James Spader's Casting On The Blacklist Came In Just Under The Wire

The television pilot season often plays out just like the serial dramas being produced for viewers. The mad rush by producers to sign leading actors from the same talent pool is quite similar to a frantic build to an episode's climax. Next is the cliffhanger, where producers wait with bated breath to see if the network picks up their series. In the case of NBC's "The Blacklist," it was a real nail-biter just to see if they could sign the star of the show.

"The Blacklist" puts a spin on the standard criminal procedural drama with a villain as the lead character. James Spader plays Raymond "Red" Reddington, a wanted criminal who begins working with the FBI to take down the nasty folks he spent decades working alongside. Because of the nuanced duality of the main character, getting the right actor for the role was of the utmost importance.

The show was an instant hit and Spader received praise for his portrayal of Reddington. "The Blacklist" has become a flagship series for NBC, which was struggling in last place when the show premiered in 2013. They've since jumped to second behind CBS.

But before production even began on the show, the race to cast the lead of the series came down to the wire.

Spader joined days before production began

It's hard to imagine anyone but James Spader as Red Reddington in "The Blacklist" but even the show's creators didn't know he'd be joining the series until the last minute. According to Variety, Spader agreed to the part a mere three days before production began on the pilot.

Executive producer and showrunner John Eisendrath didn't even meet Spader in person until he was on the set getting his head shaved for the first episode. Eisendrath told Collider that Spader was a natural for the part and credits the actor for much of the show's success. Eisendrath said:

"It's hard for me to believe that he's never played a master criminal before because he has the ability to be mysterious, dangerous, and mischievous, in a way that seems perfectly suited to playing someone where you don't know whether he's good or bad. I feel like we were incredibly lucky, in that James Spader, as an actor, fit so perfectly with the character that was written."

Eisendrath called the process for casting Red Reddington difficult because of the character's complexity. The fact that it was network television, which calls for 22 episodes a season instead of the more appealing slate of just 10 for a cable series, made the casting even more challenging.

Forget "The Blacklist," before his last-minute signing to play the series lead, Spader wasn't even on the original casting wish list. First, the network took a swing on some other big names.

Spader wasn't the first choice as Red

Before Spader, series producers had other Red Reddingtons in mind. According to Eisendrath, they approached Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Gere, Bryan Cranston, and Pierce Brosnan to play the lead character.

But once Spader was chosen, it was obvious that he was a perfect choice. He immediately began inserting his own take on the character, including his hypnotic voice and of course, the iconic fedora. In a conversation that sounds like Spader channeling his inner-Robert California, the actor insisted on the headpiece. Eisendrath said:

"He always thought that his character should wear a hat and we were all like, 'No, no hat. No hat. Nobody's going to want to see a guy with a hat.' And he was like, 'I think he wears a hat.' He was very insistent that his character would wear a hat. And he was totally right. I love the hat now. Now, everybody is like, 'Oh, my god, the hat is fantastic! It's so him! He has to wear a hat!'"

Last May "The Blacklist" wrapped on its 9th season and will return in the fall for a 10th season, pushing the series over the 200-episode mark. That's rarified air for a network series in the streaming era of television. The distinction looms even more impressive when discovering that James Spader signed on just three days before it all began.