Television shows that have found commercial success with a specific formula do NOT want to deviate from it. There is a reason that viewers don’t necessarily want to see the characters from Friends launched into space or follow Gilligan and the Skipper for several seasons after their rescue from the island.
Given this emphasis on sticking to a formula, you can imagine what a nightmare it is for the producers when they lose their lead actor. Let’s take a look at five of the most notable lead actor replacements in the history of television and see how the showrunners managed.
- Two and a Half Men
The series Two and a Half Men fared far worse after the departure of its star Charlie Sheen. Whether he was fired due to creative differences or for, as CBS executives said, his “dangerously self-destructive conduct,” Sheen disappeared and his character, Charlie Harper, was killed off by writers at the end of a tumultuous eighth season. Although the show persisted for another four seasons with Ashton Kutcher starring as Charlie’s impoverished brother, the show never regained the popularity it enjoyed with Sheen.
- The Office
Steve Carell stayed on this popular NBC comedy departed into its seventh season, leaving some big shoes to fill. Rather than casting a single actor, the network rotated heavy hitters such as James Spader, Will Ferrell, and Kathy Bates, as the head of Dunder Mifflin’s Scranton branch. Despite this stunt casting, The Office slipped in ratings and left the air two seasons later.
- Northern Exposure
A cult favorite with a big roster of kooky characters, Northern Exposure still couldn’t survive the departure of its main character Joel Fleischman (actor Rob Morrow) halfway into its fifth and final season. The show lasted only 15 episodes with his replacement Phil Capra (actor Paul Provenza).
Although they rarely disappear entirely without explanation, major characters may suddenly appear on-screen played by a different actor. The most famous example of this was the fifth season transition from Dick York to Dick Sargent as Darrin Stephens, the husband of the kindly suburban witch Samantha Stephens in the hit TV show Bewitched. Back problems simply prevented York from continuing in the role. Although executives were nervous, the series survived for three full seasons with Sargent.
When Shelley Long left the series Cheers at the end of its fifth season, show runners needed another character to continue the “will they or won’t they” romantic intrigue between her character (Diane Chambers) and Sam Malone (played by Ted Danson). Cue the entrance of actress Kirstie Alley as Sam’s new boss Rebecca Howe. Cheers continued to prosper in the Danson/Alley era, continuing for six seasons. Shelley Long even returned to play Diane again before the show’s end.