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”
With just a few episodes left this season, they’re distracting us with flashy guest stars: Will Ferrell! Ray Romano! James Spader! Will Arnett! Jim Carrey! But there’s no denying that the prospect of “The Office” without Michael Scott is terrifying.
“Steve Carell owns ‘That’s what she said,'” Tina Fey lectured on “30 Rock,” cementing his icon status. “He owns it.”
Flannery says she looked up to Carell when they were both at Second City, and she got to work with him in the ’90s when the Annoyance Theatre originated “The Real Live Brady Bunch.” Flannery filled in for Jane Lynch as Carol; Carell was the first Greg.
“He’s just a brilliant guy,” Flannery says. “He doesn’t take himself seriously, but he takes his work seriously. Even when he just had one or two lines in a sketch at Second City, he’d be in it up to his eyeballs. He just went for it.”
“The Office” has always welcomed improvisation on the set, and Flannery says Carell is the master. “He has a million ideas,” she says. “Before a scene, he’s not holding court or telling jokes. He’s really concentrating on what we’re doing. There’d be certain takes where I’d think, ‘Wow, how did his brain go there?'”
David Koechner, who plays bawdy salesman Todd Packer, also uses the “b” word when he describes Carell. “Since the very first time I saw Steve onstage at Second City, he was and continues to be one of the most brilliant performers I have had the pleasure to witness,” he says. “When people ask me what Steve Carell is like, I tell them he is as good a person as you hope he is, and more.”
Of course, Koechner is biased. “He also recommended me for the job, so I am eternally grateful for that,” he says.
The audience’s affection for Michael Scott is even more remarkable when you consider what a loathsome man he is. Among his more fireable offenses:
*He struck Meredith with his Chrysler in the parking lot, putting her in a pelvic cast.
*He gave Ryan the “Hottest in the Office” award at the Dundies.
*He spanked the intern.
*He outed Oscar, and then kissed him in front of the entire office. (The kiss was an unexpected improv from Carell, says co-star Jenna Fischer.) “Your gayness does not define you,” a contrite Michael told Oscar. “Your Mexicanness defines you.”
*He gave Toby a rock that says “Suck on this” as a parting gift.
There have been shows that continued after a major star left (see: “American Idol”), but it feels like there’s been a death in the family.
It’s doubtful that an interloper will be able to take Carell’s spot on the show and in our hearts, even if he is Will Ferrell. Producers reportedly haven’t yet decided who will get the lofty title of “regional manager.” I’m hoping they promote from within, and reward Chicagoan Craig Robinson’s Darryl with the honor.
Although scenes are often shot out of order, producers made sure that Michael Scott’s last scene was also Carell’s last scene. “The last scene of the day was our goodbyes for our characters,” says John Krasinski, who plays Jim. “We hadn’t said goodbye in real life, and here we were doing it in front of the camera. It was like falling into a big black hole.”
Rainn Wilson, the New Trier grad who plays Michael’s right-hand man Dwight, said that was a rough week for comedy. “The entire cast was really bummed out. It was like our friend was going off to college and we wouldn’t be seeing him for a long, long time.
“You don’t realize how great it is to be around someone with his talents every single day until it’s gone. Then you wish you could do it all over again from day one.”
Contributing: Cindy Pearlman