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Actors Whose Careers Died After Leaving Their Hit Show

In Hollywood, good looks and talent will only get you so far. Sure, it helps if you dazzle audiences while you're on camera, and it's even better if you can actually make the stuff that comes out of your mouth sound halfway believable. But while those two pieces of the puzzle are important, they're almost nothing compared with timing. In the world of show business, timing is everything.

Think about it. You may be the most gifted thespian since Edwin Booth, but if you're not standing in line at the dry cleaners behind Bryan Cranston, you may never get that amazing part on his new hit show about an evil gardener. You know the one: Raking Bad

But while timing is important for actors trying to start their careers, the same goes double for those who are already established. Leave a hit show too early, and you risk being seen as ungrateful or disloyal — but stick around too long, and you could end up being typecast forever. These actors saw high ratings and pursued their biggest showbiz dreams, only to discover just how fickle the spotlight can truly be.

Mischa Barton

Before her stint on The O.C., Mischa Barton was best known as the "under-the-bed, puking ghost" in The Sixth Sense. By the time the series' third season started filming, Barton decided she'd had enough of Marissa Cooper and ended her contract, getting killed off the show in 2005. Unfortunately for Barton, her filmography after the show was studded with box office bombs like Homecoming, direct-to-video films, mugshots, and a guest-starring stint on Law & Order: SVU. Her next big project? Dancing With The Stars. Moral of the story? Sometimes it's better to just keep showing up to work until you've got your next great gig lined up.

McLean Stevenson

McLean Stevenson quit M*A*S*H in 1975 after two seasons, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy nomination. Lured by the promise of bigger paydays, Stevenson left to pursue starring ventures outside the show's ensemble cast...but it didn't work out so well. His next four sitcoms, The McLean Stevenson Show (1976-77), In the Beginning (1978), Hello, Larry (1979-80), and Condo (1983) only lasted a season each at most, and were generally panned by critics. Stevenson later admitted he regretted leaving M*A*S*H, telling the Los Angeles Times in 1991, "The mistake was that I thought everybody in America loved McLean Stevenson. That was not the case. Everybody loved Henry Blake."

Katherine Heigl

Katherine Heigl achieved infamy in 2008 when she withdrew herself from Emmy nominations in 2008, telling press, "I did not feel that I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination" for her role as Izzie Stevens on Grey's Anatomy. She ended up leaving the series in season six (but not before the perhaps-vindictive writers gave her character skin cancer). When she was still on Grey's, Heigl made the jump to the big screen, scoring hit movies Knocked Up and 27 Dresses. By the time she left the show, however, she might as well have left the box office entirely, too: One For The Money, Life As We Know It, Killers, and The Ugly Truth were massive bombs, and Zyzzyx Road bears the unfortunate distinction of being the lowest-grossing theatrical release in U.S. history. When she finally returned to TV, that bad luck streak continued: State of Affairs was canceled after just one season in 2015.

David Caruso

While most of the people on this list are well-known for the time they spent on the projects that made them famous, not many of them had their poor decisions made into gags on legendary episodes of hit TV shows. In fact, only one can: David Caruso, whose career was made into a pretty memorable gag on the first episode of none other than South Park

But while the joke itself may seem pretty harsh, it didn't come out of nowhere. David Caruso famously bailed on NYPD Blue after just one season in 1994 to pursue a movie career — which might have been great if he'd actually picked good movies to work on. Instead, Caruso's star quickly plummeted after he starred in the twin 1995 bombs Jade and Kiss Of Death, which, appropriately enough, could describe his performance at the box office (sorry). After enduring a dry spell, he returned to TV and rebounded, starring as Lieutenant Horatio Caine for ten highly rated seasons on CSI: Miami.

Shelley Long

After a series of Emmy nominations and years of huge ratings on the hit NBC sticom Cheers, Shelley Long took her opportunity to be a movie star. She'd enjoyed a modicum of initial success with medium-sized hits like Troop Beverly Hills and The Money Pit, but long-term box office blockbusters weren't in the cards for Long—perhaps because, as her Outrageous Fortune co-star Bette Midler told Oprah, Long could be tough to work with and occasionally got into spats with her castmates. In more recent years, Long has appeared in bit parts on television and in TV movies, including a recurring role on Modern Family.

Sherry Stringfield

In the '90s, Sherry Stringfield was one of the top actresses on TV. In 1993, she landed a role on Stephen Bochco's critically acclaimed cop drama NYPD Blue. After the first, Emmy-winning season, star David Caruso left to pursue a movie career. Stringfield, who played the ex-wife of Caruso's character, also left—and jumped from the hottest new show of the 1993-'94 season to what would be the hottest new show of 1994-'95: ER. After playing Dr. Susan Lewis on the NBC medical drama for a little over two seasons, she walked away from that show too.

By her own account, Stringfield was miserable on the set of ER. Separated from her Wall Street investment banker boyfriend for long periods, she endured eighteen-hour filming days on a regular basis, and the lack of sleep led her to contract both viral meningitis and pneumonia. Such was the strain that in order to get out of her contract, she signed an agreement that barred her from working on TV for years. Stringfield found work in New York teaching acting classes, and later returned to ER for a spell and starred in a few made-for-TV movies, but she certainly hasn't had the same high-profile career as other ER stars such as George Clooney, William H. Macy, or Julianna Margulies.

Michael Moriarty

In 1993, U.S. attorney general Janet Reno spoke out in favor of legislation that would limit what she considered the increasingly high level of violence on TV, which she blamed for inspiring real-life assaults. Reno held meetings with a number of TV industry professionals, including Law & Order producer Dick Wolf and his show's star, Michael Moriarty, an original cast member who portrayed soft-spoken district attorney Benjamin Stone. The meeting did nothing to calm Moriarty's fears that anti-violence legislation was anything less than censorship—especially since Law & Order featured very little actual violence, only cops and lawyers talking about it. Enraged, Moriarty took out ads in entertainment industry papers and held a press conference criticizing Reno. Unable to get any other actors to join his crusade, Moriarty quit Law & Order in 1994...and a year later, he quit America, too, moving to Canada in protest. Moriarty has kept working—he had a big role in Courage Under Fire in 1996, and has appeared in a ton of made-for-TV movies. But he says the big jobs are off limits to him now, claiming that he's been blacklisted for speaking out against the government.

Joe Piscopo

Proud New Jersey native Joe Piscopo joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1980 and became one of its biggest stars in the first few years after the departure of the original "Not Ready for Primetime Players." Adept at celebrity impersonations (including Frank Sinatra, Sylvester Stallone, and David Letterman), Piscopo enjoyed a dominance at SNL outpaced only by castmate Eddie Murphy. Neither actor stayed with the show for long; Murphy quit in 1984 for an extremely successful film career, while Piscopo quit the same year to pursue a...less successful career. After a major role in the cult classic Johnny Dangerously, Piscopo appeared in forgettable films such as Wise Guys, The House of God, and Huck and the King of Hearts.

Like Murphy, who maintained a music career capped by his hit single "Party All the Time," Piscopo also released an album, 1985's New Jersey, which featured the novelty hit "Honeymooners Rap," in which he spit verse like Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden character. With film roles dwindling, Piscopo frequently toured as both a stand-up comedian and Frank Sinatra impersonator. After years out of the spotlight, Piscopo returned to the headlines in the fall of 2016 when he announced he was thinking of running for governor of New Jersey.

Topher Grace

After seven seasons of playing Eric Foreman on That '70s Show, Topher Grace left the Fox sitcom in 2005 to do other things. His character was written out by taking a teaching job in Africa. At the time, it seemed like a good idea—in the years before his departure, Grace had scored lead roles in Win a Date with Tad Hamilton! and In Good Company. After he left, Grace wouldn't appear onscreen until 2007's Spider-Man 3. He's worked steadily since, but hasn't had the career of a leading man, or even one as prominent as those of former castmates Ashton Kutcher (Two and a Half Men), Mila Kunis (Black Swan), or Laura Prepon (Orange Is the New Black). Grace has mostly appeared in little-noticed fare like Take Me Home Tonight and The Big Wedding.

Lisa Bonet

In 1987, The Cosby Show was in the midst of a four-year run as the most-watched show on TV. Lisa Bonet, who starred as second-eldest daughter Denise Huxtable, was popular enough in her own right that her character was given a spinoff called A Different World, about Denise's matriculation at the fictional Hillman College. The sitcom was a smash, finishing second in the ratings in its first season—behind only The Cosby Show.

But in 1988, Bonet surprisingly left her popular show. The reason? She got pregnant. While Different World producer Debbie Allen pitched the idea of Denise also becoming pregnant, Cosby rejected the idea. (Things had already reportedly been tense between Bonet and Cosby for some of her non-Cosby Show/Different World career choices, such as the sexually explicit movie Angel Heart and a topless photo shoot in Interview). In Bonet's absence, A Different World reinvented itself as an ensemble sitcom about college life and stayed on the air until 1993; Bonet worked sporadically, choosing to spend time with her young daughter, Zoe, and husband, rock star Lenny Kravitz. Bonet eventually returned to The Cosby Show for two seasons, and has popped up occasionally in movies like Biker Boyz and High Fidelity, and TV shows such as Girls and Ray Donovan.

Jeff Conaway

Steadily working since the early '70s, Jeff Conaway had a huge year in 1978: He starred as Kenickie in the popular film adaptation of the musical Grease (he was in the original Broadway cast) and then landed a role on ABC's little-watched but critically adored comedy Taxi. In what would prove to be a sadly ironic turn, Conaway played struggling actor Bobby Wheeler—and left the show in 1981 partly because he thought his character made actors look bad. As he later put it, "It was coming down to that same old self-centered, egocentric stereotype everybody already thinks of." In the years after he left Taxi, Conaway couldn't land a single movie role; in 1983, he returned to TV as Prince Eric Greystone in the fantasy series Wizards and Warriors, which was canceled after just three episodes. After that, Conaway's career was mostly one short-lived series, guest star appearance, and made-for-TV appearance after another. One bright spot in his resume in the later years of Conaway's career: a three-season stint as security officer (and later security chief) Zack Allan on the beloved cult favorite sci-fi series Babylon 5. After that, Conaway showed up on a number of reality shows, while also struggling mightily with addiction. Sadly, he died in 2011 at age 60.