From 1963-1966, actor William Hartnell portrayed the character of The Doctor on the British television program “Doctor Who.” Towards the end of his run, Hartnell was weary from the intense schedule and bowed out. The producers faced a fundamental dilemma: How to continue the series if they did not have their lead actor?

They found the key in a little bit of tricky sci-fi writing. Since the character himself was not human, it wasn’t too difficult to come up with the notion that the species from which The Doctor came had an ability to regenerate their body with a completely different body — and therefore a completely different actor to portray the character. This trick turned out to be so successful that the BBC has managed to pull it off nine more times since then, for a total of eleven different men playing the same character.

A slightly similar problem faced Terry Gilliam while making “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” With a great deal of the footage left unfilmed, Mr. Gilliam experienced an unexpected loss with the passing of Heath Ledger. In this instance, the director took the fact that the character was going through a sort of magic mirror to a different dimension to make use of other actors to portray Heath’s character. This did not sit well with some people, some taking to the blogosphere to make their disgust with the notion known to the world at large. (“Dear Internet,” some of them surely were writing, “I am furious! Hear me roar!”)

Back in the realm of television this concept has taken on its own form in the case of the television show Scrubs. I was introduced to the show by a very good friend of mine who told me that I would love it and so I have been watching it for the last six or so years. I was most impressed by the lead character portrayed by Zach Braff and therefore I was naturally a little sad when I read that he and the creator of the show were both leaving. I was a bit confused as to how they were planning on continuing without them.

What has happened since then is not quite like what happened when John Schneider and Tom Wopat left The Dukes of Hazzard and they were haphazardly replaced with their cousins that happened to look a lot like them — Coy and Vance Duke. Rather, the setting for the show has changed from a hospital to a medical school hospital and after a few transition episodes with Zach Braff, the main character role has been delegated to Kerry Bishé, who plays the inexperienced with lots of heart Lucy. She is surrounded by both her fellow medical students and the doctors from the first eight seasons of the show who have taken on teacher roles.

Despite quite a few episodes having aired already, I feel as though it is still premature to tell whether or not this will be a successful transition. It is entirely possible that this will be a great regeneration and the show will go on for a few more years on the strength of the new characters. I hope that it will not suffer the same fate as the Dukes and just crash and burn after trying to replace the main leads.


  1. This is an interesting phenomenon, Gordon. My favorite switcheroo was the dual Darrins on Bewitched. What? Who? How?
    These examples all go to ego: No one actor is above the fray of the show and it doesn’t matter who plays the character — only the character matters.

  2. That’s right, David. The character is fundamental. The actor portraying said character is not so much — though you’d think the Coen Brothers think otherwise with all of the writing they do for specific actors — John Turturro and John Goodman in The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink, for example. 🙂

  3. Joel and Ethan to take the long view of fitting their friends into their movies and they have found incredible success in that creative matchmaking.

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