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10 Minor TV Characters Who Stole the Show

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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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Here's How to Change Your Name on Facebook
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iStock

Whether you want to change your legal name, adopt a new nickname, or simply reinvent your online persona, it's helpful to know the process of resetting your name on Facebook. The social media site isn't a fan of fake accounts, and as a result changing your name is a little more complicated than updating your profile picture or relationship status. Luckily, Daily Dot laid out the steps.

Start by going to the blue bar at the top of the page in desktop view and clicking the down arrow to the far right. From here, go to Settings. This should take you to the General Account Settings page. Find your name as it appears on your profile and click the Edit link to the right of it. Now, you can input your preferred first and last name, and if you’d like, your middle name.

The steps are similar in Facebook mobile. To find Settings, tap the More option in the bottom right corner. Go to Account Settings, then General, then hit your name to change it.

Whatever you type should adhere to Facebook's guidelines, which prohibit symbols, numbers, unusual capitalization, and honorifics like Mr., Ms., and Dr. Before landing on a name, make sure you’re ready to commit to it: Facebook won’t let you update it again for 60 days. If you aren’t happy with these restrictions, adding a secondary name or a name pronunciation might better suit your needs. You can do this by going to the Details About You heading under the About page of your profile.

[h/t Daily Dot]

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