Issue: Winter 2021-22

The Guy Next Door

By Nyla Arslanian

The unassuming, quiet residential street at the top of Laurel Canyon is home to several of the town’s notables, including a star football player and a noted author’s granddaughter/actor/producer. As we stood outside of his charming original 1931 cottage, Joel Thurm seemed the king of the hill. Following his retirement several years ago—except to those he knows best—most of his neighbors probably refer to him as “the guy next door.”

So many neighborhoods throughout our town are filled with countless unsung and unrecognizable icons of the industry where they played a significant part. A part perhaps not on screen, but if it weren’t for them, many on screen would not have ever made it that far.

That is the story of Joel Thurm. Chances are that throughout Los Angeles and its many neighborhoods, there is someone with an amazing story to tell. A life of accomplishment and recognition but—to most of the neighbors—he (or she) is just somebody we wave to as they go by.

These folks, like you and me, may not have started out with a plan and yet, through a series of circumstances and choices, a life is played out. And in LA it’s not unlikely that that life is somehow related to the entertainment business.

While Joel Thurm has yet to be a “household name,” much of what he is responsible for over the years are: The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, Cheers, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As Vice President of Talent and Casting for NBC, he was responsible for overseeing the casting for all their great 1980s shows. But back to the story.

As a young lad, Joel’s inclinations were drawn to more intellectual than athletic pursuits. Due to his Jewish heritage, his career path would be medicine or the law. His mother  loved Broadway theatre and, when Joel was about 12, she had the flu and couldn’t go one evening, so Joel went with his father to see Guys and Dolls in the city. Young Joel was transfixed. This was real, not a movie! A spark was lit and soon young Joel—like his mother—found a love of musical theatre.

Fast forward to Hunter College in NYC and the opportunity to study theatre arts. Hunter had recently gone co-ed and, as the only male in the class, he was assigned to set building. Now he was part of theatre production and the flame grew brighter.

His first real job in theatre was in the box office but that provided the opportunity as part of New York’s theatre community to take advantage of everything on the great White Way. He didn’t realize that his consumption of live theatre was—literally—setting the stage for an amazing future in show business.

For Joel, managing the box office was still being part of show business and the live theatre scene. First in a series of serendipitous events, a friend heard of an opening with the legendary David Merrick. This led to the casting office assuring him that he had the knowhow for the job and to go for it. We often hear of a “big break,” and this was Joel’s. Hired as Assistant to the General Manager, not only was he now out of the box office, but part of Merrick’s team at the height of his success and influence. Next was another of Joel’s opportunities when he was offered the casting director position—a plum job in New York theatre.

While assistant to the GM, Joel also was Company Manager for Hello Dolly. It would be Pearl Bailey who invited him to leave New York to go with her to the coast following her successful run in Merrick’s Hello Dolly. She had been signed to do a weekly ABC show which would broadcast from Los Angeles. Not realizing it at the time, this could have been a dead-end move. Show business, as many realize, is a relationship business and—especially in the early 80s—East is East, and West is West...and, well, you know the rest.

While this move brought Joel to Los Angeles and gave him his opportunity to meet many guest artists appearing on the show, he was—after all—a newcomer with no TV credits. Airing early in 1971, it was at the tail end of TV variety shows. Following the show ending, it was back to square one if he were to stay in Hollywood.

Once again friendship and opportunity came together, and Joel would work a season for Doolittle at The Greek Theatre before returning to casting, bringing Ted Neely to The Aquarius in an album-to-scripted-theatre production of Tommy, which opened to rave reviews. Joel was now established in L.A., but it would be other friendships and Head of Casting at CBS Ethel Winant who would put him firmly on the path casting shows for CBS, ABC and— finally—ten years with NBC.

Following Norman Lear’s breakthrough comedy All in The Family, sitcoms began evolving and at last Joel’s East Coast and theatre roots were an asset in sun-drenched California.

As Joel’s story continues, his influence, the careers he started, the successful TV offerings his careful casting spawned read like a Who’s Who or What’s What of the genre. After casting the original Rocky Horror Show which played nine months at The Roxy, he cast the movie Rocky Horror Picture Show directly afterwards, which led to his hoped-for emergence, casting two other iconic films of the ‘70s—Airplane! and Grease. His relationship with John Travolta led to John’s career-altering role in Boy in a Bubble. Joel’s influence is still being felt in the lives of the people he worked with.

Being regaled with so many stories and experiences as we sit in his charming Laurel Canyon cottage, I had barely scratched the surface and we hadn’t even gotten to Joel’s latest passion, his art. Our first meeting covered so much that my head was buzzing with names and titles.

It’s here that I must just recommend that to get the full story—the inside story—the wonderful gossip at the height of TV’s sitcom era, you must read his book, Sex, Drugs and Pilot Season: The Confessions of a Casting Director which is the entire scenario. Thankfully, Joel took the advice of Joaquin Phoenix who told him “You should write that stuff down.” (It was Joel who got Joaquin and River their first agents.) The book will be ready for prime time and available this April.

The question remains, what do you do for an encore to a successful career in the industry after you’ve written your book? Again, it would be an out-of-the-blue situation that pointed the way. Joel was on a trip to India and for the occasion had purchased a new camera with lots of technical bells and whistles. To his dismay, upon returning home he saw that many of his images were slightly out of focus. Again, a friend told him about an app on his Mac computer that could fix that. It worked, a bit, but it was in experimenting with the many features on the app—something we all do occasionally, just fiddling with something new—that a whole new world opened that excited and enchanted him with its possibilities. The more he experimented, the more his creativity and attraction to color and photography converged.

His work has been exhibited at galleries in Provincetown, Los Angeles and Palm Springs. He is at the advent of a new career and brings to it the same love of an art form that Joel found in New York theatre and Hollywood television.

And now, settled into his Laurel Canyon hillside neighborhood, he’s surrounded by others in the industry who are just now beginning to make their mark. To them, he’s the “guy next door.”

Who lives in your neighborhood with an amazing life story to tell? DH