Casting producers for the hit TV talent show “Star Search” were closing in on the end of a long cross-country series of auditions and had nearly filled their quota of performers for the upcoming season when they arrived at a Memphis mall to test 1,000 more hopefuls, among them an 11-year-old in a colorful cowboy get-up named Justin Randall.
The auditions were, by necessity, swift and ruthless, according to Willard Tressel, a one-time Fort Lauderdale resident who was in charge of the casting call that day in 1992. His role was to assess the talent and forward video of any contenders to the show’s producers in Los Angeles for further vetting.
“We were close to finalizing the casting for the season. We just had a couple of open spots, and maybe those had been filled, we couldn’t be sure,” Tressel recalls. “When you have 1,000 people audition in a day, you can only give them 30 seconds, tops. But you could tell in four or five seconds whether they had talent or not.”
At some point in the middle of the day, Tressel introduced young Justin Randall, then turned away to prepare the next performer for introduction.
“I’m getting ready for the next act, but I can tell this kid can sing. I run around to the front of the stage and I grab a still camera — I hardly ever did this — and I snapped a picture and let him sing the entire song, which I rarely did,” says Tressel, who can’t recall the song, but says it was country and the kid looked like “mini George Strait.”
At the end of the day, Tressel did something else out of character: He made a personal appeal.
“I called back to L.A., to Sam Riddle, the producer of the show, and I said, ‘Sam, you’ve got to trust me on this one, but save a slot for 11-year-old Justin Randall. This kid is good.’ ”
Justin wasn’t a “Star Search” champion, but has done OK for himself in the past two decades using his given name, Justin Timberlake. The qualities that have made him an international star, with two current Top 20 Billboard singles — his soulful vocals are the best thing about the Jay-Z collaboration “Holy Grail” — and a co-headlining summer tour with Jay-Z, were already apparent at the mall in Memphis.
“First of all, he sang great, he hit the notes,” recalls Tressel, now an executive with DirecTV Latin America’s entertainment channel, OnDirecTV. “But … the kid had that thing you always look for, that star quality. He had it. He commanded the stage at 11 years old. He was like an old-time show-biz guy. At 11 years old, he owned the stage. The only reason I remember all this stuff is because he had so much talent.”
Tressel moved from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles a few years ago and, recently, to New Jersey. During one move he discovered the photos from the 1992 casting calls and the picture he took of Justin Randall performing. He also found another photo of the crowd of auditioners. You have to look hard, Tressel says, but there is young Justin.
“You can see Justin waiting for his chance to get onstage, and you can tell he’s nervous. He looks pensive, probably thinking about his performance,” Tressel says. “To see him in the audience waiting for an audition, at the inception of his career, there is Justin Timberlake, vulnerable. It’s an interesting picture.”