Every so often, television brings us such an iconic character that we have to marvel at the genius of the writing staff. But these characters don't always spring fully formed from the minds of producers as they high-five each other. Occasionally it's just a happy accident, as is dramatically proven by the fact that ...
#5. Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files Was Just an Extra
The X-Files was one of those shows where side characters came and went whenever a good plot twist was needed. But fans knew that there would always be one reliable constant -- Cigarette Smoking Man, the primary villain and a character who in the course of the series was killed off and resurrected more times than a comic book superhero.
He'd always come back because cigarettes contain the spark of life.
The show was always vague about who he was -- his name may have been Spender, he may have been Mulder's father, and he may have killed JFK, but all we know for sure is that he was one evil dude. You can tell from the cigarette.
Why We Almost Didn't Get Him:
It's true that he was there from the beginning -- the Smoking Man appeared in the first scene of the pilot episode -- but he didn't appear again until the last scene of the Season 1 finale. In neither scene does he have a speaking role. That's some ominous-as-shit foreshadowing!
That's why we've shivered at every job interview since '93.
Except that it wasn't. The Smoking Man was an extra, known in the script only as, you know, "the Smoking Man." His entire purpose was just to stand around in the background whenever the writers wanted to remind the audience that Mulder and Scully were being watched by somebody. If you don't know what we mean, go look at the IMDb page of the actor, William B. Davis. Before his 1993 casting in The X-Files, he was playing roles that didn't even get actual names -- he played "Judge" in an episode of MacGuyver, "Doctor" in one episode of Nightmare Cafe, and "Lawyer" in the TV movie Omen IV: The Awakening. And who could forget his work as "Inspector #2" in that one episode of Wiseguy?
So why would the producers of The X-Files declare this random background actor to be the central villain of the show's overarching storyline involving alien beings, government coverups, and unresolved subplots? They even did an entire episode joking that Cigarette Smoking Man was behind pretty much every terrible world event of the last 40 years. The answer is that the writers never intended for that to happen at all.
Another conspiracy sadly debunked.
As we've pointed out in the past, the central plot of the show was more or less made up as it went along. It was only when Gillian Anderson got pregnant and took a partial hiatus from the second season that the writers needed to introduce new characters to make up for her absence. Davis was given a speaking role for the first time, and that's when the creators of the show suddenly realized, holy shit, he can actually act. They had stumbled across an iconic Hollywood villain by getting lucky with their extras casting.
#4. Ben Linus from Lost Was Only Signed for Three Episodes
It could be argued that Ben Linus was the single reason Lost fans didn't just throw up their hands and say "Fuck this show!" in Season 2. The enigmatic Linus was the closest thing Lost had to a main villain (we still can't agree on what the "Man in Black" was, and we're pretty sure Damon Lindelof can't, either), and his creepy-ass work in the role got him nominated for an Emmy pretty much every single year he played the character (nominated four times, winning once). In a show that up to then had been a series of seemingly pointless twists and turns, fans finally had an antagonist to root against.
One time, he murdered a benevolent god. That was his most sympathetic scene.
Why We Almost Didn't Get Him:
The character was introduced to the show in typical Lost fashion, mysteriously appearing on the island out of nowhere halfway through Season 2, telling a highly implausible story about how he had crashed while on a round-the-world hot air balloon trip. By the end of his three-episode story arc, everything he said was revealed to be a lie, and he ended the season having taken three of the main characters hostage. Come Season 3, he's the scheming villain the audience is tuning in to see.
Will he kill your favorite character? Will he kill your favorite bunny? Stay tuned to find out!
But those few episodes in Season 2 were supposed to be it -- that's all the actor was signed up for. Like The X-Files, the twists in Lost were pretty much invented as the writers went along, and at that stage the producers just wanted a creepy-looking guy to show up on the island and set up the cliffhanger for next year. They kept him around because they liked how Michael Emerson played Ben, and Emerson originally agreed to do it because, well, we'll just quote the DVD commentary:
Lost Writer Carlton Cuse: "I remember we got on the phone with Michael, and it was funny, because it was ... a sort of slushy day in New York. And he was walking along the street, and we were, like, 'Want to go to Hawaii for a couple of episodes?'"
Michael Emerson: "Yes."
Carlton Cuse: "There wasn't even a pause. There wasn't even a hesitation. It was like, 'Absolutely.'"
Michael Emerson: "Yeah, it was snowing in New York."
Damon Lindelof: "It was the easy sell."
They showed him a still from the pilot. He says he didn't notice any plane wreckage.
So there you go: Ben Linus would never have become a Big Bad on the show if he'd been played by somebody who didn't bring the "creepy genius" vibe like Emerson, and Emerson may not have done it if it had been a nicer day in New York.
And as with Cigarette Smoking Man, he took a pretty one-dimensional stock villain and elevated him with a creepy "What is this fucker going to do next?" energy that viewers couldn't stop watching. Without them, both shows probably couldn't have stumbled ahead for so long after they jumped the shark.
#3. Elmo from Sesame Street Was a Random Discarded Puppet
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If we ask you to name some characters from Sesame Street, you're likely to say Big Bird, Kermit, and Elmo. And of the three, Elmo is both the newest character and the most popular. Since exploding onto the scene, he has testified before Congress, and his Tickle Me Elmo doll was so popular that adults paid thousands and gave each other concussions to get their hands on it. In 1998, the show's producers finally surrendered to him and cut 15 minutes from each episode to give Elmo his own closing segment. They kept making the segment for more than a decade, until they decided to phase it out ... in favor of an Elmo musical.
Chicks dig a pimpin' singing voice.
People can't get fucking enough of Elmo, is what we're saying.
Why We Almost Didn't Get Him:
Elmo didn't start out as a character at all. He was one of dozens of random, nameless "monster" Muppets that Sesame Street kept lying around in case they needed a crowd scene. Here he is in an early appearance, with the voice he had before he gave up his three-pack-a-day smoking habit.
He wasn't enough of a character back then to even have a name or a fixed voice, but he was colloquially referred to as "Baby Monster." Later he appeared with the voice of an aging female casting agent in a sketch that we're sure is hilarious to 5-year-olds.
Even a career stuck in the background would have been fine compared to what the next puppeteer, Richard Hunt, wanted for him. Hunt put his own spin on the character -- this time, a gruff caveman voice -- but he hated Elmo. He'd drag the Muppet around like a mop, and he'd literally shout, "I hate this damn puppet! I'm suffering with it."
Then, one day, he physically threw the puppet into the lap of a random junior performer -- Kevin Clash, who voiced such memorable characters as, uh, Dr. Nobel Price and Ferlinghetti Donizetti. But when Clash stuck his hand into Elmo, it was like Frodo putting on the One Ring. Avoiding the various deep, throaty growls that people had been trying to force on Elmo, Clash tried an ear-shattering falsetto and immediately struck gold.
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He uses the same voice when he's angry at traffic.
Unfortunately, in 2012, Clash wound up the subject of a Michael Jackson-esque series of child sex allegations that, while thrown out of court, led to Clash's resignation from the show. In seeking to replace the puppeteer, Sesame Street wisely found someone who could replicate the voice instead of taking the opportunity to reinvent Elmo as a rapping pirate or something.