For many years, actors considered television to be a kind of training ground for feature film stardom. It’s no secret that some of the biggest name actors have successfully made the leap from TV to film, including George Clooney, Jennifer Aniston, and Bruce Willis.
But for every TV star who makes it in film, there are many others who fall back into obscurity. Here are 10 actors who left hit TV shows in their prime, only to regret it almost immediately.
Topher Grace – That ’70s Show
Topher Grace rose to fame as geeky high schooler Eric Forman on Fox’s That ’70s Show. The series was a hit, propelling him and his co-stars Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis to instant fame. After seven seasons, though, he decided to make the leap to the big screen. In quite possibly one of the most misguided decisions in TV history, the movie he left his hit show for turned out to be Sam Raimi’s much-maligned Spider-Man 3, in which he played Eddie Brock/Venom.
Meanwhile, That ’70s Show only lasted one more season without its lead character, awkwardly building storylines that involved Forman’s parents without him. Grace has had small roles since in films like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, but he has not had the same leading role luck as his former co-stars Kunis and Kutcher.
Pauley Perrette – NCIS
Pauley Perrette was one of the founding cast members for CBS’s flagship show NCIS. She spent 15 seasons playing goth forensic genius Abby Sciuto, becoming “the most-liked female primetime star on TV,” according to Q Scores. But in 2018 she left the show under mysterious circumstances, tweeting allegations of “multiple physical assaults.” A year later, she tweeted that she is never coming back to NCIS and has nightmares about her former co-star Mark Harmon attacking her.
The end of the story has not yet been written. But Perrette has stayed out of the spotlight since leaving NCIS. After two years, she is attempting to restart her TV career with a CBS comedy pilot called Broke, airing in 2020.
Mischa Barton – The O.C.
Mischa Barton had just had a few small but memorable parts in movies before being cast as Marissa Cooper on The O.C. in 2003. The show was a success from the get-go, and Barton rose to fame. Entertainment Weekly named her their “It Girl” of 2003, and it looked like Barton’s star would continue to rise.
But after three season on The O.C., Barton decided she had enough and left the show, forcing the writers to kill off her character. The O.C. itself was canceled in 2007. But Barton’s fledgling film career never took off. Her projects over the next 10 years included a straight-to-DVD horror film, a Lifetime television movie, and a stint on Dancing with the Stars. She now stars on MTV’s 2019 reality series The Hills: New Beginnings.
Shelley Long – Cheers
Iconic sitcom Cheers wasn’t just one of the biggest shows on NBC in the ’80s, it was one of the biggest shows of all time. Much of its appeal was based on the simmering “will they or won’t they” relationship between bartenders Sam and Diane, played by Ted Danson and Shelley Long. Long’s iconic performance as Diane earned her an Emmy and two Golden Globes. But at the height of Cheers’ fame, Long decided to leave the show, noting her desire to spent more time with her young daughter as the most important reason.
Her sudden departure caused a national furor, as many wondered if the show could continue without her. Her character was written off in 1987 and Kirstie Alley joined Cheers as its new leading lady. It took years for Long to find projects of note again. Her most memorable post-Cheers work includes 1995’s The Brady Bunch Movie, guest appearances on Cheers spinoff Frasier, and rare appearances as estranged mother DeDe Pritchett on Modern Family.
Mandy Patinkin – Criminal Minds
Veteran character actor Mandy Patinkin didn’t exactly lose his career but he definitely didn’t grow from leaving CBS’s long-running procedural Criminal Minds. Best known on the big screen for movies like Alien Nation and The Princess Bride, he landed a starring role in the CBS series Criminal Minds in 2005.
But he only stayed on for two seasons before leaving, claiming that the show’s subject matter was “too dark,” especially since he had left a morbid comedy, Dead Like Me, to take the role on Criminal Minds. He eventually landed a role on Homeland, but his movie career has pretty much stagnated.
Jeff Conaway – Taxi
How many actors have a hit movie and TV show at the same time? In the late ’70s, Jeff Conaway’s career was flying high. He won a starring role in the 1978 film Grease, which became the highest grossing film musical of its time. In the same year he became part of another ensemble cast, of the iconic ABC sitcom Taxi. The cast was filled with future icons of comedy, including Judd Hirsch, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Andy Kaufman, Carol Kane, Tony Danza, and more.
Conaway’s role as taxi driver and struggling actor Bobby Wheeler earned him two Golden Globe nominations. But after three season, Conaway was fired, in part due to drug abuse issues. It didn’t help matters that he butted heads with producers over his character, whom he felt was stereotyped as an airhead. He sought treatment in the mid-’80s for his drug use, and made guest appearances on TV after that. He even had a four-season run on Babylon 5 in the ’90s. But he relapsed in the 2000s and ended up on the VH1 reality show Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew in 2008. Tragically, he passed away in 2011 at the age of 60.
Suzanne Somers – Three’s Company
Suzanne Somers starred in the hit sitcom Three’s Company as the memorably dimwitted Chrissy Snow. The show about three single roommates granted Somers and her co-stars John Ritter and Joyce DeWitt instant fame when it premiered in 1977. Unfortunately, Somers faced consequences from producers when she tried to fight for equal pay.
After four seasons, Somers asked to have her $30,000-per-episode salary raised to match that of John Ritter’s $150,000 rate. Instead, producers offered her a $5,000 raise. She boycotted two episodes in response, and producers cut her airtime to 60 seconds episode for the rest of the season before firing her in 1980. Somers had a development deal to star in her own sitcom on rival network CBS, but it fell apart. For years afterward, she was best known as the spokesperson in Thighmaster exercise infomercials. Eventually, she landed another hit sitcom, Step By Step, in 1991.
Farrah Fawcett – Charlie’s Angels
Farrah Fawcett had some success in small movie roles like Logan’s Run in the ’70s. But her real claim to fame was the 1976 swimsuit poster that adorned every teenage boy’s room (and became the best-selling poster of all-time, with 20 million copies). When she became one-third of ABC’s hit show Charlie’s Angels later that year, she became a household name.
But at the height of her fame, she left the show after only one season. She had been in legal battles with ABC over her contract, but her desire to star in films has also been given as a reason for her departure. She starred in a few films after that, but her movie career never reached the heights of her Charlie’s Angels success. Sadly, Fawcett passed away in 2009 at the age of 62 after a battle with cancer.
Christopher Eccleston – Dr. Who
The original Dr. Who series ran from 1963 through 1989, but was rebooted in 2005 by the BBC. The new series starred Christopher Eccleston as the ninth version of the iconic time traveler, and his performance garnered him acclaim and awards. But he caused a media frenzy when he suddenly decided to quit after only one season, citing creative differences with the showrunner and producers.
In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Eccleston claimed that he was blacklisted by the BBC after leaving the show and that his decision “almost destroyed my career.” His biggest claim to fame since Dr. Who has been his role as the Marvel villain Malekith in the ill-received Thor: The Dark World.
Wil Wheaton – Star Trek: The Next Generation
Wil Wheaton starred as the youngest crew member of the USS Enterprise for four seasons before deciding to leave the hit show Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1991. He had movie success before the series with the Stephen King adaptation Stand By Me, but he did not return to the big screen after leaving his television series.
He’s since made a name for himself as a writer and producer and has quite a large social media following. But his acting career pretty much now consists of cartoon voice acting and guest-starring roles playing himself on shows like The Big Bang Theory.