How To Replace the Dearly Departed Character

The Two Darrins.

It’s become a pop culture touchstone. Rather than get rid of the character of Darrin Stephens on Bewitched when Dick York’s back health began to decline, the show simply hired Dick Sergeant to replace him for the rest of the series. However, this sort of swap happened earlier in the show’s run. Alice Pearce originated the role of nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz, however sadly died of cancer after only two seasons. She was replaced by Sandra Gould, who remained Gladys for the rest of the show.

Replacing departing characters can be a challenge for a show, especially if the show is riding high in the ratings. One false move and the popularity can tank. Pick the wrong actor or create the wrong character, and the chemistry of the show is forever altered in a way that renders it unwatchable. But get the right person combined with the right character, and it’s like finding gold all over again.

Not all actor departures can be helped. Death is inevitable. It comes for us all and it comes at the most inconvenient times. It can leave shows in the lurch about what to do.

One of the earliest instances of death taking out a major player happened on Wagon Train when Ward Bond died. His Major Seth Adams had been leading that wagon train for years. Then one day he was gone and Christopher Hale, played by John McIntire, was in his place, and nobody said anything about the missing major. This approach would also become a tactic to deal with the departure of living actors as well. See Gutterman (James Whitmore Jr), TJ (Robert Ginty), and Anderson (John Laroquette) on Baa Baa Black Sheep.

But it’s not always handled that way.

Dan Blocker died suddenly just prior to the final season of Bonanza. The season premier was to feature his character Hoss and as a result had to be rewritten. Hoss wasn’t just a main character, but a beloved one, and there was no way his character could just disappear from the show without remark. So it was said that Hoss died in an accident.

Jack Soo’s death from cancer was not sudden or unexpected. As his illness worsened, his character Nick Yemana showed up less and less. The show broke form after Jack Soo’s death for the retrospective episode, with the ensemble highlighting their co-star’s best moments while also offering some words about him as a person and a friend. It was never expressly stated that Nick died, but it was definitely implied, and though the character of Care Levitt, played by Ron Carey, was seen more often in the squad room in a detective role, I don’t think it would be accurate to say that Nick Yemana was ever replaced.

Some actors do leave of their own accord and their characters are either killed off or sent off, creating a void that must be filled.

This did happen on Bonanza when Pernell Roberts chose to leave the show. Logic dictated to replace one Cartwright with another and since it would be awkward to pull another half-brother out of the hat, they brought in cousin Will Cartwright, played by Guy Williams. He lasted all of five episodes before being cut loose from the show, supposedly due to Michael Landon’s insecurities surrounding Williams’s good looks.

But usually, the replacement characters stick around a little bit longer.

Frequently, shows would attempt to replace one character with a similar character, sometimes in appearance, usually in personality. The idea was understandable: don’t shake up the vibe too much. They knew what worked and wanted to stick with it. And sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.

If you ask my opinion (and you’re reading my blog, so clearly you’re here for my thoughts), M*A*S*H* set the gold standard when it came to character replacement.

Between the third and fourth season, the show lost two major players: McLean Stevenson’s Henry Blake was shipped home on an ill-fated trip in the third season finale, and Wayne Roger’s Trapper John McIntyre was shipped home in one piece before the fourth season premier and while Hawkeye was on R&R.

Instead of replacing these two popular characters with ones of a similar ilk, they chose to replace them with characters that were very different from their predecessors.

Colonel Henry Blake, whose leadership was once described by Hawkeye as being on a sinking ship and running to the front of the ship to find the captain was Daffy Duck, was a good doctor, but a lousy military man and struggled to be effective in a leadership role, and ended up being replaced by Colonel Sherman Potter, surgeon and career military man. Meanwhile, lady’s man Trapper John was replaced by dedicated family man BJ Hunnicutt.

Bringing in two new characters is a big challenge, but to make them quite different from the ones they replaced feels like something of a gamble. One that, of course, paid off. Sure there were some growing pains, as is natural when new people come into an established setting, but it wasn’t long before they found their places in the scheme of things.

This was repeated when Larry Linville’s Major Frank Burns was sent home when he kinda lost his head when Margaret got married and was replaced by Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, played by David Ogden Stiers, who was literally assigned to the 4077th because he beat a colonel at cribbage.

Frank Burns was a unique weasel of a character that loved the authority because of the importance it gave him, but whose plans to acquire it backfired typically through his own incompetence or because of Hawkeye, Trapper, and/or BJ. Not to mention he was a lousy doctor. Though he had his moments of humanity, Burns was a largely insufferable, irredeemable character and Larry Linville portrayed him brilliantly for five seasons.

On the flip side, Winchester was a much more formidable adversary against Hawkeye and BJ when it came to shenanigans, as he was just a smart, and he was a gifted surgeon as well. He, too, could be insufferable, his arrogance usually getting the best of him, but he was much more human than Burns could ever be. Winchester was also more frequently an ally to Hawkeye and BJ. Though Charles was often the foil, there was a mutual respect at play, something that never would have happened with Burns.

One replacement that kind of wasn’t a replacement served to be a very interesting replacement. If you follow me.

Usually when we think of replacements, we think of one character leaving and a whole new character coming in. However, when Gary Burghoff left the show, his character Radar O’Reilly going home to take care of his mother and the family farm after his Uncle Ed died, the 4077th didn’t get a brand new company clerk. They got Klinger.

In-house promotions happen and we got to see that adjustment in real time, with Klinger struggling to learn a new job and the rest of the camp to struggling to to deal with Klinger’s struggles. The change got Klinger out of the dresses for the most part, but allowed his character to grow in an unanticipated way without losing the guy we’d come to know and love, the guy who’d had a friendship with the character he replaced.

M*A*S*H did a lot of things right -it’s got the 11 seasons and Emmy awards to prove it- but the way the show replaced characters in a way that reflected how people come and go in life, with new personalities replacing old, dynamics shifting, and new normals being established, was supreme. Like I said -the show set the standard.

Replacing dearly departed characters is a challenge and every show meets that challenge differently. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we’re gifted in with characters that exceed our expectations and steal our hearts. And sometimes we wish they’d never been written.

But I guess that’s a little like how life works, too.

The Unconventional Bromance of Thomas Magnum and Jonathan Higgins

Not everyone believes in soulmates and that’s fine. I’m not judging you. People can’t even seem to agree on the definitive definition of a soulmate. My preferred explanation is that a soulmate is a person who comes into your life to stimulate your growth. Maybe it’s just for a short time, maybe it’s forever, but they are there for a purpose and that purpose is to nudge you into being a better version of yourself.

Most people who buy into the concept of soulmates focus on romantic soulmates, twin flames burning in the night, but they are not the only kind. There are also platonic soulmates (think your best friend) and antagonistic soulmates.

It would be that last category that Thomas Magnum and Jonathan Higgins fall into.

During the eight season run of Magnum PI, the relationship between Magnum and Higgins evolved from purely antagonistic to friends of a sort. Not the hang out and have a beer kind of friends, or the invite to them to your party kind of friends. But still, friends. Sort of.

The first episodes of the series establish that Higgins and Magnum are to be each other’s foil and their dislike is mutual. Magnum is a thorn in Higgins’s side and Higgins is a constant cramp in Magnum’s style. The only reason they’re in each other’s lives is because they work for the same man (though Higgins might argue that what Magnum does constitutes work), and Higgins is usually dragged into Magnum’s shenanigans against his will.

However, even in those earlier episodes it’s established that there’s at the very least a certain understanding between the two men.

My favorite first season example of this is an episode called “Thicker Than Blood”. TC gets busted smuggling an AWOL buddy who once saved his life into Hawaii and he looks ready and willing to take the fall. Magnum and Rick are desperate to help him. In the course of their investigation, Magnum needs to use the dark room to blow up photos of the ship TC picked up his buddy on, but he has to get through Higgins to get the name of the vessel. The typical bartering is thrown off because Magnum’s need to help TC overrides everything and he offers to move out of the guesthouse, which trips up Higgins even though he accepts. In the end, Magnum stays put because Higgins claims he can’t move out until he does a proper inventory and that will take a while.

But we all know it was because Higgins understood what Magnum was going through trying to help a friend. Being a military man himself, it’s not stretch to surmise that he understands the depths of the bonds created during service.

In the second season episode “Tropical Madness”, a young woman takes a liking to Higgins, which makes Magnum suspect that she’s up to no good. Though Higgins insists that it’s Magnum’s ego driving him, Magnum’s persistence uncovers that the young woman does have an ulterior motive. Okay, maybe Magnum’s ego does play into it, but there’s also a sincere concern for Higgins there, too. He doesn’t want to see the man get hurt, broken heart or something worse.

This is the rhythm of their dynamic. The aggravate each other, antagonize each other (sometimes intentionally), barter with each other, but there’s a mutual respect that’s built on that develops into a more genuine, if odd, kind of friendship.

Part of this understanding is because Magnum knows what kind of man Higgins is. He’s uptight and proper and has some control issues, but Magnum also knows that he’s a good man, one that lives by a strict moral and ethical code. Why else would Magnum work so hard to clear Higgins’s name in the Season 3 episode “Foiled Again”, in which it looks like Higgins is responsible for the death of an old rival during a fencing match. Magnum knows that Higgins didn’t intentionally kill the man and he refuses to let him take the fall for it, even if Higgins is doing it to protect someone else.

In another Season 3 episode, “Black on White”, Magnum goes to extreme lengths to protect Higgins from an apparent attempt on his life without his knowledge. What starts off as a bit of a silly ploy to capture the assassin -Magnum faking an illness to have himself and Higgins quarantined in the guest house- gets very serious when the whole plot is revealed to Higgins and then Higgins reveals that a massacre in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising happened on his watch. Magnum is the one helping to coax Higgins into opening up. For someone who often tells stories at a drop of a hat, this is one tale that Higgins didn’t want to tell.

Magnum is on the receiving end of another personal story from Higgins in the Season 4 episode “Holmes is Where the Heart Is”. Magnum is obsessed with getting into Higgins’s office to retrieve a camera lens, but Higgins has locked himself away to work on a very specific story for his memoirs, one about an old friend named David Worth who thought himself to be Sherlock Holmes. Eventually, Magnum gets in the office and reads the unfinished story, not taking it seriously until he sees the state Higgins is in and the absolute ire of his reaction to Magnum’s intrusion. However, Magnum is able to coax the rest of the story from Higgins, helping to relieve the emotional burden the man has been carrying.

Likewise, Higgins gains an understanding of what kind of man Magnum is. He might be irresponsible, uncouth, and a bit of leech on his friends, but he also has a deep sense of justice and loyalty, particularly for those his cares about.

Which is why Higgins is also affected when Magnum ended up stranded at sea in the Season 4 opener “Home from the Sea”. Though at the time no one knew that Magnum was in trouble, Rick, TC, and Higgins all have unexplained, uneasy feelings about him. In Higgins’s case, it’s right after he says something unpleasant about Magnum that he suddenly regrets it. He’s just as plagued by the feeling that something is wrong as Magnum’s two besties and joins them in their search. In fact, it’s Higgins that jumps in and does the ultimate save. Whether either man would admit it, it’s that loyalty that bonds them.

That loyalty is also why Higgins joins Magnum, Rick, and TC in what they’re told is a rescue mission for an old friend in Cambodia in the Season 5 two-parter “All for One”. Higgins has no obligation to go (and first season Higgins almost assuredly wouldn’t go) and yet he shows up just the same. Maybe a little bit of his motivation is to go on one more adventure like those of his youth, but the bigger part is that he cares about these men, in particular Magnum. He’s not going to let them go off without him, even if this isn’t his fight.

As the seasons go on, we see just how much these men care for each other, in big and small ways.

Higgins doesn’t fret any less than anyone else in the Season 5 episode “Mac’s Back”. Magnum swears he’s seen Mac, who’s been dead for a couple of seasons by this point, and his friends worry about his sanity. While Higgins chastises Rick for pacing and TC for working his hat, TC points out that Higgins has been drinking out of an empty tea cup for 30 minutes. He’s just as concerned for Magnum’s mental health than the other two.

In the Season 6 opener “Deja Vu”, Magnum and Higgins are in England. Magnum is investigating his friend’s death while Higgins is trying to help the major domo of another of Robin Masters’s estates. One part of the B-story is that Higgins is finally in a position to visit his father and heal a decades old rift, but is reluctant to do so. Magnum is the one who gives him that push (or more accurately, kidnaps him and dumps him on the doorstep). Magnum gives Higgins a similar push in the Season 7 finale “Limbo”, in which it’s revealed that Magnum sent Higgins’s memoirs to a publisher.

Throughout the series Magnum and Higgins find ways to help each other like that. Magnum taking on cases to help Higgins or his friends; Higgins helping Magnum out with cases; Magnum helping Higgins deal with all of his half-brothers; Higgins giving Magnum advice or a few words of wisdom.

By Season 7, their relationship has evolved to the extent they have a prank war in “Paper War”, evidence of their interactions having grown from mostly antagonistic to something approaching good-natured.

The Thomas Magnum and Jonathan Higgins we see in the series finale “Resolutions” are not the same Thomas Magnum and Jonathan Higgins we’re first introduced to in the series premier “Don’t Eat the Snow in Hawaii”. No, they haven’t changed so much that we don’t recognize them. They’re still fundamentally the same and they still get on each other’s nerves.

But Higgins isn’t quite as uptight as he used to be.

And Magnum isn’t quite as immature as he used to be.

It’s a growth that they couldn’t have achieved without each other.

Rerun Junkie Show Analysis–The Pride of the Ol’ 1-2

Since it’s Pride Month, I wanted to do a post on the gay representation on Barney Miller, just a quick overview of it because there’s really quite a bit I could pick apart and analyze and also because Marty Morrison really deserves his own character post.


Barney Miller was known for depicting the less dramatic, weirder side of law enforcement. It also pushed and poked at many social issues of the time. Some of them were very specific to that moment, like the budget crisis and the fallout from Vietnam, but many of the issues the show presented are still very relevant today. One striking aspect of the show is the representation of gay men in the form of recurring characters Marty Morrison (Jack DeLeon), Mr. Darryl Driscoll (Ray Stewart), and Officer Zatelli (Dino Natali). I read somewhere that show creator Danny Arnold worked with gay groups to get the portrayal of these characters right.  Instead of relying heavily on stereotypes (thought Marty is a classic catty gay man) or presenting them as unnatural or deviant, the show depicted them as humans facing societal challenges, bigotry, and discrimination due to their sexual orientation.

I love Marty Morrison and the pizzazz that Jack DeLeon brought to that character. He was out because it was impossible for him to be in. A petty criminal, he stole my heart as well as purses. In his first appearance on the show there’s a scene in which Barney tells Marty to get a real job and Marty tells him that he’s had “more jobs than you have hair on your head”. He also tells him that he tried to join the police force, but that they turned him down for being gay (“What’s wrong with a gay cop? There are gay robbers.”). Perhaps it’s just me reading into the scene, but there’s a suggestion there that part of the reason for Marty’s criminal behavior is because of his difficulty to hold a job as an out gay man in the 1970s. Or even get one. At the time, I would imagine that most jobs okay with his sexuality were few and far between and most likely limited to very specific industries.

It was through Marty that the show introduced Mr. Darryl Driscoll. The character was first somewhat effeminate, but throughout the appearances, that lessened in favor of Ray Stewart giving the character a more sophisticated personality. His first introduction to the squad room saw him being hustled by a fake cop, threatened with violence if he didn’t give the man money. His reluctance to actually go to the police to file a report echoes the real fear the gay community had (and still has) in regards to law enforcement. Later on in the series it was revealed that Mr. Driscoll had been married and had a son, something not uncommon for gay men. The resulting custody dispute on the surface seemed to be the result of the former Mrs. Driscoll’s opposition to Mr. Driscoll’s sexuality and shielding their son from that. In reality, the reason was more mundane: Mrs. Driscoll was tired of being the bad guy because Mr. Driscoll indulged his son during his visitations.

It was Officer Zatelli who got the truth from Mrs. Driscoll. A uniformed officer in a similar duty role to Ron Carey’s Officer Levitt, Officer Zatelli first showed up in the fourth season. However, it was in the 6th season that an anonymous letter claiming there was a gay police officer led to Zatelli outing himself as both the letter writer and the gay officer. Dino Natali’s portrayal of Zatelli was “straight”. He wasn’t much different from any of the other cops and that was the point. Though the detectives in the squad room knew he was gay and though he told  Mrs. Driscoll that he was gay when she was making a fuss about her son being around “those kind of people” and though Barney encouraged him to come clean to the department because policy prevented punishment for his sexuality (a policy change from the first season as indicated above), Zatelli couldn’t do it. As Barney warned, it was an accidental outing thanks to Wojo that exposed his secret. Instead of termination or forced resignation (like Lt. Scanlon wanted), Zatelli was transferred to a much cushier job, which he believed was a sign that he had a like-minded friend in high places.

Speaking of Wojo, Max Gail was presented with an interesting challenge for his character in regards to his evolution in opinion about gay men. The first season, particularly the first handful of episodes, saw Wojo as kind of a brutish caveman. His dislike of Marty came more from him being a thief rather than him being gay. However, the introduction of Mr. Driscoll, pairing the two men up the way they did, brought Wojo’s discomfort, ignorance, and prejudice into a sharper focus. In a two-part episode called “Quarantine” that saw the members of the 12th as well at Inspector Luger, Marty, Mr. Driscoll, and a sex worker named Paula Capshaw all -you guessed it- quarantined due to either smallpox or chicken pox depending on the outcome of the tests done on a sick criminal, Wojo insists that Marty and Mr. Driscoll sleep on opposite sides of the squad room. Like the two men would just bow-chicka-wow-wow right there if they were allowed to be in close proximity of each other when the lights went out. Wojo lost that argument, but it was an excellent illustration of his prejudice and misconceptions surrounding gay men. Over the course of the series, we got to see Wojo’s own learning experience and watch him as his opinions grew, matured, and evolved. In a way, he was almost a stand-in for no doubt many men in the viewing audience. (I’m singling out the men here because Wojo’s issues with homosexuality was very masculinity-based, but really, that’s another post for another time.)

Like I said, this is just a quick overview. There’s so much more I could get into and just might at some point in time. The gay representation on Barney Miller is really rather unique given the time period. It’s a reflection of the way social norms were evolving at the time as well as a bold step for both a cop show and a comedy.

The characters still resonate and the humor still plays today because the focus was always on the humanity, not stereotypes-as-punchlines.

And that’s pretty special.