Top 10 Secondary Characters Who Became Television Stars

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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.

9. Roger

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

Steve Urkel

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


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34 Comments

    • from imdb: “The series was intended to be a starring vehicle for Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross. As a result, the show’s initial focus was more on the parents, with the kids more as background characters.” – that was surprising! I will add him to the list – as well as Scott Valentine’s Nick character from the same show: intended to be on just one show but so popular he because a regular character – what a ‘hunk’! 🙂

  1. Tanya : Here is some trivia for you and I will try to be precise with this tidbit on Ted Knight as I am a trivial movie buff / nutcase when it comes to movies. Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Psycho” (1960). At the very end of the movie, Norman Bates (played incredibly by the late Anthony Perkins) is captured and in a padded cell room and sitting while wearing a Straitjacket. As the camera is going to down a corridor to Norman’s padded room, there is a Security Guard who opens the door to let one of the characters from the movie into the room. The Security Guard then closes the door and stands guard in front of the door. The Security Guard ??………is none other than Ted Knight. I thought you might like to know that……

  2. Spike on Buffy. He was only supposed to be a few episode arc and ended up staying in the rest of the series and then transferring to Angel when it was over.

  3. Kramer from Seinfeld. He really should have been on this list to begin with. And yes, he does count as a side character as much as Barney Stinson is one.

  4. this one may not make the cut but I would give a vote to Dwight Schrute from the office. To me at least he was funnier than Steve Carell’s character michael. and now that Carell is gone he is the hands down star of the show if you ask me.

    • Dwight Schrute was in the opening credits from day 1. I wouldn’t count him as a secondary character because there’s a whole lower tier of secondary characters below him and you could argue that someone like Andy or possibly Angela, Oscar, or Creed (it seems like everyone has their favorite) really broke out because they started out lower on the chain

  5. Half of these shows are terrible. Why did you talk about the American Dad guy as if the show doesnt air anymore. (past tense)

  6. Kim Kelly from the 1999 show Freaks and Geeks (played by Busy Phillips) was originally just going to be in the pilot episode, but she was so popular in the pilot that she became a major character in every episode.

  7. You’re probably a lot younger than me, so here’s some old school stuff that younger people may remember.

    How about Don Knotts as Barney Fife in the Andy Griffith show.
    The show was originally supposed to center around Andy and Aunt Bee raising Opie. Barney was a secondary character.

    Art Carney as Ed Norton in the Honeymooners.

    Vivian Vance and William Frawley as Fred and Ethyl Mertz in I Love Lucy.

    Mary Tyler Moore as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke show.
    The show was going to center around Rob’s work and Laura was supposed to catch his hat and listen to his stories. Supposedly Rose Marie was a little cranked, cause she was intended to be the lead female in the show. In the first year she’s introduced in the credits before Mary Tyler Moore.

    And finally, Cliff Claven. He wasn’t even in the opening credits the first year of Cheers. He originally auditioned for the part of Norm, and when he didn’t get it, pitched himself as the bar “know it all.”

    • @ Stephen Cook. That’s one heck of a compelling list that you have complied and never would have thought of it. The one that I like, however, is not a secondary TV character, but a secondary movie character. The Movie ? “Full Metal Jacket” directed by the legendary director Stanley Kubrick and the drill instructor Gunnery Sgt. Hartman portrayed by actor R. Lee Ermey. There was actually an actor that was hired for the part, but Kubrick was displeased with him. The purpose of Ermey to be on the set was because he was acting as a coach or instructor for the original part of Sgt. Hartman. Kubrick asked Ermey to fill in the actor’s shoes for a day of shooting, and Kubrick gave Ermey the role. Not only that but Ermey was one of only two actors that Kubrick gave a free reign to improvise if they chose. The other one ? The great Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove”.

  8. Ed Norton (Art Carney of “The Honeymooners”), Myrna Turner (Penny Marshall of “The Odd Couple, who went on to star in Laverne & Shirley and one of the better movie directors today). Ed McMahon (Johnny Carson’s second hand man. And Bea Arthur who started off as Edith’s cousin, Maude in “All In The Family” in which the series “Maude” was created, then “The Golden Girls

  9. Surely Eddie (the dog from Frasier) should at least get an honourable mention. His ineffable and undeniable cuteness makes practically every episode.
    It’s probably stupid to mention this, but Will & Grace could almost be renamed Jack & Karen (though I don’t think it would work as well if they weren’t supporting characters, but they’re still one of the best bits about the show).
    Also, Sue Sylvester from Glee was only supposed to be a recurring character because Jane Lynch was working on another project at the time, but when that fell through they made her a main part.
    I don’t know if this counts, but another Glee one would be Blaine. I think that originally Kurt’s love interest for season 2 was supposed to be Sam Evans played by Chord Overstreet, but allegedly Overstreet and Dianna Agron who plays Quinn had great chemistry on screen so they rejigged his character so that they could date. Which left the question of who Kurt would end up with, so the writers cooked up the dapper, blazer wearing dreamboat that was Blaine Anderson. Since then Blaine has had like a bajillion solos and his glee club The Warblers released their own album which became number one on iTunes and went on tour with the main cast. Blaine was so popular among fans that they transferred him from Dalton Academy to McKinley High in season 3 so that he could join New Directions and be in every episode even getting his own story arcs. Of course most of Blaine’s success is probably due to their casting of Darren Criss, who was already something of an internet sensation because he played Harry in A Very Potter Musical (not to mention he’s an adorkable, smouldering sex hobbit), but I remember reading once that he was actually thinking of giving up the dream of becoming an actor until Blaine came along and due to his success on Glee he’s been on Broadway, gotten parts in movies and I think even has a solo album in the works. So, yeah, does that count?
    I apologise for talking so much. Turns out I had alot to say on the matter and an alarming amount of random Glee trivia just swimming about in my head.

    (Sidenote: the character of Kurt was created especially for Chris Colfer who originally auditioned for Artie, but the creators liked him so much that they put a new character into the show just for him. So, when you think about it, without Chris Colfer there’d have been no Kurt, and without Kurt there’d have been no Blaine, and without Blaine there’d have been no Darren Criss (or not as much of him to be more correct) and my comment would’ve been a hell of lot shorter. I’m finished now, I swear. I bet no one’s even bothered to read this.)

  10. how about Stewie? he’s the most popular character in the show and he started out as practically a 3rd string QB compared to other characters on Family Guy.

  11. ?to me Hudson leik on “Xenia” I would only watch episodes that had Callisto she was a wicked babe and #1stunner!??

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