As a child growing up in Modesto, Robert Ulrich would cast his friends in backyard plays.
Now the 1972 Davis High School graduate recruits professional actors for TV shows. He and partners Eric Dawson and Jim Carnahan are nominated for an Emmy Award for casting the hit Fox series "Glee."
"I knew from the moment that I read the script that it was special," Ulrich said in a phone interview last week. "The second I saw Lea Michele (Rachel) sing 'On My Own,' I knew it would be huge."
"Glee," which is up for 19 Emmys at the awards show Aug. 29, is a musical comedy that focuses on an Ohio high school show choir called New Directions. The show features a mix of pop and Broadway songs from the 1960s to the present.
Ulrich, Dawson and their partner Carol Kritzer were nominated for an Emmy in 2005 for "Nip/Tuck," created by Ryan Murphy, the same man behind "Glee." But Ulrich said the "Glee" nomination is sweeter because he had a more direct role in the casting.
Ulrich got his early arts training in Modesto public schools and acted in Paul Tischer's Modesto Youth Theater, now known as Modesto Performing Arts. His biggest role was starring as Tony in the company's production of "West Side Story."
Tischer said he's not at all surprised by Ulrich's success.
"Robert has always been a very aggressive worker," he said. "He has been very good at spotting talent."
Ulrich remains connected to many in Modesto. His parents, Jack and Joy Ulrich, still live here, and he is close to Youth Entertainment Stage Company director Melanee Wyatt, whom he has known since both were 4 years old and who collaborated with him on his childhood backyard plays.
She said Ulrich has a great eye and a passion for show business, which makes him a good fit for casting.
"He had such a love for film and television and theater," Wyatt said. "This is just an absolutely perfect job for him."
Trying his hand at acting
Ulrich attended Modesto Junior College and the University of the Pacific in Stockton before moving to Los Angeles to try to make a go of it as an actor. But he couldn't get any breaks and soon returned home.
He keenly remembers those days and has done his best to offer assistance to young actors.
"I try to help people because it's hard without any guidance," Ulrich said.
He got his master's degree in English with an emphasis on film and theater at California State University, Stanislaus, because he thought if his showbiz dreams didn't work out, he could always teach. That's where he met his wife, Ripon native Kim Johnston Ulrich.
The couple have been married 30 years and have two children, Cooper, 18, and Tierney, 9.
The Ulrichs lived in New York and Los Angeles as they tried to launch acting careers. Robert Ulrich's acting career sputtered, but his wife's took off. Her best-known role was as Ivy Winthrop Crane on the NBC soap opera "Passions" from 1999 until the show was canceled in 2008.
She had guest spots on numerous TV shows, including "CSI," "Cheers," "St. Elsewhere" and "Walker, Texas Ranger."
"I think I was able to live vicariously through my wife in satisfying my acting (dreams)," Ulrich said.
Found his niche in casting
Robert Ulrich made the leap from performing to behind-the-scenes work at age 30. After working briefly as a stage manager, he switched to casting and found his groove.
Ulrich said he's proud of his association with "Glee," which Murphy has described as the anti-"High School Musical" because of its snarky humor.
"I think what has made 'Glee' really stand out, aside from the fact that it has fantastic production values, is that everyone was a teenager and everyone was one of those characters in high school," Ulrich said. "Even though the situations may be heightened, they're based on that truth in high school that you all want to fit into something."
He said the hardest role to cast was Finn, the lead jock. Murphy was looking for a "man's man" who could sing and look believable as a football player.
Late one night, he knew he had found the right person when he saw a video of Cory Monteith drumming on Tupperware.
At Ulrich's urging, Monteith drove 20 hours from his home in Vancouver, Canada, to Los Angeles so he could meet Murphy in person for an audition. He was thrilled when he got the part.
"It's been one of the biggest learning curves I've ever done," Monteith said. "To go from never having sang for anyone to a top 10 single (from a 'Glee' compilation) and singing for the president of the United States and on 'Oprah' to a sold-out Radio City Music Hall show. It's beyond me how it happened."
Call came just in time
Dianna Agron, who plays cheerleader Quinn, was just about to quit acting and concentrate on writing when she got a call to audition. Ulrich advised her to change her hairstyle, then asked the creative team to take a second look.
"I love it," she said. "It's the best job I've ever had. I don't think there's ever been a show where everybody feels 100 percent right. I couldn't picture anybody else for any of the characters. ... The show is what it is because of casting. That's largely due to Robert and Ryan."
Ulrich auditioned 2,900 people for the show, which he said is a lot for TV. He said he is most proud of finding people for the niche roles, such as Lauren Potter, who has Down syndrome and plays Sue Sylvester's sister Becky; quadriplegic actor Zack Weinstein, who guest-starred as quadriplegic former football player Sean; and the deaf choir, which appeared in the episode "Hairography."
Ulrich was stumped at first about how he would cast the deaf choir, because in reality, there is no such thing. But he made it work.
"Every single person in that choir was hearing impaired or completely deaf," he said. "It was a very moving experience for everyone."
One of the latest additions to the cast is 1982 Hilmar High School graduate and 15-time world arm-wrestling champion Dot Jones as the new football coach.
Proud of his Modesto roots
The performers have a tough workload that requires them to learn a lot of lines and choreography quickly. In just eight days, the production team orchestrates, arranges and records the music and choreographs the dances. The cast members sometimes have only a couple of hours to learn the choreography, Ulrich said.
He said he's proud of his involvement in the show and he is proud that he got his start in entertainment in Modesto. "I feel very grateful to have been in a community that was supportive of the arts."