35 Actors Who Turned Down Iconic TV Roles

A role on the right TV show can transform an actor from a nobody to a household name. You won’t believe which stars turned down roles in your favorite classic TV shows! They definitely regret missing out on these smash hits.

Ed O’Neill – Cheers

Ed O’Neill is best known for playing grumpy patriarch Al Bundy on the popular sitcom Married…with Children, and for his current role on Modern Family. But you probably didn’t know that he almost played womanizing bar owner Sam Malone on Cheers! Ed turned down the part of Sam on the classic series because he wanted to focus on dramatic roles.

Ed O’Neill – Family Ties

Family Ties, the classic 80s sitcom, was an essential part of the 1980s. Set in the upper middle class Ohio suburbs, featuring a son whose greatest ambition was to be a millionaire (and was a member of the Young Republicans club), the patriarch of the family was played by veteran actor Michael Gross. Interestingly enough, clean-cut dad Steven Keaton was almost played by Ed O’Neill! It’s especially ironic considering that Ed went on to play the anti-Steven, Al Bundy, on Married…With Children.

Ray Liotta – The Sopranos

Ray Liotta, who is best known for his role in the gangster flick Goodfellas, was offered the role of Tony Soprano on HBO’s The Sopranos. He turned it down, fearing that he would be typecast as an Italian mafia member forever.

John Lithgow – Cheers

Most people have no idea that John Lithgow passed on the role of Dr. Frasier Crane on Cheers, a character that was specially written with him in mind. John explained in a recent interview that, “I turned it down because at that point in my life episodic television was beneath my dignity.” Little did he know that the character of Frasier would soon get his own spin-off show and become one of the longest running TV shows of all time.

John Cryer – Friends

It’s hard to imagine anybody else but Matthew Perry playing the sarcastic Chandler Bing on Friends, but Jon Cryer was originally offered the role on the classic sitcom. But Jon, who considered himself more of a serious actor than a comedic one, turned down the part after auditioning. Later on, he went to star alongside Charlie Sheen in the popular series Two And A Half Men. But with Sheen’s notorious antics, it’s likely Jon regretted not taking the part on Friends!

Dana Delany – Sex And The City

Sex and the City ran for 6 seasons and was a major cultural phenomenon. The lead role of Carrie Bradshaw was played by Sarah Jessica Parker, but actress Dana Delany was originally offered the part and turned it down. “I had done a movie called ‘Live Nude Girls’ with Kim Cattrall that was somewhat similar. It was women sitting around talking about sex,” Delany said. Dana was afraid of being typecast as a party girl. We’re sure she regrets that now!

Katie Holmes – Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Katie Holmes is best known for her work on Dawson’s Creek and being the ex-wife of Tom Cruise and the mother of his daughter Suri. But you probably didn’t know that she was offered the role of the title character in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Katie Holmes was still a teenager at the time of casting and decided to focus on her school work instead of acting, and the role went to Sarah Michelle Gellar. The role made Sarah a household name.

Vince Vaughn – Friends

Actor Matt LeBlanc and his portrayal of lovable goofball Joey Tribbiani on Friends are inseparable in most people’s minds. But, shockingly, the role that made Matt famous originally was offered to movie star Vince Vaughn! Vince turned down the role in order to focus on his film career, and went on to star in box office smashes like Swingers, Old School, and Wedding Crashers. Matt LeBlanc, in comparison, hasn’t acted much since Friends, so it’s clear that Vince made the right choice.

Alec Baldwin – Sex And The City

Alec Baldwin has been a major movie and TV star for almost 40 years. Beloved for his roles in the hits Beetlejuice, Pearl Harbor, and The Aviator. But you probably didn’t know he was nearly picked as the small screen love interest of Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City. The creator of the show, Daren Star, said Baldwin was his first pick for Mr. Big, who ended up being played by Chris Noth. Alec’s career didn’t suffer and today he stars on 30 Rock.

Natasha Lyonne – Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Actress Natasha Lyonne was a hot commodity in the 1990s, after playing appearing in the Woody Allen box office smash Everyone Says I Love You. Nowadays, she’s well known for her role as Nicky on the prison dramedy Orange Is The New Black. But, like Katie Holmes earlier on this list, she was also offered – and turned down – the role of Buffy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She decided to take roles “exploring the messy, unhappy lives of young women” instead.

Michael Richards – Married…With Children

Michael Richards is best known for his role as the eccentric Cosmo Kramer on Seinfeld, but many people don’t know that he almost starred as grumpy patriarch Al Bundy on Married…With Children. Michael was already a well-known stand-up comedian at the time of casting, who relied heavily on physical humor. The wacky actor did well in the audition and was initially offered the part. But after producers saw Ed O’Neill’s audition, they rescinded their offer to Michael and picked Ed instead.

Olivia Newton-John – The Partridge Family

Susan Dey is best known for her role as Laurie Partirdge on the popular sitcom The Partridge Family. The character of Laurie is inseparable with Susan in most people’s minds, but, shockingly, there was another actress considered for the part – Olivia Newton-John! The Australian super star rose to fame as a singer and actress. Ironically, when Grease was in casting, Susan Dey was actually preferred for the role of Sandy. She turned it down and Olivia Newton John took the part.

Robert Foxworth – Dallas

Robert Foxworth passed on the part of J.R. Ewing, the patriarch of the family on the hit series Dallas. Producer David Jacobs explained that Robert didn’t want the part because he felt the character needed to be “more sympathetic.” The iconic role was taken by Larry Hagman, who rose to fame as the show grew in popularity. In comparison, Robert went on to do guest appearances on Law and Order and The West Wing, but was never again offered a starring role.

Paul Shaffer – Seinfeld

Best known as David Letterman’s bandleader and sidekick, you might be surprised to hear that Paul Shaffer passed up the role of George Constanza on Seinfeld. In his autobiography, Shaffer says Seinfeld personally called him and offered him the part, without even asking him to audition! However, Shaffer was busy at the time and never followed up with Jerry. Nowadays, he probably regrets the decision, as his career has been stagnant for many years and he hasn’t had much industry success.

Whitney Houston – The Cosby Show

Not many young women would turn down the lead role on a sitcom starring opposite Bill Cosby, but that’s exactly what Whitney Houston did. The legendary Grammy-award winning singer was offered the part of Sondra Huxtable on The Cosby Show in her early twenties. She explained to the producers of the show that although she hadn’t been signed to a label or made a record yet, she was worried committing to the show would keep her music career from taking off.

Olivia Wilde – The O.C.

Mischa Barton rose to fame because of her starring role as California teenage Marissa Cooper on The O.C. But actress Olivia Wilde was originally considered for the part. Olivia Wilde impressed everyone during her audition, except for the show’s creator Josh Schwartz. Josh said Olivia was a great actress, “but she lacked the upfront vulnerability that Marissa needed to have. Olivia Wilde needed no saving. She was pretty tough.” He went on to cast her in the role of Alex Kelly.

Leah Remini – Friends

Actress Leah Remini is best known for her time on The King of Queens, starring opposite Kevin James as his wife Carrie Hefferman. The show was hugely successful and ran for 9 seasons. But originally Leah Remini was almost cast as Monica on Friends, until Courtney Cox showed up and demanded the show be re-cast. Because Courteney Cox had appeared in the hit movies Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Scream, the producers listened to her and cast her as Monica.

Gilda Radner – Laverne and Shirley

The sitcom Laverne and Shirley broke down many barriers, as it was the first of its kind to depict the struggles and triumphs of two single women living in the city. It may surprise fans of the legendary show that SNL funny girl Gilda Radner was originally cast as Shirley. But Gilda’s part was taken from her at the last minute and given to Cindy Williams, supposedly because Cindy was more “classically attractive” and was expected to have broader audience appeal.

Pamela Anderson – The X Files

The blonde bombshell is best known for her iconic role as CJ Parker on Baywatch, but Pamela Anderson was almost the star of another major TV smash – The X Files! It may come as a shock to fans, but The X Files creator Chris Carter had Pamela specifically in mind when writing the character of Agent Scully. However, network executives found Pamela to be too unbelievable in the role of supernatural investigator, so Gillian Anderson was given the starring role.

Janis Ian – Cheers

Snarky but lovable waitress Carla Tortelli on Cheers was expertly played by Rhea Pearlman, who seemed born for the role. But the part was originally offered to edgy singer Janis Ian, who is best known for her hit song “At 17.” The tough but tender singer has since faded from the spotlight and was never again offered a major acting opportunity, but she doesn’t regret turning down the part, saying “Rhea is much, MUCH better than I ever would’ve been.”

Jane Krakowski – Friends

Jane Krakowski first shot to fame during her stint on Ally McBeal. Currently, she’s a hit on the comedy 30 Rock, and has been nominated for 4 Emmy awards for her role as Jenna Maroney. Surprisingly, she had the opportunity to star on yet another major sitcom. She auditioned for the part of Rachel Green on Friends and was being seriously considered for the role – but salary negotiations between her agent and the producers turned sour and the role went to Jennifer Aniston.

Bonnie Hunt – Mad About You

Comedian and actress Bonnie Hunt was originally offered the lead of Jamie Buchanan on Mad About You. But Bonnie didn’t just pass on that role – she turned down other offers to star on Designing Women and Home Improvement, and rejected an opportunity to become a Saturday Night Live cast member. However, the decision seems to have paid off for Bonnie – her movies’ box office grosses are more than $1 billion, and she’s been a successful actress for nearly all of her career.

Bridget Fonda – Ally McBeal

Most people can’t imagine Ally McBeal, the lead character from the sitcom of the same name, being played by anyone but Calista Flockhart. However, the role was originally offered to actress Bridget Fonda. Her agent got the script along with a personal invitation to the role, without an audition, from the show’s executive producer. “I refused to read the script for fear I might really like it,” Fonda said. “I’ve never wanted to do TV. I love feature films too much.”

Richard Boone – Hawaii Five-O

Hawaii Five-O was a popular TV drama that followed the adventures of Honolulu special task force detective Steve McGarret. Executive producer and creator Leonard Freeman knew exactly who he wanted to play McGarrett – Richard Boone, a veteran actor who made appearances in the popular films Halls of Montezuma and Dragnet. But even though Richard already lived in Hawaii, he turned down the role for unknown reasons. Hawaii Five-O ran for 12 seasons and was highly watched. Richard Boone faded into obscurity.

Eric Stoltz – The Shield

Eric Stoltz is a multi-talented Hollywood power player. He has directed episodes of major TV shows like Nip/Tuck, Grey’s Anatomy, and Glee. He’s also acted in blockbuster films like The Rules of Attraction, The Butterfly Effect, and Jerry Maguire. However, his first love was TV acting and he was well known in the industry that the producers of the gritty cop drama The Shield wanted to cast him as Vic. He turned the part down and it went to Michael Chiklis.

George Peppard – Dynasty

Not many people know that veteran actor George Peppard was originally cast as the Carrington family patriarch on the prime time soap opera Dynasty. Despite accepting the role at first, he clashed with producers over script issues and salary negotiations. He dropped the part and was replaced by John Forsythe. “It was a big blow,” George said, but generously added that, “John Forsythe did a better job than I could have done.” Dynasty went on for 9 highly rated seasons.

Ellen DeGeneres – Friends

Ellen Degeneres is famous or her popular daytime TV talk show and for her work on her eponymous sitcom, which broke barriers when she publicly came out on the air in the 1990s. However, few people know that this funny lady was almost cast as Phoebe on Friends! Ellen was offered the role, but turned it down. It was clearly the right choice, as she’s a household name today with an estimated net worth of $360 billion and many successful projects.

Dennis Weaver – Happy Days

The actor Dennis Weaver was a well-established rugged cowboy type when the show Happy Days was cast. Dennis had appeared in Western TV shows like Gunsmoke, The Gallant Hour, and Duel. He seemed ready to branch out and try something new when he accepted the role of the patriarch Howard Cunningham on Happy Days. He dropped out of the role at the last minute, and must have regretted the decision. Happy Days ran for 11 seasons and was hugely successful.

Richard Lewis – Mork And Mindy

Robin William’s break-out role came when he played the lovable alien Mork in Mork and Mindy. However, the role that made him famous was almost taken by another famous comedian, Richard Lewis. The part was written with Richard in mind – but in the audition, when he was asked to speak in an “alien voice” Richard blew his opportunity. According to his autobiography, he was caught off guard and ended up doing a Danish accent. He gave up halfway through the audition.

Martin Landau – Star Trek

With his pointed ears, angular eyebrows, and flat affect, Spock from Star Trek is an unforgettable character beloved by fans around the world. Played to perfection by Leonard Nimoy, it’s hard to imagine that Spock was almost played by a different actor – Martin Landau of Mission: Impossible and Ed Wood fame. Martin explained in 2001 that he didn’t take the role because, “A character without emotions would have driven me crazy; I would have had to be lobotomized.”

Robby Benson – Happy Days

Actor Robby Benson had several close calls on the casting couch – he read for the part of Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie, but the part went to Mark Hamill instead. When he was in his late teens, Robby impressed the producers of the show Happy Days, and they offered him the role of Richie, which he turned down. His biggest success since turning down the part has been voicing the Beast in the Disney animated movie Beauty and the Beast.

Paul Giamatti – The Office

Paul Giamatti was a major movie star, coming fresh the success of starring in the lead role in the Oscar winning film Sideways. So it’s no surprise that when he was offered the part of office buffoon Michael Scott in the American version of the British comedy The Office, he turned down the role. Why would a movie star downgrade to TV? Little did Paul know that The Office would turn out to be a massive success, spanning 7 seasons.

Craig T. Nelson – Modern Family

Hey, it’s a classic expression for a reason: “Money talks.” And veteran actor Craig T. Nelson embodied this saying when he turned down the role of Jay on Modern Family due to a lousy excuse for a paycheck. “I really wanted to do ‘Modern Family’ and I really liked the script and I liked the people,” Craig said, but due to the amount of money he was offered he had to pass up the role. “I just felt disrespected.”

Maura Tierney – Parenthood

Maura Tierney’s reasons for turning down a leading role on the show Parenthood are a bit different than the other actors on this list -she was diagnosed with cancer and had to begin intensive treatment immediately. Before the diagnosis, she had even filmed the pilot for the show. Luckily, she made a full recovery. The role ended up going to actress Lauren Graham, who had plenty of experience playing a TV mom from her earlier work on the smash show Gilmore Girls.

Michael Keaton – Lost

Michael Keaton was approached directly by legendary creator and director J.J. Abrams for the lead role of Jack Shepherd in Lost. Michael said that he thought the script and paycheck were great – so why in the world did he turn down the part? Apparently, he wanted to pursue more film roles and wasn’t ready to commit to working fulltime in a main role in a TV series. We bet he regrets that now, as Lost became a huge hit and cult classic.

Thomas Jane – Madmen

It’s almost impossible to imagine 1950s anti-hero Don Draper being played by anybody besides Jon Hamm, but apparently, Jon was the producer’s back up plan! Network execs were eyeing Thomas Jane for the lead role on Mad Men, but apparently Thomas felt he was too big of a movie star to do TV work. Nowadays, Thomas Jane ended up back on TV in the less successful Hung, and Mad Men has become a fan favorite and modern classic for audiences worldwide.

John Hawkes – The Walking Dead

David Morrissey’s career has blown up ever since he started playing the role of The Governor on the hit series The Walking Dead. But you’ll probably be surprised to know that the part was originally offered to someone else – John Hawkes! But John apparently turned down the part because he felt it was too “commercial.” He said in an interview that he didn’t take the part because, “I have to be careful of what TV shows I choose…there are going to be sponsors.”

Matthew Broderick & John Cusack – Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston has risen to icon status because of his unforgettable performance as Walter White in Breaking Bad. He embodied the role of the teacher gone bad perfectly, but you probably had no idea that there were two other actors that the producers preferred for the role – Matthew Broderick and John Cusack! Both the movies stars had big names and big box office hits under their belts, and both turned down the role because they didn’t want to play a bad guy.

Taylor Swift – Scream Queens

Taylor Swift, TV actress? Since successfully transitioning from being the queen of country to the empress of pop, there’s nothing that T-Swift can’t do. So why not try acting, especially after being offered a leading role on the show Scream Queens? Taylor turned it down to focus on music, and Hollywood royalty Emma Roberts (Julia Roberts’ niece) stepped in to take her place. Since Taylor is worth an estimated $280 million, it’s clear that she made the right choice for herself.

Ashley Tisdale – Pretty Little Liars

Ashley Tisdale was originally offered a main role on the ensemble drama Pretty Little Liars. But Ashley had already been cast as the lead in her own show, Hellcats, where she wouldn’t have to share the spotlight. The part went to a different Ashley – Ashley Benson, who, at that time, was a relatively unknown actress. However, after the show blew up, Ashley Benson has blossomed into an in-demand actress, while unfortunately Ashely Tisdale has pretty much faded from Hollywood.

Mischa Barton – Gossip Girl

Mischa Barton was coming hot off the heels of the smash hit teen drama The O.C., where she played spoiled teenager Marissa Cooper. It’s understandable why Mischa would turn down the lead role in Gossip Girl, as the character she would have played was so similar and she worried about being typecast. However, she hasn’t really done much since The O.C. and Blake Lively, who ended up taking the part, has been transformed into a household name and movie star.

James Garner – M*A*S*H

Producers on M*A*S*H were looking for authenticity when casting the starring role of Hawkeye of the war/dark comedy TV show. James Garner was the real thing – the actor was a veteran of the Korean War who was injured in combat and treated in a field hospital during his military service. However, Donald Sutherland was a big name and wanted the part. He pushed hard and got his way. It paid off for Donald majorly, since M*A*S*H was a smash hit.

Denzel Washington – Miami Vice

Everyone knows Denzel Washington as a serious dramatic actor. He has starred in the Hollywood blockbusters Malcolm X, Remember The Titans, and American Gangster. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in Training Day. So it might surprise readers that he was seriously considered for the part of undercover detective Ricardo Tubbs on Miami Vice. Although Miami Vice was a smash hit for 5 seasons, it’s clear Denzel’s career didn’t suffer from not taking the role.

Mickey Rourke and Richard Dean Anderson – Miami Vice

Back in the day, when Mickey Rourke was known for his acting and not tabloid drama, he was offered the lead role of undercover detective Sonny Crockett on Miami Vice. He turned down the role, and his career went absolutely nowhere for many years after that fateful decision. Richard Dean Anderson similar turned down the part and has since faded into obscurity. It goes to show that a role on the right TV show can make or break a career.

Sandra Bernhard – Sex And The City

Comedian Sandra Bernhard was well known in the 1980s more for her friendship with Madonna than her comedy career. However, despite being a B-List celebrity, she was offered the role of Miranda Hobbes on Sex and the City. But Sandra turned it down. In an interview with Howard Stern, she said, “The script was terrible…it just wasn’t any good. Even Cynthia Nixon [who took on the role of Miranda] admits it didn’t catch on until the second or third season.”