The Walking Dead star Lennie James recounts how the now-worldwide phenomenon got a slow start, saying the eight-year-running zombie series wasn’t expected to outlive its inaugural season.
“One of the things that people forget now that Walking Dead has turned into what it turned into, arguably one of the biggest shows in the world, is that when we were first doing the first season — I knew that the first episode of the first season — at that point, they didn’t know they were going to get a second season, let alone that it was going to turn into what it turned into,” James said at Comic Con Honolulu this weekend.
“In fact, the general feeling while we were doing the pilot was, ‘This probably won’t go anywhere. But if it does, we might give you a call and you might come back.’ So that was all I knew right at the beginning.”
That first batch of six episodes, steered by The Shawshank Redemption writer-director Frank Darabont, gave way to a double-sized Season Two. After gaining traction, the series exploded in Season Three: that season, The Walking Dead more than doubled its premiere season average ratings following re-runs and audiences discovering the show on streaming services like Netflix.
“It was only really in Season Two and then when it went onto Netflix and people caught up on Netflix that it turned into the phenomenon that it’s turned into now,” James said. “But at the beginning, you know, they said, ‘This character comes back in the comic book, so he might come back in the show.’ But if I got a dime for every time someone said, ‘Your character’s coming back,’ I’d be a millionaire.”
After debuting in the 2010 pilot alongside Rick Grimes star Andrew Lincoln, James wouldn’t return to the show until near the end of Season Three, disappearing again until the Season Five premiere. After resurfacing in two more episodes that season in a minor role, James boarded The Walking Dead as a full-time series regular in Season Six with his Morgan Jones integrating into Ricks’ Alexandria community.
James has since departed The Walking Dead after its April Season Eight finale, taking a larger starring role in the fourth season of spinoff Fear The Walking Dead.
Another actor behind one of the few still-surviving characters from the first season, Norman Reedus, shared similar sentiments in an October 2017 appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, saying “everybody” told him “don’t do [the show].”
Fear The Walking Dead airs its mid-season premiere tonight on AMC. The Walking Dead launches Season Nine Sunday, October 7.