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.