The Sneaky Way NBC Made Sure Jennifer Aniston Could Star In Friends

Friends Jennifer Aniston Rachel Green NBC
(Image credit: Friends Screenshot / Warner Bros. Studios)

One major obstacle was standing in Jennifer Aniston's way when it came to her starring as Rachel Green in hit sitcom Friends: another TV show she was starring in at the time. However, NBC made sure that Jennifer Aniston could star in Friends courtesy of a clever, if not necessarily virtuous, tactic.

Author Saul Austerlitz’s upcoming book Generation Friends is packed with behind-the-scenes juiciness about the NBC show's history. One such story focused on NBC’s savvy move to ensure it secured one of its most influential stars, which required the network to employ a bit of smart scheduling against its rival, CBS. That's where Jennifer Aniston was previously cast in the broadcast comedy Muddling Through.

CBS chose to air the Jennifer Aniston-starring Muddling Through in the summer, with the idea that if it was a summer smash, it would get picked up for a full season. That move would have kept Jennifer Aniston off of Friends, and NBC's network execs were not interested in “muddling through” that casting dilemma, per EW-obtained excerpts from Saul Austerlitz’s Generation Friends. More specifically, former senior NBC exec Warren Littlefield wanted to "kill it."

Warren Littlefield reportedly had scheduling head Preston Beckman program a lineup of the network's TV-movie adaptations of Danielle Steel’s novels to air at the same time as Muddling Through on Saturday nights. (I have to stop here to mention that those movies were excellent.)

NBC’s overall goal was to draw audiences away from Jennifer Anniston’s CBS show, particularly in the female demographic. It worked, too! Muddling Through did not get picked up for a full season, and Friends secured Jennifer Aniston as one of its leads, and went on to air for ten seasons.

What a move! It goes to show that a designed tweak of the schedule could go a long way. One of the critical ways a network ensures any series’ success is scheduling, and it works the opposite direction, too, causing problems for those elsewhere on the dial. Remember, this was before DVRs made it possible and convenient (and VHS-free)  to watch multiple shows airing on the same night.

NBC probably has no regrets about its decision. Friends is still a fan-favorite show, and Jennifer Aniston is a large part of that. Would viewers continue to be as curious about Ross/Rachel relationship updates if she wasn't a core part of that coupling? I think not.

The cast has been busy ever since Friends ended, and that definitely includes Jennifer Aniston, who will star in Apple TV+'s The Morning Show opposite Steve Carrell and former Friends sister Reese Witherspoon. Not too long ago, Aniston indicated her former co-stars would be down for a reunion. Will it ever happen? Friends’ co-creator has already weighed in with some not-so-wonderful revival odds and another Ross/Rachel relationship update.

How close Friends came to passing on Jennifer Aniston is sort of strange to contemplate, since it's tough to imagine anyone else in the role, affecting hairstyles for years on end. Former Saved by the Bell star Tiffani Thiessen revealed that she almost played Rachel, which would have been a casting move that totally shook up the Friends that fans know today.

You can currently stream Jennifer Aniston starring in Friends on Netflix, where big premieres are happening all year long, though the streaming giant will be losing the NBC series soon. For other sitcoms on the way, check out this fall’s premieres.

Britt Lawrence

Like a contented Hallmark movie character, Britt happily lives in the same city she grew up in. Along with movies and television, she is passionate about competitive figure skating. She has been writing about entertainment for 5 years, and as you may suspect, still finds it as entertaining to do as when she began.