David Duchovny Had Serious Doubts About Starring In The X-Files

When Chris Carter's TV series "The X-Files" debuted in 1993, it struck a nerve. With the Cold War recently over, the United States had become very wary of the kinds of lies their own government might have been telling them. Paranoia turned inward, and people began to believe that anything may be possible, even aliens. Oh, aliens were certainly real, but their existence was being covered up by a shadowy government cabal of CIA-like puppet masters. All the urban legends of alien abduction — codified in 1987 with Whitley Streiber's book "Communion" — now became widely accepted, and a TV show like "The X-Files" conformed many suspicions. It quickly became one of the most celebrated shows of its decade, as well as one of the era's defining pieces of media. 

Thinking back to 1993, it's hard to imagine a time when someone wouldn't want to be associated with "The X-Files." Although Chris Carter was not yet a household name — he had previously written a few projects for Disney, like 1986's "The B.R.A.T. Patrol" — his new series was certainly tapping into something very real in the culture, and a modern audience might assume actors were lining up for appear. But this wasn't the case, and the audition process wasn't as frenzied as our imaginations might lead up to believe. 

Indeed, actor David Duchovny, who would play Fox Mulder, one of the show's two co-leads, was concerned about a continued career in television. He wanted, instead, to gear up for exclusive work in feature films. Duchovny gave further details in a 2016 oral history of "The X-Files" recorded in The Hollywood Reporter

TV vs. movies

In the age of well-moneyed, prestige television, one must actively recall the time when it was considered a "lesser" option to appear on TV than in movies. For many years, TV was seen as the career option one took when feature films were out of your grasp. Prior to "The X-Files," Duchovny had appeared as a trans DEA agent named Denise Bryson on "Twin Peaks," as well as the narrator to the softcore romance series "Red Shoe Diaries" on Showtime, but was, in his mind, ready to make the leap to movies. Duchovny states it plainly in The Hollywood Reporter: 

"In 1993, there was an elitist division between movie actors and TV actors. And because I was an elitist and thought myself an artist, I was going to do movies. But my manager [Melanie Greene], bless her, said she had a feeling about 'The X-Files.' And that I needed to pay rent."

Financial desperation and good timing pointed Duchovny toward Fox Mulder. Legend has it — and this was once confirmed in a BBC interview that is, sadly, no longer available online, that Duchovny was so quiet and downbeat during his audition that Carter couldn't be sure how smart or dumb the actor was. Carter was relieved to learn that Duchovny's laconic demeanor was merely an acting style, and that Duchovny was, in fact, incredibly intelligent and incredibly well-read. 

Woody on 'Cheers'

Duchovny's trepidation was, he recalls, palpable. The contract he would have to sign to play Fox Mulder would have been a commitment to multiple years (should the show be successful) and he wasn't sure if he wanted to devote that much time to a TV project. Moreso, Duchovny was wary of signing onto Fox, a network known at the time for making trashier shows than many of its competitors. In 1993, Fox was better known for "COPS," and "Married... with Children" than any sort of "prestige" fare. "The X-Files," for instance, would debut the same season as forgotten shows like "Daddy Dearest," "The Sinbad Show," and "Bakersfield, P.D." Remember those shows? Neither does anyone else.

Duchovny became more comfortable with TV work after comments from Randy Stone, the casting director of "The X-Files'" pilot episode: 

"I had conflicting feelings signing away what I thought would be three to five years of my life to a show about aliens on a network that had kind of crappy programming. But Randy Stone, who's since passed, said, 'I know you have a lot of opportunities.' I didn't. 'I've only told this to one other actor, one other time — but if you do this show, you'll never have to work again.' He was talking about Woody Harrelson for 'Cheers.'"

Duchovny brought Mulder to life, and played the role in 191 of the show's 218 episodes (he bowed out in the series' final few seasons) as well as in two feature films. "The X-Files" may be a creation of the 1990s, but it remains an enjoyably paranoid supernatural thriller that still holds the standard for all the paranormal investigation shows to come after. Duchovny swallowed some pride, and we all benefitted.