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10 Sitcoms that Lost Their Lead Actors and Kept Going

With The Office and Two and a Half Men facing a future without their lead actors, it’s important to remember that this is far from the first time a long-running sitcom has tried to move on without its star. Many shows have tried over the past several decades, with varying degrees of success. This usually happens late in a show’s run as the network tries to squeeze the last remaining juice out of the series, but it can sometimes have the effect of alienating fans of the show, resulting in a quick cancellation. Time will tell what fate The Office and Two and Half Men will meet next season, but it seems The Office has a much stronger chance of handling this transition well, mainly because Steve Carell is leaving his show on slightly better terms than Charlie Sheen is. Here’s a list of ten other shows that have, under a variety of circumstances, given it a shot without their central figures:

1. Happy Days (1974-1984 — 11 seasons)
Departing actor: Ron Howard
The replacement: Ted McGinley
Number of seasons after the change: 4
Ron Howard, who portrayed protagonist Richie Cunningham, left after seven seasons to focus on his career as a film director. Ted McGinley, who has later replaced actors in the casts of Married… with Children and The Love Boat, was brought in as Marion Cunningham’s nephew Roger, who was a coach and teacher at the high school. Scott Baio’s character Chachi Arcola was also given a larger role. While Ted McGinley seemed to be the official replacement, Henry Winkler, who played the show’s breakout character Fonzie, received top billing by the series’ end. The show remained popular for a few seasons after Howard’s departure as there were still enough beloved characters left to amuse fans, but ratings took a dip in the final years and the show ended.

2. Laverne & Shirley (1976-1983 — 8 seasons)
Departing actress: Cindy Williams
The replacement: N/A
Number of seasons after the change: 1
As absurd as it sounds for Laverne & Shirley to exist without Shirley, it actually happened. Cindy Williams left the show after a disagreement with producers, who she thought were trying to kick her off the show during her pregnancy leave. She filed a large lawsuit against the studio (sound familiar?) and settled out of court. Williams filmed a few episodes of the show’s eighth season before leaving for good, and her character was written out of the series quickly. The opening credits featured new footage of Laverne in a rendition of the famous “Schlemiel! Schlemazel!” chant with a group of children. The title of the show was still Laverne & Shirley, but Shirley didn’t appear anymore and Cindy Williams’s name wasn’t in the credits. This was Laverne & Shirley’s last season.

3. Chico and the Man (1974-1978 — 4 seasons)
Departing actor: Freddie Prinze
The replacement: Gabriel Melgar
Number of seasons after the change: 2
This show, about the cranky owner of an auto garage and an upbeat young Latino kid who works for him, was cut short by tragedy. After Freddie Prinze’s suicide in 1977, the producers considered canceling Chico and the Man before deciding to continue with a twelve year old boy named Raul in place of Prinze’s character Chico. Ratings declined after Prinze’s death and the show was cancelled.

4. Cheers (1982-1993 — 11 seasons)
Departing actress: Shelley Long
The replacement: Kirstie Alley
Number of seasons after the change: 6
Although Cheers had two lead characters, this was a very significant transition because it’s one of the few instances in which the show actually lasted longer with the new actor/actress. Shelley Long, who played Diane Chambers, was an instrumental part of the Cheers cast and losing her could have been detrimental to the show. Shelley Long left to focus on her movie career and to spend more time with her newborn baby in a move that Time Magazine called “one of the greatest career stumbles in show business history.”

Kirstie Alley proved to be an apt replacement, with her character Rebecca Howe filling in for Diane Chambers as the female foil to Ted Danson’s Sam Malone. The key to this replacement being effective is that Rebecca had a similar relationship to Sam, full of sexual tension and competition, but she was a different character entirely. Diane was an over-educated snob, while Rebecca was frequently-lovesick loser. Similar but different seems to be the key to replacing a major sitcom character. The new character shouldn’t feel just like a hollow retread of the original one, but shouldn’t shake up the group dynamic too much. Cheers ran for several more years with Kirstie Alley in the co-pilot’s seat and stayed a hit until the cast and crew decided to call things off after eleven seasons.

5. Valerie/The Hogan Family (1986-1991 — 6 seasons)
Departing actress: Valerie Harper
The replacement: Sandy Duncan
Number of seasons after the change: 4
Valerie began as a family sitcom built around Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda star Valerie Harper, in which she portrayed a woman trying to balance her career and raising her three children. After the second season, Harper got into an argument with producers, who wanted the series to focus more on the children (one of whom was played by Jason Bateman). Harper disagreed strongly and left the show. Her character was written out as having died in a car accident and the show was retitled Valerie’s Family: The Hogans for its third season and The Hogan Family for the rest of its run. Harper was replaced by Sandy Duncan, who joined the cast as the children’s aunt and became a motherly figure for them.

6. A Different World (1987-1993 — 6 seasons)
Departing actress: Lisa Bonet
The replacement: Jasmine Guy (focus put on supporting actress)
Number of seasons after the change: 5
A Different World was a spin-off of The Cosby Show that Bill Cosby created for Lisa Bonet, who played his daughter Denise, after he was tired of clashing with the actress on set. A Different World centered on Denise and her fellow students at Hillman College, but Lisa Bonet left the series at the end of the first season when she became pregnant. With The Cosby Show being the #1 show of the 1987-88 season, A Different World was naturally #2, picking up a lot of Cosby’s audience since it aired directly afterwards. NBC didn’t want to lose a hit, so they retooled it to put the focus on Jasmine Guy’s character and the rest of the students. A Different World ran for a few more successful years before its cancellation, and Lisa Bonet returned to The Cosby Show after her maternity leave.

7. Spin City (1996-2002 — 6 seasons)
Departing actor: Michael J. Fox
The replacement: Charlie Sheen
Number of seasons after the change: 2
Spin City was in its fourth season when Michael J. Fox announced he would be leaving because his Parkinson’s Disease symptoms were worsening and he wanted to spend his time raising money for Parkinsons’s research and awareness, while spending more time with his family. Charlie Sheen was brought on to play the new Deputy Mayor of New York City, and the show’s production was moved from New York to Los Angeles, losing several original cast members in the move. Although the Charlie Sheen-led version of the show was still very watchable, it just wasn’t the same as the show was during its original years. Spin City took a dip in the ratings, but staved off cancellation for one season. Charlie Sheen even somehow won a Golden Globe for his work on the show before it was cancelled in 2002.

8. 8 Simple Rules (2002-2005 — 3 seasons)
Departing actor: John Ritter
The replacements: David Spade/James Garner
Number of seasons after the change: 2
After John Ritter’s untimely death in 2003, ABC chose to continue 8 Simple Rules, incorporating Ritter’s character’s own passing into the series. David Spade and James Garner were brought in to fill out the cast for the rest of season two, and they stuck around for the following season, after which the show was cancelled.

9. That ‘70s Show (1998-2006 — 8 seasons)
Departing actor: Topher Grace
The replacement: Josh Meyers
Number of seasons after the change: 1
Topher Grace left That ‘70s Show after its seventh season, to focus on his movie career, and Ashton Kutcher followed, returning for a few guest spots during season eight. Josh Meyers, former MADtv-er and brother of SNL’s Seth Meyers, was brought in as Randy Pearson, the newest member to the central group of friends. Randy Pearson lacked the appeal of the rest of the cast and seemed like such a blatant attempt to create an Eric Forman substitute that he even dated Eric’s ex-girlfriend Donna during the final season. While Randy replaced Eric in the group, he didn’t replace him as the show’s lead actor. Instead, the ensemble was the focus of the series. The character of Randy proved rather unpopular, and That 70’s Show’s ratings fell. By the end of the season, it was announced to be the show’s last. Topher Grace and Ashton Kutcher returned for the finale.

10. Scrubs (2001-2010 — 9 seasons)
Departing actor: Zach Braff (and most of the cast)
The replacements: Eliza Coupe/Kerry Bishé/Dave Franco/Michael Mosley
Number of seasons after the change: 1
Scrubs already had a long run by the time it reached the end of its seventh season and NBC canceled it. ABC picked the show up for season eight, which effectively wrapped up all of the series’ running storylines. Despite this, the network approached creator Bill Lawrence about doing another season. The contracts were up for most of the cast members, and the producers decided to retool the show for the last season. Season nine refocused on four new medical students, with Donald Faison and John C. McGinley being the only cast members returning full time. Zach Braff and Sarah Chalke were recurring guests, but Braff stopped appearing after the first several episodes. By the end of the season, ABC was unsatisfied with the ratings and canceled Scrubs.

Bradford Evans is a writer living on the edge.


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