Eight Minor TV Characters Who Ended Up Taking Over the Whole Show
A big advantage of serial storytelling is its capacity for evolution. As opposed to something like a movie, where you’ve got one shot to please your audience, a TV show can adapt on the fly to its viewers’ responses and demands. They don’t like the setting? Move it. They guessed the twist ending? Not anymore, they didn’t. They hate a character? Kill them. Okay, you could just write them off, but nobody ever went broke satisfying bloodlust.
This means that sometimes, a character who was supposed to be only a guest or background player can be promoted to star with the right combination of charisma and one-liners. An actor can be catapulted to fame when they only expected to complete their one-off storyline, collect their paycheck and go, or a puppet can be literally thrown at the person destined to wield them, changing history forever.
Family Matters was never meant to be The Steve Urkel Show. In fact, it was spun off from a different show, Perfect Strangers, to focus on the home life of fan favorite and Winslow family matriarch Harriette. Urkel was only written for one episode, but he proved so popular with viewers that the writers were forced to become catchphrase generators, having unfortunately overestimated the appeal of the criminally underrated Reginald VelJohnson.
Happy Days, too, was supposed to be focused on the family of its lead character, but by the end of the first season, it was in danger of cancellation. In a desperate bid to right the nostalgia ship, they started filming in front of a live audience, at which point everyone noticed that people lost their minds when Richie Cunningham’s friend Arthur Fonzarelli showed up. They quickly moved Fonzie to the center of the show and “had to almost manufacture a relationship between Fonzie and the family, so he started living in the garage apartment,” according to Ron Howard. They even wanted to change the title of the show to Fonzie’s Happy Days until Howard threatened to quit and go back to film school. They backed down, and Howard tragically never learned to make movies.
Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet is The West Wing, but Aaron Sorkin’s vision didn’t include the president at all. “I really wanted the show to be about the senior staffers, and had the fear that the character of the president would necessarily skew the show in a different direction,” he explained, but “I then felt like that would quickly get hokey … that we will constantly be just missing the president.” They signed Sheen on to do only a handful of episodes to keep it from getting weird, but once they saw his performance, they realized holy shit, they had Martin Sheen, and asked him to stay on as a permanent addition. He had two conditions: 1) The President had to be Catholic; and 2) he had to be a Notre Dame graduate.
Thanks to the massive Frasier empire, it’s easy to forget Frasier Crane was born on Cheers, and as one of the seemingly least likely to get a spin-off. He was only supposed to appear in the first few episodes of Season Three, essentially as “a device to make Sam jealous,” and viewers hated him for exactly that reason. But he was so fun to write that “the Charles Brothers kept finding new reasons to bring him back,” and once Sam and Diane were back together as God intended, he became a reluctant fan favorite.
Not only was Jesse Pinkman supposed to be a short-lived character, he was supposed to be short-lived, period. That’s right: Those heartless bastards were going to kill him off at the end of Breaking Bad’s first season. After serving his purpose of getting Walter White into the meth game, “Jesse would die horribly, which would make Walt feel really guilty and force him to question his criminality,” creator Vince Gilligan has said. Then the 2007 writers’ strike happened, forcing the team to cut the season short and giving Gilligan long enough to peer into Aaron Paul’s adorable face and have a change of heart.
The Walking Dead’s ruggedest bowman was another character who’s guest spot would have likely ended gruesomely without his actor’s flawless charisma. Daryl Dixon didn’t even exist until Norman Reedus begged producers for a part on the show. They liked his audition so much that they invented a brother for Merle Dixon who was only supposed to hang around for a handful of episodes before presumably getting eaten by zombies, but fans loved him so much that the show was eventually rebooted as The Walking Dead: Daryl Dixon.
Remember when Andy punched a hole in the wall in Season Three of The Office and disappeared for five episodes to attend “anger management” classes? That was supposed to be his send-off, but creator Greg Daniels found that Ed Helms was “so funny and a great improviser … and we started to really enjoy writing for him,” so they brought him back. By the end of the show, Andy had taken Michael Scott’s job as regional manager, and takeovers don’t get more complete than that.
The hottest toy of 1996 and every preschooler’s favorite monster toiled in the background of Sesame Street for six long years before anyone noticed him. Back then, he was a gruff “caveman” character performed by puppeteer Richard Hunt, who hated him so much that, one day in 1985, he threw the puppet at Sesame Street newbie Kevin Clash and ordered him to come up with a voice. Clash immediately responded, “Hi, everybody, it’s Elmo,” lightning presumably struck him, and according to writer Nancy Sans, “From that day forward, we would all write for Elmo."