This week, Ashton Kutcher will replace Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men and someone will take over the position of Regional Manager of Dunder-Mifflin (an affiliate of Saber)’s Scranton branch.
In recognition of two of television’s most popular stars leaving the air, The Weekly Listicle honors cast changes. The cast change has happened in television and movies, comedies and dramas, for a variety of reasons: sometimes death, sometimes disease, sometimes you get to star in your own show, sometimes a contract dispute, sometimes scheduling conflicts, sometimes “scheduling conflicts,” and sometimes because you compare the director to Hitler.
Either way, the cast change is an especially tricky feat. People grow attached to actors, and producers know that it is never one hundred percent certain that people will accept a replacement. Entire franchises have been destroyed by bad re-casting, while others became more successful than ever thought possible (e.g. The Daily Show).
Soap operas figured out how to accomplish this years ago, with many characters played by different persons while no one screen acknowledges any difference. The daughter on Roseanne changed thrice (or twice depending on how you count the original actress returning), with some meta commentary when the new (or old) actress appeared on screen. The best friend on Dream On changed in its second season, and that’s the first time that show has been referenced in over a decade.
Even movies encounter this problem, particularly superhero films. Before our current era, George Clooney replaced Val Kilmer replaced Michael Keaton as Bruce Wayne, and Tommy Lee Jones took over for Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent. In the modern age, Don Cheadle replaced Terrence Howard as James Rhodes in the Iron Man series, and Christopher Nolan swapped Katie Holmes for Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight.
Although not in that genre, Welcome to the Dollhouse creator Todd Solondz switched out the entire cast of his masterpiece Happiness for its 2010 pseudo-sequel Life During Wartime while his previous effort, Palindromes, featured eight actresses playing the main character Aviva.
From here, we look at some of the best cast changes.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (dir. Jim Mallon, 1993)
Most shows need some sort of main character, and when you’re the only human that regularly appears on screen, finding someone to fill that role becomes even more important.
In the middle of Season 5 of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) left the interstellar Satellite of Love in an escape pod found in a crate of hamdingers. Hodgson, the creator of the series, played a janitor/inventor shot into space by two mad scientists (Dr. Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff)), who forced him to watch cheesy movies as part of their experiment. Aided by two robot pals (Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot) he built from spare parts, Robinson made snarky comments at Godzilla, Ed Wood, and other B-films from the 1950s and 1960s.
Replacing him was Michael J. Nelson (Michael J. Nelson), the show’s head writer. Although Nelson’s tenure was met with some hesitancy, he proved himself as a capable lead and commanded the series over six years, two networks, and one feature film. The relationship with the robots changed (Robinson was more fatherly, while Nelson was more like a friend), but the writing was still strong, and the series continued to produce many terrific episodes.
The show also changed the villains thrice. Between the first and second season, Dr. Forrester’s original lackey, Dr. Larry Erhardt (Josh Weinstein), left the show, with TV’s Frank taking the spot of number two. In its final Comedy Central season, Dr. F.’s mother Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl) took over for Frank. And, during the SyFy years, Pearl Forrester headed a group consisting of talking man-ape Professor Bobo (Kevin Murphy) and the psychic alien Observer (Bill Corbett). The Forrester/Frank combo served as the marooned space travelers’ greatest enemy.
Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (dir. Christopher Barry, 1966)
Was Patrick Troughton the best Doctor? No, but he was arguably the most important. And, yes, he probably does deserve ranking in the upper tier of TARDIS drivers.
The original run of Doctor Who, which premiered in 1963, was an immediate success starring William Hartnell as The First Doctor (at that point, just The Doctor). However, Hartnell, suffering from health problems and alleged discord behind the scenes, opted to leave during the series’ third year. At this point in the run, concepts such as Time Lords and Gallifrey had not yet been introduced (or probably even imagined), but the show’s producers decided to continue the series by having The Doctor change who he was.
The audience accepted Patrick Troughton as the new Doctor, and this idea of regeneration allowed the series to maintain its existence for nearly half a century. Had Troughton not worked out, and with most of the original tapes wiped out, who knows how, or if, history would have remembered Doctor Who.
Three’s Company Jack Bares All (a.k.a. Oh, Nurse) (dir. David Powers, 1981)
Although Suzanne Somer’s Chrissy Snow is understandably considered the most important third roommate in Jack Tripper (John Ritter) and Janet Wood’s (Joyce DeWitt) lives, Priscilla Barnes’ Terri Alden was the better character. After Somers left during Three’s Company’s fifth year because of financial reasons, Jenilee Harrison played Cindy Snow, Chrissy’s cousin. This was an easy fix since Cindy contained the same exact qualities as the previous character, and it was obvious that the show barely bothered to rewrite the scripts. On the series for probably less than a season in total, Cindy made room for Terri. Barnes’ capable (and superior) comedic timing allowed her to easily fit in with Jack, Janet, Larry Dallas (Richard Kline), and Ralph Furley (Don Knotts).
Speaking of Mr. Furley, he too was a replacement. For the first three seasons, Stanley and Helen Roper (Norman Fell and Audra Linley) played the needling landlords. She, a sex-crazed maniac; him, an impotent buffoon. After leaving the series for their own failed spin-off (where Jeffrey Tambor played their role), Mr. Furley took over managing the residence.
Ralph Furley is arguably the more popular character what with Don Knotts doing his Don Knotts thing, but there was more substance to the Ropers. Stanley’s uncomfortable reactions to Jack’s alleged homosexuality was played a bit funnier, and the characters seemed to treat them more like adults with whom they could screw around. They treated Furley like the pathetic sad sack he was. And, to the best of my knowledge, we never got a scene with Stanley like when Mr. Furley emoted for his first and only time by relating the depressing tale of finding his dead cat when he was a child.
Nevertheless, John Ritter was the key to the show’s eight years of success. You can’t repeat the same plot for nearly a decade straight without having some charismatic center, and it certainly wasn’t DeWitt. Nor was it David Spade.
The following are not “better” cast changes, but nevertheless notably successful ones that should be included on the list.
Married … with Children Married … with Who (dir. Gerry Cohen, 1991)
At the end of the fourth season of FOX’s first hit, Steve Rhoades (David Garrison) left the series to be replaced by Jefferson D’Arcy (Ted McGinley) in middle of season 5.
Jefferson brought a different perspective to the show. While the newly married and uptight Rhoades contrasted well against the beaten down and slovenly Bundys, Jefferson was more excitable and funner guy who got to play with Al instead of getting mentored by or looking down at him (both of which Steve did). Jefferson’s addition led to another significant change for the series, as it became less dark and adopted a much more cartoonish tone. In many of the early episodes, there was kind of an All In the Family-ness to Married … with Children, with Al (Ed O’Neill) coming across as a less-bigoted Archie Bunker, offering blue collar wisdom about the castration of modern society and pitfalls of married life to wealthy banker Steve.
Although many sitcoms end up turning more towards slapstick, the addition of Jefferson made it easier for the series.
Steve returned in several episodes, including Radio Free Trumaine, a weird backdoor pilot starring Keri Russell (Felicity) and Eric Dane (Grey’s Anatomy) as student radio show hosts at Bud Bundy’s (David Faustino) college where Steve was serving as Dean.
M*A*S*H Welcome to Korea/Change of Command (dir. Gene Reynolds, 1975)
Many still consider the season three finale of M*A*S*H, Abyssinia, Henry as one of the best episodes of any sitcom, and the moment where Radar (Gary Burghoff) announces the death of Colonel Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) still serves as one of television’s most shocking moments. The episode also marked the departure of Hawkeye Pierce’s (Alan Alda) sidekick, Trapper John McIntyre (Wayne Rogers), although he didn’t “leave” until mid-season. Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) and Captain B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) took their roles and remained with the show from season four until its record-breaking final episode in season eleven.
While they lasted for more than twice as long as their predecessors, I always felt that Blake and McIntyre were the more interesting characters. The original two seemed better suited for the dark comedy and isolation that defined M*A*S*H at its best. Potter and Hunnitcutt came across as too nice of guys, lacking the strength of personality of their prototypes.
Kenny’s replacements on South Park (Season 6, 2002)
Since its debut in 1997, South Park has come a long way. Far further, in fact, than anyone had a right to expect. Its consistency of quality has understandably dipped, though creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone are still trying their best to shock and satirize the newest trends every week.
It is sometimes difficult to recall that when the show began, it was far more concerned with ludicrous playground antics committed for their own sake. One of the show’s most recognizable features was the insistent killing of the little parka-muffled character Kenny, in some horribly brutal fashion, in every episode. Over time, thinking of ways to off the character must have gotten boring. Near the end of the fifth season, Parker and Stone took a hard turn by killing Kenny off permanently, or so fans understood at the time. Though not without its grim moments of humor, “Kenny Dies” is a surprisingly serious and heart-wrenching episode.
The absence of Kenny allowed the show to develop new characters in the supporting role vacancy which he left. Initially, the boys settle on their adorably stunted pal “Butters” Stotch. Sweet and shy, he presumably earns Kenny’s spot because the alpha team of Stan, Kyle, and Cartman find him easy to bully and exploit. They force him into numerous degrading situations, from liposuction to daytime talk shows, for their own amusement or personal gain. He remains a loyal sidekick, though nearly everything he does ends up getting him grounded by his fearsome and unstable parents.
Then, it seems, Parker and Stone decided to give another minor character some exercise. Tweek, an over-caffeinated, hopelessly paranoid little kid, became the new best friend after Stan, Kyle, and Cartman decided to fire Butters for being lame. In the episode “Professor Chaos,” they hold a Bachelor-style audition for a new friend, allowing South Park to spoof its own arbitrary recasting decisions. Though characterized quite differently, Tweek functioned in more or less the same role as Butters. As the reluctant guinea pig for most of the pranks and capers, he suffered much and learned very little.
As a final stroke, Kenny returned in the final seconds of the sixth season finale, “Red Sleigh Down.” With no particular explanation or apology, he simply wandered in, greeted his friends, and walked away with them as though nothing had happened. And in the universe of South Park, nothing really had. Kenny’s return ended up being permanent, and though many episodes still include the catchphrase, “Oh my God! They killed Kenny!” his inevitable death is by no means as strict a rule as it used to be.
Fortunately, Butters did not fade quietly into obscurity. He continues to play a major role on the show, and since his dismissal as a best friend has even conceived his own tormented alter ego – Professor Chaos, bringer of destruction. Like Stupendous Man of Calvin And Hobbes fame, Professor Chaos plays out complex comic-book dramas in his own imagination, which have very few real-world repercussions. The enduring popularity of Butters (in fact my favorite character in the show’s history) vindicates his perceived lameness by the others, and it may be argued that he has become the most psychologically complex of all the show’s characters (though Eric Cartman gives him a run for his money).
To contact me, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.