Ethel Winant was a legendary casting director, whose eye for talent had a major impact on many television series over several decades. Her casting expertise propelled her into the executive suite, and she became the first woman vice president in network television. She is credited for the success of such series as Playhouse 90, The Twilight Zone, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Winant found her calling in the 1950s when she observed a rehearsal for Studio One, the acclaimed live anthology series. She recalled, “. . . I was dazzled by the technical stuff.” She talked her way onto the series and quickly moved up the ladder as she cast such emerging actors as Yul Brynner, Charlton Heston, and James Dean in key roles. From one anthology series to another, Winant worked with the great directors of live television, including Franklin Schaffner, Arthur Penn, and John Frankenheimer. By 1973, she was promoted to vice president, talent and casting, responsible for the casting of all of CBS’s pilots, series, and specials. Winant later admitted, “It never occurred to me that I’d be a vice president. I wasn’t interested in climbing the corporate ladder. I just wanted to make shows.”
Winant was raised in the farm town of Marysville, California. She enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley to study law or medicine, but became fascinated by theater as a member of the school’s thespian troupe. Winant left school to pursue a theatrical career in New York and was hired by famed agents William Liebling and his wife, Audrey Wood, who represented Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Gore Vidal. While doing dictation on revisions for a Williams play, she learned how to analyze scripts and later served as a production assistant on two groundbreaking dramas, A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman.
Once she had gotten a job at Studio One, she established herself when she found a replacement, Frank Overton, for an actor who did not show up. She was recruited to be head of casting for Talent Associates, which produced the prestigious series Philco-Goodyear Playhouse and Armstrong Circle Theatre. Winant later moved to California to cast and associate produce television’s last great live series, CBS’s Playhouse 90. She worked with many illustrious directors, including John Frankenheimer, with whom she developed a deep and lasting friendship. She later reflected in 1996 that it was often difficult to work with such passionate directors: “You understand what their vision is, then you try to find the best actor for the part. And, if they don’t agree with you at the beginning, it’s one’s job to try to persuade them. Not just to say, ‘oh well okay.’ Because otherwise you don’t need a casting director. You just need the player’s directory.”
Winant’s ability to find unusual roles for Hollywood talent, which she called “stunt casting,” led to work with producer John Houseman on four movies, including Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down (1962) and Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). In 1963 she returned to CBS to produce The Great Adventure, an anthology series that dramatized remarkable events in American history. She also served as associate director of program development for the network and director of casting. Among the series she oversaw were The Twilight Zone, Hogan’s Heroes, The Wild Wild West, and Hawaii Five-O. In 1970 she assisted James Brooks and Allan Burns in casting The Mary Tyler Moore Show. According to Burns, “she had the sharpest mind in the business.” Having read the first script, she recommended Cloris Leachman as Phyllis, Gavin MacLeod as Murray, and the little known Ted Knight as Ted Baxter. Although Brooks and Burns wanted a comedian for the part of Lou Grant, Winant insisted on an “actor,” eventually finding Edward Asner. Burns later stated that “she found almost every person in our cast. It was all due to Ethel and her patience and willingness to go the extra mile.”
In 1973 Winant was promoted to vice president, talent and casting, becoming the first woman to earn VP stripes at a network. She contributed her knowledge of casting to such popular series as The Waltons, Rhoda, and The Bob Newhart Show. As a vice president, Winant was upset that the single restroom in CBS’s executive dining room did not have a lock. She recalled: “For a year and a half I would take the elevator down to the ladies’ room. One day, I decided to just leave my shoes outside the executive bathroom door. They got the message fairly quickly.”
In 1975 she joined Children’s Television Workshop as the executive producer of The Best of Families, a dramatic series following three families during the last decades of the nineteenth century. She later served as CTW’s vice president for program development and talent. In 1978 she moved to NBC as vice president of talent, lauded by President Robert Mulholland “as one of the brightest and most creative executives in broadcasting.” She brought her casting expertise to such miniseries as Shogun and Murder in Texas. Winant also worked with director Francis Ford Coppola on an ill-fated project to bring back the days of live television.
As an executive producer in the nineties, she hired her old friend John Frankenheimer to direct the Civil War epic Andersonville. Frankenheimer later reflected in a book of conversations that Winant was “the one who kept the whole thing together,” and subsequently collaborated with her on the docudrama George Wallace and the feature film Ronin. To the end, Winant was committed to creating events for television, a medium she thought “incredible.” In 1999 Winant was the first casting director inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. During her induction, she summed up her life: “I love making shows. I love being on a set. I think what actors do is magical. The talented directors can visualize. I think that I am the luckiest person in the world that I got to work in the medium I love, and with people I love.”