Less than three weeks after YouTube sensation Arif Zahir landed the role of Cleveland Brown on FOX's Family Guy, we're learning from the voice actor as well as series executive producers Rich Appel and Alec Sulkin via Variety what was behind the decision to bring the character back as well as the process that lead to Zahir joining the cast. Originally voiced by Mike Henry until he stepped down from the character so that an actor of color could voice the role, Zahir was pretty sure that viewers had seen the last of Cleveland ("I thought they were going to write him out and I was like, 'oh no.' But I was appreciative of that if that was the choice they were going to make. If Mike didn't want anyone else to do this character it's completely understandable").
For Appel and Sulkin, it was one of the many options that Family Guy considered. "It wasn't, 'We need to do it no matter what, and we'll get the best person available.' We were talking about other possible solutions to a life without Cleveland, such as a new character, whatever it might be, while a parallel track continued of auditions," Appel explained. "We did a deep dive, and certainly decided right then that if we were to recast Cleveland, obviously, we would have to consider him," Appel continued. "To be fair to Arif, this was a role that our casting folks cast a wide net. And we had a bunch of really talented actors audition for. As each stage of this process progressed, the list narrowed and narrowed until there was one person on that list."
Zahir would go through several rounds of auditions before being presented with unaired episodes to perform- a move that series creator Seth MacFarlane, Appel, and Sulkin believed would give them a much better sense of the best direction to go. "These were scripts he could perform, for which he had zero reference, and so that by definition precluded any rote impression, or repeating of what someone else who's very talented may have done. And his approach to the scripts just floored Seth, me, and Alec. Each scene, it wasn't always exactly to the note of what Mike would have done with it, but it captured Cleveland."
MacFarlane, who was reportedly on the fence as to whether to keep the character going or not, was convinced by Zahir's audition. "Seth's bottom line was during those conversations that, if we're going to do this, we need to have somebody great,' Sulkin explained. "And I think we just found the four-leaf clover." Appel says that MacFarlane knew what he was looking for in the person they chose- if they chose someone. "Seth was always very specific that he said, we would never just cast a great impressionist who wasn't also a really talented comic actor. And we wouldn't cast a great comic actor who couldn't capture not just the voice, but some of the part of the role that Mike Henry had nurtured for almost 20 years."
Appel believes that not only will fans be impressed with Zahir but also happy to have Cleveland still around. "I think a lot of the fans would have been really sorry to see Cleveland leave Quahog. He's a great character, and great for Peter and Quagmire and Joe to interact with. When you have the luxury of having 20 seasons, it's nice that you can rely on the shared history of those four characters. It was a flowchart with one box: Can we find the second most perfect Cleveland — and someone who could live up to Mike's standards."
Currently attending virtual table reads for next season's episodes, Zahir is looking forward to seeing the cast in-person- Henry, in particular (who remains with the cast, voicing other characters). "One of the biggest things was I didn't want to tarnish the character's legacy or Mike's legacy," he said. "I know it's his baby and I want to give it my hundred percent. Everything that Mike's done for the character — I think the most important thing is for people to make sure that he is the original. He really is Cleveland Brown and I'm just continuing the legacy."
As respectful as Zahir towards those who came before him, he's also not losing sight of just how much this opportunity can mean to him, both personally and professionally- in time. "Once that episode finally airs, and seeing my name next to these legends that I've grown up with, it's going to be another level of surrealism for me. But between now and then, it's about recording and getting everything done. And building a rapport with them."