10 Minor TV Characters Who Stole the Show

No matter how intriguing a show's premise, or how tight the script, there’s just no telling what might capture the audience’s attention. Here are 10 famous TV characters who weren't originally supposed to carry their shows.

1. Steve Urkel // Family Matters

Family Matters was officially a spin-off of Perfect Strangers (Harriette Winslow was the elevator operator at the Chicago Chronicle). The show was supposed to focus on the everyday trials and tribulations of a department store employee, her police officer husband, and their three children. Midway through season one, their nerdy neighbor Steve Urkel (portrayed by Jaleel White) appeared, oversized glasses, suspenders, high-rise pants, squeaky voice and all. Urkel was originally intended as a one-episode character, but after White’s initial appearance, studio audiences started chanting “Urkel! Urkel!” during subsequent tapings. Several unfilmed first-season episodes were hastily re-written in order to feature the whiny-voiced, clumsy character. Interestingly enough, Jaleel White had been acting (mostly in commercials) since the age of three, and just prior to being cast as Urkel had told his mother that he wanted to quit the business in order to play JV basketball when he entered high school the next fall.

2. Alex P. Keaton // Family Ties

Gary David Goldberg envisioned Matthew Broderick for the role of Alex when he was casting Family Ties, a sitcom about liberal 60s-era parents raising 80s-era children. But Broderick didn’t want to leave New York for a long-term project, so Goldberg was left back at square one. At the urging of a casting director, he gave a young Canadian actor named Michael J. Fox a second screen test, and reluctantly hired him (NBC chief Brandon Tartikoff’s infamous observation at the time about Fox was “There’s a face you’ll never see on a lunch box.”) Much to everyone’s surprise, Michael J. Fox had an on-screen charisma that quickly made him an audience favorite; he could deliver the most absurd and extreme remarks about, say, women “knowing their place” and garner a laugh instead of a groan as long as he flashed that adorable smile. Meredith Baxter-Birney was just a bit miffed, because her understanding when she signed on for Family Ties was that the parents would be the focus of the series. But teen magazine profiles and posters have their own unique impact on a celebrity’s “Q-factor,” and soon many of the show’s plots revolved around Alex. During the taping of the episode where Alex lost his virginity, the audience’s laughter went on so long that the show ran 12 minutes overtime. Goldberg was standing backstage with Baxter-Birney at the time and said to her, “If you want to leave the show, I’ll understand.”

3. Daryl Dixon // The Walking Dead

Norman Reedus originally read for the role of Merle Dixon when AMC’s zombie show was being cast, but that part was given to Michael Rooker. Nevertheless, producers liked something about that Reedus fellow, so they had the writers give Merle a younger brother named Daryl. The redneck bow-hunter was intended to be just another member of the ensemble that rounded out the cast that supported lead characters Rick, Lori, Shane and Carl. But Norman took what could’ve been a one-note character and, with just a few lines of dialog per episode, made him intriguingly complex instead. He was gruff, anti-social, and tough-as-nails, yet it was also obvious that there was a sensitive, caring, damaged person underneath those many layers of grime. By season three, Daryl (a character that didn’t exist in the WD graphic novels the TV show is based on) had become Rick’s second-in-command and rabid fans were frequently spotted wearing T-shirts warning “If Daryl Dies, We Riot.”

4. Fonzie // Happy Days

The idea for a sitcom set in the 1950s was inspired by a vignette on the 1970s anthology series Love, American Style. One year after “Love and the Happy Days” aired, Ron Howard starred in the blockbuster film American Graffiti, which solidified his ability to play a retro-teenager. Howard had previously played “Opie” on The Andy Griffith Show, and with his recent film triumph under his belt, it was clear that he was the intended star of Happy Days. But the producers were caught by surprise when Fonzie (Henry Winkler), who was only an occasional character during the first season, started getting a substantial amount of press. Suddenly “Ayyyy” was on everyone’s lips and you couldn’t walk past a storefront without seeing some sort of Fonz replica giving the ol’ thumbs up. The ABC brass even suggested changing the name of the show to Fonzie’s Happy Days, but Winkler himself vehemently opposed such a change. In fact, Winkler has always staunchly credited the success of Happy Days to the work of the entire cast, particularly Ron Howard and Tom Bosley.

5. Ben Linus // Lost

Michael Emerson was invited to make a guest appearance on Lost based on the strength of his Emmy-winning portrayal of a serial killer on The Practice. That initial appearance in the episode “One of Them” led producers to invite him back for three more episodes, still billed as a “guest star.” His morally ambiguous Benjamin Linus (originally known as Henry Gale) struck a chord with viewers, who loved to hate him, and as of season three, Emerson was offered a contract and became a series regular as well as the leader of the Others.

6. Chrissy // Three’s Company

When Three’s Company was being cast, John Ritter was the only actor hired who had any sort of name recognition, having played the Reverend Fordwick on The Waltons. Luckily, he also had a knack for slapstick comedy, and managed to make the most out of what was basically a one-joke role (a closet heterosexual man living platonically with two beautiful young women). But even though Ritter was the acknowledged star of the show (and won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Jack Tripper), it was Suzanne Somers who got her picture on all the magazine covers and had her own mega-selling poster. Actually, as soon as Somers landed the role of Chrissy, she contacted powerhouse manager Jay Bernstein and begged him to take her on as a client. She wanted to be “bigger than Farrah,” and although (according to Somers) Bernstein questioned her looks and her talent, he was impressed by her passion, and agreed to manage her. Of course, it probably helped that Somers also pledged to give him every penny of her salary from the first six episodes of Three’s Company. Nevertheless, thanks to Bernstein’s savvy promotion, soon every episode of Three’s Company, no matter what the plot, focused heavily on Chrissy prancing around in tight T-shirts and short-shorts.

7. Vinnie Barbarino // Welcome Back, Kotter

Veteran comic writer Alan Sacks had seen stand-up comic Gabe Kaplan’s act a few times and thought that there might be a viable sitcom to be mined out of Kaplan’s tales of his days in remedial high school classes. When previewing Welcome Back, Kotter in front of test audiences, network brass noted that John Travolta (whose character was then known as “Eddie Barbarina”) elicited unsolicited random squeals from the crowd and decided, on the strength of a possible teen heartthrob as a side bonus to Kaplan’s schtick, to greenlight the series. Travolta, for his part, didn’t discourage the Tiger Beat aspect of his fame, but he also craved acceptance as a bona fide actor, and he spent much of his Kotter salary on a high-priced agent, who landed him progressively larger film roles, from The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, to Carrie, to Saturday Night Fever. By the fourth (and ultimately final) season of Welcome Back, Kotter, John Travolta was billed as a “special guest star” and appeared in less than half of that season’s episodes.

8. Sandra Clark // 227

Marla Gibbs, star of the NBC sitcom 227, had once played something of a breakout character in her own right; her portrayal of the maid on The Jeffersons garnered her a huge fan following and many Florence-centric episodes. So perhaps she wasn’t completely surprised when Jackée Harry’s over-the-top characterization of sassy and saucy Sandra Clark suddenly took front and center on what was supposed to be Gibbs’ show. On the other hand, Gibbs wasn’t entirely enchanted by Jackée’s popularity, either; when Jackée won an Emmy Award in 1987 (against formidable competition that included Rhea Perlman of Cheers and The Golden Girls’ Estelle Getty) she not only didn’t receive any sort of congratulations from the series’ star, she also found her character’s participation in upcoming plotlines significantly reduced.

9. J.J. Evans // Good Times

The NAACP was full of praise for Good Times when it debuted in 1974; here was a poor but close-knit African-American family with two hard-working parents at the helm. The younger two kids were intelligent and determined to do well in school and make their parents proud. It was the oldest Evans sibling who eventually became the “problem child” and changed the civil rights organization’s collective mind. Jimmie Walker’s eye-popping, jive-talking J.J. also offended and irritated the actors who played his parents. “The writers can save time by having J.J. clap his hands and say ‘dy-no-mite’ in a scene; they don’t have to bother to come up with any meaningful dialog,” John Amos complained. Esther Rolle was likewise upset that the plots began to focus on the chronically unemployed, barely literate James Junior while minimizing the role of the more serious and cerebral younger son Michael. Both Amos and Rolle ended up leaving the series, and despite some hasty re-tooling of J.J.’s character, the show was cancelled in 1979.

10. Mimi Bobeck // The Drew Carey Show

Mimi Bobeck was only supposed to appear in the pilot episode of The Drew Carey Show, but when the show’s producers discovered that test audiences laughed the hardest at scenes that featured Mimi and Drew, Kathy Kinney was hired as a regular cast member. Having a workplace nemesis with a pre-existing grudge against Carey gave the writers a whole new avenue of plot lines to draw from, since Mimi and Drew were forever playing evil practical jokes on one another. But every scene focusing on the muu-muued woman with the Earl Scheib make-up job meant less screen time for the other supporting players, which didn’t necessarily go down well behind the scenes.

Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
How Accurate are Hollywood Medical Dramas? A Doctor Breaks It Down
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

Medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy get a lot of things wrong when it comes to the procedures shown on the screen, but unless you're a doctor, you'd probably never notice.

For its latest installment, WIRED's Technique Critique video series—which previously blessed us with a dialect coach's critique of actors' onscreen accents—tackled the accuracy of medical scenes in movies and TV, bringing in Annie Onishi, a general surgery resident at Columbia University, to comment on emergency room and operating scenes from Pulp Fiction, House, Scrubs, and more.

While Onishi breaks down just how inaccurate these shows and movies can be, she makes it clear that Hollywood doesn't always get it wrong. Some shows, including Showtime's historical drama The Knick, garner praise from Onishi for being true-to-life with their medical jargon and operations. And when doctors discuss what music to play during surgery on Scrubs? That's "a tale as old as time in the O.R.," according to Onishi.

Other tropes are very obviously ridiculous, like slapping a patient during CPR and telling them to fight, which we see in a scene from The Abyss. "Rule number one of CPR is: never stop effective chest compressions in order to slap or yell words of encouragement at the patient," Onishi says. "Yelling at a patient or cheering them on has never brought them back to life." And obviously, taking selfies in the operating room in the middle of a grisly operation like the doctors on Grey's Anatomy do would get you fired in real life.

There are plenty of cliché words and phrases we hear over and over on doctor shows, and some are more accurate than others. Asking about a patient's vitals is authentic, according to Onishi, who says it's something doctors are always concerned with. However, yelling "We're losing him!" is simply for added TV drama. "I have never once heard that in my real life," Onishi says.

[h/t WIRED]

When The Day After Terrorized 100 Million Viewers With a Vision of Nuclear War

Before Nicholas Meyer's made-for-television film The Day After had its official airing on November 20, 1983, then-President Ronald Reagan and his Joint Chiefs of Staff were given screening copies. In his diary, Reagan recorded his reaction to seeing Meyer's graphic depiction of a nuclear holocaust that devastates a small Kansas town, writing:

"It's very effective and left me greatly depressed. So far they [ABC] haven't sold any of the 25 spot ads scheduled and I can see why. Whether it will be of help to the 'anti-nukes' or not, I can't say. My own reaction was one of our having to do all we can to have a deterrent and to see there is never a nuclear war."

Just a few days later, the rest of America would see what had shaken their president. Preempting Hardcastle and McCormick on ABC, the 8 p.m. telefilm drew a staggering 100 million viewers, an audience that at the time was second only in non-sports programming to the series finale of M*A*S*H. According to Nielsen, 62 percent of all televisions in use that night were tuned in.

What they watched didn't really qualify as entertainment; Meyer stated he had no desire to make a "good" movie with stirring performances or rousing music, but a deeply affecting public service announcement on the horrors of a nuclear fallout. He succeeded … perhaps a little too well.


The idea for The Day After came from ABC executive Brandon Stoddard, who had helped popularize the miniseries format with Roots. After seeing The China Syndrome, a film about a nuclear accident starring Jane Fonda, Stoddard began pursuing an "event" series about what would happen to a small town in middle America if tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States escalated to catastrophic levels. Films like Dr. Strangelove had depicted moments between politicians debating whether to use powerful weapons of mass destruction, but few had examined what the consequences would be for the everyday population.


Reagan had dubbed the Soviet Union "the evil empire" in 1982, so the time seemed right to bring such a project to TV viewers. Stoddard hired Barnaby Jones writer Edward Hume to craft a script: Hume drew from research conducted into the effects of nuclear war and radiation fallout, including a 1978 government report, The Effects of Nuclear War, that contained a fictionalized examination of how a strike would play out in a densely populated area. Stoddard also enlisted Meyer, who had proven his directorial chops with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, but considered the assignment a "civic responsibility" more than a creative endeavor.

Meyer and the film's producers selected Lawrence, Kansas (pop. 50,000) as the setting for the movie and got permission from city officials to turn their town into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Throughout the summer of 1982, tons of ash, dirt, and rubble were trucked in and spread over the ground; food coloring blackened farming crops. Thousands of locals were enlisted to portray victims of a nuclear attack, agreeing to roll in dirt and have their hair shaved off to simulate a miserable death via radiation poisoning.

Meyer believed that setting the film in a small town would make it more impactful and relatable to audiences. "Other movies that had attempted to deal with the subject of nuclear holocaust had always been set in big cities," he recalled in 2003. "But a great number of people in the United States do not live in big cities, so they were witnessing an event that seemed to bear scant relation to them."

That pursuit of realism wasn't always to the network's benefit. ABC originally planned a four-hour film to run on two consecutive nights, but filling up that much commercial time proved to be a challenge. Fearing a graphic and partisan display of anti-nuclear propaganda, many loyal advertisers refused to let their spots air during The Day After. (Meyer later joked that all the "generals" pulled out, including General Mills and General Foods.) They were ultimately able to sell a little over 10 minutes of commercial time, which prompted executives to condense the movie to a two-hour presentation. Meyer, who thought the script was padded to begin with, agreed with the decision.

ABC sensed that the film would be provocative and took unprecedented steps to handle the inevitable viewer response. A 1-800 number was set up to field calls from people concerned about an actual nuclear disaster; the network also issued pamphlets that acted as viewing guides, with fact sheets on nuclear weapons. Psychologists warned audiences would experience "feelings of depression and helplessness." Meyer was, in effect, making a disaster movie with the characters being offered no help of rescue. The film had been openly endorsed by anti-nuclear organizations as being a $7 million advertisement for their stance, and some TV industry observers wondered whether ABC would even air it at all.


Prior to The Day After's November 20 debut, actor John Cullum appeared onscreen and delivered a warning. Calling the film "unusually disturbing," he advised young children to be led away from the television and for parents to be prepared to field questions older kids might have.

A still from 'The Day After' (1983)

With that, The Day After commenced. It was every bit as terrifying as viewers had been told it would be. For the first 50 minutes or so, actors like Jason Robards, John Lithgow, and Steve Guttenberg established their characters in Lawrence, largely oblivious to an incident on the border of East Germany that triggered an armed response from both Russia and the U.S. As missiles fell, a mushroom cloud vaporized the community; those who survived were doomed to brief and miserable lives as radiation destroyed their bodies.

Dramatizing what had previously been a sterile discussion about nuclear defenses had its intended effect. Viewers shuffled away from their televisions in a daze, struck by the bleak consequences of an attack. The people of Lawrence, who had a private screening, were particularly affected—it was their town that appeared destroyed. Residents exited the theater crying.

What ABC lacked in ad revenue it more than made up for in ratings. The mammoth audience was comparable to Super Bowl viewership; the network even presented a post-"game" show of sorts, with Ted Koppel hosting a roundtable discussion of the nuclear threat featuring Carl Sagan and William F. Buckley. Sagan is believed to have coined the term "nuclear winter" on the program, while Secretary of State George Shultz argued the necessity of harboring nuclear weapons to make sure the nation could protect itself.

The experience stuck with Reagan, who signed a nuclear arms treaty—the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty—with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, leading to longstanding speculation that The Day After may have helped sober political attitudes toward mutually assured destruction.


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