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12 Times Supporting TV Characters Stole The Show And Became The Lead

Updated August 2, 2021 439 votes 97 voters 4.2k views12 items

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It isn't uncommon for actors to come out of nowhere and essentially steal a project from the lead star. The big screen has seen instances of this for decades upon decades, and the small screen is no stranger to it, either. The differences between movies and television make these occurrences stand out more in the memory, though, as a lot of these "supporting actors" went on to lead their shows for years. Instead of stealing a movie with a couple of scenes, these actors stole hours and hours of television right out from under the initial central characters' noses.

Do you remember that Steve Urkel didn't even show up in Family Matters until halfway through the first season? Did you forget that Fonzie was a mere supporting character when Happy Days originally hit the airwaves? Martin Sheen was hardly supposed to be in The West Wing until his President Bartlet won everyone over and ended up being the primary focus for much of the show's seven seasons. Sometimes, a supporting character is just too incredible to be left on the sidelines.

  • Photo: NBC

    Who Was Supposed To Be The Main Character? Family Ties was a huge hit for NBC in the 1980s. The story of former hippies raising their three (and, eventually, four) kids in suburban Ohio proved to resonate with audiences across the country during the Reagan era. Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter starred as Steven and Elyse Keaton, and though they began the series as the central characters, the kids quickly took over the show, as is common on family sitcoms. Well, one kid in particular...

    Who Actually Became The Main Character? If there is one name you know from Family Ties, it is Alex P. Keaton - not to mention the actor who played him, Michael J. Fox. The precocious young adult with an eye on becoming an extremely successful entrepreneur became the standout part of the show. Alex was a Republican through and through, something that wasn't (and isn't) all that common on television, especially in the form of a teenager. Fox won three straight Emmys for "Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series" as Alex - and notice that does say "lead" actor, not "supporting."

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  • Photo: ABC

    Who Was Supposed To Be The Main Character? When Family Matters debuted on ABC in September 1989, the show was meant to tell the story of a working-class family residing in the Chicago suburbs. It centered around Reginald VelJohnson's Carl Winslow, a police officer just trying to raise his family. The original vision for the show wouldn't even last through the first season.

    Who Actually Became The Main Character? In the middle of the first season, a bespeckled tween threw on some suspenders and walked into the Winslows' life. Television history was made. Jaleel White's nerdy-as-all-get-out Steve Urkel became a phenomenon seemingly overnight and Family Matters was forever changed. Urkel became the main character of the show as the Winslow family increasingly took a backseat to whatever hijinks their goofball neighbor was getting up to.

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  • Photo: CBS

    Who Was Supposed To Be The Main Character? Before starring on The Big Bang Theory, Johnny Galecki had enjoyed a pretty lengthy Hollywood career. Galecki had a memorable multi-season run in the early '90s as David Healy in Roseanne and also appeared in some major feature films, including National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation and I Know What You Did Last Summer. But landing the lead role as Leonard Hofstadter in the CBS sitcom was a huge break for the TV veteran. Alas, Galaecki's character would soon be completely overshadowed by his roommate, Sheldon.

    Who Actually Became The Main Character? When Jim Parsons was cast in The Big Bang Theory, he had a mere handful of notable acting appearances on his resume. Granted, acting credits are not a marker of talent, and his turns in Garden State and Judging Amy showcased his ability quite well. Still, there was no way to predict just how big Parsons would become on the back of The Big Bang Theory. Sheldon Cooper, his socially awkward genius, would become the show's breakaway character, eventually earning his own spinoff Young Sheldon. Bazinga, indeed.

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  • Photo: ABC

    Who Was Supposed To Be The Main Character? Early in Happy Days' 11-season run on ABC, the show's future was in doubt. Set in an idealized version of 1950s America, the show followed Ron Howard's Richie Cunningham, his family, and his best friend Potsie (played by Anson Williams). It turns out audiences weren't all that interested in this initial idea, and the ratings began to slip after the formula got a bit stale. Thank goodness for the comedic brilliance of Henry Winkler.

    Who Actually Became The Main Character? It's easy to forget now, as he's gone on to be a legendary television character, but Winkler's Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli was nothing but a minor supporting character in the first season of Happy Days. Though Fonzie seems pretty goofy by today's standards, at the time, Winkler's high school dropout was the very epitome of cool. Maybe it's Winkler's subsequent career playing zany characters in projects like Arrested Development and The Waterboy that colors Fonzie retroactively, or maybe it's just that Fonzie was never all that suave in the first place. Whatever the case, the Fonz will forever be a television icon.

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