By D. K. Holm
Special to MSN Entertainment
"Doctor Who," now in its third season on Sci-Fi, boasts a number of broadcasting records and unique facets. Its position as the world's longest-running science fiction TV show has ushered it into the Guinness World Records book, its eerie theme song is a pioneering use of electronic music, and its clever plot twists are BAFTA award-winning (Britain's equivalent of the Emmys). But one of the show's most interesting qualities is that no less than 10 actors have played the lead character over the years. Why? The possibility of replacements is inscribed into the very nature of the show. Not every television series comes with such conveniences.
Doctor Who, the time-traveling problem solver, was invented for television in 1963 by various BBC officials, producers and writers, including Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, Verity Lambert and Donald Wilson, with the intent of gearing the show toward kids. Among Doctor Who's proposed characteristics was an ability to regenerate himself, which he did after stage actor William Hartnell chose to leave because of production conflicts. In the episode that aired Nov. 5, 1966, a new Doctor seamlessly appeared, played by character actor Patrick Troughton, who kept the role until 1969. There have been eight Doctors since, each one with a different personality. The most famous until now was probably Tom Baker, who popularized the Doctor's humongous scarf; the current Doctor is cheerfully played by David Tennant.
The most famous example of actor erasure is Dick York's replacement by Dick Sargent as Darrin Stephens, human husband of witch Samantha on "Bewitched." One of the most popular sitcoms ever, "Bewitched" was invariably nominated for Emmys, and York's comic timing was celebrated. But when he suffered a severe back injury while making a movie in 1959, and after collapsing on the set of the show during its fifth season, York resigned from "Bewitched" from his hospital bed. Sargent, who curiously enough had been the producer's first choice for Darrin, replaced York without explanation. In fact, such a drastic facial change would be impossible to explain, even in the magical world of "Bewitched." The show folded just two seasons later. York's legacy is that he gave a name to unannounced actor changes: Darrin Syndrome.
Generally, such thespian changes are handled without much fanfare. On "Roseanne," Lecy Goranson played Becky Conner, the family's eldest, teenage daughter. But in 1993, just before the start of the fifth season, Goranson quit the show to attend college. There were vain efforts to write around this situation, but in the end, producers decided on Sarah Chalke to take over the role. In a situation that must have been confusing to viewers watching reruns, Goranson later came back, but then left again, with Chalke replacing her for a second time. Roseanne, with her inimitable subtlety, often winked at the audience with regard to the situation, like the time she told the second incarnation of Becky, "I can have you replaced, you know." Chalke eventually went on to play flighty Dr. Elliot Reid on "Scrubs."
Daytime soap operas are hotbeds of actor replacement. Meg Ryan was just one of many actresses who played Betsy Stewart on "As the World Turns," where her romance with Frank Runyeon's Steve proved to be catnip to the fans. Another American sweetheart, Sarah Michelle Gellar, played Kendall Hart on "All My Children" from 1993 to 1995, whereupon she turned into Buffy. After a seven-year hiatus, Kendall returned to the show, this time played by Alicia Minshew.
There have been many minor adjustments in recurrent characters over the years. On "Batman," both Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt played Catwoman on the campy ABC show in 1966. But it is rare to have a lead character changed in midstream. Yet that's what happened to Michael Praed, who was playing Robin Hood in the British series "Robin of Sherwood," which aired from 1984 to 1986. He was replaced by Jason Connery (son of Sean) after Praed's version of Robin Hood was killed off. On "The Munsters," Beverley Owen started off playing daughter Marilyn, but quit after 13 episodes to be silently replaced by Pat Priest, who worked through the remainder of the show's two-season run. On "The Jeff Foxworthy Show," Jeff's wife Karen was played first by Anita Barone in Season 1, then by Ann Cusack for its second and last season.
"Petticoat Junction" was a virtual Grand Central Station of busty cast changes. The CBS show, which aired from 1963 to 1970 and concerned the goings-on at Hooterville's Shady Rest Hotel, kept switching daughters. Betty Jo was always played by Linda Kaye Henning, but Bobbie Jo was first played by Pat Woodell, then by Lori Saunders, while Billie Jo was played by Jeannine Riley, before being replaced by Gunilla Hutton, who was then replaced by Meredith MacRae. Did you get all that?
Unfortunately, "The Jeff Foxworthy Show," "Petticoat Junction," and "Roseanne" all take place in the world of science fact, while "Doctor Who" dwells in the multi-optional world of science fiction. But even there, limits are in place. The Doctor, according to show lore (which isn't always clear) can only regenerate himself 12 times. At the current rate of actor turnover, the BBC may be in real trouble ... come 2013.