Top 10 Secondary Characters Who Became Television Stars
Sometimes, the TV character that you remember long after the show went off the air was not the one originally intended to be the star. Here are the ten greatest rises from TV sidekickdom to stardom- characters who were originally intended as side characters (sometimes even as one-episode guest stars) gradually outshining the star of the TV show.
10. Barney Stinson
Neil Patrick Harris, How I Met Your Mother
Six years ago, Bob Saget set out to tell his kids the story of how he and mom met. He would have been done with the damn story by now if he didn’t get sidetracked so often by being compelled to recount to them the misadventures of his slimy friend Barney. Of course, the explanation for this in TV land is that as Neil Patrick Harris’ comeback role of Barney caught on with the viewers and became the highlight of the show, the story lines shifted towards a Barney-heavy show. In the meantime, Harris has earned 6 Emmy nominations and a second career.
Seth MacFarlane, American Dad
The oblong extraterrestial character of Roger was a high-maintenance effeminate couch potato dwelling in the attic of CIA agent Stan Smith in the first couple of seasons. He was mostly an excuse for Seth MacFarlane to do a Paul Lynde impression and for the show to feature a talking animal akin to Brian. Roger was mostly confined to the attic and his only special ability was to poop gold (and figure skate). In later seasons, however, Roger has been the most fun character as well as practically God-like in his ability to don a disguise and completely transform into whatever person he wants to be.
8. Seth Cohen
Adam Brody, The O.C.
Intended to be a show about rich, hot teens in the O.C., the show was supposed to center around tough anti-hero Ryan who would shake up the sheltered life of Newport Beach denizens with his street-cred. Instead, it was comic book Seth Cohen who made the soap opera come to life as he transformed from uncool to cool before our very eyes. He even won over his childhood crush (Rachel Bilson) who he had previously never uttered a word to growing up. On top of that, no TV character outside of George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld has more successfully redefined the Christmas/Channukah holiday season.
7. Ellenor Frutt
Camryn Manheim, The Practice
Upon winning an Emmy, Manheim proudly exclaimed “This is for all the fat girls!” Manheim became a poster girl for all overweight women in Hollywood who were mostly in shows to meet diversity quotas. Manheim, who had written the off-broadway play “Wake up, I’m fat!” in 1995, proudly wore the mantle and served as an inspiration to women struggling with body image issues. Manheim’s Emmy win overshadowed any attention from the rest of the show at the time.
6. Pacey Witter
Joshua Jackson, Dawson’s Creek
It’s called Dawson’s Creek, so you would expect that the girl (Joey, played by Katie Homes) ends up with Dawson at the end, right? Well, Joshua Jackson started becoming a pretty interesting character right out of the gate. Pacey had a taboo sexual encounter with his 36-year old teacher followed by a continued courtship and subsequent scandal, and that was all by the end of the first season. From then on, Pacey becomes ample competition to Dawson and eventually gets the girl in the series finale. .
5. Niles Crane
David Hyde Pierce, Frasier
Frasier was originally pitched as an only child but the producers saw David Hyde Pierce’s head shot and decided to write him in the show because they saw a resemblance to Kelsey Grammer.
Niles was initially meant to just be the fussier version of Frasier but he really found a very unique niche with his part. He was never the “star” of the show, but it could be argued that he might have become the more interesting and ultimately the more empathetic character. He definitely had his grand comic moments and his courtship and eventual romantic union with Daphne was one for the ages. David Hyde Pierce worked so well that when Kelsey Grammer was getting treatment for drug problems in the fourth season, the writing staff rewrote the episode “Head Game” with Niles in Frasier’s place and the show didn’t miss a beat. (tv.com, kenlevine.blogspot.com)
4. Santana Lopez, Brittany S. Pearce, Michael Chang
Naya Rivera, Heather Morris, Harry Shum Jr., Glee
Rivera, Morris and Shum Jr. (along with Dijon Talton as Matt Rutherford) were little more than glorified extras in the first season of the mega-popular show. They were mostly known as the four additional members of the New Directions so that their group could reach the 12-member quota. As the melodramatics of the Quinn-Rachel-Finn love triangle and Kurt’s struggles with his sexual identity got old, the storylines of these three have made the show fresh in the late second and third seasons. Brittany has been an effective source of comic relief and provided a welcome counterpoint to the nastier and otherwise self-ambitious members of the New Directions. Michael Chang picked up a greater back story in “Asian F” with his struggle over his family’s objections to his dancing career. Meanwhile, Santana has had the biggest twist of the season with the revelation that her nastiness is due to the fact that she’s a closet lesbian and her hookups with Brittany are nothing less than painfully unrequited love.
3. Andy Sipowicz
Dennis Franz, NYPD Blue
Dennis Franz was originally set to be the sidekick to David Caruso (formerly of Hill Street Blues) who left after just one season. Jimmy Smits, another actor with a high pedigree, came in to replace Caruso but Franz’s character, described by Entertainment Weekly as a “broken-down drunkard,” stole the show and when Smits departed, NYPD Blue didn’t miss a beat. Franz won multiple Emmys for the role of Andy Sipowicz. The rocky courtship between Sipowicz and DA Sylvia Costa (Sharon Lawrence) was the first love interest written for Franz after nearly two decades of playing characters too gruff to merit romance. (ew.com)
2. Steve Urkel
Jaleel White, Family Matters
Premiering in 1989, Family Matters was originally written as a spin-off of the sitcom Perfect Strangers. The crossover character was Harriet Winslow (Jo Marie Payton) who was the elevator operator on the aforementioned show. The show was supposed to center around the Winslow clan with upstanding citizen Carl Winslow (Reginald van Johnson) trying to manage a household with three colorful kids, a sister-in-law, a nephew and mother providing more than ample fodder for a sitcom. Uber-nerd Steve Urkel was intended as a one-off character but was popular enough to get a recurring role for the rest of the season. (tv.com) (Editor: embedding seemed to be disabled on all of the Urkel videos so I added them to our Secondary TV Characters playlist on YouTube. If you see one that is embeddable let me know and I’ll post it.)
1. Arthur Fonzarelli
Henry Winkler, Happy Days
It’s hard to believe that a man named Henry (the same man who played Adam Sandler’s nebbish coach in Waterboy, no less) was once the epitome of cool, but Henry Winkler brought a charisma to the character of greaser Arthur Fonzarelli that made him an undeniable hit. As the website TVParty.com explains, “Never before had a series totally and shamelessly revamped its story lines, changed its method of production, even tinker with cast billing in order to exploit the phenomenal popularity of a supporting character.” Although the Fonz is now one of the most memorable characters in TV, he didn’t have more than a couple lines in the pilot episode. The producers originally intended for Warren “Potsie” Webber to be Richie’s more savvy confidante but the Fonz eclipsed him along the way. (tvparty.com)
Who Would Be In Your Top 10? Let us know and we’ll add the video to the playlist.
More Secondary TV Characters Who Became Television Stars
by Orrin Konheim