Kramer vs. Kramer
, the novel, became a best-seller in 1977 and Robert Benton, a Hollywood screenwriter and sometime director, took an immediate interest. Benton had been writing in Hollywood for years and, along with writing partner David Newman, penned the now-classic Bonnie and Clyde
in 1967. He enjoyed other successes as a writer with What's Up, Doc?
(1972) and Superman
(1978), both of which were co-written with David Newman, among others. He had even enjoyed critical success as a director, if not commercial success. His directorial effort, The Late Show
(1977), with Art Carney and Lily Tomlin, garnered near unanimous praise and when Benton started writing the screenplay for Kramer vs. Kramer
he already had himself in mind to direct. The studio, however, with Stanley Jaffe in charge of production, wanted François Truffaut. Benton would have to make his case.
Benton didn't have to fight very hard. He already had enough successes to carry some clout and insisted that if they wanted his screenplay, they would have to take him as the director. Jaffe had already hired Nestor Almendros as cinematographer with the expectation that Truffaut would be brought on to direct. Almendros and Truffaut had worked together multiple times and Almendros got to work mapping his plans for the shoot. Jaffe realized the book itself, a huge bestseller, and a big star in the lead (they were looking at Dustin Hoffman) would be enough to sell the film and Benton had more than proved himself with his two previous efforts, Bad Company
(1972) and The Late Show
. He got the job.
Casting the principals proved a trickier matter. Dustin Hoffman was cast in the all-important lead role of Ted Kramer and it was important to find both an actress and a very young actor who could play well with Hoffman.
Meryl Streep was sought out early. She had already made a big splash on television in the mini-series Holocaust
(1978) and in movies with her Oscar®-nominated performance in The Deer Hunter
(1978), although Kramer vs. Kramer
would finish shooting before she had even received her first Academy Award nomination (as Best Supporting Actress). And so, early on, Stanley Jaffe, Robert Benton and Dustin Hoffman decided Streep should audition for the role of Phyllis, Ted Kramer's lawyerly bedmate with whom he has a sexual rendezvous in his apartment that ends up with her meeting Billy in one of the movie's most memorable scenes. The role of Joanna Kramer, Ted's estranged wife, would go to Kate Jackson, star of television's Charlie's Angels
. Two things conspired against that.
First, Kate Jackson couldn't get a break in shooting that would allow her to shoot the film and the producers of Charlie's Angels
wouldn't budge. Second, that audition with Streep happened, and once Benton and Hoffman saw what Streep could do, they told Jaffe outright, "She's Joanna." The part of Phyllis went to JoBeth Williams, three years away from success in her own right with Poltergeist
(1982) and The Big Chill
Casting Billy was a lot tougher. At least two hundred child actors were brought in and some forty of those directly screen tested with Dustin Hoffman himself. Both Hoffman and Benton were looking for natural instincts, not overly trained actorly qualities that child actors often have. Justin Henry possessed none of the rehearsed mannerisms and techniques that doomed so many of his competitors. He worked well with Hoffman and even took to improvisation easily. He got the part.
Rounding out the cast was acclaimed film and stage actress Jane Alexander as Joanna's former friend and confidante, who becomes Ted's ally and supporter. Howard Duff got the part of Ted's attorney John Shaunessy and character actor George Coe got the part of Ted's boss, Jim O'Connor.
By Greg Ferrara