Great television characters, since the dawn of the small screen, have stolen our imaginations and made us wish the small amounts of time we get to spend with them on a weekly basis could last so much longer. Even in the early days, when only three channels were on the tube, the standouts were exceptional.
Following on the heels of our look at movie characters who should never be recast, we thought we’d take a moment to offer our TV favorites the same treatment. When selecting these characters, we tried to pick those rarities who were performed so well, regardless of writing, that it would be a fool’s errand for any actor or actress to try and step back into the role. In many cases these roles were so well done that the talented men and women behind them were never able to escape their influence. Now, without further ado, we give you the 14 Television Characters Who Should Never Be Recast.
14. Henry Winkler as Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli in Happy Days
While the original Happy Days was supposed to be a Ron Howard vehicle, it quickly turned into a showcase for the too-cool-for-school bad boy with a heart of gold, Fonzie. Henry Winkler relished every moment he got to play this character, and it shows in his delivery. Fonzie was a guy we all wanted to be, and at that point we had too little of a frame-of-reference to know what a big goofball Winkler is in real life. He has subsequently turned into the opposite of the Fonz in every character he has played.
But here, he is the quintessential 1950s wise guy, and you can still get lost in the casting when going back to revisit the show. It doesn’t matter that Fonzie is also responsible for the notorious “jumping the shark” moment that has become synonymous with TV series that have gone off the deep end. He gave us several good years and many laughs.
13. Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker in All In The Family
Jean Stapleton’s loving-to-a-fault character was the heart and soul of Archie Bunker in the classic 1970s sitcom All in the Family. What Edith lacked in formal education, she made up for with love, warmth, and an underestimated knowledge that knew people were different and deserved to be treated with respect whether you shared their views or not. Unfortunately, this pure-hearted, sweet character endured her fair share of traumas on the show, including a near-sexual assault in “Edith’s 50th Birthday” and a life-threatening illness in the finale.
Archie would eventually lose Edith in his continuation series Archie Bunker’s Place. Thankfully, her death scene was kept off-screen. We prefer to remember her as the lively matriarch, who brought out the best in everyone, even Archie from time to time. No one could re-create Stapleton’s take on this character without veering off into parody. Here the voice may be exaggerated and the simplicity a little much to deal with considering how far feminism has come since the show initially aired, but everything you see from Stapleton feels authentic and original, and without her the show would not have been the classic it is today.
12. Gillian Anderson as Dana Scully in The X-Files
Dana Scully was the perfect foil for paranormal-believing partner Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) on the supernatural thriller series The X-Files. While Mulder possessed an enthusiasm that bordered on overboard when it came to the supernatural, Scully (Gillian Anderson) was ever the skeptic in spite of her own tendency to sink back in to her Catholic faith and its symbolism throughout the show’s 10 seasons and two feature films.
Anderson has admitted in the past that the skepticism part of her Scully role came natural to her – that in high school she traveled in “a very atheist crowd and it was the consensus that religion was a crutch.” However, she now purports to have a spiritual side that you might expect coming from her co-star’s character, believing in some paranormal things like ESP, spirits, angels, ghosts, teleportation, and psychic ability. We can’t see any other actress being able to walk that line between the two worlds as well as Anderson.
11. Don Knotts as Barney Fife in The Andy Griffith Show
Barney Fife has become synonymous with ineptitude, particularly in the ranks of law enforcement. If you call a cop this name, you are definitely not getting out of the ticket. However, Barney as portrayed by Don Knotts had a little more depth than you might imagine. Yes, he frequently screwed up and allowed prisoners to escape right under his nose (literally), and yes, he frequently got carried away on power trips; but he was also a loyal friend, who would do anything for the people he cared about.
Knotts frequently had to give the audience what they wanted and ham it up, but he also got a chance to flex his acting muscles from time to time. One of the most memorable and touching moments in the show’s history comes in the season two episode “Andy on Trial,” when Barney’s big mouth gets Andy indicted on trumped-up charges of police corruption. When Barney realizes the trouble he has caused his best friend, he saves the day with a heartfelt speech that still chokes us up every time we hear it. As far as recasting Barney Fife is concerned, we have never once seen an actor, even in parody, who could do the mannerisms, the voice, and the wired energy necessary the way Don Knotts does it. These qualities worked in unison to win this character – that is, Knotts’ portrayal – five Emmy Awards.
10. Ed O’Neill as Al Bundy in Married With Children
Ed O’Neill can star in all of the Modern Family episodes he wants, but he’ll never do anything better than Al Bundy of the controversial Married with Children. As a former Pittsburgh Steeler – very briefly anyway – O’Neill knew exactly how to bring Al’s former football glory to life. He furnished the shoe salesman from Hell with a perfect gait for a man so thoroughly defeated. The inimitable scowl and hilarious hatred he has for people in general are strangely comforting at the end of a bad day. And the insults – oh, the insults!
O’Neill was an unusual choice to play the star of a sitcom, considering his roots in dramatic acting and his tendency to play tough guys and heavies. However, he managed to beat out lots of other funny people for the part, including Michael Richards, who would go on to star as Kramer in Seinfeld. The idea of recasting Al Bundy is infuriating. If Fox must go to this well again, we hope they follow through on this reunion series idea instead.
9. James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos
Being in the mob isn’t easy. In fact, for Tony Soprano, it’s largely to blame for his therapy bill. The Sopranos TV series traced Tony’s journey up the mob ranks for six seasons on HBO, influencing the boom of television that continues to this day. Everyone from Matthew Weiner to Walter White himself, Bryan Cranston, credits James Gandolfini’s performance as the precursor to today’s great television. Cranston even said that without Tony Soprano, there is no Walter White.
Unfortunately, Gandolfini died before the rumored Sopranos film could ever come to pass. But he did receive ample praise in his lifetime for the role. Among his accomplishments, he captured three Emmy awards for Best Lead Actor in a Drama Series, three Screen Actors Guild awards for Best Male Actor in a Drama Series, and a Golden Globe award for Best Actor – Television Series Drama. With his death, however, the Sopranos film could never happen. The only way you are bringing this character back is by rebooting the franchise, and no one wants to see that.
8. The Main Cast of Seinfeld
Seinfeld is one of the rare properties on this list that is un-remakeable. (Thank heavens.) For starters, it would be very strange to reboot a series that bears real-life Jerry Seinfeld’s name with different actors, though there is some precedent for doing so. The Phil Silvers Show would later become the film Sgt. Bilko, for instance. Still, we do not see it happening, nor should it.
Seinfeld was the perfect storm of pitch-perfect comedy writing and four amazing cast members in Michael Richards (Kramer), Julia Louis Dreyfus (Elaine), Jason Alexander (George), and Jerry Seinfeld (himself), who had chemistry rarely seen on television or film. The performers did not appear to be acting when sharing screen time, and the relatable mix of situations, albeit exaggerated, allowed viewers to blend in to the fictional landscape to laugh at problems that seemed very much like their own. Along the way, all four performers stole the show with memorable episodes and lines that easily bled into pop culture. (Regifter, Master of Your Domain, putting it in the Vault, a Festivus for the rest of us, etc).
7. Robert Taylor as Walt Longmire in Longmire
Walt Longmire in the former A&E/now Netflix television series isn’t the same character that you will meet in the popular best-selling mystery novels by Craig Johnson. He is more serious, more haunted than his literary predecessor. However, with the tone of the show being what it is, Robert Taylor plays him exactly how he needs to play him. That’s not to say one version of Longmire is better than the other. To the contrary. Each interpretation complements the overall character perfectly. It’s just that in the television show, the focus is more on Longmire the lawman while the books portray a more laid-back, romantic aspect of his character.
Despite the differences, we could never fathom a Longmire movie or second television series where Taylor isn’t the guy underneath the cowboy hat. He has done it so well for so long that he is the only one we will ever need.
6. Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation
The adventures of Leslie Knope in the hit mockumentary series Parks and Recreation gave the actress who played her, Amy Poehler, a chance to show she could exist free-and-clear of Saturday Night Live and bestie Tina Fey’s influence and still be hilarious. While Poehler didn’t get any opportunities during her SNL run to progress much past punchline status, Parks and Rec provided her the opportunity to be a real leading lady – still funny, but also competent and kind-hearted. The kind of person you root for.
Surprisingly, much of the series’ comedy comes less from Poehler’s natural ability to play the fool and more from her frustrations at trying to get simple, day-to-day activities done in the bureaucratic system to which her character has committed her life. Because Poehler is so willing to sit back and let her supporting cast carry much of the load, she is able to find new depths to her character and her standing as an actress, which makes us love her even more.
5. Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford in Sanford and Son
We could honestly see someone coming along and remaking Sanford and Son one day. It happened to The Honeymooners. It happened to The Brady Bunch and The Beverly Hillbillies and the list goes on. Hopefully, we’ll be dead and gone by then because nobody could pull off those fake heart attacks as well as Redd Foxx. Now we know what some of you more knowledgeable television buffs are probably thinking – Sanford and Son itself was a remake of the British Steptoe and Son. What would be the big deal with another remake?
While it is true that Sanford and Son was an Americanized version, Foxx gave the show a feel that was distinct with a delivery in both dialogue-driven and physical comedy that left the earlier series in the dust. As a highly influential standup comedian, he had no trouble bringing his unique brand of humor to the small screen sitcom format, and he did it in a way that could never be equaled, at least for this particular character.
4. Steve Carell as Michael Scott in The Office
Michael Scott had a tall order when taking over as the “boss” of The Office (U.S.). He had to follow in the hilarious footsteps of British predecessor David Brent (Ricky Gervais). How to do that: by casting Steve Carell in the part. Carell’s earnestness as Scott tells the tale of a man, who wants to be a good boss, but is too incompetent, insensitive, and, sometimes, insane, to pull it off. He is a likable man in a very unlikable position, and the two realities clash at every turn, creating much of the early laughs and giving the series a heart and soul from the first episode.
While you could make a case there is more than one irreplaceable star here, we’ll stick with Scott if for no other reason than to point out how difficult it was to fill in the void he left when departing the show at the end of season seven. Plus, if they ever did revisit The Office in a reboot, it would probably be with a different cast of characters, just as the U.S. version did with the British.
3. Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo in I Love Lucy
As the lead character in one of America’s most beloved sitcoms, Lucille Ball broke ground for women and for comedy with her masterful portrayal of the ditzy, scheming Lucy Ricardo. In spite of husband Ricky’s tendency to go alpha-male on her from time-to-time, she had a strong will and determination that he nor anyone else could quench in six seasons, 181 episodes, of I Love Lucy as well as a 13-episode run on The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour.
Along with best friend Ethel Mertz (Vivian Vance), Ball proved that even in the male-dominated landscape of television, the boys were no match for two strong-willed women. Her prowess at physical comedy was equaled only by her timing at delivering a punchline. Ball would follow her stint as Lucy Ricardo with The Lucy Show, Here’s Lucy, and Life with Lucy (all unrelated in characters and continuity); but she was never able to recapture the magic that made I Love Lucy a television classic.
2. Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane in Frasier
Frasier Crane first appeared in the season 3 debut of Cheers as a guest star. The performance of Kelsey Grammer in the role was so popular that he would soon become a regular and a well-utilized co-star through the finale in season 11. After that, Grammer continued in the role, taking Frasier to Seattle for a self-titled sitcom.
Under the best of circumstances, setups like that can be successful, but not as much as the source material on which they are based. (Just look what happened to Joey after spinning off from Friends.) But because Frasier Crane was such a strong character – and because the supporting cast, particularly his bro and dad – were so perfectly chosen, there was enough juice to power Frasier Crane through another 11 seasons and almost as many episodes as Cheers. How can you recast that?
1. Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston as Jesse Pinkman and Walter White in Breaking Bad
Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer. Jesse Pinkman is a slacker former student, who becomes his unlikely partner in a meth-cooking operation. Together the two actors bringing these characters to life defied so many expectations that we could not possibly imagine anyone else trying to fill their contamination suits – not in the next 10 years, not in the next century. Bryan Cranston’s transformation from milquetoast to badass drug lord is truly a sight to behold. It’s no wonder Anthony Hopkins said shortly after the finale that Cranston had given the best acting performance he had ever seen.
As for Pinkman, it is a testament to Aaron Paul that the character, who was supposed to be killed off in the first season, ended up being one of the only survivors. Paul took what should have been light supporting material, and turned it into leading man status across the five years Breaking Bad was on the air. We know Hollywood likes to remake stuff, but seriously, don’t even try it.
So the next time any of you feel the need to call for more TV reboots, we ask that you kindly refrain from the characters above and the shows in which they appeared. That said, how do you feel about our selections? While you’re at it, which deserving television characters should have been included? Sound off in the comments section!