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TV Show Actor Exits That Blindsided Fans

Unlike a movie that comes and goes, a well-received TV show can run for years. The longer they're on the air, the more likely they are to lose cast members, and gain new ones, as actors come and go. The departure of an actor from a TV role is nothing new, nor even that uncommon, so audiences are sometimes prepared when a character is written out, or an actor leaves to pursue other projects. But that's certainly not always the case, and over the years there have been plenty of instances when the desertion of a series' star takes fans by complete surprise.

Whether it's because there was a behind-the-scenes drama that prompted them to throw up their hands and quit suddenly, or a simple desire to end their tenure, it's never easy for fans when it's out of the blue. Even if it's due to an illness or a health concern, it doesn't make it any more palatable to a show's passionate viewership, especially when it's a fan-favorite character — or worse, a show's leading star actor. Which ones blindsided fans the most? Read on to see for yourself. 

Jordan Elsass (Superman & Lois)

"Superman & Lois" debuted in 2021 and featured the Man of Steel's return to his own series for the first time in a decade. It explored a world where Clark Kent and Lois Lane are parents to a pair of teenage boys, and it was a big hit right out of the gate. Garnering strong reviews from fans and critics, it became the most-streamed premiere in The CW's history (via The Wrap), leading to a renewal for a second season before the first year of stories even concluded.

But in a complete surprise to fans, it was announced in August of 2022, that Jordan Elsass — who played Clark's teenage son, Jonathan — would not be returning for Season 3 which was just months away. Since fans were given no notice, they were left to speculate on why he'd exited the series. A week later, though, Elsass addressed his departure directly and cited his own health as his reason for leaving. "It's sad, it's a real shame," he told The Wrap. "I know that I was pumped for Season 3, for sure, but what are you going to do? Anyway, mental health is definitely 100-percent priority. It's pinnacle. It's got to take precedence."

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Regé-Jean Page (Bridgerton)

Released on Netflix in 2020, "Bridgerton" was an instant global sensation, an epic period romantic drama that many compared to the British series, "Downton Abbey," but with more sex appeal. And the key to that appeal was its breakout star, Regé-Jean Page, who became a heartthrob overnight in the role of Simon Bassett, the Duke of Hastings, whose relationship with Daphne Bridgerton served as the anchor to the series' first year. Announced as the most-watched TV series in the streaming platform's history (per CBC), a lengthy run seemed assured. Unfortunately, fans were left beside themselves when they learned that Page would not be a part of it moving forward.

In April 2021, mere months after the first season wrapped up, the show's official account released the news of his unexpected exit from the series. Cries of dismay, shock, and sadness swept through the responses, but Page wasn't going to change his mind, as he'd already secured roles in several major projects. This included Ryan Gosling's "The Gray Man," the fantasy adventure, "Dungeons and Dragons," and playing the villain in Marvel's "Secret Invasion."

For the show's part though, it seems they never had intentions of Page seeing a long run on the series. According to TV Insider, the Season 2 story was always meant to shift away from Page's character, just like the books on which the show is based did. For his fans, however, that doesn't seem to make the exit any easier to swallow.

Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who)

When "Doctor Who" returned in 2005, it had been more than 15 years since it was last a weekly series. Reinvented for the 21st century, the newly relaunched series was overhauled by Russell T. Davies. In a coup for the producer, Davies was able to cast big screen star Christopher Eccleston as the newest incarnation of the time and space-traveling hero. But mere days after the season began airing, Whovians around were floored by the announcement that Eccleston had quit the role.

Though they'd eventually cast little-known actor David Tennant to replace him — who'd eventually go on to become one of the most beloved actors the series ever saw — Eccleston's exit left fans aghast. To this day, they've begged for his return, but the actor has been steadfast. In 2010, he briefly touched on why he left, seemingly confirming rumors that he was unhappy with how the production treated its lower-level staff and crew. "I didn't enjoy the environment and the culture that we, the cast and crew, had to work in," he told Radio Times (via BBC). 

Years later, he told the same outlet that he would never work under Davies again after the announcement of his departure included false quotes attributed to him. In 2020, Eccleston did return to voice the character in a new series of audio dramas, but it's unlikely he'll ever don his iconic trench coat again on screen.

Ruby Rose (Batwoman)

No superhero exit left audiences more sucker-punched than Ruby Rose's withdrawal from The CW's "Batwoman." Not just because it came with no warning, or that it occurred right after the show's first season, either. But because she was the series' lead star and title character, playing Kate Kane — aka Batwoman — and her sudden absence would mean an entire retooling of the series from the ground up for its sophomore season.

The news landed in May of 2020, just two days after the Season 1 finale aired, sucking all of the positive vibes right out of the room. Though she had sustained a highly publicized injury during production earlier in the year, Deadline reported her leaving the role was not related to the incident, while Rose herself gave no initial indications as to what was. Eventually though, Rose revealed that the injury was indeed partly to blame, making claims of unsafe working conditions on the set and alleging that executives and producers were abusive towards her during her time on the show (per Buzzfeed).

But Warner Bros fired back, claiming that it was Rose's own behavior that led them to not renew her contract for a second season, citing "multiple complaints about workplace behavior that were extensively reviewed and handled privately out of respect for all concerned" (per TV Line).

Topher Grace (That '70s Show)

When it hit TV screens in 1998, "That '70s Show" was a fresh, vibrant new teen comedy set in a very different era. It starred a cast of mostly newcomers led by Topher Grace, and almost all of them would go on to become big-name stars, including Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis. But while the show ran for eight seasons and 200 episodes, Grace blindsided the show's massive fanbase when he abandoned the series after Season 7.

At the time, Grace had been taking home upwards of $350,000 per episode of the hit series, so it wasn't about the money. Instead, the actor sought roles in feature films, and with the rigors of shooting 20-some episodes a year of "That '70s Show," Grace chose to walk away from his star-making role. On the big screen, he'd go on to appear in "Spider-Man 3," "Ocean's 12," and "Predators," and years later would open up about how his success on "That '70s Show" shifted his priorities.

"I realized then that I didn't really need a lot more money," he told Indiewire in 2018. But back in 2005, after jettisoning the series, it was the fans who were left holding the bag. Though Josh Meyers came in to replace him, the series couldn't survive without Grace and limped along for one more season before getting the axe.

Christopher Meloni (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit)

Sometimes an actor's exit from a hit series is so sudden and unexpected that it not only knocks fans out of their seats but the producers and creators of the shows as well. Such was the case with Christopher Meloni, who rushed out the door of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" after Season 11 of the long-running series after a pay dispute when his contract was up for renewal (per The Hollywood Reporter). With no notice, the writers were forced to explain his off-screen dismissal, unable to have him film a tearful goodbye.

Meloni ultimately didn't stay gone forever though as he returned to the show to guest star a decade later, popping up in a handful of episodes beginning with Season 22. Then, in a twist few saw coming, Meloni returned full-time to the franchise, leading the main cast of the next spin-off series, "Law & Order: Organized Crime," in 2021. 

But just as fans were shocked and saddened when he left, they were jubilant on his return. "It was pretty overwhelming," Meloni told People Magazine about his reaction to the outpouring of love from fans. "I think [Mariska Hargitay] was expecting it more than I was, because I think she's been in the 'Law and Order' stew, she's been in that world continuously for the [last] 20 years. I was not prepared. It's overwhelming and it's wonderful and it's very appreciated."

Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead)

The modern trend of shocking twist deaths of a member of a series' main cast arguably began with "The Walking Dead," a series that has regularly killed off some of its biggest characters. But long before those many sad deaths became routine, one actor stunned fans with a surprising departure: Jon Bernthal, the series' co-leading man who played fan favorite, Shane Walsh.

This time though, there's no indication that the reason for the actor's exit had anything to do with behind-the-scenes trouble. Instead, it was simply the writer's choice to end the character's story. After all, "The Walking Dead" was based on a hit comic book series, and in the original tale, the character of Shane barely makes it out of the first storyline. In the show, Shane lives through the first season, and makes it through the first half of the second, before being killed in a confrontation with Rick (Andrew Lincoln) in Episode 12, "Better Angels." 

While Shane had grown increasingly unhinged in episodes leading up to his death, it still came as a shock to most fans. Because the death of a series' lead character and main cast member still seemed unlikely in the show's early days and left audiences "with the wind knocked out of [them]" as noted by Today. After Shane was dispatched though, fans learned that anyone could be next.

Denise Crosby (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

Up until the debut of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," the franchise had never seen any significant cast changes, with the same group of actors carrying over from television to the feature films. So you can imagine how stunned "Star Trek" fans must have been when midway through the first season one of its main cast members departed the show, unexpectedly killed off in an otherwise ordinary episode.

Over the years, Denise Crosby has been candid about her departure, revealing how she had grown frustrated with being given little to do through the show's first 20 or so episodes. "I was miserable. I couldn't wait to get off that show," she told StarTrek.com in 2012. "This was not an overnight decision. I was grateful to have made that many episodes, but I didn't want to spend the next six years going 'Aye, aye, captain,' and standing there, in the same uniform, in the same position on the bridge. It just scared the hell out of me that this was what I was going to be doing for the next X-amount of years."

But while Crosby may have spent real time weighing her decision to exit the series, it blindsided fans, who weren't as tapped into the behind-the-scenes turmoil of their favorite shows as they are today. Without the benefit of the internet or social media, her death was a shocking development for a franchise that wasn't known for killing off its biggest characters.

David Caruso (NYPD Blue)

In 1993, David Caruso landed the leading role in "NYPD Blue" as John Kelly, an Irish-American detective. In the series, Caruso gives a towering performance, one that Quentin Tarantino once said "you cannot take your eyes off of." But just two episodes into the show's second season, audiences were dumbstruck when the star of the show was suddenly written off.

What audiences may not have known was that Caruso had long had a reputation as being hard to work with, something series creator Stephen Bochco revealed in his memoir, "Truth Is a Total Defense" (via The Holywood Reporter). "Caruso was a big-time malcontent, but he was also terrific in the role," Bochco writes. Unfortunately, that reputation was more than gossip and doomed Caruso's place in the series. "Caruso's behavior was, simply put, cancerous." But the issue was that television wasn't where Caruso wanted to be, so he had no problem causing problems.

"Caruso felt he was too good for television," Bochco says. "He wanted to be a movie star. And his plan was to alienate the writers, producers and his fellow castmates in hopes that we would dump him from the show." And that's exactly what happened in what might be of the most ill-conceived exits in TV history. After his movie career didn't pan out, Caruso returned to the small screen, starring in "CSI: Miami," a show that gave him another iconic role, and fans of John Kelly a little solace.

Katherine Heigl (Grey's Anatomy)

The medical soap opera, "Grey's Anatomy," helped turn a number of lesser-known actors to fame, most notably series star, Katherine Heigl. Over the years it has seen a fair share of main cast members rotating in and out of the series, but it was Heigl's departure that threw fans for a loop when she abandoned the series after six seasons.

Fans were flabbergasted to lose Heigl, who played Dr. Izzie Stevens, because she had survived rumors of bad blood with the show's creator, Shonda Rhimes, in 2005 (per New York Post). At the time, there had even been speculation that she might be killed off, but when she made it to the next season — with Stevens surviving cancer surgery — fans probably thought the crisis had been averted. But that just made her Season 6 exit all the more unexpected.

According to Heigl though, the reason she left was simple. "I started a family, and it changed everything," she said in the book, "How to Save a Life: The Inside Story of Grey's Anatomy," (via The Daily Telegraph). "It changed my desire to work full-time. I went on family leave and just got to be a (mom), and it changed my whole perspective... That was really the turning point. So before I was due back, I spoke again to Shonda about wanting to leave. Then I waited at home until I was given the formal OK that I was off the show."

Dave Chappelle (Chappelle's Show)

In the early 2000s, comedian Dave Chappelle was signed up to write and star in his own sketch comedy show for Comedy Central, "Chappelle's Show." It quickly became one of the most buzz-worthy laugh-a-minute hits for the network, and a bevy of big stars made appearances. This included rappers like Snoop Dogg and Method Man and Hollywood heavyweights like Susan Sarandon, Bill Burr, Michael Rapaport, and Spike Lee. Chappelle himself hosted the show and starred in nearly all of its sketches, churning out memorable characters and recurring skits that are too numerous (and NSFW) to name.

But at the height of the show's popularity, Chappelle blindsided fans and the network by quitting his own series. And it wasn't just a stunner because he was the writer and star, and the show was a hit, but because he reportedly walked away from a $50 million dollar two-year deal. Chappelle not only left his show, but the country too, fleeing to South Africa to escape his fame and get away from a life he was no longer happy with. "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," he told CBS News in 2017. "It just didn't feel right."

Henry Cavill (The Witcher)

Based on a series of novels and video games, the epic fantasy series, "The Witcher," was seen by many as Netflix's attempt to find the same kind of success as "Game of Thrones." To lead the big-budget series, the streaming giant turned to the Man of Steel, Henry Cavill, himself a passionate fan of the source material and dedicated to ensuring the show would be a hard-hitting and faithful adaptation, as he mentioned during an appearance on The Graham Norton Show.

On its release, "The Witcher" was lauded by audiences who were more than pleased with its mix of dark, ultra-violent fantasy and dry humor. Much of the praise was given to Cavill himself for his strong showing, with a charm and intensity that proved his commitment to the series. But following Season 2, fans of the series were completely taken by surprise when Cavill was announced to be leaving the title role following the third batch of episodes, with his character ultimately being recast with incoming actor, Liam Hemsworth.

Fan reaction was swift, with shock and confusion expressed by its most diehard viewers on Reddit. Some suspected his departure was to allow him to return full-time to the role of Superman, but within a matter of months, he'd been released from that part as well (which had the internet in flames). But rumors of behind-the-scenes issues surfaced, with allegations of toxic behavior on set, though the series' showrunner denied that was the case.