Rachel M. Johnson is a lover of all things pop culture. She's been writing about music and entertainment online for years.
With news that big names like Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory), Emmy Rossum (Shameless), and Andrew Lincoln (The Walking Dead) are departing their respective shows, it's interesting to wonder just how much goes into making that big of a decision. Leaving a popular show in order to focus on other endeavors must be a daunting decision. Let's take a look at 15 actors who walked away from their successful shows.
George Clooney, ER
Before becoming the massive movie star he is today, George Clooney had a few small roles on television shows including a handyman on The Facts of Life, Jackie's boyfriend on Roseanne, and a detective on The Golden Girls. Clooney would get his big break when he was cast as Dr. Doug Ross on the hit medical drama ER. Throughout the first five seasons of the show, the actor also appeared in films including From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Batman & Robin (1997), and Out of Sight (1998). With a budding film career underway, he left the show after 5 seasons and two Emmy Awards.
The career move paid off big time, and Clooney is now a renowned movie star and sometimes film director, having starred in a plethora of films since his departure from the show. He is currently the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, and even sold his co-founded tequila brand for a whopping $700 million, for which his cut was $233 million.
Shannen Doherty, 90210 & Charmed
Shannen Doherty had an impressive resume before she appeared as Brenda Walsh in Beverly Hills, 90210 in 1990. She had previously starred in Girls Just Want to Have Fun (1985) and the critically acclaimed Heathers (1988). Doherty starred on the show from 1990-1994, and the details around her departure are a bit muddled. Many media outlets reported the actress was fired for her behavior on set, while others expressed it was a mutual decision. Regardless, this pattern would follow Doherty to her next show.
In 1998, the actress was once again cast in a lead role on the supernatural show Charmed. For three seasons, she played the eldest sister Prue Halliwell, until her character was killed off in the season three finale. Reportedly, Doherty was growing restless in the role and also did not get along with her co-star Alyssa Milano. The character was subsequently written off.
David Caruso, NYPD Blue
David Caruso is a perfect example of what happens to an actor when their ego gets too big. In 1993, he was cast as Detective John Kelly on the series NYPD Blue. The show's first season lead to a record 26 Emmy nominations and six awards, and Caruso even won a Golden Globe Award in 1994 for his portrayal. The actor made headlines by leaving the highly rated show after appearing in only four episodes of the new season. Caruso wanted a pay raise and was not given it.
After departing, he was unable to establish himself as a leading man, having appeared in the critically panned Jade (1995) and aptly named Kiss of Death. It wasn't until 2002 that Caruso found success, appearing as police lieutenant Horatio Caine in CSI: Miami. The show ran from 2002 to 2012. On leaving NYPD Blue, the actor has since said, "When you make a mistake career-wise, in the way that I did, there is a feeling of violation...I had to go through a difficult period, but I wasn't allowed to perish."
Katherine Heigl, Grey's Anatomy
Prior to being cast as Dr. Izzie Stevens on the hit medical drama Grey's Anatomy, Katherine Heigl had appeared in films such as My Father the Hero, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, and Valentine. She also had a starring role as Isabel Evans on the science fiction drama Roswell, which aired from 1999 to 2002. While being on Grey's, Heigl appeared in movies including Knocked Up, 27 Dresses, and The Ugly Truth. On March 11, 2010, the actress reportedly did not show up for work on the show.
Heigl and creator Shonda Rhimes were able to come to an agreement and released her from her contract immediately. While the star would go on to appear in films like The Big Wedding, One for the Money, and Jenny's Wedding, her movie career has not taken off. In 2018, she was cast as Samantha Wheeler on Suits in the lead main role. Of her departure from Grey's, Heigl has reflected, "You miss it. I miss my friends. It was a great work environment...and it becomes a family. I spent six years together with these people every day...you grow up together, in a way."
Michael J. Fox, Spin City
Michael J. Fox was a certified movie star with his appearances in the Back to the Future trilogy, as well as his portrayal of Alex P. Keaton on the American sitcom Family Ties. In 1996, the actor was cast as Mike Flaherty on the ABC sitcom Spin City. Fox's health caused him to walk away from the hit series during the height of the show. Though he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1991, the actor didn't reveal the news until 1998.
Fox departed in 2000 after four seasons, and Charlie Sheen assumed the lead role for the remaining two seasons. The actor would go on to do voice work in films like Stuart Little and Atlantis: The Lost Empire, as well as make cameos in various films and shows. He most recently had a stint on Designated Survivor, as Ethan West. Fox is an advocate for Parkinson's disease and created his organization the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research to fight it.
Mischa Barton, The O.C.
Though Mischa Barton appeared in films like The Sixth Sense and Pups, it wasn't until the actress was cast as troubled, girl next door Marissa Cooper in The O.C. that her career really took off. The role brought Barton into mainstream fame, and she was labeled by Entertainment Weekly as the "It Girl" of 2003. After the show premiered that same year, it became an overnight success and fans couldn't get enough of the starlet.
However, in 2006, during the show's peak popularity, Barton's character was killed off in the season three finale. Of her reasons for leaving, the actress has since said, "I think I just got to the point where I was like, 'I'm not sure I'm enjoying this anymore.' I just felt like I was in a machine and I couldn't really get off. So it was time to step back." Barton took a year off and went back to England, and has since appeared in Homecoming, Starcrossed, and in the upcoming film The Cast and the Moon.
Steve Carell, The Office
Steve Carell rose to fame as bumbling boss Michael Scott on the American version of The Office (2005-2013). For seven seasons the actor played Scott, and the show helped propel his film career. During the show's run, Carell starred in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), Evan Almighty (2007), Get Smart (2008), and Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011). He would bow out of the role in 2011, in order to focus full time on his movie career.
Following his departure, Ed Helms stepped in as Andy Bernard, and the show had a final two seasons. Carell made an appearance in the series finale and has since gone on to star in a multitude of successful films. The actor does not regret his decision to leave the show, having said, "I felt like it was the right thing to do and the right time for me to go."
David Duchovny, The X-Files
For the majority of The X-Files' run, David Duchovny thoroughly enjoyed starring as Fox Mulder on the hit sci-fi series. However, things took a sour turn towards the end of the seventh season, when the actor quit in 2001. The decision was partly because of a contract dispute, and Duchovny only appeared in a few episodes of season eight. However, he would make a return for the series finale. From 2007 to 2014, he starred as womanizing novelist Hank Moody in Showtime's Californication.
Duchovny returned to the role for the 2008 film The X-Files: I Want to Believe and subsequent series reboot, alongside Gillian Anderson. The actors officially said goodbye to the show earlier this year.
Shelley Long, Cheers
Shelley Long starred as bar waitress Diane Chambers on the long-running American sitcom Cheers. She appeared on the show from 1982 to 1987, departing the series amid much controversy. According to the actress, she had fulfilled her five-year contract and wanted to spend more time with her toddler daughter. There were also rumors that Long and her on-screen romance Ted Danson had tension on set. The actor later admitted to the tension, but "never at a personal level and always at a work level."
Actress Kirstie Alley joined following Long's departure, and became the new female foil. Of her decision to leave the hit show, Long has expressed, "Working at Cheers was a dream come true...it was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. So, yes, I missed it, but I never regretted my decision."
Dave Chappelle, The Dave Chappelle Show
After three seasons of starring in his own successful sketch comedy show, comedian Dave Chappelle shocked fans everywhere by abruptly leaving during production and going to South Africa. The funnyman expressed that he was unhappy with the direction of the show, and wanted to have time for self-reflection. His ultimate decision to quit the show meant he was walking away from a $50 million contract with Comedy Central.
Of his startling decision, Chappelle said in a 2017 interview, "...I was in this very successful place, but the emotional content of it didn't feel anything like what I imagined success should feel like. It just didn't feel right." The comedian has since returned to the spotlight, having hosted Saturday Night Live in 2016 and partnered with Netflix to release three stand-up specials, a deal worth $20 million per special.
Charlie Sheen, Two and a Half Men
Who can forget Charlie Sheen's infamous 2011 tirade, where the actor took shots at Two and a Half Men creator Chuck Lorre and Warner Bros.? Production of the show halted in 2011, in order for Sheen to undergo substance rehabilitation treatment in his home. He would go on to make derogatory comments about Lorre, and was subsequently banned from entering the production lot. In response, Sheen demanded a 50 percent raise, claiming he was underpaid in comparison to what the show was making (he was the highest-paid actor on television at the time).
Sheen's contract was terminated on March 7, 2011, and he was replaced by Ashton Kutcher. The actor had a highly publicized "meltdown" in the wake of his dismissal, and in an interview, threw around words like "tiger blood", "warlock", and that he was still "winning." Sheen returned to television in 2012, starring in Anger Management for two seasons.
Nina Dobrev, The Vampire Diaries
Prior to playing the dual roles of Elena Gilbert and Katherine Pierce on the supernatural drama The Vampire Diaries, Nina Dobrev found success on the Canadian series Degrassi: The Next Generation. In 2009, she was cast as the lead in the vampire show, which went on to become a massive ratings success. Dobrev starred in the show for six seasons, and revealed via Instagram she would be departing in 2015.
The actress said it had always been her plan to leave after her contract ended, but was still nervous about her decision. She had later expressed, "If anything, the fact that [leaving] terrified me drove me even more. I needed to feel that fear of, 'Oh my God, what if I never get a job again' That just made me want to work five times as hard to make sure that didn't happen." She has since starred in films like xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Crash Pad, and Flatliners,
Mandy Patinkin, Criminal Minds
Mandy Patinkin was an established actor before he was cast as experienced profiler Jason Gideon in Criminal Minds. The actor starred on the show for two seasons, and shockingly departed over creative differences. He even left apologetic letters for his fellow cast members, explaining his reasons for leaving and wishing them luck. Patinkin would go on and call his decision to join Criminal Minds his "biggest public mistake."
He would further elaborate by saying, "I never thought they were going to kill and rape all these women every night, every day, week after week, year after year. It was very destructive to my soul and my personality, and after that, I didn't think I would get to work in television again." Patinkin has since starred in theater and currently appears on the showtime series Homeland as counter-terrorism operative Saul Berenson.
Sandra Oh, Grey's Anatomy
After playing the fiercely headstrong Dr. Christina Yang for 10 seasons, Sandra Oh said goodbye to the hit medical drama Grey's Anatomy in 2014. Her decision to leave the show stemmed from her feelings that she achieved all she wanted and was content with her character's story. In an interview with Vulture, Oh explained, "I didn't feel like, 'Ugh, that's all I can do, I've done everything.' It was more than that. It was actually, dare I say it, a sense of satisfaction."
Oh currently stars on the BBC America show Killing Eve, which has received critical acclaim. In 2018, the Korean-American Oh became the first Asian actress to be nominated for the Best Actress in a Drama Emmy.
Brian Dunkleman, American Idol
Many people might forget that during the first season of American Idol, the show actually had two hosts. Along with Ryan Seacrest, Brian Dunkleman took on hosting duties on a season that gave the world Kelly Clarkson. It was reported that Dunkelman had quit the gig, while numerous Idol staffers claimed he would have been fired regardless. Media outlets said the television personality "had his career completely destroyed" by doing so, and left before the show's enormous success.
Dunkleman has since expressed that he left due to the terrible way the show treated the young contestants, including staging fights and re-shooting scenes to look a certain way. In a recent interview, the comedian had said, "Of course, when it comes to the financial aspect, of course there are regrets. I wouldn't be human if I said no."
© 2018 Rachel M Johnson