10 Actors' Dramatic Departures from Popular Shows

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As the season premiere of Two and a Half Men edges closer, many fans are alternately waiting to see how the addition of Ashton Kutcher to the cast will change the show while simultaneously shaking their heads over an actor (we're looking at you, Charlie Sheen) who was unwilling to rein in his self-destructive behavior just a tad during production season in exchange for almost two million dollars per episode...! Mr. Sheen's isn't the first major character to be axed from a hit show, and there are others who (sometimes) ill-advisedly killed their own golden goose while their former show, despite dire predictions, went on. Here are some memorable examples:

Co-workers bid Shelley Long Cheers

When Cheers debuted in 1982, one of the main continuing story threads was the love/hate relationship between wannabe-intellectual waitress Diane (Shelley Long) and retired athlete/bar owner Sam (Ted Danson). But behind the scenes, Long's relationship with not only Danson but the rest of the cast and crew of Cheers leaned more toward the "hate" side of the equation. Long was a perfectionist and, among other quirks, often held up taping for 45 minutes or more to have her hair and make-up redone (all the while, the studio audience was sitting and waiting). After the box office success of her 1987 film Outrageous Fortune, Long decided to leave Cheers to pursue her movie career. Unbeknowst to critics and viewers who predicted certain death for the sitcom with the departure of such a major character, Long's departure actually relieved a good deal of on-set tension and virtually revitalized the cast and writers. Cheers ran for another very successful six seasons until Ted Danson finally decided to call it quits.

He found his thrill behind the camera

Red-haired aw-shucks all-wholesome-American Ron Howard starred as Richie Cunningham on Happy Days for the first seven years of the long-running sitcom's 10 year run. Howard had been acting since the age of four, including a nine-year stint as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show. Having spent most of his life on studio sets, he developed a serious interest in acting directing, and the respectable box office results of 1977's Grand Theft Auto, his directorial debut, further whetted his creative appetite. He was itching to stop playing a teenager and start pursuing his dream. Since virtually every Happy Days plot revolved around Richie, the producers were panicked when Howard gave his notice, so he agreed to return for a limited number of guest shots after his character joined the Army and was shipped off to Greenland. Happy Days continued for another four seasons, but the changes wrought by Howard's departure were mind-boggling. Somehow Joanie, Chachi, Fonzie, et al., were magically transported 30 years into the future. Instead of a feel-good slice of 1950s nostalgia, viewers were treated to a barrage of Very Special Episodes (with formerly apolitical Fonzie suddenly solving the problem du jour—be it racism, single parenthood, or alcoholism—in 30 minutes) and featuring cast members who looked like they'd stepped out of an Izod ad rather than the Eisenhower era. Of course, Howard hasn't done too badly for himself since hanging up his Jefferson High jacket...

It was high treason, and it mattered a great deal

When Rob Lowe first signed on to play Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborn on The West Wing, he was considered the "box office draw" and was likewise given both top billing and the highest salary. But after the first season, the show started to gain critical acclaim and the supporting cast attracted more attention. Once The West Wing became a bona fide ratings hit, supporting actors Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, and John Spencer joined forces and demanded a sizable salary increase. The granted pay raise brought the quartet up to the same salary level as original "main" star Rob Lowe. When Lowe asked for a raise, the producers refused him and, as Lowe later stated in his autobiography, he thought, "You know what? This is not right. It's just not right," so he called it quits in 2003. Despite his bitter departure, Lowe was still appreciative to the series' producers for essentially reviving his career (which had been in a slump after a notorious hotel sex video was made public) and he appeared in two parts of a four-episode story arc that served as the series finale in 2006.

What do you think, sirs?

Joel Hodgson was a successful stand-up comic (with appearances on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live under his belt) when he bid farewell to Los Angeles and returned to his hometown in Minnesota. While deciding his next career move, he did local stand-up and also sold personally constructed robots (his passion since childhood) at a local shop. The industrial space he rented in which to construct his creations was next door to the studios of KTMA, a local St. Paul UHF station managed by Jim Mallon. Jim and Joel became friendly, and eventually when Mallon had two hours of air time to fill on Sunday afternoons he asked Hodgson if he could somehow use his comedy act along with his robot puppets to fill the time. The show the two co-created, Mystery Science Theater 3000, eventually became a cable hit — so popular that Hollywood came a-calling.

When the prospect of a major motion picture version of MST3K became a reality, Jim Mallon suddenly took charge and insisted upon being named director. He then offered Joel, who was supposedly his equal partner in the MST franchise, various associate producer-type credits. Joel felt that his overall role in the show was being minimized, and that to object would start a legal fight that could jeopardize not only the movie but the series as a whole, so he left the show during the fifth season. Michael J. Nelson, who had been head writer for the series since the beginning, took over the hosting duties after Joel's departure. Joel has since confessed in subsequent interviews that he really didn't think the show would last five more seasons without him and that he occasionally has had some 20/20 hindsight twinges of doubt about his decision to leave.

Wild child

When One Day at a Time debuted in 1975, it was one of the first sitcoms to realistically portray a newly divorced single mom as its main character. Bonnie Franklin played 34-year-old Ann Romano, who had recently ended a 17-year marriage and moved into an apartment with her two teenage daughters. Valerie Bertinelli was the adorable and angelic (she had to make up sins when she went to Confession) younger daughter, Barbara, while Mackenzie Phillips was the rebellious older daughter, Julie. While Julie's biggest offenses were of the breaking curfew variety, off-screen Mackenzie's behavior would have shocked even the worldly Schneider. The troubled teen was not only addicted to heroin and cocaine, she was also having an incestuous relationship with her father, John Phillips. She was arrested for cocaine possession during the third season of the show and her character was written out for six episodes so Phillips could go through rehab. She was eventually fired, then briefly rehired for limited guest appearances, then written out entirely in 1982. One Day at a Time continued on for an additional two years, with the plot focus shifted to newly married Barbara and her husband.

"It wasn't supposed to be like this

Has there ever been a more compassionate and selfless character on television than Edith Bunker? She would've given Archie her corneas and kidneys if he needed them, and she would've had them removed without anesthetic if sodium pentothal cost extra. So it's understandable that the death of Edith Bunker turned out to be one of the most poignant moments ever shown on a sitcom. Funny thing is, many All in the Family fans recall and reminisce seeing "the episode where Edith died," even though there never was such an episode during the run of that series.

When All in the Family ended its run, Jean Stapleton had decided that after nine seasons the character of Edith was as developed as it would get and had nowhere else to go. She signed on for the first season of Archie Bunker's Place with the understanding that it would be Edith's swan song. As the first episode of Season Two of ABP opened, Archie and Stephanie are eating an awkward breakfast together. As the dialog progresses, we learn that Edith had died suddenly of a stroke in her sleep three weeks earlier. Archie's soliloquy after finding Edith's bedroom slipper was very emotional, but ABP had another three seasons to go, so he had to get over his grief fairly quickly so that the writers could have his character date other women in future episodes.

Better late than homophobic

Isaiah Washington won a Screen Actors Guild Award for his portrayal of gifted thoracic surgeon Dr. Preston Burke on Grey's Anatomy and was named "one of TV's sexiest men" by TV Guide. The future seemed rosy for the actor until one day during Season Three when co-star T.R. Knight was late reporting to the set. Washington made no secret of his agitation at the production delay, and the situation escalated when Patrick "Dr. McDreamy" Dempsey defended Knight and urged Washington to cool down. According to backstage witnesses, Washington then directed his anger toward Dempsey and grabbed him by the neck and shoved him while yelling, "I'm not your little f***** like [Knight]!" The scuffle was leaked to the National Enquirer, and Knight, feeling cornered, came out to the press shortly afterward. ABC announced in June 2007 that Washington's contract would not be renewed, and a month later the actor appeared on Larry King Live and blamed Patrick Dempsey for his outburst, stating that McDreamy "was treating him like a 'B-word,' a 'P-word,' and the 'F-word,'" which Washington said implied that he was weak and afraid to fight back. Four years later, Grey's Anatomy is still going strong and viewers are still trying to figure out what all those "-words" are.

Second time wasn't the charm

Shannen Doherty had some previous TV roles under her belt, but it was the part of Midwestern transplant Brenda Walsh on Fox's Beverly Hills 90210 that made her a star (and a tabloid favorite). By the third season of the series, Doherty was apparently having trouble separating herself from the character she played on TV and spent many late nights on the town, occasionally brawling with boyfriends, and frequently showing up to work late and hungover. She wasn't winning any popularity contests with her co-stars, either; she and Jennie Garth once got into a fistfight, and Luke Perry asked the writers to cool off the love story between Dylan and Brenda because he wanted as few up-close-and-personal scenes with Doherty as possible. Doherty was fired after Season Four and Brenda was shipped off to London to study theater. Four years later, producer Aaron Spelling gave Doherty a second chance and hired her to play one of the three magical sisters on Charmed. By the third season things weren't so peachy-keen behind the scenes; rumor has it that Alyssa Milano and Doherty only spoke to one another when the script required it. Finally Milano approached the Paramount execs with an ultimatum—either Doherty went or she'd leave. Doherty had just recently been arrested for a DWI and had a track record of being difficult, while Milano was, well, more of an America's Sweetheart type. Guess which way the ax fell.

A dark and depressing crime show? Who'd-a thunk it?!

Broadway veteran Mandy Patinkin signed up to be the main star of police procedural drama Criminal Minds in 2005. His character, Jason Gideon, was the academic, gifted profiler of a special FBI team that was designated as the National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime. Somehow the gifted actor apparently missed these few clues that indicated his character might be involved with the darker side of life, because during the Festival de Télévision de Monte-Carlo in 2007, Patinkin told the assembled journalists, "I loathe those violent images and I want no part of that type of violence. I work with the writers and producers constantly to try and tamper that violence down." At the first table read of the premiere episode of Season Three in July 2007, Patinkin simply didn't show up. He didn't bother to call in "sick" and had never hinted that he was considering leaving, so his cast mates and the production staff were stunned. Patinkin soon began the legal maneuvers necessary to be released from his contract, stating that he wanted to go back to musical theater to inject laughter and happiness into the entertainment industry. When he did return for a day so that his character could be given a proper send-off, his part was reduced to one scene, filmed on a separate soundstage with an alternate crew because his former co-workers were still very bitter at his abrupt, no-explanation-given departure.

Behavior unbecoming a Huxtable

Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable was one of America's favorite TV dads during the 1980s. Bill Cosby was just as paternal, and perhaps even more so, behind the scenes. All the regular actors had to sign a morals clause as a condition of being hired, and Cosby rode roughshod on the school-age actors to always put their studies first. In any such tightly regimented atmosphere there is bound to be one rebel, and in this case it was Lisa Bonet, the most popular (according to fan mail and press coverage) member of the Huxtable clan.

Bonet's first "offense" was co-starring in 1987's Angel Heart, a film in which her explicit sex scene with Mickey Rourke had to be seriously edited so that the rating could be reduced from X to R. Less than a year later Bonet appeared semi-nude on the cover of Rolling Stone. Producers felt that Bonet's off-stage antics could potentially harm the squeaky-clean Huxtable image, but Dr. Cosby (who already had a spin-off in development) intervened and allowed Lisa to continue playing the character of Denise on A Different World. Bonet's eventual pregnancy threw a further wrench into the works; she was married but Denise was not, and even though A Different World sometimes explored controversial issues, an unwed pregnant college student was not one of the plot lines the producers had in mind. Bonet returned briefly to The Cosby Show, but when her marriage to Lenny Kravitz began unraveling, she often turned up late to the set or not at all and was ultimately let go due to "creative differences." Not only was Bonet absent from the series finale (geez, even Vanessa’s former fiancé Dabnis was present!), she has thus far not been invited to attend any of the subsequent Cosby Show reunions.

From saving lives to saving money

When Wayne Rogers signed on for the role of Trapper John on M*A*S*H, he was told that the TV series would be as similar to the movie as TV would allow and, accordingly, that the characters of Hawkeye and Trapper would be equal. But as Alan Alda got more involved with the creative aspects of the show, the writers started giving Hawkeye all the best jokes and most poignant monologues. Rogers was suddenly Alda's second banana and not at all pleased about the situation. He resigned abruptly after Season Three, which prompted a multi-million dollar breach-of-contract lawsuit from the producers. Rogers, however, had never signed his contract (he'd objected to a morals clause), so the last laugh was his.

Sort of.

M*A*S*H soldiered on for eight more seasons, and Wayne Rogers' acting career never got completely back on track. However, Rogers is one of the few actors in Hollywood who works for the sake of artistry, not a paycheck. When he first started out in the business he saw too many stars losing everything they'd earned thanks to bad investments, so he set out to educate himself in the world of finance. He befriended entrepreneur Lew Wolff (head of real estate at 20th Century Fox) and learned all about real estate and money management. Today, Rogers owns the Stop-N-Save convenience store chain, an upscale chain of New York bridal stores, and Wayne M. Rogers & Company, an investment strategy firm.

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September 12, 2011 - 5:30am
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