Arrowverse fans were rocked today by the news that Batwoman has lost its lead actress, with The Meg and John Wick Chapter 2 actress Ruby Rose departing the series before production begins on the second season. The role will be recast, marking a first for The CW's shared DC Universe, where up to this point recasting major characters has not been on the table. The most obvious exception to that rule would be Sara Lance (Caity Lotz), a role originally played by Jacqueline MacInnes Wood in the Arrow pilot, but Wood was never intended to play a significant role, and was not especially signfiicant to the overall story until after Lotz took the part.
There are, of course, historical examples of characters being recast, sometimes due to health issues, and sometimes just because the actor and studio or network found themselves at loggerheads. In some cases, the show could limp along for a little while before cancellation and, once in a great while, it would even continue to be a hit after the big shakeup.
We've picked out a handful of such situations, in no particular order, to look at the phenomenon of replacing a lead actor, and how it impacts the series going forward. Of course, these all have an asterisk on them.
That is to say, while it may be true that someone has recast a solo title lead before, we can't think of a big, notable example. Superhero properties are a little different because the characters themselves are a big part of the draw, so it isn't as though this is Martin without Martin Lawrence or something, but still. What has happened with Batwoman is almost without precedent, especially for one of the network's biggest shows.
That it has happened during a global pandemic that has halted production -- so when season two of Batwoman comes it will be almost a year after the season one finale -- is another unpredictable wrinkle in the story. That doesn't mean we can't make some educated guesses as to what it will look like going forward.
That said, we've decided to take you on a short trip through what is by no means a complete accounting of the times lead actors have been recast -- but it's a pretty good baseline. One last note is that thing like Aunt Viv from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Becky from Roseanne won't make this list, becuase they weren't the main character of the series. To make this list, we're looking for either the main character or, if not that, the main character's co-lead (usually a significant other). Check out what we've put together below.
Two and A Half Men
The hit CBS sitcom, starring future Arrowverse Lex Luthor Jon Cryer and Platoon's Charlie Sheen, imploded when, during the series' eighth season, a series of disagreements between Sheen and the showrunner led to Sheen's firing and an abrupt end to the season. When the show came back the next fall, Ashton Kutcher stepped in as the new lead although, as with some of the other names on this list, it was technically a different guy. Charlie Harper had died and now his perpetually-impoverished brother needed to take on a wealthy tenant to maintain the beach house that had been his home for the life of the series.
The show certainly lost ratings and esteem after the Sheen fiasco, but it was far from the end. The show went on for another four seasons, ending in 2015 with its twelfth season.
This one's recent enough that more or less everyone can remember it. The Conners is a spinoff of the Roseanne revival -- but it wasn't always meant that way. After a single season as a ratings powerhouse, the revival was scrapped after series star Roseanne Barr made the latest in a series of provocative tweets. Her firing, like virtually everything else in the U.S., immediately became a partisan issue in part because she was let go for what was widely considered a racist comment directed at a former Obama administration official.
After she was fired, Roseanne was retooled as The Conners, with Barr's character dying offscreen in between seasons (the same fate CBS had saddled Charlie Sheen's Two and a Half Men character with years before). The Conners does not reach the same insane numbers that Roseanne did, but it continues to be one of ABC's biggest shows and is generally considered a safe bet for a season three renewal once the pandemic recedes a bit and production on TV and film projects can resume.
A lot of fans didn't know what to think when Shannen Doherty was removed from Charmed and replaced -- again, not by a new actor playing Prue but by a previously-unknown fourth sister (played by Rose McGowan) after the third-season finale.
McGowan would play Paige Matthews, a half-witch, half-Whitelighter, for another five seasons, until the series ended with its eighth season. In the years since, there havebeen season 9 and 10 comic books, and now a reboot, which doesn't feature either Prue or Paige.
For years, Cheers centered around a will-they-or-won't-they romance between Sam Malone (Ted Danson) and Diane Chambers (Shelley Long). While Sam was the main character of the series and drove a lot of the jokes and plot, Diane was the audience's point-of-view character, having been dropped into Cheers in the pilot and stranded there for five seasons.
When, finally, she and Sam were set to be married, the ex-fiancee who had originally left her at the bar showed back up. Not to steal her away from Sam, but to tell her that her dreams had come true and a friend of his wanted to publish her book. Taking a leave of absence from Cheers, Diane left, with Sam knowing deep down that she would never return. The real reason? Well, it depends on who you ask. Long had begun a successful film career and officially she left the show to pursue those opportunities, but rumors persist to this day that she did not get along with some of the cast and crew on Cheers and might have been effectively forced out.
Season six began with Sam's return from a despondent trip around the world that burned through his savings. Standing in for Diane as the new will-they-or-won't-they was Rebecca Howe (Kirstie Alley), with the key difference in their dynamic being that Rebecca worked for a corporation who had bought the bar from Sam, so where he was Diane's boss, Rebecca was his. The show went on for another six seasons, ending after season 11, when Sam finally had the opportunity to choose between Diane and Rebecca, both of whom wanted him to leave the bar and move away with him. Instead, Sam chose the bar, letting both women leave and staying with his "one true love."
Ironically, Cheers had replaced another major (although not lead) character earlier in its run: Nicholas Colasanto, who played "Coach" Ernie Pantusso, passed away in 1985 at the age of 61. He appeared in the first three seasons of Cheers and, after his death, his role as the dim-witted, good-natured bartender was filled by Woody Harrelson, who played the role of Woody Boyd for the duration of the series.
David Caruso, the Hudson Hawk star who would later go on to play one of TV's most quotable and meme-able cops in Horatio Caine from CSI: Miami, almost had a similarly career-defining TV cop role in the form of Steven Bochco's NYPD Blue. After a single season, though, Caruso was apparently starting to feel boxed in by a TV schedule and bolted when Hollywood came with feature film offers. He never quite became the star he likely thought he could be, and he learned lessons he would later apply on CSI.
NYPD Blue did okay, though, replacing Caruso with Jimmy Smits, who would go on to anchor the show for nearly 100 episodes. Denniz Franz and Gordon Clapp would surpass the 250-episode mark, with numerous cast changes along the way -- but the series ran for a total of 12 seasons -- even after the guy they were banking on to be its star left 4 weeks into season 2.
The Adventures of Superman
Noel Neill played the role of Lois Lane before anybody else in live-action, appearing in the 1948 serial Superman as well as the 1950 serial Atom Man vs. Superman before the character was brought to television with The Adventures of Superman. There, as well as in the Superman vs. the Mole Men serial, Phyllis Coates would take on the role of Lois Lane -- but between the filming of the first season of The Adventures of Superman and when it finally got a sponsor and a spot on the schedule, Coates had taken another gig, Neill was called back. She played the role for seasons 2-6.
From 1964 unil 1969, Dick York played the role of Darrin Stephens, the flustered husband of a beautiful witch named Samantha, played by Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched. The series was a comedy that centered around the pair trying to live a normal life, but Samantha constantly finding herself on the cusp of revealing herself (and by extension the existence of magic) to the world.
During a stunt in a 1969 episode, York (who had already had serious back problems and developed a painkiller addiction as a result) was injured while hanging upside down in a rig on set. At the hospital, producers reportedly asked him whether he even wanted the part anymore, and he admitted he didn't.
Dick Sargent was then cast in the role, and would play it for more than 80 episodes, ending when the series concluded in 1972.
Like Bewitched, this change came as a result of medical needs by the lead actor. Unlike Bewitched, Michael J. Fox left the show, taking his character with him, and was replaced by Charlie Sheen's entirely different character. Fox's Mike Flaherty was on the series from 1996 until 2001, when worsening symptoms of Parkinson's Disease led him to step away from the series. He was replaced by Sheen's Charlie Crawford, who appeared in 45 episodes between 2000 and 2002, when the series ended.
As noted in the comments below, Spartacus was dealt a crushing setback when star Andy Whitfield had to leave the series because of a diagnosis for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which ultimately claimed his life in 2011.
Spartacus ran for another two seasons and change, although that is not necessarily indicative of what the show's life could or would be in a more normal setting. A prestige series, Spartacus had subtitles and a more or less stand-alone arc every season, with Whitfield appearing in Blood and Sand, the show's first season. After that, fans got a prequel miniseries, Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, which was intended to give Whitfield time to recover from treatment. Spartacus himself didn't appear. When the character returned to the air for Spartacus: Vengeance and Spartacus: War of the Damned, those series featured Liam McIntyre in the role. Eventually the series ended because the creators had finished the story they set out to tell, not necessarily due to ratings.
Whitfield is remembered on social media regularly, because there's a black-and-white photograph of him that is frequently shared as being "a young Patrick Stewart." His fans, frustrated that a talent taken so young is not remembered for his own accomplishments but for an inaccurate meme, generally use the opportunity to spread awareness of Whitfield's work, and share links for cancer charities.
Cagney & Lacey
Actually, it was the second time the role had been recast. Loretta Swit had played the role of Cagney in a TV movie that served as a kind of pilot for the series, but declined the role in the series because M*A*S*H wouldn't let her out of her contract. The role then went to Meg Foster, who played the role of Cagney for the first, abbreviated, season (the show was a midseason replacement).
From season two forward, Sharon Gless got the gig; according to an executive for CBS, the network that was airing the show, Foster was too feminist and might be perceived as a lesbian, so she had to go.
This one is a little bit of a different story, because the lead character was changed, not just recast. After a tumultous relationship between the production and its star, Clayne Crawford, Crawford's character was killed and he was let go. Replacing him on the series was Seann William Scott.
The series ran for only three seasons -- two with Crawford and one with Scott, although it's hard to argue that Scott was responsible for the show's end. When Crawford's job was on the line, there was some speculation that the series might end rather than replace him -- and shortly after the third season premiere, Damon Wayans -- who played the second lead on the show -- announced he would leave at the end of the third season even if the show was picked up for a fourth year.