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.