Thursday, June 9th, 2011

The Lost Roles of Married… with Children

While Married with Children hasn't aged as well as some of the sitcoms that were its contemporaries, the show's influence is vast. Married with Children changed the way American families were portrayed in TV sitcoms, taking a drastic departure from the lovey-dovey "everyone gets along" attitudes of The Cosby Show, Leave it to Beaver, and their ilk. Sure, you can point to All in the Family or National Lampoon's Vacation as earlier examples of darker and more realistic depictions of family life, but Married with Children was the show that did the most to rebel against the gooiness of 1980s family sitcoms and served as the prototype for the dysfunctional family model that became prominent in the 1990s and is still the norm today. Roseanne and The Simpsons followed in its wake, and soon, every family sitcom on TV was about one that didn’t get along, rather than the loving families that had populated TV its inception. Every dysfunctional family show you've ever seen owes a lot to Married with Children for opening the floodgates, from Everybody Loves Raymond to Malcolm in the Middle, Arrested Development to Modern Family. These shows may have done it better, but Married with Children did it first.

Married with Children was one of the first shows for the Fox network, debuting during its inaugural season, which only featured one night of original programming. The show's crew toyed with a lot of casting opportunities before settling on the right actors to play the Bundys. If any of the show's key roles had been cast differently — as they almost were, then it could have thrown the show off-course and prevented the existence of the dysfunctional family sitcom as we know it. If Married with Children hadn't taken off like it did, someone would have eventually created a show to break from the too-good-to-be-true family mold, but it may have taken a few years. The Fox network has made its name on these offbeat family shows, and Married with Children was the model for the Fox family sitcom and the tree from which apples like Family Guy, That 70s Show, and most recently, Bob’s Burgers, have fallen. If Fox had okayed some of these alternate Married with Children casting ideas, it could have sank the series and the network, as well (this was Fox’s original flagship show, after all). Let's take a look at some actors who almost inhabited the roles of the Bundy clan, and the wide-reaching effects this alternate casting may have caused.

Sam Kinison and Roseanne Barr as Al and Peggy Bundy
Series creators Michael G. Moye and Ron Leavitt originally modeled the parts of Al and Peggy on stand-ups Sam Kinison and Roseanne Barr. During the casting process, they offered the parts to the two actors, but both turned it down. This was probably in everyone's best interest. Kinison and Barr were both talented comedic voices who are beloved by their own specific audiences, but mixing these two intense personalities might have proven too much for audiences. There would have been a lot more screaming on this proposed version of Married with Children, that's for sure. It's hard to imagine a large audience flocking to this show version of the show each week, as the tone would have been much harsher and the lead characters would have been very different. Married with Children was already a show with a lot of anger and nastiness, but the presence of Sam Kinison and Roseanne Barr would have intensified this and could have made the show unbearable and unrelenting.

Al and Peggy Bundy were the roles that made Ed O'Neill and Katey Sagal's careers. If they'd missed out on these parts, they may never have found high-profile roles like these that were so perfectly suited for them. Without the fame that came with Married with Children, both actors would have continued to work in obscurity and likely have missed out on the subsequent big roles that followed, like O'Neill's part in Modern Family and Sagal's in Futurama. Those two shows wouldn't have been the same without these actors either.

While Sam Kinison was a wildly-successful stand-up comedian, he never quite found the perfect film or TV vehicle. After his cameo was cut from Three Amigos at Chevy Chase's insistence, Sam Kinison's only other notable role was in Back to School. Kinison gave a great performance in that Rodney Dangerfield movie, but it wasn't enough to jumpstart his acting career. While he doesn't seem right for the Al Bundy part (at least as the character came to be played), Married with Children would have been Kinison's most substantial screen role yet.

Roseanne passed on the Married with Children part with good reason, as she was able to debut her own primetime sitcom on a much bigger network just a year later. With Roseanne, the comedienne found the perfect framework for her brand of humor and she was allowed a great deal of creative control. She likely wouldn't have been able to write stories for Married with Children like she had with Roseanne, and it wouldn't have been as satisfying of a project for her. Roseanne taking the Peggy Bundy role would have also meant the show Roseanne would never have come to exist. While Married with Children scored big ratings by Fox's then-modest standards, Roseanne was a much bigger hit, bringing the dysfunctional family sitcom to mainstream audiences. Without Roseanne's success, stars like John Goodman, Tom Arnold, and George Clooney, who gained fame on the series, would have needed to look elsewhere to bolster their careers.

Different actors as the kids
Christina Applegate and David Faustino, who played the Bundy kids, weren't the first choices for their roles either. Teen actress Tina Caspary, who had a few minor movie credits at the time, was actually cast as Kelly, with Hunter Carson, the son of actress Karen Black, originally cast as Bud. A pilot was filmed with these two actors, but it never aired. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, though, it is available on YouTube. The producers wisely decided Caspary and Carson weren’t right for the parts, and Christina Applegate and David Faustino were brought in as replacements. Although Kelly and Bud weren't as important roles as Al and Peggy, they were still key parts of the show. Using different actors here could have caused Married with Children to be less popular with audiences, bringing about its cancelation.

While David Faustino's acting (and rapping) career fizzled out quickly after Married with Children was canceled, Christina Applegate was able to grab a hold of the adult fame that proves so elusive for most child stars. If the network hadn't insisted on recasting the Bundy children, Christina Applegate's career would have been impacted and it's likely she wouldn't have had the traction to land subsequent roles in Samantha Who?, Jesse, Anchorman and NBC's upcoming Up All Night.

Divine as Peggy’s Uncle Otto

Drag queen and John Waters regular Divine signed on to guest star as Peggy’s uncle in 1988 and was planning on playing the character as a man, a rare move for the performer. He died just before production began, and the first episode of Married with Children after his death was dedicated to his memory.

Michael Richards as Al Bundy
Michael Richards was one of many actors who auditioned for the part of Al Bundy. Mark Hirschfeld, the casting director for Married with Children, determined Richards wasn’t quite right for the part but kept him in mind a few years later when he was casting Seinfeld. Still, it's pretty shocking to think how Richards, an actor who embodied an iconic sitcom role during the same era almost ended up playing a very different, but still well-known, character.

Just like Sam Kinison, Michael Richards is an actor who doesn't seem like he'd be able to hit the right notes to play Al Bundy. Physical comedy is Michael Richards's strong suit, but Married with Children wasn't a show that relied on this type of humor. Richards's awkward physical energy and ability to slide through a doorway would have gone to waste here. The Michael Richards vehicles Trial and Error and The Michael Richards Show proved that actor's brand of humor was more suited for playing a wacky side character than a leading role, and it's likely that a version of Married with Children with him as the lead would have been met with the same tepid reactions as those two non-Seinfeld outings.

Michael Richards playing Al Bundy could have sunk Married with Children, but the greater ramification is the toll this would have taken on Seinfeld. Kramer was Seinfeld's breakout character, despite being part of a cast full of amazing players; and Richards booking the Married with Children part would have likely conflicted with him joining the Seinfeld ensemble. Seinfeld was on the verge of cancelation its first two seasons anyway; and with such a pivotal part of the show's success missing, Seinfeld probably would have faced an early demise. If it weren't enough for that great show to have been killed before hitting its prime, Seinfeld not existing as it did would have had far-reaching effects outside of the show also. All of those expressions that originated on the series wouldn't exist, we probably wouldn't know who Larry David is, and worst of all, Curb Your Enthusiasm would have never come to be. Also, the glut of series that were greenlit in the wake of Seinfeld's success wouldn't have been produced or would have been markedly different. Most notably, "friends hanging out" sitcoms like The Drew Carey Show and Friends were created as attempts to find the next Seinfeld, but another acting playing Kramer could have interfered with Seinfeld's success and prevented the existence of these other shows.

The Lost Spin-offs
Married with Children had a habit of devoting the occasional odd episode to a new set of characters in an attempt to create a spin-off. This happened three times throughout the series’ run, but only one of the proposed spin-offs was produced: the short-lived Matt LeBlanc comedy Top of the Heap. The episodes featuring the other two proposed spin-offs, “Radio Free Trumaine” and “Enemies”, are rather awkward to watch as it’s strange to see the show so blatantly trying to create a new series when it’s just not working. “Radio Free Trumaine” revolved around the antics of a radio show at Bud Bundy’s college, with a pre-Felicity Keri Russell guest starring and former Married with Children star David Garrison returning as Steve Rhoades, now the college’s dean and antagonist to the slacker students at the radio station. “Enemies” was an attempt to do to Friends what Married with Children did to The Cosby Show, by creating a series about a group of friends who don’t get along and detest each other. The episode revolved around Kelly’s social circle and guest starred Alan Thicke, amongst others, but Fox wasn’t interested in that proposed series either.

The show’s creator pitched a spin-off revolving around Al Bundy’s woman-hating group NO MA’AM, with Al taken out of the picture and Married with Children character Marcy D’Arcy serving as a comic foil to Al’s friends. The network shot this idea down, afraid that the show would be too misogynistic and rightly so. A spin-off revolving around Christina Applegate’s character Kelly Bundy was also planned, but Christina Applegate passed in favor of using Married with Children's cancelation as an opportunity to move on from the role she had been playing for the past eleven years.

Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles. Married… with Children is one of his favorite shows with an ellipsis in the title.

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  • thejasten

    Loved this article. Agree that the show hasn't aged all that well, but it truly was one of the most influential shows of its time. A lot of the themes and ideals that the simpsons are so revered for portraying (disillusionment, rejection of authority, etc) were also prevalent in Married…With Children, but a lot of people could never get past the lewdness to appreciate it. There were no other actors that could have ever successfully portrayed the roles of any of the characters on the show, the casting was absolutely perfect.

  • Allegra Barnett@twitter

    Sam Kinison DID appear as Al's guardian angel on the episode "It's a Bundyful Life". http://tinyurl.com/ybowonv

  • christopher item@twitter

    Jeez. Hire an editor, guys – or fire the one you have and hire a competent one.

  • Joseph Camel@facebook

    This is a great time capsule show. You watch it and you get a real sense of what life was like in the late 80's, early 90's. I'd show to an anthropology class if I had one to teach.

  • CriticalMass88

    What is this "While Married with Children hasn't aged as well as some of the sitcoms that were its contemporaries" crap? I have been viewing the re-runs over the last few months and have been laughing myself into coughing spells! Literally! Some of the episodes are funnier to me now then they were back in their day. Given the fact that it's over-the-top tacky at times, it still delivers the laughs today.
    The show absolutely struck a chord with many people in the 80'/90's. Life and family life were not all bubble gum and roses, as many sit com's of the day tried to portray. Now in the present, depending on who you are, things are even further away from buble gum and roses. So the chord it struck then, still, to this day, resonates louder now with most people than it did then.
    I have just two names, five words and eight syllables that sum it up for myself and many, many others.

    Ed O'neill as Al Bundy!

  • Ive-seen-better

    I loved the show but, as with any other great show, it got to a point where it became unfunny and outright annoying. For starters, the STUPID live audience that was shouting and whistling at the beginning of every episode PISSED ME OFF. Secondly, the show became the victim of Deus Ex Machina overuse, everything was so forced that the order of events became predictable and thus unfunny. In time, the things that made the show great became cheap cliches. The final episode was so unfunny and predictable that I was glad that the show was over.

    In any case, I don't think that there weren't any other actors who could portray the characters as well or better than the ones who got cast. Don't get me wrong, the show's final cast was perfect, but saying that there were no other actors who could act as Al and Peggy et al is clearly an overstatement.

    All in all, Married With Children has to be one of the best TV sitcoms ever! But I wouldn't go as far as to say that I haven't watched other shows that were at least as funny as Married With Children. 

  • Blah

    Divine was supposed to pull a dual-role and play Peggy's Mom too. This is why Peggy's Mom was never seen onscreen, because the producers could not imagine anyone else playing the part.