Choices. Your life is the summation of all the decisions you make, and when your career is driven on visibility and notoriety, the choices you make will play a substantial role in your successes or failures. Such is the life of an actor or actress.
History has proven that the careers of actors and actresses can appear and vanish in an instant. Most of the time, the longevity of an actor’s career is directly correlated to his or her talent, served with a large side of opportunity and sprinkled with luck. This isn't always enough, of course; sometimes, whether for arrogance, creative differences, or something in between, an actor or actress will inexplicably disappear from a popular movie or television project, leaving its fans wanting.
The job of a television actor must be a tiring one. Playing the same character, day after day, week after week, for years on end, all while trying to appease your fans and expand your career, must be exhausting and frustrating. And if you make a wrong move or step on the wrong toes, you may have a hard time finding work at all. This list will go through the actors and actresses who left major TV series too soon, and the consequences it had on their careers. Without further adieu, here are the 15 Actors Who Quit Hit TV Shows Too Soon!
15 David Caruso – NYPD Blue
David Caruso came in hot on the scene in 1993 when he starred as Detective John Kelley in ABC’s crime drama, NYPD Blue. In just twenty-six episodes, he had earned a Golden Globe for his performance on top of an Emmy nomination. Apparently, that wasn’t enough for the young actor, and he left after just two seasons to pursue what he perceived to be an illustrious career in film.
Caruso failed in his pursuit to become a dominant presence on the big screen, but he went on to land a rather noteworthy role as the lead in CSI: Miami, playing a character best known for spitting out abysmal one-liners. Recently, Steven Bochco, NYPD Blue’s showrunner, opened up about the issues Caruso caused behind the scenes. Bochco believed Caruso to be “cancerous” among the cast and crew, noting that the actor thrived in the dysfunctional environment he developed of his own accord. One thing is certain, however -- the show did not suffer from the absence of their ‘star’, as NYPD Blue went on to be one of the longest-running (and most awarded) primetime dramas in television history.
14 Mandy Patinkin – Criminal Minds
The life of a television actor can be tedious, repetitive, and frustrating. When the subject matter of your show is focused on the worst people in existence, getting sucked in the maelstrom of that repetition can be damaging. Such was the case for fan-favorite actor Mandy Patinkin.
Patinkin first came into our hearts in The Princess Bride for his iconic portrayal of Inigo Montoya, arguably one of the most quotable characters of all time. In 2005, Mandy was cast as Jason Gideon in CBS’s Criminal Minds. After just two seasons, Patinkin stopped showing up to table reads, and elected not to return for the show’s third season.
It turned out that the series' subject matter was simply too dark for Patinkin, and he was terribly uncomfortable with many of the scenes. He later admitted that he made a mistake signing on to the series in the first place, and that the show was not what he expected it would be. Thankfully, his fear that his behavior would end up dooming his career was misplaced. In 2011, Patinkin was cast as Saul Berenson in the acclaimed and widely successful Homeland. Even though he was embraced in Homeland, Criminal Minds fans desperately missed the necessary humanity the actor brought to each episode.
13 Christopher Abbott – Girls
Christopher Abbott brok out on the big screen in the haunting independent film, Martha Marcy May Marlene. His career consequently took off, and Abbott was eventually cast as Charlie Dattolo in the critically acclaimed HBO series, Girls. Landing a role on any HBO show is an achievement these days, as it's become a go-to destination for prestige television. Yet, for Christopher Abbot, it apparently wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and he departed the show after just the second season.
According to series creator Lena Dunham, Abbott was frustrated with the fact that he couldn’t relate to the character she had written, and he didn’t agree with the direction in which his character was heading. This was most agreeably a mistake, as Girls continued on with its success and grew in popularity. This success must have resonated with the young actor, as just this year, we saw the return of his character to the series and the rekindled relationship between Charlie and Marnie. This could prove to be one of the rare instances in which we can witness an actor make a mistake, learn from it, and make the appropriate adjustments.
12 Shelley Long – Cheers
Cheers was not a huge success from the start. In fact, it was almost canceled in the middle of its first season due to low viewership. By the end of its mammoth 11 year run on television, Cheers earned a whopping 28 Emmy Awards out of a record 117 nominations. Now, what do you do when you’re a young, beautiful actress that’s admired around the country as the loveable cocktail waitress, Diane Chambers? You leave after just five seasons, apparently.
That’s right. Shelley Long quit the hit show, Cheers, just halfway through its run. By the time she left, she'd won 2 Golden Globe awards as well as an Emmy for her performance as Diane Chambers. Her decision to leave was a mixed bag of pursuing a movie career, spending more time with her infant daughter, and creative differences with co-star Ted Danson. She maintains that it was nothing personal, but she naturally grew tired of playing the same character saying the same things day after day (an understandable sentiment). Unfortunately, her career can be boiled down to simply: before Cheers, during Cheers, and after Cheers, as she never quite recaptured the mammoth popularity she enjoyed when she was starring on the beloved TV series.
11 Anthony Edwards – ER
Who is Anthony Edwards? Well…exactly. Edwards was a headlining member of the medical team in the ridiculously popular show, ER, as Dr. Greene. ER came onto the scene in 1994 as an instant success, and it retained that success for an incredible 15 season run. In an interesting move, Anthony Edwards decided to leave ER after 8 seasons.
Edwards was an original cast member of the show, and, in 2001, he was given approval to direct an episode of ER. This must have sparked a hidden ambition of his to pursue a career as a director, because that’s precisely what he did. Edwards notified ER’s producers of his desires, and his character, Dr. Greene, was diagnosed with cancer and killed off in season 8. Unfortunately, Edwards' career followed suit. That episode of ER would become the only thing he’d direct, and his most notable post-Greene role came in the critically maligned 2009 film, Motherhood, which has gone down as one of the U.K.'s biggest box office disasters of all time.
10 Mischa Barton – The OC
Mischa Barton started her promising career as an actress with some small, yet noteworthy roles in hits like Notting Hill and The Sixth Sense. In 2004, she landed the role of Melissa Cooper on The O.C.. The Fox series would become a cultural phenomenon, and Barton’s fame skyrocketed practically overnight. She was even awarded a few Teen Choice Awards for her efforts. Though not the most prestigious of awards, to have the support of any prominent fanbase is certainly a strong way to launch one’s career.
After three seasons, however, Barton called it quits on The O.C. to escape the “machine” as she called it, and returned home to London. Her character, Melissa Cooper, was subsequently killed off in a car crash. The O.C. would go on to last for just one more season, and there’s some speculation as to whether it was Barton’s decision to leave that caused ratings to fall. Regardless, it's easy to see that the opportunity for a solid career was very much on the table for the actress (especially considering the number of high-profile careers the show helped kickstart). Barton's decision to leave The O.C. at the peak of its popularity has no doubt plagued her -- all one has to do is take a look at her thoroughly underwhelming IMDB page for proof.
9 Rob Lowe – The West Wing
Rob Lowe’s career hit a brick wall after a scandal in 1988 involving an underaged girl in Atlanta. After ten years of fighting to get back in the game, Lowe landed the role as Sam Seaborn, the White House Director of Communications in NBC’s The West Wing. Landing a key role in a show so popular and well-written it would come to be considered one of the greatest television dramas ever made, it seemed that Lowe was finally back on top.
The actor would go on to perform as Sam Seaborn for only three seasons, however. His reasons for leaving the show were reportedly centered around a salary dispute and diminishing screen time for his character. One can sympathize with his desire to be seen on the screen, but being frustrated over being one of the highest paid actors on one of the most popular television shows at the time seems a tad detached. When he left, Lowe was earning roughly $70k per episode, with the possibility of a pay increase, but since the studio hadn’t made a return on its investment, they could not meet their promise of a pay increase. So Lowe walked.
Currently, Lowe is no doubt celebrating the success of hard work and determination. The years following his departure from The West Wing, however, were fraught with failures. He eventually re-revitalized his career playing Chris Treager on Parks and Recreation.
8 Courtney Thorne-Smith – Ally McBeal
In 1997, Courtney Thorne-Smith was cast as the role of Georgia Thomas in Ally McBeal. Prior to this, she had already experienced some considerable success in both Melrose Place and Summer School, which garnered her substantial fame. Landing the gig on Ally McBeal was just a cherry on top, as it became one of the most talked about shows of the '90s.
After just three short seasons, however, the series was facing a crisis, as three of its stars were leaving, Throne-Smith included. Her character was written out of the show at the beginning of the fourth season, though she left for rather specific and necessary reasons. The actress suffered from weight issues which affected her work and life. Although Ally McBeal struggled along and eventually failed, Throne-Smith was able to retain control of her acting career and was steadily employed from 2001 onward. Her career is a testament to the fact that if you don’t screw over your producers in search of fame and fortune, you still have a shot at success.
7 Denise Crosby – Star Trek: The Next Generation
Denise Crosby first began her career in television on the well-known soap opera, Days of Our Lives, and from then on, her career was on a roll. She appeared in many other projects, such as the disaster flick Deep Impact, but landed her most famous role as Security Chief Tasha Yar in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
The success of the rebooted Star Trek franchise was instant, bringing in approximately 27 million viewers with its pilot episode. The success of the show was not enough for Crosby, however. She found herself to be a background character and was frustrated with the fact that she was essentially a ‘dressing’ on the show. Unable to make any changes to her role, Crosby abruptly left in the middle of the first season, and her character was subsequently killed by the villainous alien, Armus. She would later rejoin the cast of the show as both an alternate reality version of herself, and her evil half-Romulan daughter. Since reprising her role in TNG, the actress has kept a pretty low profile, though you might have noticed her back in seasons 4 and 5 of The Walking Dead playing Mary, the leader of the cannibal society at Terminus.
6 Farrah Fawcett – Charlie’s Angels
Farrah Fawcett garnered international fame early in her career for her iconic red swimsuit poster. The poster would become the most purchased pinup in history, and she used this fame to catapult her acting career, and landed a few roles in television as a result. Her most popular role was that of Jill Monroe in Aaron Spelling’s Charlie’s Angels, where she became a cultural phenomenon.
She had a tremendous impact as Jill Monroe, but only stayed on in Charlie’s Angels for one season. Her departure from the show led to a series of legal battles with ABC, which led to a great deal of speculation surrounding her departure. Some say it was as a result of the strain it had on her marriage with her husband, Lee Majors, coupled with a desire to pursue a career as an actress on the big screen. Fawcett never lost her image as the cultural icon and sex symbol of the '70s, but her career as an accomplished film actress never quite took off.
Fawcett sadly passed away in 2009 at the age of 62, but the impact she made in the '70s permeated throughout the television industry.
5 Lecy Goranson – Roseanne
Lecy Goranson is known to the fans of Roseanne as the ‘First Becky’. That’s not exactly the way any actor or actress aspires to be remembered. Nonetheless, Goranson was the ‘First Becky’ Conner Healy on the hit comedy starring Roseanne Barr, and her career was beginning to take off. Then, after five seasons, teh young actress decided to take a break from the entertainment industry and attend school at Vassar College.
The show producers tried to mask the fact that their Becky Conner was no longer around at first, electing to simply avoid using the character in scenes. This proved fairly difficult, though, and they were forced to recast the role of Becky Conner with Sarah Chalke (Elliott on Scrubs). The addition of Sarah Chalke to the cast of Roseanne proved successful, and audiences quickly forgot about poor ol’ Lecy. The actress would return to Roseanne for the eighth season before abruptly leaving again due to scheduling conflicts. Since her role as Becky on Roseanne, Goranson’s acting career has been reduced to one-off roles in a handful of shows, such as Law & Order: SVU.
You can’t blame Goranson for making sacrifices in an effort to better herself with a college education, but looking at the success that Chalke has had in her post-Roseanne career, you can't help but wonder what might have been had the 'First Becky' elected to see the role through to the end.
4 Joe Piscopo – Saturday Night Live
Saturday Night Live is generally considered a dream gig for aspiring comedians and a treasured jumping off point for entertainment careers. Occasionally, however, an actor or actress will get caught up in the laughs, lose sight of reality, and make poor career choices. This is the story of Joe Piscopo.
Piscopo joined the cast of SNL in the summer of 1980, following a major upheaval where all the writers, actors, and major producers left. The new show was a failure with the exception of Eddie Murphy and Piscopo, and SNL went through another shake-up when Dick Ebersol took control of the show in the spring of 1981. Piscopo hit his stride when he debuted his Frank Sinatra impression, and just three years later, in 1984, both he and Murphy left the set of SNL in search of further fame and fortune. Well, if you hadn't guessed it by now, only one of those two made the right call. Piscopo's career was a monumental flop, while Murphy became one of the biggest stars on the planet.
3 McLean Stevenson – M*A*S*H*
McLean Stevenson originally auditioned for the role of Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, the role that would come to define Alan Alda’s career. As a nice consolation prize, McLean was given the part of Lt. Colonel Henry Blake. He proved himself to be more than just a talented actor on the set by writing the script to the episode titled “The Trail of Henry Blake”, and he contributed to the story for “The Army-Navy Game”. The latter episode won McLean an Emmy, to boot!
Evidently, this was not enough for Stevenson, who wanted to be the star of the show and felt hidden among the ensemble cast of eight. So, after just three seasons of a series that would eventually run for eleven, the actor asked to leave the show, and the writers killed off Henry Blake in a plane wreck over the Sea of Japan. According to co-star Loretta Swit, Stevenson was quite aware that his career outside of M*A*S*H* would be less successful, but he was willing to roll the dice on his desire to “be number one”. McLean, who later attributed his departure to conflicts with 20th Century Fox, struggled to find the success he craved for the remainder of his career.
2 Shannen Doherty – Beverly Hills, 90210/Charmed
Shannen Doherty is certainly a special actress. Throughout the span of her career, she’s managed to join the cast of two promising shows and essentially destroy any possibility for lasting success.
In 1990, she was cast as Brenda Walsh in Beverly Hills, 90210. The character was written to be a particularly rude individual, and she played the part well; perhaps a bit too well, as she developed a reputation off-screen for being very difficult to deal with. Doherty left Beverly Hills, 90210 after four seasons, and her character was written off as having moved to London to attend a school for the dramatic arts. The show would continue for another 6 successful seasons.
Roughly four years later, Doherty joined the cast of Charmed as Prue Halliwell, a witch with telekinetic powers. The actress would go on to play Prue for only three seasons of a show that would run for eight. She left for essentially the same reasons she had to leave Beverly Hills, 90210 -- this time, off-screen tension between her and co-star Alyssa Milano dominated the headlines. With such a notorious track record for being a headache behind the scenes, her career suffered, and she's since faded from the spotlight.
1 Katherine Heigl – Grey’s Anatomy
Just this year, Grey’s Anatomy has become the longest running primetime drama series of all time. To last this long while retaining viewers and fans for over a decade is nothing short of astounding. Katherine Heigl was among the fortunate few on the ground floor, and she did a particularly spectacular job at squandering the opportunity she was given.
Heigl was rather upfront about her disapproval with the show and its writers, believing her talent was being squandered by material that simply wasn't good enough to earn her an Emmy nomination. In classic TV writer fashion, her character was diagnosed with melanoma, and Dr. Izzie Stevens left the show for good mid-season 6. The irony surrounding her departure from Grey’s Anatomy in search of greener pastures was the fact that her career was flourishing through her duration on the show, starring in such movies as Knocked Up and 27 Dresses. Yet, since her exodus from Grey’s Anatomy, Katherine has struggled to find lasting success, featuring in flop after flop.
Apparently, keeping a good gig in Hollywood is harder than it seems. What other actors left a successful TV series a few years too soon? Sound off in the comments.