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Actors That Quit A TV Show After Shooting The Pilot

Television is like alchemy. The people who practice it have to constantly experiment, combining elements over and over in different permutations in an attempt to turn raw materials into something entirely new. They won't know what they've got until they try, but they're looking for something like magic — and for every miracle mixture, there's a dusty shelf full of discarded attempts that fell flat, came out toxic, or blew up in their faces. Sometimes these efforts are abandoned entirely, but sometimes swapping out one ingredient does the trick.

Networks greenlight new TV shows based on the strength of a pilot episode. Even with the most successful pilots, changes can be made for any number of reasons before the first season makes it to air. Network executives might demand adjustments to characters or stories. Often, creators gain new insight from seeing their script brought to life. And sometimes, cast members make the choice to bow out because of scheduling conflicts, contractual obligations, or the daunting prospect of committing to a performance for several years. Here's a look at some actors who walked away after shooting a pilot.

Jennifer Ehle in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones has been a pop culture juggernaut for so long that it's easy to forget what a risk HBO took in developing it. George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels are dense with political intrigue and tangled family relationships, and showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss spent four years in preproduction on the Thrones pilot, only to end up with an unmitigated disaster on their hands.

As they would later recall on the Scriptnotes podcast, Benioff and Weiss showed an early cut of the pilot to friends who had no knowledge of Martin's books, and were crestfallen to find that their exposition had been totally misplaced. Advisors like screenwriter Craig Mazin pointed out that several important plot points were either over-explained or left too vague. Fortunately, HBO allowed them to reshoot approximately 90 percent of the footage.

Two major characters were recast during this process, with Emilia Clarke taking the role of Daenerys Targaryen from Tamzin Merchant and Michelle Fairley replacing Jennifer Ehle as Catelyn Stark. While no official explanation was given for Merchant's exit, Ehle has made it clear that declining to return was her choice. In a 2016 Telegraph interview, Ehle, best remembered as the star of the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries, revealed that she asked to be released from a seven-year contract in the interest of spending more time with her newborn daughter. The original pilot has yet to be released, leaving Ehle's work unseen by the public and Fairley as the only Catelyn fans will likely ever know.

Sherilyn Fenn in Birds of Prey

Harley Quinn's journey to pop culture domination was almost as strange and twisted as a supervillain's psyche. Debuting on Batman: The Animated Series as the Joker's henchperson and main squeeze, she quickly became a fan favorite once cartoons and comics started exploring her personality and complicated relationships. Countless convention cosplayers have brought her to life, and she finally hit the big screen in Suicide Squad in 2016.

An often overlooked phase of Harley's saga, though, is her brief foray into live-action television. Birds of Prey ran for 13 episodes during the 2002-03 season on the WB, and focused on a cast of women living in Gotham City, sans Batman. Harley Quinn, naturally, played a major role. In the original pilot, the psychiatrist-turned-psychopath was portrayed by Sherilyn Fenn, who was already famous for playing another '90s troublemaker, Twin Peaks' Audrey Horne.

When the WB picked up Birds of Prey as a series, Fenn declined to return. In an interview with the A.V. Club in 2014, she stated that she couldn't quite remember why she left, but that "it was probably money or something." In any case, Mia Sara took on the role of Harley, even replacing Fenn in a new version of the pilot. The original cut never aired, but eventually surfaced as a bonus feature when the complete series was released on DVD in 2008, just as The Dark Knight brought Gotham City back into the spotlight. 

Alex Borstein in Gilmore Girls

Before she became a box office draw starring in R-rated comedies, Melissa McCarthy found small-screen fame in Gilmore Girls. As bubbly chef Sookie St. James, McCarthy became a fan favorite over the hit show's seven-season run on the WB. She very nearly missed this career launching pad, however, as Sookie was originally slated to be played by another actress known for raunchy laughs, Alex Borstein.

When the WB picked up Gilmore Girls based on a never-aired pilot that featured Borstein, she hoped to continue as Sookie, but her role on Fox's sketch comedy series MADtv prevented her from committing full-time to another series. "They wouldn't share me," she revealed in a 2013 BuzzFeed interview, speculating that "it was a Fox-WB thing." Nonetheless, Borstein did manage to return to Gilmore Girls as multiple side characters, and would go on to her greatest success as the voice of Family Guy's Lois Griffin. 

Christopher Collins in The Simpsons

The core six-member voice cast of The Simpsons is one of the most remarkable ensembles in television history. Not only have they brought life to a seemingly endless parade of Springfield citizens over 29 seasons, they've made industry headlines with multiple unified battles for their share of show's net worth. It might be strange to remember, then, that this lineup was still in flux when the series began.

Since debuting during one-minute bumpers on The Tracey Ullman Show, the Simpson family has always been voiced by Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, and Yeardly Smith. When Fox spun The Simpsons off into its own half-hour sitcom in 1989, fresh talent was needed to flesh out the cast. Christopher Collins (sometimes credited as Chris Latta) had already made his mark on the world of cartoons as Cobra Commander on G. I. Joe and Starscream on Transformers. In the very first Simpsons episode produced, "Some Enchanted Evening," Collins provided the voice of Moe the bartender.

Severe animation issues caused the episode to be reshuffled in the airdate order. When it finally ran as the first season finale, Collins was replaced by Hank Azaria, who had since joined the main cast. In a 2017 Howard Stern interview, Azaria recalled series creator Matt Groening's explanation that Collins quit The Simpsons after clashing with producers James L. Brooks and Sam Simon. Though he left before the show aired and his work as Moe is lost, Collins' voice does remain in some early episodes as Mr. Burns, a role that would soon be taken on by the sixth Simpsons regular, Harry Shearer

Maura Tierney in Parenthood

Maura Tierney is no stranger to comedic or dramatic television roles, being best known for her work on NewsRadio and ER. She was a perfect choice, then, for the central role of Sarah Braverman on Parenthood, an updated adaptation of the 1989 film of the same name. NBC picked up the Parenthood pilot from Friday Night Lights writer Jason Katims and scheduled the series premiere for the fall of 2009. 

By that summer, however, the debut was pushed back to midseason to allow Tierney to undergo treatment for breast cancer. In September, Tierney announced she was stepping down from Parenthood to avoid conflicts with her treatment schedule. She was replaced by another actress skilled at mixing laughter and tears, Gilmore Girls' Lauren Graham. Scenes Tierney had already filmed were reshot with Graham in time for the pilot to air, kicking off a successful six-season run in March of 2010. Happily, Tierney completed treatment and returned to work on stage and screen later that year. 

Damon Wayans, Jr. in New Girl

The unpredictability of the TV business means that actors sometimes have to hedge their bets to avoid being out of work. In 2011, ABC's Happy Endings seemed doomed by low ratings to not last beyond its first season. One of its stars, Damon Wayans, Jr., decided not to wait on an official cancellation, and accepted the role of Coach, one of lead character Jess' (Zooey Deschanel) three male roommates, in the pilot for New Girl. Fox picked up New Girl as a series, but before it could air, ABC announced that Happy Endings would indeed return for a second season. 

Wayans' contract with ABC didn't allow him to star on another network, and he was forced to bow out of New Girl. Rather than rework the pilot, however, showrunner Liz Meriwether chose to simply write Coach out of the series' first proper episode by having him move out to pursue a relationship, his place taken by Lamorne Morris as Winston. When ABC finally did cancel Happy Endings in 2013, Wayans rejoined New Girl and Coach moved back into the apartment for a further three seasons, making this the rare example of a character getting dropped after a pilot, only to return later.

Richard Kiel in The Incredible Hulk

In over 50 years and 25 movies, James Bond has rarely faced the same adversary twice. Sure, Blofeld keeps coming back and SPECTRE looms over the franchise like a grim octopus, but when 007 takes down a henchperson, they tend to stay down. That's why it's remarkable that Jaws, the metal-mouthed murder machine of The Spy Who Loved Me, made such an impression on audiences that he returned for Moonraker. What made Jaws so memorable? The imposing figure and gleefully menacing performance of Richard Kiel.

Just as Kiel was making his mark as a memorable villain, he very nearly became the embodiment of an iconic hero. In 1977, The Incredible Hulk made the journey from Marvel Comics to the small screen. Kenneth Johnson, writer and director of the TV movie that functioned as the show's pilot, chose Kiel to play the Hulked-out version of Bill Bixby's David Banner. But before any of the footage aired, Johnson and Marvel decided that his towering but lean profile wasn't appropriate for the muscle-bound monster.

Kiel would later admit in a Den of Geek interview that this was exactly what he was hoping to hear, as the green makeup exacerbated his vision problems, making production a miserable experience. Johnson reshot the Hulk's pilot scenes with bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, who was such a hit in the role that he would go on to be associated with the Hulk for decades, even appearing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.