Cast changes are a necessary evil in the mechanics of television. Because of the time commitments, social politics, and general stress involved with making a TV show, it’s simply the nature of the beast for a television cast to fluctuate.
Most of the time, cast changes— especially minor ones— are easily woven into the fabric of the show and business continues as usual. However, there are also plenty of cases where a cast change is too sensational to bear painlessly.
Whether the transition itself is smooth or rough, the ultimate outcome of a dramatic cast change is never certain. Some cast changes turn out to be a blessing in disguise, while others ultimately mean the demise of an entire series.
Regardless of the outcome, some of television’s most interesting backstories are forged in the fires of dramatic cast member exits and entrances.
As fans and viewers, we’ve all been affected— whether positively or negatively— by a cast change in one or more of our favorite TV shows (let’s face it, most of us are still licking our wounds from the Red Wedding, or jumping for joy at the death of Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones).
With that said, here are the 8 Cast Changes That Saved TV Shows (And 7 That Ruined Them).
15. Saved: Charmed – Shannen Doherty Out, Rose McGowan In
During her tenure on the first three seasons of Charmed, Shannen Doherty was arguably the lifeblood of the show. Her departure wasn’t necessarily a welcome one in the public eye, but it may have been a necessary evil behind the scenes.
According to some reports, Shannen Doherty and co-star Alyssa Milano shared on and off-set tensions that made it impossible for Doherty to remain.
Her replacement, Rose McGowan, took what might otherwise have been the show’s death sentence and turned it into a rebirth. McGowan’s singular screen presence and energy not only played well off co-stars Milano and Holly Marie Combs, but led to a brilliant run of film roles in the 2000s.
14. Ruined: Two and A Half Men – Charlie Sheen Out, Ashton Kutcher In
It’s hard to remember a time when Two and a Half Men was only a successful sitcom and not the backdrop for one of the most publicized actor meltdowns in show business history.
Before Charlie Sheen started talking about “winning,” drinking tiger’s blood, and posting videos of himself smoking cigarettes out of his nose, he had an enormously successful eight-season run as Two and A Half Men’s hedonistic jingle writer Charlie Harper.
After a much-publicized stint in rehab, followed by an even more publicized firing from the show, Sheen was replaced by Ashton Kutcher as playboy billionaire Walden Schmidt.
13. Saved: MASH – Larry Linville out, David Ogden Stiers In
As Major Frank Burns, Larry Linville spent five seasons on MASH playing the comedic foil to series-lead Alan Alda’s anti-establishmentarian doctor Hawkeye Pierce. By the end of Season 5, Linville felt he had taken the character as far as he could, and decided to retire from duty at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
Linville’s replacement— David Ogden Stiers as the stuffy, aristocratic Boston surgeon Charles Emerson Winchester III— breathed new life into the series (which ended up running for six more seasons).
A far cry from his predecessor, Winchester was a competent surgeon and worthy opponent to his wisecrack prankster bunkmates. Linville’s Frank Burns was a gem, but the borderline slapstick-nature of his character couldn’t possibly have carried through MASH’s entire 11-season run.
12. Ruined: The Office – Steve Carell Out, James Spader In
In the years that have passed since The Office ended its nine-season run, it’s become painfully clear that the show went on longer than it should have.
Though the post-Carell seasons had their moments (the last season in particular did some interesting things with the “mockumentary” premise) it never quite figured out how to go on after its star left for greener pastures.
Perhaps the biggest blunder of the post-Carell Office is the way it completely squandered the addition of James Spader as Robert California. Spader was set up at the end of the seventh season to replace Carell’s Michael Scott as Dunder Mifflin regional manager.
Unfortunately, the writer’s decided to make Robert California the CEO of Dunder Mifflin— reducing Spader to guest-star status— while making Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) the new manager. The move didn’t work, and set the remainder of the series off on bad footing.
11. Saved: ER – George Clooney Out, Goran Visnjic In
Before he was a mega-movie star, George Clooney was breaking hearts as Dr. Doug Ross on ER. Most of us know Clooney for his big-screen charisma and magnetism. On ER, the actor’s presence struck the perfect balance between standing out and playing well against an ensemble cast.
Clooney departed ER to expand his movie career in 1999, leaving a huge void to be filled on the show. Luckily for ER, Croatian actor Goran Visnjic joined the cast as Dr. Luka Kovač in season 6. Visnjic’s unique screen presence helped carry the show through nine more seasons.
10. Ruined: Bewitched – Dick York Out, Dick Sargent In
Bewitched was a landmark 1960s TV series. Starring Elizabeth Montgomery as a witch married to an ordinary mortal man in American suburbia, the series suffered a cast change that made a quiet drag out of its last three seasons.
Dick York played Darrin Stephens— Montgomery’s on-screen husband in the series— for five seasons. A debilitating back injury sustained while filming a movie forced York to bow out of the show, and he was replaced by Dick Sargent.
Recasting an actor in an already-beloved television role is always a huge risk. As Darrin, Sargent was competent, but his chemistry with co-star Montgomery felt flat when compared to York’s.
Because Montgomery’s performance accounted for much of the show’s success, it wasn’t completely destroyed by the new Darrin, but it certainly hindered the believability of the marriage at the show’s center.
9. Saved: Doctor Who – William Hartnell Out, 11 Other Doctors and Counting In
No other TV show has benefited more from an early major cast change than Doctor Who. The immensely popular long-running British sci-fi series began in 1963, starring William Hartnell as the titular Doctor— a renegade Time Lord traveling through time and space in a time machine known as the TARDIS.
After three seasons, Hartnell’s declining health forced him to leave the series, leaving showrunners with the task of casing a new Doctor and explaining the character’s change of appearance. Ultimatley, the concept of “regeneration”— in which the Doctor is given a new body every time he comes close to death— was introduced and the rest is history.
To date, there have been 13 official incarnations of the Doctor over the course of 55 years. Doctor Who has achieved an unprecedented longevity on television. Who knows if that would’ve been possible had Hartnell not departed the series when he did.
8. Ruined: Star Trek TNG – Gates McFadden Out, Diana Muldaur In
Actress Gates McFadden will always be remembered for her role as Dr. Beverly Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is why it’s strange now to think that she was initially fired after the first season.
Due to behind-the-scenes tension with TNG showrunner Maurice Hurley, McFadden was axed before the second season and replaced by Diana Muldaur as Dr. Katherine Pulaski.
Though writers went to great lengths to make Pulaski a natural part of the new Enterprise crew, she never quite found the right chemistry with the rest of the cast, and McFadden was asked back for season 3. 29 years, five seasons, and four movies later, Dr. Crusher remains a constant fan favorite, and Dr. Pulaski not much more than a trivia note.
7. Saved: Spin City – Michael J Fox Out, Charlie Sheen In
Sitcom veteran Michael J. Fox returned to television in 1996 with Spin City, a show about local government in New York. For four seasons, Fox played Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty, until his Parkinson’s diagnosis forced him to step away from the show. After Fox’s departure, Spin City ran for two more seasons with Charlie Sheen as new Deputy Mayor Charlie Crawford.
Despite the relatively short remainder of its run (not to mention the daunting task of continuing a sitcom without its iconic lead actor), Spin City worked surprisingly well with Sheen leading the cast.
His chemistry with co-star Heather Locklear was on point, and the rest of the ensemble remained strong. Spin City may never have fully recovered from Fox’s early exit, but it certainly did far better without him than anyone could have expected.
6. Ruined: That 70s Show – Topher Grace & Ashton Kutcher Out, Josh Meyers In
Topher Grace left the enormously successful That 70s Show at the end of the seventh season. In light of Grace’s absence (as well as the infrequent guest-star status of Ashton Kutcher) the show added a new character.
Josh Meyers played Randy Pearson— an employee at Hyde’s record store— for the eighth and final season of That 70s Show. For whatever reason, fans were not only unenthused, but alienated by Randy— dooming season 8 to be the show’s last.
Had Myers not joined the cast at the same time it lost two of its stars, perhaps things would have been different. Making prominent cast changes to hit show late in its run never bodes well for its future, as we’ll continue to see in the remaining entries on this list.
5. Saved: Beverly Hills 90210 – Shannen Doherty Out, Tiffani Thiessen In
Before Shannen Doherty made a dramatic exit from Charmed, she broke out on, then subsequently left Beverly Hills 90210. As Brenda Walsh, Doherty was initially the focal point of the show, as she and brother Brandon (Jason Priestley) navigated the culture shock of moving from Minnesota to Beverly Hills.
After the fourth season, Doherty left 90210 and her character was written off the show. Rather than simply continue with what was left of the cast, a new character was written in and played by Saved by the Bell star Tiffani-Amber Thiessen.
As Valerie Malone, Thiessen made her own stamp on the show and quickly rose above Doherty’s long cast shadow. It also helped that, by the time Thiessen joined the cast, 90210 had become much more focused on the bigger ensemble of characters.
4. Ruined: The X Files – David Duchovny Out, Robert Patrick In
After two movies and two revival seasons of The X Files with David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson returning as Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, it’s strange to think that there was a time when the franchise tried to get by without both leads at the center of the story. But that’s just what happened when Duchovny left the series before it’s seventh season.
With Duchovny gone, X Files showrunners sought out a replacement, with the idea of expanding the cast so the show could continue for several more years without its original leads.
Robert Patrick played Agent John Doggett for the remainder of the show’s original run. The character was fairly well developed, and Patrick’s performance was more than adequate, but the show never recovered from Duchovny’s departure, even after he returned for the ninth season.
3. Saved: The Daily Show – Craig Kilborn Out, Jon Stewart In
We’re two seasons into the current iteration of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, but most of us still probably think of the Jon Stewart iteration of Comedy Central’s landmark news parody talk show. However, most of us have likely also forgotten that Stewart wasn’t even the show’s original host.
The Daily Show with Craig Kilborn debuted on Comedy Central in 1996, and ran for two years before Jon Stewart took over hosting duties.
The Kilborn version of the show was far less political than the Daily Show we would think of today, and more a parody of general/local news broadcasting. While the format worked fine, the show itself lacked focus, and it wasn’t until Jon Stewart took the reigns in 1999 that it became a success.
2. Ruined: NewsRadio – Phil Hartman Out, Jon Lovitz In
SNL alum Phil Hartman was met his untimely end when his wife ended his life on May 28, 1998. Both shocking and tragic, Hartman’s death sparked a wave of mourning and tributes from colleagues and friends. Hartman’s passing also completely upset the dynamics of his current sitcom, NewsRadio, and the show never recovered from his absence.
NewsRadio tried to replace Phil Hartman with friend and fellow SNL veteran Jon Lovitz. Lovitz’ character contrasted with Hartman’s boisterous, narcissistic Bill McNeal, but only enough to demonstrate how little the show worked without Hartman in the ensemble.
Lovitz was clearly trying hard to live up to the legacy of his departed friend on NewsRadio, but fate would end the show only one season into his run. On SNL, Hartman was known as “the glue” for holding the show and cast together. The same could clearly be said of his role in NewsRadio.
1. Saved: MASH – Wayne Rogers & McLean Stevenson Out, Mike Farrell & Harry Morgan In
Two years before Larry Linville was replaced by David Ogden Stiers on MASH, the series went through an even bigger cast transformation.
At the end of the hit show’s third season, McLean Stevenson announced his departure, and his character was killed off in a traumatic Korean conflict plane crash. Before the start of the fourth season, Wayne Rogers (Trapper John McIntyre) also bowed out.
Fortunately, season 4 ushered in the arrival of two new beloved characters—Col. Sherman T. Potter (Harry Morgan) and B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell). Both additions to the cast revamped the show without taking away from what made it special in the first place.
Season 4 also marks the beginning of MASH digging deeper into its war “dramedy” format, which might not have been possible were it not for the cast shakeup.
What are some of your favorite (or least favorite) TV cast changes? Have your say by letting us know in the comments!
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