What makes a show a certified ratings giant? The plot, first and foremost, should be interesting, witty, and involving. Second, is the script. It should captivate the audience from beginning to end because with the pace by which the world moves now, the public’s attention is so easily shifted to something newer and more fascinating. Last and probably the most crucial, are the actors portraying the show’s characters. Who doesn’t have a favorite character in a favorite show, one you can relate to, laugh with, and cry with? An actor portraying a well-loved character in a show is almost always assured of a successful career while they're playing the character.
However, sometimes, these actors choose to break free of their characters. Maybe they don’t want to be stereotyped into the character they play. So when it’s contract negotiation time, they opt not to renew so that they can take on other projects in hopes of a more lucrative career. Conversely, there are some actors who are difficult to work with, giving their cast members and directors such a headache with their attitude, that the producers themselves decide not to offer the actor a contract renewal.
So the show’s writers are left with a problem. How do they write off the beloved character? How do they break it as gently as possible to the fans? A gruesome death? A long, extended trip? Any which way the writers decide to go always dismays the fans for the loss of the character, who has become a fixture in the show.
Some hit shows go on even after the actor leaves while others get cancelled. Subsequently, some actors who tap out of their shows go on to have successful careers (hello, George Clooney after ER!)—while others end up with a string of failed projects, making some of them wonder if leaving the popular series was the right decision.
Here’s a list of actors, in no particular order, who left their hit shows prematurely—and have yet to score a hit or have achieved little success after leaving.
10 Mischa Barton: The OC
With small, but noteworthy roles as a child actress in blockbuster hits like Notting Hill and Sixth Sense, Mischa Barton showed a lot of promise as an actress. She got her big break in the syndicated TV show, The OC, where she played Marissa Cooper, a wealthy, troubled teenager. She was catapulted into fame almost instantly and received several Teen Choice Awards. Although by the time the third season was filming, Barton had decided to end her contract to pursue movie roles. Her character died in a car accident in the third season finale and Barton has been almost obscure ever since, making a few not-so-popular movies and running into the law.
9 Shannen Doherty: Beverly Hills 90210 and Charmed
Shannen Doherty is notorious for being difficult to work with. She had a great thing going when she was chosen to play Brenda Walsh in the wildly popular 1990's hit show, Beverly Hills 90210. She received a Young Artist Award nomination for her role and garnered a huge fan base as the show continued to soar through the ratings. However, due to her not-so-delectable behavior and attitude, producers decided to slowly ease the character off the show. They sent Brenda to London indefinitely.
History repeated itself when she was playing Prue Halliwell in the hit show Charmed. The character was killed off in the third season purportedly due to tensions between Doherty and co-star, Alyssa Milano.
8 Courtney Thorne-Smith: Ally McBeal
Originally auditioning for the titular character Ally McBeal, Courtney Thorne-Smith was instead cast as Georgia Thomas, wife of Ally’s ex-boyfriend, and a fellow lawyer. The love triangle served as a central theme of the show and it looked like Thorne-Smith was settling comfortably into her role. However, it took many by surprise when the actress decided to leave the show after the third season, saying she was struggling with weight problems, but not the heavy kind. She was too skinny, saying she was feeling the pressure of having to compete with her waif-like co-stars, Calista Flockhart and Portia De Rossi. Needless to say, she never really moved beyond the small screen thereafter.
7 Topher Grace: That 70's Show
6 Dan Stevens: Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey fans said they had the “worst Christmas ever” in 2012, when Dan Stevens’ beloved character, Matthew Crawley was killed off in a car crash in the period TV drama’s Christmas special. Like all his co-stars, Stevens’ contract with the show was only up to three years. However, unlike them, he opted not to renew and refused to even become a recurring character. This left the writer no choice but to kill off Matthew in a car crash in the last few seconds of the episode. Since the show made him a household name, Stevens wanted to strike while the iron was hot and try to make it in Hollywood. It’s been over a year since he left Downton and he has yet to have anything ground-breaking role to show for his career outside of it.
5 Katherine Heigl: Grey’s Anatomy
Dr. Izzie Stevens was a fixture in Grey’s Anatomy, making the character the one that Katherine Heigl is most known for. Her portrayal of Izzie was a big part of the show’s success and it even garnered her an Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress in a TV series. However, after doing some movies while in the show, rumors started circulating that she wanted to leave it. The hearsay turned out to be true. In the middle of Season 6, in which Heigl was still under contract, she reportedly failed to show up for work as scheduled and she and the producers came to a quick agreement to terminate her contract. This resulted in her character’s abrupt departure from the storyline.
4 Shelley Long: Cheers
Who would want to leave one of the most successful sitcoms of all time, after winning a slew of awards for one’s role? Apparently, Shelley Long did, after playing leading lady, Diane Chambers for five seasons. She said she wanted to focus on a movie career and her family, claiming Cheers was too demanding of her time. What followed was a so-so movie career and she was never able to achieve the same success in other endeavors outside of Cheers. Since her character wasn't killed off, she returned for the finale to give her character some closure after six years of absence.
3 Wayne Rogers: M*A*S*H
2 David Caruso: NYPD Blue
When referring to actors who mistakenly left too soon, David Caruso is almost always used as an example. His first big role was that of Detective John Kelly on the hit TV series NYPD Blue. The role catapulted him to stardom and he won a Golden Globe award for it. Due to a salary dispute with producers, Caruso up and left the show, to the shock of many fans. He struggled with his efforts to venture into movies and it was on the small screen where he found some success again a decade later in the CSI franchise. Still, his departure from NYPD Blue is considered one of the top 10 biggest blunders on TV.
1 Farrah Fawcett: Charlie’s Angels
She’s known for her lustrous gold locks just as much as she’s known for her role as Jill Munroe in the 1970's TV series, the highly popular Charlie’s Angels. Farrah Fawcett was propelled to fame and stardom for her sexy, yet kick-ass role. Her departure after only one season was very much speculated about over the years. Hearsay was that she wanted to expand her career into movies. Other rumors stated that her demanding schedule was putting a strain on her marriage to then husband Lee Majors. Whatever the reason, her departure from the show was wrought with controversy, as she had to face lawsuits for breaching her contract, making many people wonder if all that trouble was worth her early exit.