1. Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad
There can be no Breaking Bad without Jesse Pinkman, the meth-cooking sidekick who outgrew his status as jokey wannabe gangsta to take on the role of the series’ foul-mouthed moral compass. Much of that development can be credited to Aaron Paul’s increasingly soulful portrayal of Jesse, but the character wouldn’t have had the chance to mature into the wounded embodiment of Walter White’s misdeeds if creator Vince Gilligan had stuck with his original concept for Breaking Bad’s first season. Like Gilligan’s initial pitch for the series—“You take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface”—rumors of Jesse’s planned demise have taken on mythological heft as the series grew into a TV institution, and Gilligan has since stated that by the time of the show’s second episode, he was so fond of the Jesse character and impressed with Paul’s performance that he knew a rewrite was in order. It was a beneficial move for Breaking Bad as a whole and Paul as a performer, but it stands to reason that Jesse could’ve avoided a lot of pain, suffering, and potential murder charges if a change of heart (and a Writers Guild Of America strike) hadn’t kept Gilligan from putting the kid out of his misery back in 2008.
2. Melvin Frohike, The X-Files
Generally, the creator, executive producer, or showrunner makes the call to kill off a character. But the choice to kill off one of the Lone Gunmen—Tom Braidwood’s slouching, nebbish Melvin Frohike—resulted in a bitter fight between the series’ creative mastermind and one of his most important junior writers. When Glen Morgan, who had written some of the most definitive episodes of the show in its early going, submitted his script for season four’s “Musings Of A Cigarette Smoking Man,” it ended with the titular character putting a bullet in the brain of Frohike, thus underlining his ultimate menace. This sequence was actually filmed, but when creator Chris Carter watched the footage, he decided he didn’t want to proceed with that storyline. A new ending was shot, and Frohike was restored to life, the Cigarette Smoking Man lining him up in his sights and saying, “I can kill you whenever I please… but not today.” Morgan and Carter clashed angrily over this choice—the Cigarette Smoking Man even says at one point, “This isn’t the ending that I wrote; it’s all wrong!”—and Morgan would write only one more episode of The X-Files. Years later, Morgan admitted in an interview that he still preferred his ending, but “Musings” had turned out just fine nonetheless.
3. Nurse Carol Hathaway, ER
Still mourning a failed romance with scoundrel Doug Ross (George Clooney), nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) leaves and doesn’t return to County General Hospital until near the end of the show’s pilot, where she’s rushed in as a patient having taken an overdose of barbiturates. It’s a cruel, clever twist, shaking up the staff’s routine by having them work on one of their own, but that was supposed to be the end of the road for Hathaway (though her death is never explicit). Test audiences liked her enough that the show’s producers reversed their initial plans and had her recover, returning to the hospital two episodes later as a permanent cast member.
4. Boyd Crowder, Justified
Justified is ostensibly the tale of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, but thanks to an alteration to that show’s original pilot, it’s now equally the tale of his nemesis/childhood friend Boyd Crowder. Walton Goggins agreed to play the role as a favor to his real-life friend Timothy Olyphant, with the initial script (and its source, Elmore Leonard’s short story “Fire In The Hole”) calling for Crowder to die. But audiences loved Goggins’ portrayal so much that show creator Graham Yost made Boyd a recurring character in season one before awarding full-time status in the show’s second season.
5. Officer Andrew Renko, Hill Street Blues
Hill Street Blues had one of the lowest-testing pilots of 1980, its low score exacerbated by an expectation-defying shock: Officers Hill (Michael Warren) and Renko (Charles Haid) walk in on the wrong junkies and get shot in a dramatic, slow-motion sequence that was reshot to get just the right image of the two splayed bodies. At the end Sergeant Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) calls protagonist Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travianti) and tells him about the shooting, saying, “One DOA, one critical.” Haid had already signed onto another NBC series and did Blues as a favor to co-creator Steven Bochco. When audience reports revealed that the Hill-Renko relationship was one of the highlights, NBC president Brandon Tartikoff wanted to resuscitate Renko, and Haid agreed after seeing the potential of the pilot. So Conrad re-recorded his line, “They’re both in intensive care,” and Haid became a twice-Emmy-nominated series regular.
6. Karl “Helo” Agathon, Battlestar Galactica
Halfway through the miniseries pilot for Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica, officers Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) and Boomer (Grace Park) hold an impromptu raffle to decide democratically which refugees to take with them on the return journey from the Cylon-occupied planet to the human fleet, which is abandoning the planet permanently. After the raffle, Helo discovers that renowned scientist Dr. Gaius Baltar (James Callis) is in the crowd, so he gives up his seat on the flight. At the time, there was no plan to bring Helo back. Penikett joined the cast of Canadian procedural Cold Squad, shooting 13 episodes. But when the miniseries premièred, audiences surprised Moore with their fervent response to Helo. So Moore developed a parallel story about Helo and the Cylons on Caprica. The writers loved it, the network loved it, and Helo was resurrected as a series regular.
7. Jack Shephard, Lost
Although physician Jack Shephard ultimately proved to be the central character on ABC’s Lost, the producers’ original plan would have seen Jack meeting his maker before the end of the pilot. As originally conceived, Jack was intended to be an instantly likable character—although the discussions came to nothing, Michael Keaton’s name was bandied about as a possible casting choice—who would be killed somewhere in the middle of the episode, thereby warning viewers that anything could happen and no one on the show was safe. After further consideration, however, it was decided that killing a likable character so quickly could do more harm than good, alienating the audience almost immediately and inspiring it to tune out rather than continue to tune in. As such, the original script was rewritten, throwing out plans to have Kate serve as the leader of the castaways and putting Jack into the position of power instead.
8. Dr. Zachary Smith, Lost In Space
The cowardly, conniving Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris), the only adult, non-robot cast member most people can recall from Lost In Space, was a last-minute addition. After CBS picked the series up, the pilot was partially reshot to show that it was Dr. Smith who was responsible for sending the spaceship carrying the Robinson family and their square-jawed pilot off course; working at the behest of a foreign government, he became trapped with them after sneaking on board to program their robot sidekick to scuttle the trip and kill them all. The writers planned to use Harris to make mischief for a few episodes and then kill him off, but when it became clear that his campy hamming was the show’s chief attraction, the murderous saboteur was reconceived into a lovable rogue. He appeared in every episode, but remained billed as “Special Guest Star” for the whole run.
9. Dr. Daniel Auschlander, St. Elsewhere
St. Elsewhere’s Dr. Daniel Auschlander began as one of the hospital drama’s typically morbid jokes: He was a liver specialist who found out that he had terminal cancer of the liver. But Norman Lloyd, a powerful actor who had been working mainly as a producer and director at that time, was so good that the producers kept Auschlander around beyond a planned four-episode arc. (Lloyd was good friends with Blythe Danner, wife of executive producer Bruce Paltrow, and they joked that she would divorce Paltrow if he killed off Lloyd.) A chemotherapy storyline explained his longevity, and over time the wise Dr. Auschlander became the comforting moral center of the often-dark series.
10. Chiana, Farscape
An alien street urchin with a heart of (slightly tarnished) gold, Chiana became one of Farscape’s most intriguing and beloved characters early in the show’s four-season run. It’s easy to see why. Played with graceful-yet-quirky élan by Gigi Edgley, Chiana brought an extra dimension—and a poignant depth—to Farscape’s already complex sprawl of intergalactic science fiction. Not that she was originally intended as such. Her first appearance (in the 15th episode of season one, “Durka Returns”) was initially conceived as a one-off, where Chiana is felled by a shot that in the episode’s final scene. She proved so important to the story, though, that her part was rewritten—with that shot only grazing her—to establish her as a central character.
11. Joe Coffey, Hill Street Blues
Introduced in the final episodes of the first season of Hill Street Blues, officer Joe Coffey (Ed Marinaro) shared a patrol car with Betty Thomas’ long-suffering Lucy Bates. A sweet, cow-eyed hunk, so sensitive and good-looking that his flirting with his new partner came across as more adorable than inappropriate, he seemed too good to last, and the season ended with him being gunned down during a traffic stop. He wasn’t supposed to pull through, but after shooting his death scene, the producers changed their minds, brought him back, and made him a regular. But they never figured out a way to deepen his character over the long haul, and after five years, at Marinaro’s request, they shot him again, in an episode titled “Iced Coffey.” This time, it took.