It’s pretty rare, but sometimes a TV show gets better – or in the case of a great show, maintains its greatness – when a new actor is brought in to replace someone who has left. Actually, it goes beyond acting. There are examples in TV news and reality shows, too. Here’s what I mean:
Smits took over for the mystifyingly huffy David Caruso after the first season of “NYPD Blue,” in 1994. His soulful, stabilizing presence make an immediate difference – providing the show with a naturally charismatic leading man and giving Dennis Franz more room to explore his own, great character. Smits spent a decade as Det. Bobby Simone, and the episode in which his character died remains one of the most emotional in TV history.
JENNIFER LOPEZ & STEVEN TYLER
It’s true, the ratings for “American Idol” aren’t as stellar as they were during the Simon Cowell-Paula Abdul years. But this reality show powerhouse could very easily have crashed and burned last year without successful replacements. Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, amazingly, have meshed perfectly into the show’s format without losing any personality or spontaneity. Bravo.
THE TONIGHT SHOW
Hard to think of Johnny Carson as a replacement for anyone, since he became such a towering figure in television. But that’s what he was. Jack Paar had been a big draw as host of “The Tonight Show in the early 1960s, and it was far from a certainty that Carson, a former game show host and comic, had the chops to succeed in 1962. I have to admit, I greatly miss Johnny’s carefully crafted monologues and the way he gave his guests time to tell a story.
THE TODAY SHOW
Morning TV also has its great replacements. In this case, Lauer made the jump from “Today’s” news reader to co-anchor in 1997, replacing Bryant Gumbel. Unlike Gumbel, who exuded gravitas, Lauer had to earn his status gradually. His calm manner and likability have made him indispensable (and brought him a hefty paycheck).
In 1965, Rigg came on board this British spy series as Emma Peel. She replaced the beautiful, tough-as-nails Honor Blackman as partner to Patrick Macnee. The show had been around for three seasons already, but Rigg transformed the whole vibe and turned it into an international hit.
LAW & ORDER
My goodness, but Jerry Orbach was fine as Det. Lennie Briscoe. He had exactly the right weariness, wit and grit for the role, and he could deliver the first sequence, finding-the-body bad pun like no one else. “Law & Order” was built on the idea of constant turnover, but Orbach was its best replacement ever. He took the reins from Paul Sorvino in 1991.
“Cheers” was a very smart show, so naturally it handled the replacement of “Coach” Nicholas Colasanto in a very smart way. In 1985, it brought in a much younger guy, but had him play a similarly likable, doltish character. Harrelson was terrific as Woody Boyd.
This was another show that survived numerous replacements. My favorite example from “M*A*S*H” was Morgan, who played Col. Potter. It was a huge deal back in 1975, after the show famously decided to kill off McLean Stevenson’s character. Morgan’s commanding officer was nothing like Stevenson’s version, and it worked brilliantly. Col. Potter was gruff, but endearing.
STAR TREK: VOYAGER
Ryan, the sexy Borg Seven of Nine, revitalized “Star Trek: Voyager” when she replaced Jennifer Lien in 1997. Her character essentially took over the show, which was unfortunate, but her character trajectory was in keeping with a dominant “Star Trek” theme: finding one’s true humanity in an ever-changing universe.
MY THREE SONS
We’re going back into the vault for this one. DeMarest, a solid character actor in films, became so associated with the crusty Uncle Charley on “My Three Sons” that people forgot he was a replacement. Originally, the show had William Frawley playing the boys’ grandfather. Uncle Charley came in five years later, in 1965. The show didn’t miss a beat.
What the heck – let’s stay in the TV vault for one more. TV’s venerable “Gunsmoke” had a series of deputies over its 1955-1975 run, but I always liked Festus the most. He had a hillbilly drawl much like that of his predecessor, Chester (played by Dennis Weaver), and a face that was a continuous study in contortion. Curtis took on the role of Festus first as a guest star, then became a series regular in 1964.
THE DAILY SHOW
I doubt anyone could have predicted what a force Jon Stewart would become in popular culture by replacing Craig Kilborn as host of “The Daily Show” in 1999. I liked Kilborn’s show, but Stewart created something truly remarkable that still resonates today. He talks about American politics in a way that is both insightful and hilarious. Right now, he might be the most irreplaceable person on television.
Now it’s your turn. Who are your favorite TV replacements?