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Scene-stealing Secondary Characters Who Changed a Show’s Direction



Television shows seem well-organized and choreographed. Yet, not everything about them always goes according to plan.


For example, an incidental character sometimes steals a scene and creates memorable television history.


Then, there are the characters who take things a step further by stealing scenes repeatedly until they become the stars themselves.


Particular characters, such as Dr. Gregory House on House, are often created to be standouts. Yet, occasionally, those main protagonists are entirely overshadowed.


In rare instances, characters who were supposed to be incidental became regulars and took over entire shows.


The Fonz on Happy Days (1974-1984)


Happy Days underwent several changes, including the recasting and eventual disappearance of Chuck Cunningham’s character, but Arthur (The Fonz) Fonzarelli’s addition most dramatically altered the show’s trajectory.


Initially, Happy Days focused on the Cunningham family, especially teenager Richie (Ron Howard). The Fonz (Henry Winkler) was a side character. However, the motorcycle-riding, leather jacket-wearing greaser soon took over. 


By the second season, the Fonz had become so famous that the focus shifted away from the Cunninghams and toward his exploits. He eventually became one of only two characters to appear in every series episode.


Producers even discussed changing the show’s title to Fonzie’s Happy Days due to Fonzie’s popularity, but that never came to fruition.


Kelsey Grammar on Cheers (1982-1993)


Cheers premiered in 1982, but Kelsey Grammar joined the cast in 1984.


Initially, Kelsey was only supposed to have a short stint as Frasier. He served as another love interest for Diane (Shelley Long) instead of Sam (Ted Danson). 


Instead, Kelsey’s Dr. Fraser Crane became one of the show’s most iconic characters. Frasier’s popularity led to his own sitcom, which ran for 11 years on NBC.


Frasier is still famous today, as evidenced by the Frasier Revival, which premiered in 2023. He’s such a fixture that it’s impossible to picture the TV comedy landscape without him.


Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Zack Morris on Good Morning, Miss Bliss (1987-1989)


Mark-Paul Gosselaar of Franklin & Bash and NYPD Blue fame was better known to us ’80s kids as Zack Morris on the popular teen sitcom Saved by the Bell (1989-1992). However, before that, he played the same character on Good Morning, Miss Bliss.


The series was initially developed by Brandon Tartikofff, NBC’s president and producer Peter Engel. Tartikoff convinced Disney Channel to air a limited number of episodes focused on a school teacher (Hayley Mills) teaching in Indiana. However, the kids soon stole the show, especially Mark-Paul.


Within a short time, Disney dropped the series, but Brandon decided to rework it and air it directly on NBC. Suddenly, it occurred in California, focusing on the scheming slacker Zack Morris and his friends.


Zack spawned everything from spinoffs to comic books, novels, and YouTube channels debating his morality. All that from a character who was just meant to be one of several students in the main protagonist’s class.


Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties (1982-1989)


Family Ties was a sitcom staple for us ’80s kids. We all tuned in each week, back when weekly viewing was a thing, to check out the lives of the Keaton family.


The show initially focused on how ex-hippie parents Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse (Meredith Baxter) fared as parents of kids growing up during the Reagan Administration.


The sitcom only stayed that way for a short time. Steven and Elyse quickly took a back seat to their son, Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox). Alex became one of the most talked about and remembered ’80s sitcom characters of all time.


Despite his conservative, money-hungry ways, something was endearing about Alex, thanks to Fox’s charm. During filming, he also became famous for playing Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movies, increasing Alex P. Keaton’s popularity.


Katie Holmes as Joey Potter on Dawson’s Creek (1998–2003)


The late ’90s and early ’00s weren’t immune to secondary characters, causing entire shows to be retooled. One of those was Dawson’s Creek. We all tuned in to watch the teen soap each week, but it quickly became clear it wasn’t all about Dawson (James Van Der Beek), as the title implied. 


The true stars of the series quickly became Joey Potter (Katie Holmes) and Pacey Witter (Joshua Jackson). The two had such chemistry that they even dated in real life for a short time during filming.


As she became a star, Joey’s plotlines also increased. Some focused on the Capeside love triangle of Pacey, Dawson, and Joey, while others centered on her family or school-related issues.


The show might have been more aptly named Joey’s Creek by the end.


Jaleel White as Steve Urkel on Family Matters (1989-1998)


The king of secondary characters who took over shows was definitely Steven Q. Urkel. Jaleel White brought the nerdy next-door neighbor on Family Matters to life in a way that didn’t just take over the show but most of the decade.


As kids, we all knew about Steve’s love of cheese, how to “do the Urkel,” and his signature catchphrase, “Did I do that?” Yet, it was never supposed to be that way.


Steve, who stole the entire series and appeared as a crossover character on episodes of such hits as Full House and Step by Step. was only meant to show up on one Family Matters episode. It was a total accident that he became a cultural icon and hero to nerds and geeks everywhere.


Michael Emerson as Henry Gale, aka Ben Linus, on Lost (2006-2010)


To know Michael Emerson is to know that once you have him in your clutches, you’d be silly to let him go. That’s the essence of what happened when Emerson emerged from the jungle during Lost Season 2.


Henry Gale was slated to be a three-episode role for Emerson, but he elicited such darkness and mystery that the creators of the show wrote an entire arc for the talented actor.


It was revealed that Henry Gale would be a pseudonym for Ben Linus. Gale was a first-rate antagonist to the leads of Kate, Sawyer, and Jack, but in time, Ben’s morality shifted, and at times, he was a much-needed ally for the group so desperate to find their way home.


It’s almost impossible to imagine Lost without Emerson‘s significant impact on the story, but if the role had gone to a lesser actor, the story would have been much different.


The West Wing Ensemble Cast (1999-2006)


We’ll leave you with the antitheses of this article. When The West Wing debuted in 1999, Rob Lowe’s Sam Seahorn was the defacto lead of the cast.


It was said that his audition performance absolutely floored those in the room, landing him the role that had already been cast with Bradley Whitford, who wanted and got to play the character of Josh Lyman.


This was a case of an ensemble cast working so incredibly well together that the focal point of the show got lost due to tremendous performances on all sides, especially Martin Sheen as President Josiah Bartlett, who many would still rather see as president today than any of our real-life candidates.


So, while we can celebrate that some actors put so much life into their roles that they break away from the pack, we can also agree that there are times when a gorgeously talented ensemble cast steals the show.


If you have another break-out secondary character who stole the whole show in mind, share your opinions in the comments below!

Jessica Kosinski is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. You can follow her on X.





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