5 TV Shows That Replaced A Lead Actor

This season, Ashton Kutcher took over for Charlie Sheen on Two and  a Half Men, giving new life to the series.  Ratings were high for the first two episodes of this season, which is quite a feat for a show that replaced its star.  It’s rare, but it does happen.  Here are 5 Shows That Replaced A Lead Actor.

5. NYPD BLUE.  When this hugely popular cop show debuted in 1993, it was originally a vehicle for series star David Caruso.  Caruso had been an unknown actor for years, and was a breakout star when Blue hit.  Things changed quickly, however, as Caruso settled into his new stardom and the show became more of an ensemble series.  Caruso demanded a raise, but creator Steven Bochco balked.  Caruso, just four episodes into the second season, walked.  Jimmy Smits relaced him and was even more popular.  Smits himself was replaced by Rick Schroder, who was replaced by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, proving that the show could be a hit with a rotating cast.  Caruso’s early departure from the show was a running gag for almost a decade, as the actor failed to hit again…until he returned in CSI: MIAMI.   Ten years in, Caruso seems happy.  He should be; he pulled off one of the most unlikely comebacks in TV history.

4. Spin City.  If you hate Two and a Half Men, you can possibly blame Michael J. Fox.  In 1996, Fox began starring in the hit Spin City, a sitcom about the New York City Mayor’s office.  The show was a hit, and Fox was sitting pretty…until his announcement in 1998 that he was struggling with Parkinson’s Disease.  A coupe of years later, Fox retired from Spin to spend time with his family and become an advocate for Parkinson’s research.  Fox remained as producer and brought in Charlie Sheen as his replacement Although not the ratings hit it had been, Spin lasted two more seasons and Sheen took home  a Golden Globe. Other offers came rolling in, including the role on MEN that some people say was just a version of himself in the first place.  Eight years later, he was the highest paid actor on TV.  Not bad for a replacement.

3. NewsRadio.  This late 90s sitcom, all about the crazy antics at a New York City AM radio station, was always a bit offbeat. One episode put the radio station on The Titanic (!).  At times wacky and at times bitingly satirical, NewsRadio had a loyal cult following.  Tragically, series star Phil Hartman (of SNL fame) was shot to death by his wife (who then shot herself) before the fifth season began.  It seemed the show would not go on, especially with such big shoes to fill.  Hartman had been called the heart and soul of the program.  Enter Jon Lovitz, another SNL alumni and close friend of Hartman’s.  With Lovtiz, the show lasted another season.  Don’t blame Lovitz for the cancellation, however.  NewsRadio was never a ratings hit, and was barely renewed for that final season in the first place.

2. Cheers.  One of the most popular sitcoms of all time, Cheers was an enormous hit for over a decade and made household names out of its stars.  One of those stars was Shelley Long.  Long played on again/off again love interest to series lead Ted Danson, and the chemistry was undeniable.  Right at the height of the show’s success, Long decided to leave.  Rumors were that Long was difficult to work with, but she claimed to simply want a film career.  Many wondered whether or not Cheers could survive without one of its most popular cast members.  All doubts were cast aside when Kirstie Alley joined the cast at the beginning of season six and the show remained a ratings smash.  To her credit, Long revived her character on the Cheers finale, and several times on the spinoff, Frasier.  Long says she never regretted leaving the hit show.  Kirstie Alley likely shares the sentiment.

1. The X-Files.  The show that changed sci-fi TV forever and became one of the most popular (and copied) shows of the late 90s, The X-Files took a while to gain its popularity.  When it did, it made huge celebrities out of its stars, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson.  The two played FBI agents investigating paranormal activity and alien abductions.  Seven seasons in, Duchovny had had enough and moved on.  He appeared sporadically over the next two years (and in two X-Files feature films), but was replaced by actor Robert Patrick, who joined Files as a new FBI agent.  Anderson also began appearing less, and actress Annabeth Gish was brought in to be the new female lead.  The ultimate plan was to eventually move the two new characters into the forefront for years to come.  Fans were not happy with Duchovny’s absence, nor how it was handled.  The once-brilliant “Government Conspiracy” mythology suddenly became ridiculous and no one was interested in a new duo taking over.  The X-files became a warning sign to series that attempt to go on forever with no clear ending in sight. 

Many shows survive when a series lead decides to leave…or is fired.  These are just five.  But I’m sure you can name a few.

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2 comments

  1. Interesting article. I would add Law & Order as a series that survived several replacements and L&O–Criminal Intent as one that didn’t.

    While constantly on the verge of extinction, I was pleasantly surprised Friday Night Lights remained strong after the graduation of it’s initial class.

    It would be interesting to read your take on hangers-on such as Screech & Mr. Belding who wore out their welcome on ill-fated spin-offs.

  2. Thanks for the input, Landon. What I find surprising about Dustin Diamond is that, as a comic, he still tours under the moniker of “Screech”. At this point, I figured him famous enough that he could merely tour under his own name. I wonder if he has hindered further roles and broadening his audience for that very reason.

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