When Shows Recast: A History of Disappeared and Replacement Sitcom Characters
Well, it finally happened. On Monday, Warner Brothers decided they'd had enough and sacked Charlie Sheen from 'Two and a Half Men.'
While Sheen is now free to move on and continue "winning" or doing whatever else an unemployed warlock does, the fate of the show itself remains in limbo. How can a popular sitcom survive without such a major character? We figure the show's producers and writers have three options: write him out of the show, bring in another actor to assume Sheen's role, or replace the character altogether.
Luckily, there's a storied precedent for this kind of situation. We've pulled together a list of nine other shows, from 'Bewitched' to 'Roseanne,' that also had to use one of these three tactics. Guess what? They all ended up just fine.
Chuck Cunningham, 'Happy Days'
Few people remember Richie's older brother Chuck from this popular sitcom -- not even his own family! Not only was the always-basketball-toting Chuck played by two actors, he was written out of the show at the beginning of the second season when he "went off to college." Chuck must have been really successful, because he was never heard from again, or even referenced, for the rest of the show's 11-year run. This strange occurrence is now commonly referred to in Hollywood circles as "Chuck Cunningham Syndrome" to describe whenever a television character inexplicably disappears from a series. Good luck, Chuck!
Judy Winslow, 'Family Matters'
The youngest Winslow daughter also suffered from this "Chuck Cunningham Syndrome." After the fourth season of 'Family Matters,' Judy Winslow, played by Jaimee Foxworth, simply disappeared from the show and was never heard from again -- which was weird considering the 'Family Matters' writers didn't have the same "gone off to college" crutch that 'Happy Days' did. Besides, how can you compete with Steve Urkel? Foxworth would return to television years later -- unfortunately, it would be on 'Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew.'
Trapper John McIntyre, 'M*A*S*H'
The history surrounding Trapper is a little convoluted, given the fact that he was played by three different actors: one in the film, one in the TV show, and one in a spin-off dedicated to the character. When it came to the long-running show, though, Trapper, then played by Wayne Rogers, was given the boot after the end of the third season when Rogers complained his character not having the same importance on the show as he did in the film. Rogers later regretted leaving the show, but at least Trapper wasn't totally forgotten; he was referenced later in the story and even got that aforementioned spin-off, 'Trapper John, M.D.'
Darrin Stephens, 'Bewitched'
Perhaps the first major sitcom to attempt such a sleight-of-hand, 'Bewitched' went a different route by replacing its male lead in the middle of its fifth season, but keeping the character. Darrin Stephens, the husband of the enchanted Samantha Stephens, was originally played by funnyman Dick York until chronic back problems forced him to leave the show in 1969. Dick Sargent accepted the role and faithfully played Darrin until the show ended in '72. The writers never acknowledged the switch in the show, but could have probably just explained it away with one of Samantha's magical hijinks, right?
Becky Conner, 'Roseanne'
The question of "Who should play Becky?" on the '90s series 'Roseanne' became such an issue that the writers turned it into a running on-air gag. Becky, the oldest of the Connor kids, was played by Lecy Goranson for the first five seasons. When Goranson left to attend Vassar College, she was replaced by Sarah Chalke (now of 'Scrubs' fame). However, Goranson squeezed the show back into her busy schedule and replaced Chalke in season 8. When scheduling conflicts arose yet again, Chalke and Goranson essentially alternated appearances until Goranson finally left everyone the hell alone, and Chalke fully took over the role in season 9. Then the ending got really weird because Roseanne was a writer or something? This show was the closest thing to 'Lost' that television comedy ever got, thanks in part to this debacle.
Aunt Vivian, 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'
The writers of 'Fresh Prince' gave Aunt Vivian's switch the lighthearted treatment, but the way Janet Hubert tells it, it wasn't such a happy departure. Hubert played the stern aunt for the show's first four seasons until she got a call from her agent in 1993. "Time of Death: approximately 3PM. The real Vivian Banks was murdered," she recounts in her 2009 book, 'Perfection Is Not a Sitcom Mom.' According to Hubert, all was not as it seemed on the set of 'Fresh Prince,' and tensions between her and Will Smith ended up getting her fired. Hubert was replaced by Daphne Maxwell Reid for the duration of the show. On one of Reid's early appearances, Will's friend Jazz remarks, "You know, Mrs. Banks, ever since you had that baby, there's something different about you." Yeah: unemployment.
Diane Chambers & Rebecca Howe, 'Cheers'
The last option is, of course, to write the departure of the character into the story and introduce a new character as a replacement. 'Cheers' famously did this in 1987 when actress Shelley Long left to pursue a movie career after five seasons on the show. Producers brought in a fresh-faced Kirstie Alley as Rebecca. Although the two characters were pretty different, audiences warmed to Rebecca and 'Cheers' continued as one of the most popular sitcoms of the late '80s and early '90s.
Eric Forman & Randy Pearson, 'That 70's Show'
By the time 'That 70s Show''s seventh season ended, Topher Grace had been a 'Spider-Man' movie and was becoming a huge star, so leaving 'That 70's Show' seemed liked the best option. Although the show had a strong ensemble, Eric's shoes were too big to be left unfilled, so comedian Josh Meyers (younger brother of 'SNL' head writer Seth) was brought in to play record store clerk Randy Pearson. Randy wasn't well liked by fans, and it didn't help that Ashton Kutcher also left four episodes into the final season. Somehow, the show managed to survive one more year.
Mike Flaherty & Charlie Crawford, 'Spin City'
Sheen himself once stepped in to replace a major sitcom star, Michael J. Fox, who had proved to be a strong lead during his four seasons as the New York City deputy mayor on 'Spin City.' When Fox's struggle with Parkinson's disease became too much to bear, his character was written out of the series as the fall guy to a mayoral scandal. Sheen was then brought in as his replacement, and the show ran for two more decent seasons until its cancellation in 2002.
The question now: Who will replace Sheen?