There are certain characters that we can’t imagine being portrayed by any other actor. These performances are so powerful they leave indelible memories seared into our brains, and lines that can be recited ad nauseum for the rest of our lives. This only happens when someone captures all of the intricacies of their character, and then adds their own special touch that only they can conceive of and act on.
James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano comes to mind. Arnold Schwarzenneger as the Terminator. Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. Maybe another actor could have pulled off a decent imitation, but it would have likely ended up looking like a phony doppelganger.
Steve Carell’s iconic performance as Michael Scott in The Office certainly belongs among the comedic Mount Rushmore of lead roles in TV sitcom history. His sardonic wit paired with a heart of gold and more than a little naivete served to capture all of the unique qualities of an office boss who loves his workers whether they love him back. Thinking about someone else playing Michael seems blasphemous, but what if I told you Carell almost lost his shot at fame to another equally legendary contemporary?
Bob Odenkirk, who’s best known for his layered and complicated portrayal of criminal lawyer Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman/Gene Takovic in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, was one of the last men standing next to Carell for the role of Michael Scott. Audition tapes leaked online show how Odenkirk would have brought his own signature flair to the character.
We can see that Odenkirk keenly captures the pompous nonchalance of Michael Scott in this clip, immediately making the audience reminisce about the times Michael thinks his way is the only way to run an office. As far as what seems a bit off compared to Carell’s performance is that Odenkirk doesn’t necessarily inject Michael with the type of childlike ignorance we’ve come to know and love about him. What makes Michael such a beloved character is that his arrogance often doesn’t come across as malicious. Most of the times he does something or says something throughout The Office’s run that sets off the jackass alarm, it’s accompanied by an immature charm that forces us to laugh along with his antics.
For every time that Michael pokes fun of Phyllis (Phyllis Smith) or makes an awkward joke about Oscar (Oscar Nunez), he endears himself to the audience by showing up for Pam’s (Jenna Fischer) art gallery presentation. Michael is so unaware of the consequences of his words that you almost have to pity him instead of getting upset, and he often shows his passion and persistence with his employees in unconventional ways.
There’s such a fine line that has to be toed so that Michael is tolerable instead of despicable, and it’s hard to believe Odenkirk could play that miniscule but mighty presence in the same manner. It’s a good thing, too, because we haven’t even touched on the fact that Better Call Saul probably wouldn’t even exist if Odenkirk landed the gig as Michael Scott.
When Odenkirk was originally placed in the role of Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad, the producers of the show were pleased with the relative unfamiliarity of Odenkirk to the general public. Sure, he had a niche fanbase after his years in Mr. Show With Bob and David and writing for Saturday Night Live, but it wasn’t until he claimed his spot as Walter White’s shady money launderer that he truly took off in the mainstream public eye. If he would’ve won the starring spot on The Office, it’s hard to believe Vince Gilligan would have even looked at Odenkirk for the role of Saul due to his busy schedule on the NBC mega-hit. Michael Scott is the type of role that you’re locked into forever, and creating a dissonance between the Scranton boss and the Albuquerque attorney would have been too hard to overcome.
So everything worked out for the best in the end. Odenkirk actually did get to wet his feet in the world of Pennsylvania paper pushing when he cameoed in the ninth season episode of The Office, “Moving On.” He ironically appears as a potential boss at a new company Pam is interviewing at in which he eerily resembles Michael’s mannerisms. This is a sneaky good nod to those who already knew Odenkirk tried out for the real role. The only thing that would have made it better is if Odenkirk’s character would have met Michael.
When you think about it, you feel warm and fuzzy as a TV fan knowing all of these actors and casting directors recognize the talent that crosses over between our favorite shows. I’m sure a shared interaction between Michael Scott and Saul Goodman would be entertainment gold, especially with the immense talent that both Odenkirk and Carell possess.