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Searching for next Seinfeld

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Casting director Penny Perry was recently auditioning actors for an HBO project, when one began to spin out of control.

"He picked me up and started slamming me against the wall," she says. None of her assistants knew what to do, Ms. Perry says with a rueful laugh, "because it was in the context of the scene." He finally put her down and explained that he was using it to prepare for the role, which he saw as "Christlike."

Perry is one of the hundreds of Hollywood casting directors whose shows (if not personal safety) have recently been on the firing line. Over the past four days, TV network executives have been in New York with advertisers, pitching their hottest prospects for the fall season. These shows have been cast by directors like Perry over the past four months.

CDs, as they are known, have a critical job that is seen by millions but recognized by few: Find the next Jennifer Aniston or Jerry Seinfeld.

Pilot season is their worst time. "It's war," says Megan McConnell, who along with her partner, Janet Gilmore, has cast some of TV's top shows, such as "Alias," "The Practice," and "Boston Public." "It's just one big race," she says. "It's the most challenging time of the year because we're all fighting for the same talent."

The hottest question on everyone's mind, especially the actors', is: What do the casting directors look for?

"We're all looking for lightning in a bottle," says Dava Waite, another casting director who has cast shows such as "Yes, Dear" and "Coach."

That can translate into spunkiness, humor, sex appeal, vitality - the list is long, and the answer is elusive enough that most casting directors can agree on only one thing. They know it when they see it. Often, they find it in the most unexpected places.

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