Actors Talk About Feeling Trapped By A Role On Successful TV Shows

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Vote up the surprising stories about the downsides of being on a long-running show.

Working on a hit television series as an actor has its perks, such as steady work, great pay, award nominations, media attention, and other acting opportunities. The downsides, however, include being typecast or missing out on other acting projects due to contractual ties to a series. And sometimes, the show or character grows stale. 

The stories here describe some of the ways actors have felt "stuck" playing characters on a long-running TV series.

  • Jaleel White was 12 years old when he was cast as Steve Urkel on the sitcom Family Matters. In the beginning, Urkel was supposed to be a supporting role, but viewers quickly took to the nerdy character, making White a huge star.

    In the late '90s, White was quoted as saying about Urkel, "Put a bullet in my head," if he ever played the role again. But in a 2011 interview with Vanity Fair, the actor said that quote was taken out of context:

    I loved playing those characters; I didn’t play one, I played a lot... But the fact is that I was maturing. I knew physically I had made certain sacrifices to keep that property alive that just couldn’t be made anymore. I wasn’t changing my hair; I was staying out of the gym. To be honest, I was [stunting] my own growth as a man in order to maintain the authenticity to what I thought that character should be... I was getting network notes on the bulge of my sack! I wore my pants so freaking tight and it was like, after a while, we got a problem there. So, literally, the last season we loosened up his pants.

    577 votes
  • Alfonso Ribeiro Said Being Told He Couldn't Play A Character Other Than Carlton Banks On 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air' Made Him Learn Other Skills
    Photo: NBC

    Alfonso Ribeiro was 8 years old when he got his first professional acting job, 12 when he starred in the Broadway musical The Tap Dance Kid, and 15 when he was cast to play Ricky Schroder's best friend in the sitcom Silver Spoons.

    He was a seasoned actor with a variety of credits to his name before he was chosen to portray Will Smith's rich, preppy, nerdy cousin Carlton Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It's still the role he is best known for, even though the series ended its original run in 1996.

    In 2020, Ribeiro said in an interview with The Ringer that playing Carlton hampered his career at times:

    Imagine for a second you do a role so well that they tell you you’re not allowed to do anything else ever again because they can’t believe that you’re not that guy... For me, it’s a career. It’s a life. It’s what I have. It’s what’s going to put food on my family’s table. And somebody says, "You can’t do it because we think of you as that guy." So there was a lot of resentment for that character and for that time on that show.

    After The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air finished its run in 1996, the actor found himself playing parts that were basically clones of Carlton. Then, even those roles started drying up. So in the early 2000s, Ribeiro, who had already directed a few sitcom episodes and graduated from the New York Film Academy, switched his focus to behind the camera. "I worked incredibly hard at becoming the best director that I could be," he said. "And I was fortunate enough to be able to do a ton of work as a director. And so I just focused on that."

    When he was warned he could get stuck being a television director, Ribeiro branched out into yet another area of the entertainment industry: hosting television game shows. In 2008, he was hired to host Catch 21, a show that combined blackjack with trivia.

    The multitalented former Fresh Prince star continues to add to his resume. He won Season 19 of Dancing with the Stars; was hired to be the new host of America's Funniest Home Videos in 2015; and began hosting a syndicated radio showThe '90s with Alfonso Ribeiro, in 2019.

    525 votes
  • Henry Winkler Mistakenly Thought The Fonz From 'Happy Days' Was So Popular He Would Be Able To Beat Hollywood's Stereotype System
    Photo: ABC

    In 1970, Henry Winkler graduated from Yale University's School of Drama with an MFA, and in 1973, won the role of Arthur Fonzarelli in the nostalgic sitcom Happy Days.

    Originally, "Fonzie" or "The Fonz" was meant to be a small role. In an interview for the Television Academy Foundation, Winkler described the character as "my alter ego. He was everybody I wasn't... He was in charge. He was confident... He was everybody that I ever wanted to have some part of in my body."

    That small role turned out to become one of the most beloved characters in television history. Winkler stayed with the series for its entire run. When the show finally ended, he was surprised to find the character was hard to shake. As he told NPR in 2019:

    I literally thought that I was going to beat the system. "The Fonz" was so popular in so many countries, I thought, "Well, this is gonna be - I'm not going to be typecast. I'm going to go from mountaintop to mountaintop." And then I had a rude awakening. That you don't beat the system. And it took me maybe eight years after "The Fonz" to really get a good acting role. That's when I started producing... we did MacGyver... and So Weird and directing a little bit.

    Winkler never won an Emmy Award for playing The Fonz, although he was nominated three times. But in 2018, he won an Emmy for supporting actor in a comedy series for playing acting teacher Gene Cousineau in HBO's dark comedy series Barry.

    400 votes
  • Fred Gwynne Got Help From Fay Wray When He Worried About Being Typecast In 'The Munsters'
    Photo: CBS

    Fred Gwynne didn't want to be an actor when he was a child; his goal was to become a portrait painter. Although he did some acting in prep school, after graduation and a stint in the Navy, he went to commercial art school. Realizing a career in art wasn't for him, he ended up at Harvard, where he began acting again. In 1952, he made his Broadway debut in Mrs. McThing.

    But parts were hard to come by for the 6-foot-5 Gwynne. He finally got his first big break when he was cast in the stage musical Irma la Douce; his performance got him the offer to play a bumbling police officer in the TV series Car 54, Where Are You? Then, in 1964, he was cast to play Herman Munster in the campy comedy series The Munsters

    The series made Gwynne a star and gave him financial stability. But as he told The New York Times in 1978, playing a Frankenstein-like creature with a friendly, loving nature also made it difficult for him to find other work:

    I was having a pretty tough time in my head, figuring out what I was going to do. I was drooping pretty badly, because I didn't feel I was right for anything and I didn't think that anyone else felt I was right for anything, either. Then a friend of mine suggested I go over to Stratford, CT, and try out for one of their Shakespeare productions. I did, and it was wonderful.

    Gwynne recalled meeting with the film actor Fay Wray and telling her that although he liked The Munsters, he felt he'd be typecast for the rest of his career. She replied, "Honey, you've got The Munsters and I've got King Kong and we're in the same boat. We can't live with it and we can't live without it." The actor said Wray's attitude helped him keep pursuing his career, and his success in playing various roles on stage eventually allowed him to shake off the shadow of Herman Munster.

    298 votes
  • Rainn Wilson Of 'The Office' Says, 'I Am Not Dwight Schrute, Okay?' And Don't Give Him Beets
    Photo: NBC

    Rainn Wilson portrayed Dwight Schrute on the NBC series The Office for nine years, earning three Emmy Award nominations for best supporting actor in a comedy.

    In a 2017 appearance on Crooked Media’s Lovett or Leave It podcast, Wilson was given the chance to rant about how he was not his character from The Office. He responded:

    I am not Dwight Schrute, okay? I played a character for 200 episodes, and it was an awesome character, and he was a beet farmer. That doesn’t mean you should hand me beets or make beet jokes every time I go into Starbucks and ask if they have like a beet latte or something like that.

    270 votes
  • Kit Harington Is Done Playing Emotionally Blocked Male Heroes Like Jon Snow On 'Game of Thrones' 
    Photo: HBO

    Kit Harington played Jon Snow, the illegitimate son of Ned Stark, the lord of Winterfell, in HBO's Game of Thrones. The show's creators described Snow as someone who "tries to live with honor, while knowing that honor often gets his family members murdered."

    Harington was nominated twice for an Emmy Award, for supporting actor and lead actor in a drama series, for his portrayal of Snow. But in an interview with The Telegraph, the actor said he no longer wanted to play heroic male roles like Snow where the character struggles to deal with his feelings:

    I feel that emotionally, men have a problem, a blockage, and that blockage has come from the Second World War, passed down from grandfather to father to son. We do not speak about how we feel because it shows weakness, because it is not masculine. Having portrayed a man who was silent, who was heroic, I feel going forward that is a role I don't want to play anymore. It is not a masculine role that the world needs to see much more of.

    He said after playing the GoT character for eight seasons, he was unsure if he wanted to continue with his acting career, but decided to carry on after time spent in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    260 votes