TV Show Recasting Decisions That Actually Worked

9 minute read

By Nick Steinberg (@Nick_Steinberg)

Given that most TV shows represent multi-year commitments for actors, it makes sense that their characters will sometimes outlive them (not in a literal sense, mind you, but that sadly is the case sometimes too). Depending on how important the character is to the ongoing plot, many can be written out of the show but for situations where this just isn’t possible, recasting is the inevitable result. This is always a risky proposition, as fans become attached to the actors playing their favorite characters and if a new actor comes along and gives a performance that is too different (or, in some cases, too similar) to what came before, it can be an alienating experience. Fortunately, there have been a number of recasting decisions that have been smooth transitions, with the following 12 actually arguably working out better than expected.

12. Daario Naharis – Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones has become somewhat notorious for its recasting decisions. While some have been barely noticeable (Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane comes to mind), others have been quite prominent. Perhaps the biggest actor swap belongs to Daario Naharis, the sellsword who becomes an ally and lover of Daenerys Targaryen. Introduced in the show’s third season, Daario was originally played by Ed Skrein, who left between seasons to play the lead role in The Transporter: Refueled (2015). Michiel Huisman took over in Season 4 and played Daario as more of a hunky warrior with a chip on his shoulder than the amoral mercenary presented in George R. R. Martin’s source material. While there are still fans of Skrein’s interpretation, most of the show’s viewers have long accepted Huisman as the definitive Daario.

Source: Screenshot via HBO

11. Aunt Viv – The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Admittedly, this is a difficult inclusion on this list because of the controversy surrounding it. Janet Hubert played Aunt Vivian for the first three seasons of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, only to be replaced by Daphne Maxwell Reid. This marked a noticeable divide in the earlier and later seasons, as both actresses played the character quite differently: Hubert’s character was a fiery, career-driven woman while Reid played Vivian as more of a homemaker and a nurturing presence for her children. There are conflicting accounts of the reasons behind Hubert’s exit, with Will Smith and Alfonso Ribeiro making comments over the years that suggest the actress was difficult to work with, while Hubert has offered a much different account of events. Regardless, both actresses did a wonderful job in the role and the question of who was the better Aunt Viv really comes down to personal preference.

Source: Screenshot via NBC

10. Alice – The Honeymooners

When it comes to the classic 1950s sitcom The Honeymooners, Audrey Meadows’ portrayal of Alice Kramden is just as essential as Jackie Gleason’s lead role as her husband Ralph. However, Meadows wasn’t the first actress to hold the role. Before being picked up as a series by CBS, The Honeymooners was a recurring sketch on the DuMont Network’s Cavalcade of Stars, where Alice was played by actress Pert Kelton. CBS decided to recast the role because Kelton had been blacklisted following the infamous McCarthy hearings, though producers at the time alleged that her departure was due to heart problems.

Source: Screenshot via CBS

9. Becky – Roseanne

The recasting of eldest daughter Becky on the hit sitcom Roseanne is somewhat unique in that it became a running gag that the series played up for laughs in later seasons. Actress Alicia Goranson played Becky up until the fifth season when she left to attend college. While Becky was initially written out, Roseanne’s producers decided that this left too much of a hole in the cast and Sarah Chalke (who would later become a regular on Scrubs) took over the role. Chalke would play Becky full time for the next two seasons but when Goranson finished college, she returned to the role in Season 8 … on a part-time basis.

In a peculiar move, Chalke kept playing Becky as well and the two actresses would alternate depending on their availability. This led to a number of in-jokes, such as when Roseanne remarks to Becky in one episode, “I can have you replaced, you know.” Goranson departed again for the ninth and final (at the time) season, with Chalke resuming full-time Becky duties but this switched again in the 2018 revival, with Goranson returning to play Becky and Chalke playing a new character named Andrea.

Source: Screenshot via ABC

8. Bobby Draper – Mad Men

Good child actors can be hard to come by, but Mad Men arguably landed one of the best in TV history with Kiernan Shipka, who played Don Draper’s daughter Sally for the show’s entire run and became more important to the story as she grew older and her talents improved. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Sally’s younger brother Bobby, who was played by four different actors over the course of the series. Maxwell Huckabee started playing Bobby in Season 1, only to be replaced by Aaron Hart later in the same season. Hart was then replaced by Jared S. Gilmore in Seasons 3, with Mason Vale Cotton taking over for Seasons 5 through 7.

While it’s difficult to gauge which Bobby was the best given how little the character was used on Mad Men, an argument can be made that Vale Cotton finally made the character work because he was able to last the longest and was never replaced.  On the flip side, you could also argue that every recasting worked, as most viewers probably never even noticed the changes in the first place (seamless right?). As for why Mad Men went through so many Bobbys, co-star John Slattery may have landed on the answer, as he once told an interviewer, “they’ve had about five Bobby Drapers and they can’t seem to find one who doesn’t look straight into the lens.”

Source: Screenshot via AMC

7. Spartacus – Spartacus

The Starz series Spartacus was a big hit for the network when it premiered in 2010 and one of the big reasons for the show’s success was Andy Whitfield’s dynamic performance as the titular gladiator-turned-slave uprising leader. Production on the second season had to be delayed after Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma but after a brief remission, cancer returned and Whitfield tragically passed away on September 11, 2011. The producers went ahead with a second and third season, giving actor Liam McIntyre the unenviable position of trying to fill Whitfield’s shoes. While Whitfield’s performance is generally accepted as being the superior one, McIntyre still did a great job in the role and the fact that the show was even able to work at all after losing its main star in such tragic fashion is a testament to the hard work of everyone involved.

Source: Screenshot via Starz

6. Kaitlin – The O.C.

Marissa Cooper’s younger sister Kaitlin didn’t become a prominent character until the third season of The O.C. After a few brief appearances in Season 1, Kaitlin didn’t even appear in Season 2 (she was away at boarding school, a classic soap opera trope used to age young characters quickly). When she eventually returned, she was played by Willa Holland (best known now for playing Thea Queen on Arrow), though most viewers probably didn’t even notice that Kaitlin was being played by a different actress. Season 1 Kaitlin was played by none other than Shailene Woodley, who has gone on to have a pretty successful film career, and Woodley actually re-auditioned for the role. However, producers felt she hadn’t grown up enough for the storylines they had in mind for the character, so the role went to Holland, who in real life is only five months older than Woodley.

Source: Screenshot via Fox

5. Michael and Gloria – All in the Family

Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner were a part of All in the Family right from the pilot episode, so many fans of the show may not realize that they were technically the third set of actors to play the roles of Gloria and her husband Michael. Initially, ABC was the original network set to produce All in the Family but rejected the first pilot largely due to a lack of chemistry between Kelly Jean Peters and Tim McIntire, the first pair to play Gloria and Michael, respectively. Series creator Norman Lear produced a second pilot with Candice Azzara and Chip Oliver in the roles, but ABC still wasn’t satisfied and sold the rights to CBS.

A third and final pilot was shot, this time with Struthers and Reiner, and CBS decided to officially pick up the series, which aired from 1971 to 1979 before being re-titled to Archie Bunker’s Place, a sequel series of sorts that ran for four more seasons. All in the Family also produced a number of spinoffs, both successful (The Jeffersons) and less so (Gloria, based on Struthers’ character, only ran for one reason from 1982-83).

Source: Screenshot via Sony Pictures Television

4. Munroe Sisters – Charlie’s Angels

This entry is cheating a little bit in that Farrah Fawcett and Cheryl Ladd technically played different characters on Charlie’s Angels but considering Ladd played the younger sister of Fawcett’s Jill Munroe, the two might as well have had the same character. Fawcett’s departure after the first season was a huge blow and many thought Charlie’s Angels wouldn’t be able to continue without its most high profile star. Despite having misgivings about coming on to play Kris Munroe, Cheryl Ladd hit the ground running in season two and would continue in the role for the rest of the show’s five-season run. Although Fawcett is still closely associated with Charlie’s Angels, it’s hard to imagine the series without Ladd now.

Source: Screenshot via Columbia Pictures Television

3. The First Doctor – Doctor Who

Doctor Who has become well known for routinely recasting its titular Time Lord and it’s hard to think of another series that has found as ingenious an in-universe explanation to explain why the same character keeps having different appearances. In 1966, William Hartnell — who played the First Doctor — was forced to exit the series due to deteriorating health, prompting writer Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd to come up with a solution that would not only explain the change in actors but possibly help revitalize the show’s ratings as well.

Thus, the pair came up with the idea that the Doctor could “die” and come back to life in a new body so that viewers weren’t jarred when Patrick Troughton emerged from the Tardis as the Second Doctor. Doctor Who is now on its 13th Doctor — Jodie Whittaker — and the first one played by a woman and the series has continued to evolve the regeneration concept along the way.

Source: Screenshot via BBC Studios

2. Meg – Family Guy

Recastings aren’t just limited to live-action series, as many animated series have also had to shuffle around voice talents for the same character. One of the most prominent voice recastings arguably came in the early run of Family Guy. Originally, Meg Griffin was voiced by Lacey Chabert during the first season but Chabert’s school and other TV commitments (she was a regular on Party of Five at the time) forced her to exit the role. That ’70s Show actress Mila Kunis became the voice of Meg in Season 2 and has held the role ever since.

Source: Screenshot via Fox

1. Ann – Arrested Development

Arrested Development fans will know that the running joke with George Michael’s girlfriend Ann Veal is that she’s forgettable and unnoticeable (“Her?”). Which makes it even more perfect than she was played by two different actresses and most viewers probably never even noticed. Apparently, the show’s creators wanted Ann to be played by a different actress in each episode to really hammer home the gag but they only got as far as two. Alessandra Torresani played Ann for one episode, only to be replaced by Mae Whitman, who held the role for the rest of Arrested Development’s run and even came back for the Netflix revival in 2013.

Source: Screenshot via 20th Television/Netflix

Nick Steinberg (@Nick_Steinberg)