Being an actor is a lot like playing the lottery. For every record-breaking blockbuster or season-spanning television hit, there are a handful of cinematic duds or TV flops that peter out after a single season. Sure, there are some circumstances that seem to guarantee a hit. With a handful of hit series under her belt including Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Grey’s Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes is the type of showrunner TV actors dream of. And most movie stars would kill for even a small part in one of Steven Spielberg’s cinema epics—with fingers crossed that it would be more Raiders of the Lost Ark than 1941. (Hey, even great directors have their duds.)
But the unpredictable nature of the job is guaranteed to yield its share of regrets for those actors that choose to walk away from a TV show or a movie franchise, whether at its peak of popularity or while it’s still heading for greatness. Below are 15 actors who felt at least a twinge of regret after quitting their TV show or movie franchise. Here’s hoping they have some better judgement next time around—if they’re lucky enough to get another chance.
15. Katherine Heigl – Grey’s Anatomy
In the fickle world of television, an actor is lucky to see their show renewed for a second season—let alone a thirteenth season. So what might cause an actor to jump such a successful juggernaut as Grey’s Anatomy? According to Katherine Heigl, the answer to that question was the show’s very large central cast. Because there were so many characters dealing with so many different plotlines, Heigl said in an interview with Howard Stern on his radio program that she felt her character, Dr. Izzie Stevens, wasn’t always given the best material to work with.
Since her departure from the show in 2010, Heigl has appeared in a series of poorly reviewed romcoms (see: Killers in 2010, New Year’s Eve in 2011, One for the Money in 2012) and starred in the political drama State of Affairs, which fizzled out after a single season on NBC in 2014.
With Grey’s Anatomy kicking off season 13 in fall 2016, does Heigl regret her decision? It’s complicated. “There’s certainly things I regret about it,” she told The Wall Street Journal of her decision to walk away from the series. But she added that her departure was ultimately for the best, as it gave her more time to spend with her husband and her children.
14. Brian Dunkleman – American Idol
After years hosting American Idol, Ryan Seacrest is now a ubiquitous presence in the world of pop culture. And had first season co-host Brian Dunkleman stuck with the show, perhaps he could have had a similarly upward trajectory. And sure, while hosting a reality singing competition doesn’t necessarily make one an actor, Dunkleman was hoping his departure from Idol would change all of that. “I wanted to have an acting career, and I knew that leaving when I did would give me the best shot of accomplishing that,” he wrote in a tell-all piece for Variety.
Since making that decision, Dunkleman has had some trouble getting his career off the ground, landing mostly small roles in various TV shows and doing voice work in Naruto and The Fairly OddParents. After Idol finally went off the air in 2016 after 15 seasons, it’s safe to say that Dunkleman was feeling at least a little bit remorseful for cutting and running so early on. “Do I regret not remaining on the show now that it’s coming to an end? Yes,” he wrote. “Especially when I open my bank statements.”
14. James Remar – Aliens
James Remar is a tough-as-nails character actor who broke into the scene in the scrappy action thriller The Warriors and has made the rounds in movies and TV shows of all genres, from Sex and the City to Ratatouille to Dexter. But his career almost took a different path, as he was originally cast as the valiant Corporal Hicks in James Cameron’s 1986 Alien sequel, Aliens. So how did the role end up going to Cameron favorite Michael Biehn? Most of the cast remained tight-lipped about this for years, leaving fans to speculate what actually went on.
Remar originally told Starlog magazine in 1986 that “urgent matters at home” forced him to pull out of the movie’s shoot abroad and return to the States. He elaborated further in an interview on the Sidebar podcast, explaining that his rampant drug use resulted in his departure from the film. Although he added that he has since patched up his relationship with both Cameron and producer Walter Hill, he expressed his disappointment at having squandered such a once-in-a-lifetime role, saying, “I don’t know if I’ll ever get to work with him [Cameron] again…It was an honor to get started, I just wasn’t focused and I [expletive] it up.”
13. Robert Kazinsky – The Hobbit
Years before the release of the film series beginning in 2012, The Hobbit was known around Hollywood as somewhat of a cursed project. From union snafus to changes in directors and a fire on set, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings prequel films were hit with problems left and right. Among those issues were several personnel changes, one of which included the departure of British actor Robert Kazinsky, who was tapped to play Fili, one of the dwarves who accompanies Bilbo Baggins on his epic adventures.
Citing personal problems, Kazinsky left the project but Jackson assured all that there was no bad blood between the two in a Facebook post, writing, “Rob has been terrific to work with and his enthusiasm and infectious sense of humor will be missed by all of us.” He also added that the crew still had yet to shoot much of Fili’s scenes, meaning Kazinsky’s exit would not really slow down production all that much. If only things were so rosy for Kazinsky, who tweeted that it was “with a truly sad heart” that he left and that he would be attempting to find some good in the “disaster” of a situation.
11. Rachel Gurney – Upstairs, Downstairs
For those among us who might not be seasoned Anglophiles, Upstairs, Downstairs was a British drama series from the 1970s that focused on the lives of a wealthy family and their servants during the early 1900s. Among the coiffed elite of the “upstairs” was Lady Marjorie Bellamy, played by Rachel Gurney, who wed a local priest (much to her parents’ distress) and raised two children with him in their opulent Victorian townhome. But when even an on screen affair with a younger military captain proved to be an inefficient escape for Gurney, she jumped ship—quite literally, as the writers had her character perish after booking a fateful voyage on the Titanic.
It seems as though Gurney might have then regretted her choice to travel by sea, however, according to an interview with Nicola Pagett, who played Lady Marjorie’s rebellious daughter Elizabeth. “She decided she’d had enough and then changed her mind,” Pagett said. “But she’d already died on the Titanic so it was too late.”
10. Dave Chappelle – Chappelle’s Show
You would be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t feel even a bit of regret about passing on a million dollar TV deal and comedian Dave Chappelle is no exception. Chappelle’s Show, which debuted on Comedy Central in 2003, quickly became one of the most popular and celebrated sketch shows of its time, even after only airing for two seasons. That legacy came to a halt after that, when Chappelle abruptly left the show (and a deal to produce a third and fourth season for an alleged $50 million) to jet to South Africa.
He never returned to the program and has remained somewhat elusive over the past decade or so, revealing in an interview with David Letterman in 2014 what everyone suspected: he often regrets turning down such an enormous sum at the height of his career. “I felt a variety of ways in the last 10 years,” Chappelle told Letterman. “There’s nothing anyone can say. You do what you feel like you need to do at any given time.”
9. Winona Ryder – The Godfather Part III
Michael Corleone and his family (both literally and symbolically) of Italian mobsters are one of the most well-known crime syndicates in pop culture. But Corleone’s family portrait almost looked a little bit different, as Winona Ryder was originally slated to play Michael’s daughter Mary in The Godfather Part III. Wild rumors swirled when Ryder abandoned the project, ranging from allegations of a nervous breakdown to pregnancy. In reality, the then-teenaged actress was struck with an extremely high fever and upper respiratory infection that forced her to take some time off.
The film was the last entry in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic crime saga, but Ryder felt as though she still missed out nonetheless. “Sure it’s disappointing, devastating in fact,” she said in an Los Angeles Times interview. “I wish it didn’t happen… but it did.” But it’s quite possible that fans of the iconic mafia tale might have been more heartbroken at the change in casting than Ryder. When Coppola enlisted his daughter, Sofia, for the role, fans and critics alike lambasted the young Coppola’s performance in the least well-received film in the trilogy.
8. Wayne Rogers – M*A*S*H
With an incredible 100 Emmy nominations throughout its run, combined with its record-breaking season finale, M*A*S*H is arguably one of the best examples of American television success. The syndication of its 250-plus episodes over 11 seasons means that viewers can still check in with the military doctors stationed in South Korea during the Korean War. And if you happen to catch an episode from the first three seasons, you might not want to get too attached to Trapper John McIntyre, played by Wayne Rogers.
Although Rogers’ Trapper and Alan Alda’s “Hawkeye” Pierce were originally supposed to be characters of equal importance on the series, Hawkeye emerged over several of the first seasons as the lead, which never sat well with Rogers. He finally had enough and quit before the start of season 4 over issues with his contract. While Rogers by no means faded into obscurity over the next few decades, he did say had he known the show would go on without him for 11 more years, “I probably would have kept my mouth shut and stayed put.”
7. Charlie Hunnam – Fifty Shades of Grey
When Charlie Hunnam backed out of the film adaptation of everyone’s favorite Twilight-fanfic-turned-BDSM-sensation mere weeks after officially being cast as the story’s lead sadist Christian Grey, most assumed he had simply come to his senses and wanted to avoid becoming the butt of pop culture’s jokes for the foreseeable future. But the actor was actually quite tortured over the decision, which he made due to scheduling conflicts with FX’s Sons of Anarchy and Guillermo del Toro’s gothic horror film Crimson Peak. “It was the most emotionally destructive and difficult thing I’ve ever had to deal with professionally,” he said in an interview with V Man magazine.
Hunnam broke the news to Fifty Shades director Sam Taylor-Johnson personally, adding that the two both shed tears over his departure. And combatting rumors that he was dropping out of the project due to the racy subject matter, Hunnam was also quick to cite his earlier role on in the original, British series of Queer as Folk, where he regularly had to appear totally naked on national television.
6. Jason Priestley – Beverly Hills, 90210
Although it’s hard to believe that anyone would ever want to move out of one of the most coveted zip codes of the ‘90s, it seems as though Jason Priestley had enough of the drama and wanted to settle somewhere a bit quieter. Priestley had become a teen heartthrob playing the male half of Minnesota transplants Brandon and Brenda Walsh, with Shannen Doherty as his twin sister. But the role began to feel stale after several years, he told CNN while promoting his memoir in 2014, and his character was written off the show at the beginning of season 9 after love interest Kelly Taylor (Jennie Garth) turned down his marriage proposal.
Even though the series only had one more season after that, Priestley said he feels he missed out on some crucial closure by exiting the show when he did. “Understanding what I do now about story and character, I believe that [creator Aaron Spelling] was pushing the story in a direction that would have had Brandon and Kelly end up together at the end of the show and I think I probably should have stuck around to its fruition,” he said.
5. Chevy Chase – Saturday Night Live
People do crazy things when they’re in love, like abandon the breakout role of a lifetime. But after only one full season on the great comedy hitmaker, Chevy Chase did just that, moving out to Los Angeles to marry his then-girlfriend. Granted, Saturday Night Live is somewhat of a launchpad for talented comedic performers, literally offering them the spotlight for their best impressions and characters, only to turn them into a television show or a movie deal—some more successful than others. (Looking at you, Pat.)
Sure, Chase had tons of success in Hollywood, starring in comedy classics like Caddyshack and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But one might think the man who was the first to sit in the Weekend Update chair and actually coined the still-used phrase, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!” would want to stick around to cement his legacy. Chase evidently agreed years later in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, saying, “I tried to pretend everything was great…It was all nuts looking back on it. But I did regret it.”
4. Matt Damon – Bourne
One can hardly think of Matt Damon without thinking of CIA operative Jason Bourne, one of the celebrated actor’s most notable roles. The franchise, which started in 2002 with The Bourne Identity, followed Damon as Jason Bourne on his quest to search for his true identity throughout both The Bourne Supremacy in 2004 and The Bourne Ultimatum in 2007. But when production began on The Bourne Legacy, Damon was nowhere to be found.
When Paul Greengrass, who directed the second and third films in the series, said he was uninterested in pursuing the story any further, Damon vowed in an interview with Moveline that he wouldn’t reprise the character without the director at the helm. The film instead focused on black ops agent Aaron Cross, played by Jeremy Renner, with Bourne only mentioned a few times throughout the story.
But the lure of Bourne was too strong for both Damon and Greengrass, who returned to the beloved action franchise in 2016 with Jason Bourne when Damon happened upon the production offices for Legacy a few years prior, he told The New York Times. “Having made movies that didn’t find an audience, I didn’t want to thumb our nose at this opportunity,” Damon said of the chance to revisit the Bourne character.
3. Josh Bowman and Revenge
As one of the soapier network dramas, Revenge was no stranger to deception, scandal, and murder. But the drama bled beyond the small screen, too, especially with Josh Bowman. Bowman played Daniel Grayson, a member of the show’s wealthy and conniving Grayson family—even after admitting in an interview following the end of season 2 that he wanted his character to be killed off. Yet Daniel stuck around until season 4 when (Spoiler alert!) he finally met his grisly end in what would be the show’s final season.
Only by then, Bowman seemed to have changed his mind about wanting off the show so soon. “It’s not a good thing to leave a show, but it’s a good thing for the story to help it move forward,” he conceded in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. Bowman even went so far as to deny the claim that he ever wanted to exit the drama, insisting that he was “wrongly quoted” and adding that he would stick with the show for six seasons, had it lasted that long.
2. McLean Stevenson – M*A*S*H
There must be something about one of the most acclaimed series in the history of television that makes actors antsy, because Wayne Rogers wasn’t the only member of 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital to jump ship. McLean Stevenson, who played Lt. Colonel Henry Blake on the program, grew weary of being only one part of an extremely talented cast. So when his contract ran out in 1975, the season 3 finale featured the last appearance of Lt. Colonel Blake. Even before physically making his departure from the show, however, Stevenson confided in fellow cast member Loretta Swit, saying, “I know I will not be in anything as good as this show, but I have to leave and be number one.”
It wasn’t long before Stevenson’s prophecy was realized, as one failed sitcom led to another. Ultimately, he conceded in a M*A*S*H retrospective in 1991, that viewers were more attached to Lt. Colonel Blake than Stevenson himself. “I’ve never been able to work with a group that’s as talented or scripts that are as good,” he said of the military comedy-drama in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.
1. Christopher Eccleston – Doctor Who
Any actor who steps into the TARDIS as the Doctor surely must realize the ephemeral nature of the role. Since the original premiere of the show in 1963, a grand total of 12 actors have portrayed Doctor Who. Still, when Christopher Eccleston took up the mantle for the 2005 reboot of the iconic sci-fi series, he could be forgiven for thinking he would hold the role for more than a single season.
In an interview on the Australian radio program Drive, Eccleston voiced his regrets at having spent such a short time with such a beloved character, adding that, as a primarily dramatic actor, he was still getting accustomed to a lighter, more comedic role. There was also the fact that he didn’t really get along with those in charge of the show, citing a difference of opinion in the direction of the character. “It was kind of tragic for me, that I didn’t play him for longer,” the English actor said. But apparently not tragic enough to return for the 50th anniversary special, where the mere memory of unpleasant clashes with upper management ultimately led to an entire rewrite, with John Hurt as the War Doctor replacing the role intended for Eccleston.
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