— "There was a big countdown on set," recalled actress Amy Ryan of Steve Carell's final episodes on NBC's "The Office." "Everyone was very aware that there were three episodes left, then two episodes left. ... When any great character on TV — whether on 'M*A*S*H' or 'Cheers' or anything — leaves, it's a big deal."
Ryan should know. Her recurring character, Holly, is behind the departure of kind but clueless Michael Scott, played by Carell for the past seven seasons. (His final episode airs on April 28.) Carell charmed audiences by doing something very difficult: making a limited-run British sitcom that originally starred Ricky Gervais into a classic of American workplace comedy.
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He's had the help of a talented and personable cast, but his character is at the center of all that happens in "The Office." Without Carell, the series is left with one of the most difficult challenges a show has to face: Just how do you replace your star?
"It's a big opportunity for the series," said Tim Brooks, a former TV executive turned author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows." "After a few years, a show can fall into a certain rhythm, and the opportunity to mix it up and give new people for others to interact with and react to can be great for a show."
'It's easy to blow it'
The series is mixing it up with Will Ferrell (signed on for a limited number of episodes) and Will Arnett (rumored) as the permanent replacement. Ferrell does clueless almost as well as Carell; Arnett's sense of humor is archer. But during this casting period, producers will have to avoid several landmines.
"It's easy to blow it," said Brooks. "You can't just slip a new face into the same role, like audiences won't notice or something."
Don't think that hasn't happened. "Bewitched" swapped out ailing co-star Dick York for Dick Sargent with nary a mention to the audience. Sargent just took over playing Samantha the witch's husband, explanation free.
"They do that a lot in soap operas, but not often in prime time," recalled Herbie Pilato, who authored "Bewitched Forever." "It really was an insult to the audience."
When "Roseanne" switched actresses in the role of "Becky" (Sarah Chalke took over for Lecy Goranson, who came back and then left again), they'd learned something of a lesson. The show made a joke about it for the audience while an episode of "Bewitched" played on the Conners' television set.
But even with a sly acknowledgement to the fans, it's not an ideal choice, said Pilato. "People don't necessarily fall in love with characters as they fall in love with actors playing them. So it's a very delicate dance."
Some shows wouldn’t survive a character or actor replacement. "Friends" ran for 10 seasons with all six leads firmly in place, and today, star Matt LeBlanc (now on Showtime's "Episodes") says the series couldn't have continued if someone had left.
"Our show really felt like six individual pieces of a whole," he said. "We were like a biology experiment. A show that's a true ensemble, where everyone is the star of the show – it's crucial that they remain."
Some series get lucky, and — as with Carell — there's a fair amount of lead time between the departure announcement and that final episode. "ER" underwent numerous actor removal surgeries, but as former executive producer Neal Baer revealed, they had a considerable amount of warning.
In the case of George Clooney, they knew for more than a year before his exit and plotted out three specific arcs that would leave to a logical ending for his popular character, Dr. Doug Ross. Later on, as other major players left, writers were fortunate not to have to deal with a mass exodus.
"When you can stagger departures like that, it works much better," said Baer, who now oversees a very stable cast on "Law & Order: SVU." "It makes you feel like you're still watching the same show even though the ensemble changes."
The smart thing to do
Still, the real minefield producers of "The Office" have to traverse is to find the right actor and character — but not make him a Carell clone. "Cheers" survived and thrived because Kirstie Alley was a completely different actress and character than Shelley Long. "M*A*S*H" had a long life because — among other new characters – Col. Potter was the upright, by-the-book man that flaky Col. Blake was not.
"Going the opposite way, and taking the character in a different direction, is the smartest thing you can do," said reality producer Dave Broome, president of 25/7 Productions. "It's the same for scripted or unscripted. You have to find a totally different character if you want to keep the audience interested. If 'American Idol' had found a duplicate for Simon Cowell, that show would be dead."
And therein lies the difficulty in replacing Carell’s character on "The Office The clueless boss is the heart of the entire concept and without that type of character, it's a different show.
"It's hard to imagine the series without that center to it," said Brooks. "You don't want someone who'll be a dynamic boss, because that would alter the series too much. But you could bring on someone who was in his own way inept — perhaps about 20 percent off."
No matter how hard it is, NBC — as would any network — will try to make this a revitalization and not a slow limp toward cancellation. The show is profitable, and successful, long-running series are hard to come by.
Pilato even proposed that should another recently departed series star want to return to his successful show, he'd probably be welcomed back.
"Mark my word: Even if 'Two and a Half Men' comes back with John Stamos or whoever replaces Charlie Sheen — they'll have Sheen back on. He'll make a guest star appearance, or turn up as a cousin or some new character," said Pilato. "Because it's all about ratings and money. That's just how the business is."