15 Actors Brought Back to Play Different Roles on the Same Show

Soap opera addicts are used to the idea that, even in death, their favorite actors could very well pop back up on the screen one day—maybe as a ghost, an evil twin, a doppelganger or an entirely unrelated character. But eagle-eyed viewers of primetime television know that even the grittiest cop dramas and silliest sitcoms aren’t immune to recycling the casting director’s favorite actors.

1. JERRY ORBACH, LAW & ORDER

Photo courtesy of Law & Order Wiki

Sure, it’s difficult to imagine a Law & Order without Lennie Briscoe. But Jerry Orbach’s L&O debut actually came in the form of defense attorney Frank Lehrman in 1991, during the show’s second season. A year later, Orbach was back in a more permanent fashion as the weary Briscoe, a role he played until his passing in 2004.

2. MARK LENARD, STAR TREK

Photo courtesy of TrekCore

Any Trekkie/Trekker worth his or her re-mastered Blu-ray collection knows that Mark Lenard is one of the few actors to portray a Romulan, Klingon, and Vulcan on Star Trek. In the original series’ first season, he played a Romulan Commander in “Balance of Terror.” One year later, he returned as Spock’s Vulcan father Sarek, a part he reprised several times on the small and big screen through 1991.

3. GARRET DILLAHUNT, DEADWOOD

Photo courtesy of HBO

The true mark of a great character actor is his or her ability to disappear into a role. And Garret Dillahunt is one of today’s most talented. So much so that some fans of HBO’s Deadwood didn’t even realize that the actor who played Wild Bill Hickok assassin Jack McCall in the first season and the actor who played whore-murdering geologist Francis Wolcott in season two were, in fact, one in the same. 

4. JEFFREY TAMBOR, THREE’S COMPANY

Photo courtesy of Sitcoms Online

Jeffrey Tambor proved his ability to play more than one character in a single sitcom long before portraying twin brothers George and Oscar Bluth on Arrested Development. Over the course of two years and three episodes of Three’s Company, he played a rich man intent on landing Chrissy, a crazy dentist recently dumped by Terri, and a psychiatrist who works at the hospital with Terri (and whom Jack and Janet mistake for a mental patient). Before any of that, he had a lead role in the Three’s Company spinoff, The Ropers.

5. DENNIS FRANZ, HILL STREET BLUES

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Dennis Franz has made a career out of playing cops. Which might help explain why the producers of Hill Street Blues thought they could get away with introducing the Golden Globe-winning actor as corrupt detective Sal Benedetto in 1983, who met an untimely demise, then resurrect him as Lieutenant Norman Buntz for the show’s final two seasons. The character’s popularity with fans even led to a short-lived spinoff, Beverly Hills Buntz.

6. DIANE NEAL, LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT

Photo courtesy of Law & Order Wiki

Law & Order does this all the time. In fact, the Law & Order Repeat Offenders File is a website dedicated to the show’s tendency toward repeat casting. For the past decade, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit watchers have known Diane Neal as tough-as-nails ADA Casey Novak. But in 2001, she made one of her first on-screen appearances in the show’s third season playing a stockbroker charged with the rape of a male stripper.

7. TED MCGINLEY, MARRIED WITH CHILDREN

Photo courtesy of Name That Christmas Special

A year before joining the cast of Married With Children as Jefferson D’Arcy, Ted McGinley played an alternate version of Al Bundy—Norman Jablonsky—in a two-part Christmas special in It’s a Bundyful Life, which imagines what life would be like for Peg, Bud, and Kelly had Al never been born.

8. KEVIN JAMES, EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND

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What a difference a sitcom makes. From 1996 to 1998, Kevin James made six guest appearances as Kevin Daniels, friend of Ray, in Everybody Loves Raymond. Though his occasional spots on the show continued even after James landed the lead in his own sitcom, The King of Queens, in future crossovers James was playing his Queens character, delivery truck driver Doug Heffernan.

9. S. EPATHA MERKERSON, LAW & ORDER

Photo courtesy of Law & Order Wiki

Two years before she began her seven-year stint as Lieutenant Anita Van Buren, Golden Globe-winning actress S. Epatha Merkerson starred as the mother of an 11-month-old shooting victim in Law & Order’s first season. 

10. HARRY MORGAN, M*A*S*H

Photo courtesy of CBS Television

Character actor Harry Morgan is well known for his portrayal of the straight-talking Colonel Sherman T. Potter on nearly 200 episodes of M*A*S*H, beginning in the series’ fourth season. He landed that gig after a successful turn as a visiting general who turns out to be crazy in the third season premiere.

11. TERRY O’QUINN, THE X-FILES

Photo courtesy of The X-Files Wiki

The man who would be John Locke owes his trio of appearances on The X-Files to his good friend, series creator Chris Carter. He pops up as a police officer in the second season, then again as The Shadow Man—a mysterious man following Scully—in season nine. O’Quinn also plays FBI agent Darius Michaud in The X-Files movie.

12. MICHELLE FORBES, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION

Image courtesy of Memory Alpha

Five months before she began her three-year run as Ensign Ro Laren, a protégé of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), Michelle Forbes played the one-off role of Dara, the daughter of alien scientist Timicin (David Ogden Stiers), in the fourth season’s “Half a Life” episode.

13. MICHAEL O’KEEFE, LAW & ORDER

Photo courtesy of Law & Order Wiki

Last Law & Order example, we promise. But Michael O’Keefe—who nabbed a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for The Great Santini in 1981—has actually played six different roles across the franchise, including twins in a 2001 episode of Law & Order. The same year he made his first of two appearances on Criminal Intent, followed by parts on SVU in 2002 and 2004.

14. JOHN FINNEGAN, COLUMBO

Photo courtesy of Aveleyman

Before there was Law & Order, there was Columbo, another network cop show that liked to recycle its actors. No actor spent more time on the set without being a regular cast member than John Finnegan, who played eight different characters between 1972 and 1991 before landing a recurring role as Barney, a restaurant owner.

15. JACK GARNER, THE ROCKFORD FILES

Photo courtesy Rockford Files Filming Locations

It would be tempting to call Jack Garner’s recurring role on The Rockford Files a case of nepotism. His brother, James, was the show’s star, after all. But the elder Garner worked for the part. From 1974 to 1979 he played nearly two dozen bit parts in the series, from an uncredited “Man in Washroom” to “Workman #1,” finally nabbing that elusive character with an actual name—Captain McEnroe—in 1979.

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There are plenty of other examples. Ooh! We just remembered another. The actor who played Rose Nylund's lover Miles also appeared in season one as Arnie, another of Rose's suitors. And Denise's husband on The Cosby Show had earlier been a love interest of Sondra. Who else belongs in the Same Actor, Same Series, Different Character club?

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November 15, 2013 - 1:15pm
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