Top Ten TV Characters Who Started As Minor Parts

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Television is littered with great characters who you know right away you want to cheer for or root against from the moment you see them. Typically, these are the protagonists and antagonists as designed by the creators of these shows, but every once in awhile the audience will, for whatever reason, latch onto a fringe character and respond to the way the actor plays the role so well that the writers are forced to turn the part into a major cog in the show. Here are some of our favorite characters who, believe it or not, were never originally intended to be major parts.

10. Columbo (Columbo)

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We know what you’re thinking. How could the titular character of a show have ever been conceived as a minor part? Well, in the case of Columbo, the legendary detective portrayed by Peter Falk, it happened when the character was originally just a supporting part in The Chevy Mystery Show, in a story that did not even feature Falk in the role. Eventually that episode was remade into a TV movie called Prescription: Murder, with Falk taking over as the detective, who was supposed to be a secondary character.

However, Falk was so good in the role and audiences responded so well that the makers quickly shifted course and devised an entire series around this detective, and the rest, as they say, is history.

9. Faith (Buffy)

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Obviously, considering one of the taglines of the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer is “Into each generation, a slayer is born” it should be pretty obvious that no slayers other than Buffy should technically ever even exist, let alone become major characters. However, considering how many times Buffy died and came back to life over the course of the show, of course you’re going to have a slayer or two pop up here and there. And yes, nerds, we know it wasn’t Buffy’s death that “activated” Faith as a slayer, but another slayer named Kendra. Settle down and go watch Hush again.

One of those slayers was Faith, the dangerous and borderline psychopathic sometimes friend and sometimes rival of Buffy, played by Eliza Dushku. She was originally written primarily to be, to quote Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark, a shadowy reflection of Buffy. However, she was so immensely popular that Whedon and his writers found every opportunity to bring her back, including giving her a redemptive arc on the spin off show Angel.

8. Castiel (Supernatural)

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In season four of the show Supernatural, an angel named Castiel is introduced after it turns out he pulled the character of Dean Winchester out of hell. You’d think that guy would be set up as a main character from the start, right? Well, that’s not really the way it was supposed to happen. The character was actually only supposed to appear in a few episodes and then be replaced by a different character who would serve as a guide of sorts for the Winchester brothers.

However, the character and especially the actor, Misha Collins, were such an immediate hit with the fans that the writers scuttled that idea and Castiel became more and more crucial to the show, being resurrected from the dead multiple times and actually becoming a god-like creature at one point. Supernatural has a habit of turning small roles into integral ones. Aside from Castiel, the role of Bobby Singer was also intended to be minor and in fact actor Jim Beaver only expected to appear in one episode, but was so immensely popular and had such great chemistry with the leads that he became a series regular.

7. Ben Linus (Lost)

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We would be remiss if we didn’t include Ben Linus, who went from being a bit character to an evil mastermind and one of the most frightening, not to mention punchable, characters in television history. When he was first introduced, the character wasn’t even named Ben Linus. He went under the name Henry Gale in a reference to the Wizard of Oz, and he was intended to be only a minion of the real leaders of the Others. He was originally only hired for three episodes.

However, Michael Emerson’s performance was so outstanding that the writers ultimately decided he needed to be much more prominent, and they changed the storyline to make the seemingly meek character of Gale into the must more sinister and mesmerizing character of Ben Linus, the leader of the Others and one of the creepiest and greatest antagonists we’ve ever seen on TV.

6. Miles O’Brien (Star Trek: The Next Generation/Deep Space Nine)

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Usually, if you’re a nameless redshirt in the Star Trek universe, chances are you’re going to be killed off in a pretty unceremonious way without anyone giving you a second thought. However, that was not the case with Miles O’Brien, who began as a redshirt and, ultimately, became one of the stars of the series. Played by Colm Meaney, when he made his first appearance in the pilot for TNG he was not given a name, and in fact over the course of the series his name, when he finally got one, was changed, as was his rank. That’s how unimportant he was.

After slowly evolving into an actual character over the course of TNG, by the time Deep Space Nine rolled around O’Brien was one of the main protagonists on the show. Still, it wasn’t until halfway through even that show in which the writers actually decided what rank he should have, meaning even when he was a main character, he was clearly still viewed, at least a little bit, like the minor redshirt from his first appearance.

5. Jesse Pinkman (Breaking Bad)

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Breaking Bad is one of the most critically acclaimed shows in television history, centering around Brian Cranston’s iconic portrayal of Walter White, a teacher turned drug kingpin. And at his side is Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul in a role that has won him accolades and awards, even though the character has, at this point, long outlived its initial purpose.

As it turns out, the character of Jesse Pinkman was supposed to be killed off during the first season of the show, a fact that Paul did not find out until a random lunch with series creator Vince Gilligan. Paul was just so good in the role, and the character proved to be so interesting and showed such tremendous chemistry (pun intended) with White that they decided to keep him around for awhile, leading to what will undoubtedly be remembered as the role of Aaron Paul’s lifetime.

4. Steve Urkel (Family Matters)

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When you think of the show Family Matters, assuming you ever actually think of the show Family Matters, there are probably two things that immediately spring to mind. The first is that it’s a bit weird that the cop who loved Twinkies in Die Hard apparently got a spin off show in which he plays a Chicago cop, and the second is Steve Urkel. Arguably the most famous nerd in TV history, Urkel actually inspired dolls, games, and even a freaking cereal.

What makes this even more impressive is the fact that, originally, Urkel was supposed to appear in only one episode as the nerdy neighbor of the Winslow family but the audiences took to him so quickly and the makers of the show were so impressed by Jaleel White that, by the end of the show, he was absolutely the focal point, for better or worse. We’re leaning toward worse.

3. Arthur Fonzarelli (Happy Days)

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Let’s be honest here, you’d have never heard of Henry Winkler were it not for Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, which has become one of the most iconic characters in the history of television, or even movies, for that matter. His leather jacket is in the Smithsonian, and a phrase has even been coined to signal when a show has completely lost it based on a scene in which Fonzie quite literally jumps a shark on water skis.

However, when the show Happy Days was originally conceived, Fonzie was supposed to be only a minor fringe character, and in fact when he debuted the makers of the show wouldn’t even let him wear his eventual trademark leather jacket because they thought it was just too edgy. It got to the point where the Fonz was not only great at magically turning on jukeboxes, but he could also fight off aliens through the power of cool. No, seriously. That actually happened. Anyway, over the years the Fonz went from a minor character to one who has been given his own statue in the city of Milwaukee, where the show was set.

2. JR Ewing (Dallas)

Larry Hagman In 'Dallas'

One of the most infamous characters in television history, JR Ewing is one of the all-time great villains on the small screen or even the big screen. The entire world was fascinated by the plotline of who shot JR, the oil tycoon from Texas, to the point where that storyline was mimicked years later by The Simpsons.

Played by the legendary Larry Hagman, a Texas native who instinctively just got the character of JR from having grown up around people like the Ewings, and it was that intimate knowledge with the character that helped him grow from a minor part to one of the most recognizable characters in TV history. Initially he was intended to play just a minor supporting part as the show was set to focus on the characters of Bobby Ewing and Pam Barnes, but his performance, and the character itself, was just so good that he quickly became the focal point.

1. Frasier Crane (Cheers/Frasier)

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So you might be wondering why, after we have just covered iconic television characters like Fonzie and JR, why we decided to give the top spot to Frasier? Well it’s simple, really. When you have a character originally slated to only appear in a few episodes, and the actor parlays that brief guest appearance into playing the character for 20 years and earning Emmy nominations on three different shows, you have to just tip your hat and say that’s the absolute best job of ever taking a minor part and turning it into something special.

Originally, he was only supposed to appear on a few episodes of Cheers as a romantic rival for Ted Danson’s Sam Malone, but both the audience and the writers, as well as the other actors, loved Kelsey Grammer and his performance too much to let him get away. So, he quickly became a series regular and ultimately earned his own spin off show, which was one of the rare spin offs that actually rivals the original in terms of quality.


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13 Comments

  1. A worthy top stop. Kelsey Grammer is an amazing actor and he brought the character to life. He is a perfect example for a minor character that turned into something amazing thanks to good acting. Another role that pops into my head is Amy from Everybody Loves Raymond. Lets forget that she “slept with the producer” (as Phil Rosenthal puts it himself frequently in commentary as a joke), she can turn a whole seen into something brilliant. She’s so unique in that family and she’s so out of place that she just fits perfectly in. In the first season when she was introduced she was nothing special, but the moment she married Rob and became a constant regular in the series you couldn’t imagine the remaining series without her.

  2. Harry Morgan – known for playing Colonel Potter in Mash. He appeared in an earlier part of the series as a visiting General. They were that impressed, that they had him added later in the series to replace Henry Blake.

  3. Fonzie wasn’t allowed to wear his leather jacket unless he was on or near his motorcycle. Only thugs wore leather jackets unless they had motorcycles. Then it was for safety.

  4. Martin Sheen was originally only supposed to have a guest role on The West Wing, appearing for a couple of scenes from time to time. Walton Goggins was not originally supposed to survive in the pilot of Justified. Both plans got scrapped after enough people got to see the pilot episodes (in the case of TWW, I think, it was even earlier, so impressive was Sheen during shooting).

  5. Neil Flynn as the janitor/ Dr Jan Itor from scrubs, was supposed to only appear in first episode but Scrubs creators liked him so much they gave him more lines, originally in the first season it was only going to be JD who acknowledges him as he is a figment of his imagination but was expanded to become a major supporting character in the sitcom.

  6. If a character was going to be cited from Buffy, I think it should be Spike (James Marsters). He was supposed to be around for a few episodes, was originally supposed to be southern, but he was such a hit he stayed through the duration of the show. I would argue he had more of a long-term impact on the characters and the show. Just my two cents.

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