18 Iconic TV Roles and the Actors Who Almost Played Them

Some actors are so closely associated with a specific role or TV series that it's hard to imagine he or she wasn't the first choice. But it happens all the time.

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seinfeld cast with only george in color with blurred face
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There are some TV roles that are so iconic that it’s hard to imagine any other person playing them. However, several fan-favourite roles were very nearly played by different people. From Derek Shepherd in Grey’s Anatomy to Monk in Monk, here are the 18 iconic TV roles that were almost played by someone else.

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Grey's Anatomy
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Grey’s Anatomy, starring Rob Lowe

The original choice to play the role of Dr. Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd was 1980s teen heartthrob Rob Lowe. But he wasn’t quite right, so producers went with another 1980s teen idol: Patrick Dempsey, who was having so much trouble finding work that he was considering leaving acting for good. (He’d also just been rejected for the lead role on House).

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The Sopranos
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The Sopranos, starring Ray Liotta

Show creator David Chase’s pick for the role of Tony Soprano: James Gandolfini. Only problem: Gandolfini was completely unknown. HBO executives aggressively pursued Ray Liotta, who had appeared in many mob-themed movies, including Goodfellas. Chase ultimately got his way.

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Seinfeld, starring Paul Shaffer

Co-creator Larry David based the character of George Costanza on himself. However, David didn’t want to play the part, so the show’s other creator, Jerry Seinfeld, offered the role to then-Late Night With David Letterman bandleader Paul Shaffer via a message on Shaffer’s answering machine. Shaffer was so busy with his musical duties on Late Night that by the time he heard the message it was too late. Jason Alexander had been cast as George instead.

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Monk, starring Michael Richards

A few weeks before Seinfeld aired its final episode in 1998, one of the show’s stars, Richards, was looking for his next job and read the script for Monk, a comic police drama about a detective with obsessive-compulsive disorder. ABC wanted the show, especially because Richards was interested. But the actor didn’t think the script was funny enough. He passed, and so did ABC. The USA cable network picked it up, and Monk became the network’s most-watched show ever, winning three Emmy Awards for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series for star Tony Shalhoub.

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The Office
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The Office, starring Paul Giamatti

When NBC began work on an American version of the hit British comedy The Office, executives told the show’s producers they had one person, and one person only, in mind for the lead role of clueless office manager Michael Scott: film star Paul Giamatti (Sideways, American Splendor). Giamatti preferred making movies and turned down the role, so it was offered to Steve Carell, best known at the time for the film Bruce Almighty.

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30 Rock
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30 Rock, starring Rachel Dratch

30 Rock star and creator Tina Fey wrote the role of self-obsessed actress Jenna Maroney for Rachel Dratch, Fey’s longtime collaborator on Saturday Night Live and in the Chicago improv comedy scene before that. A pilot episode was filmed with Dratch, but NBC felt that she wasn’t attractive enough for the part and forced Fey to fire her friend. Ally McBeal veteran Jane Krakowski ended up playing Jenna; Dratch played several bit parts on 30 Rock throughout the show’s run.

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Mad About You
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Mad About You, starring Bonnie Hunt

Comedian and talk-show host Bonnie Hunt starred in several TV series; all of them were short-lived. The one she turned down lasted for several years. She was Mad About You producers’ first choice for the lead role of Jamie Buchman, ultimately played by Helen Hunt, who won four Emmy Awards for it. (The actresses aren’t related).

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Batman, starring Lyle Waggoner

When casting the campy 1960s TV series, producers narrowed down the choices for the lead roles of Batman and Robin to two sets of actors: Lyle Waggoner and Peter R.J. Deyell, and Adam West and Burt Ward. West and Ward won out. Also almost cast: Spencer Tracy, who was offered the role of the Penguin. He said he’d take the role if he could “kill Batman” (request denied).

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Frasier, starring John Lithgow

Kelsey Grammer almost didn’t headline the famous Cheers spinoff that premiered in 1993. According to the Toronto Sun, the recurring Cheers character was actually written specifically for John Lithgow, but he turned it down, because, as a film and theatre actor, he thought TV would be “beneath” him. However, today Lithgow is gracious about the role and the man who got it instead: “If I would have accepted that role nobody would have ever heard of Frasier Crane. (Kelsey is) the one that turned [Frasier] into an incredible phenomenon,” he said in 2017.

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I Love Lucy
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I Love Lucy, starring Bea Benaderet

Lucille Ball actually specifically chose Bea Benaderet, with whom she’d done radio work in the past, to be the Ethel to her Lucy. But Benaderet had already signed on with The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, so the role went to an actress with an equally alliterative name, Vivian Vance, instead. Benaderet eventually did get to appear on I Love Lucy, too—she made a cameo as “Miss Lewis” in the 1952 episode “Lucy Plays Cupid.”

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Star Trek
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Star Trek, starring Martin Landau

The voyages of the starship Enterprise would have been very different without Leonard Nimoy as the iconic Mr. Spock. Before Star Trek‘s 1966 debut, North by Northwest star Martin Landau was another candidate for the part. But Landau instead ended up taking a role in another series with a 1966 premiere: Mission: Impossible.

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Happy Days
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Happy Days, starring Micky Dolenz

Micky Dolenz was coming off of a starring turn on The Monkees when casting was underway for Happy Days. He made a bid for the role of Fonzie and actually came pretty close to landing it. In the end, it turned out that he was deemed too tall for the part! Dolenz’s co-star, Michael Nesmith, actually also auditioned for the part. The role eventually went to Henry Winkler, as anyone who grew up in the 1970s surely knows. (Winkler is 5′ 6″, by the way.)

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Mork and Mindy
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Mork & Mindy, starring Richard Lewis

Mork & Mindy without Robin Williams as Mork? Say it isn’t so! Well, it nearly was so when Richard Lewis went up against Williams during Mork & Mindy auditions. However, Lewis got frustrated midway through his audition when he couldn’t nail down his outer-space accent, and, apparently, told casting directors that they’d be crazy to cast anyone but Williams. Even Williams’ competitors knew he was perfect for the part.

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Gilligan's Island
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Gilligan’s Island, starring Jerry Van Dyke

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale”…of how the role of Gilligan almost didn’t go to Bob Denver. Jerry Van Dyke got a taste of stardom appearing in The Dick Van Dyke Show, starring his big brother, a few times in the 1960s. When the opportunity came for him to headline a show of his own, though, he turned Gilligan’s Island down, thinking its premise too silly and its script too poorly written. Had he known how it would make Bob Denver’s career take off, though, perhaps he would have reconsidered.

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Lizzie McGuire
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Lizzie McGuire, starring Lindsay Lohan

The idea of anyone but Hilary Duff playing Lizzie McGuire will doubtlessly horrify any Disney fanatic who was a tween between 2001 and 2004. But the reality is that around 400 to 500 actresses auditioned for the part, according to ScreenRant, and one of them was Lindsay Lohan. Of course, it’s not like Lohan’s career suffered without that role in her filmography.

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smallville tom welling next to jensen ackles
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Smallville, starring Jensen Ackles

This might be a bit shocking to hear, especially considering Ackles did end up in the Smallville cast as Clark Kent’s romantic rival, Jason Teague. However, the Days of Our Lives star was actually first considered for the role of Clark Kent. Of course, the part ended up going to Tom Welling.

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dawson's creek michelle williams next to katherine heigl
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Dawson’s Creek, starring Katherine Heigl

Most of us know Katherine Heigl as Izzy Stevens from the iconic TV show Grey’s Anatomy. However, according to Entertainment Weekly, Heigl actually auditioned for the role of Jen Lindley of Dawson’s Creek. Series creator Kevin Williamson ended up considering her for the role too, until Michelle Williams showed up and stole the show.

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This is us Milo Ventimiglia next to oliver hudson
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This is Us, starring Oliver Hudson

When you think of This is Us, you think of Milo Ventimiglia with the role of Jack Pearson. However, according to the Ladygang podcast, Oliver Hudson was also considered for the role. In the end, Hudson preferred going fishing to going for another read, and the part went to Ventimiglia. Next check out these classic TV shows that could only have been made in Canada.

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