It’s almost an inevitable, if not the price of a successful long run for a TV show: Eventually, one or more cast members is going to leave the series well before its conclusion or cancellation. After all, if the sitcom, drama, or soap was popular enough, it made big stars out of the actors in its cast. And before long, they understandably want to stretch their creative muscles and pursue the opportunities suddenly afforded them — and so they depart, leaving writers to explain why their characters up and left this fictional world in which they were integral. That, or those same writers may find that they’ve gone as far as they can go, narratively, with their show’s original characters, and they kill them off or abandon somebody, putting an actor out of a job.
But life goes on, and so do TV shows — although often, some of those actors who famously or prominently quit a series don’t want to come back for their former employer’s big, emotional send-off. Here are some big stars of the small screen who said no thanks to heading back to their old show to say goodbye.
There's no shame in why Emmy Rossum didn't head back to Shameless
“Shameless,” Showtime’s long-running dramedy about a large Chicago family presided over by an unreliable alcoholic con artist, featured a sprawling cast over its decade on the air — but it was really the story of Fiona Gallagher. The eldest Gallagher sibling, she served as the de facto matriarch, responsible for her making sure the lights stayed on, the bills were paid, and that her younger brothers and sisters got fed and stayed mostly out of trouble.
For nine seasons, Fiona (portrayed by Emma Rossum) yearned and hustled to pull herself out of poverty, or at least to see more of the world beyond Chicago’s South Side — and in 2018, she did, heading out for parts unknown and leaving a financial windfall with her siblings. That plot development came to pass because Rossum felt it was time to leave “Shameless.”
The show continued for two seasons without Rossum, wrapping up in April 2021 with an event-packed finale that included celebrations, a major death, and other things that would prompt a return from Fiona. But she didn’t show up, and neither did Rossum. “We were trying to get Emmy — and Emmy wanted to come back,” said “Shameless” producer John Wells to The Hollywood Reporter. Unfortunately, COVID-19 lockdowns prevented Rossum from traveling from her home in New York to the series’ Los Angeles set. “It was impossible to figure out how to get her back,” Wells explained.
Charlie Sheen wasn't in tune for a Two and a Half Men return
In 2010, according to ET, Charlie Sheen earned $1.8 million an episode playing the proudly debased jingle writer, Charlie Harper, on “Two and a Half Men.” In 2011, according to The Week, the actor departed the CBS smash after a dizzying series of events that included a days-long Las Vegas party with an adult film star, a stay in rehab, and some ill-advised public comments about the show’s creator, Chuck Lorre. CBS ended the eighth season of “Two and a Half Men” early, firing Sheen and replacing him with Ashton Kutcher.
Four years later, when “Two and a Half Men” wrapped up its 12-season run, Lorre wanted Sheen back, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, invited the beleaguered actor to return for the series finale. In the production company vanity card at the end of the episode, Lorre described his plan. “Our idea was to have him walk up to the front door in the last scene, ring the doorbell, then turn, look directly into the camera and go off on a magical rant about the dangers of drug abuse,” Lorre wrote. “And then we would drop a piano on him. We thought it was funny. He didn’t.”
And so, the show hired a Sheen look-alike and shot him from behind as he was crushed to death by a piano (Lorre is later seen suffering the same fate on set while sitting in his director’s chair).
Donald Glover never went back to Community
“Community” forever struggled in the ratings, but it was a critically-acclaimed and innovative show that pushed the boundaries of what TV comedy could do, thus making stars out of several cast members, including Joel McHale, John Oliver, Gillian Jacobs, Allison Brie, and Donald Glover. A decade after he first started playing washed-up high school athlete turned community college goofball Troy Barnes on “Community,” Glover had evolved into a versatile and prolific artists. Creating and starring on the Emmy-winning “Atlanta,” he also appearing in “Star Wars” movies (as young Lando Calrissian), and, under his musical alter ego Childish Gambino, scored a No. 1 hit with “This is America,” which won him Grammy Awards for record of the year and song of the year.
Glover obviously had a lot going on, and it explains why he left “Community” midway through its fifth season in 2014. (His character departed on a sailing trip with his idol, “Reading Rainbow’s” LeVar Burton.) Not long after he bailed, NBC cancelled “Community,” only for Yahoo Screen to order up a sixth season. Glover never appeared in that iteration. “I just like endings,” he later said of his absence at a Television Critics Association event (via IGN). “It’s important that things end. I’m glad things end because it forces things to progress.”
As for the rest of us, after getting six seasons, we’re still waiting on the movie.
There was no homecoming for Jonathan Taylor Thomas
The ABC family sitcom, “Home Improvement,” dominated the TV ratings in the mid-1990s. Adults tuned in for the manly-macho and self-deprecating humor of stand-up comedian Tim Allen (as inept handyman TV show host Tim “The Toolman” Taylor), while a fair number of kids tuned in solely because of Jonathan Taylor Thomas, one of the era’s most popular teen idols and pinups, who played the smart and sarcastic middle Taylor boy, Randy. However, Thomas certainly broke a few hearts when in 1998, he abruptly left “Home Improvement.”
“I’d been going nonstop since I was eight years old,” Thomas later told People. “I wanted to go to school, to travel and have a bit of a break.” While he did go on to do those things — Thomas enrolled at Harvard University and studied history and philosophy — he also went and shot a couple of movies, breaking the promise that he’d left acting behind. That really upset his former TV dad (and boss), Tim Allen. “He said it was about going to school, but then he did some films,” Allen told TV Guide (via E!). “Did he want to do films? Did he want to go to school?”
Thomas came back to “Home Improvement” as a guest star for a 1998 Christmas episode, and Allen confronted Thomas, which made things so uncomfortable for the young actor that he didn’t show up for the “Home Improvement” finale episode a few months later.
John Travolta couldn't go back to Kotter
John Travolta has been a major Hollywood star for over four decades, starring in classics like “Pulp Fiction” and big commercial hits like “Look Who’s Talking,” but it all started in the mid-1970s with a high school sitcom called “Welcome Back, Kotter.” Travolta played a harmless, tough, self-styled ladies’ man and all-around dim-bulb from Brooklyn, Vinnie Barbarino. Portraying Barbarino made Travolta a sensation, and not long after the show’s 1975 debut, he was recording music (“Let Her In” hit No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100) and starring in smash hit movies like “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever,” the latter of which earned the actor an Academy Award nomination.
After those back-to-back blockbusters, Travolta could understandably have left “Welcome Back, Kotter” in pursuit of a film career, but he hesitated because Farrah Fawcett had tried and failed to do just that, departing “Charlie’s Angels” after one season. “I got the memo pretty quickly that if you become big from this TV series, don’t leave it, because your movie career might get hurt!” Travolta later told Yahoo! Entertainment. “So I stayed two years longer than was kind of scheduled.”
However, Travolta appeared less and less as Vinnie Barbarino in the final season of “Welcome Back, Kotter,” disappearing completely after a February 1979 episode and nowhere to be found in the show’s finale a few months later.
Lisa Bonet wasn't invited back to The Cosby Show
Bill Cosby, long a popular stand-up comedian and TV star, returned to live-action television in 1984 for the first time in decades with “The Cosby Show,” a warm and easy-going sitcom about the Huxtables, a well-off and voluminous New York City family presided over by Cliff (Cosby), an obstetrician, and Clair (Phylicia Rashad), a lawyer. While the draw for many of the show’s tens of millions of viewers was Cosby, Lisa Bonet brought in her own sizable fanbase as the cool, bohemian, teenage Huxtable daughter, Denise. Bonet proved so popular with younger viewers that Cosby created a spinoff just for the actor in 1987: “A Different World,” which sent the character off to school at the hip and happening Hillman College.
After just one season of the spinoff, Bonet left the series after announcing a pregnancy, according to The Museum of Broadcast Communications. She’d later return to “The Cosby Show,” with Denise marrying a Marine and moving back into the family brownstone, only to depart the series again near the end of Season 7 in 1991. According to People, Bonet was fired for so-called “creative differences” and was simply not asked to come back for “The Cosby Show” finale in 1992.
When Cosby became embroiled in dozens of sexual assault allegations decades later, Bonet was not surprised. “There was no knowledge on my part about his specific actions, but … There was just energy,” she reflected to Net-A-Porter in 2018. “And that type of sinister, shadow energy cannot be concealed.”
Hilarie Burton left One Tree Hill and never looked back
In 2000, Hilarie Burton graduated high school, moved to New York, and did so well in a contest to guest-host MTV’s “TRL” that she was hired on as a regular VJ. By 2003, she’d moved on to acting, landing a starring role as artist and cheerleader Peyton Sawyer (later Peyton Scott) on “One Tree Hill,” one of the many era-defining teen soaps that filled the schedule of The WB (later The CW). Burton played her character into adulthood, leaving the show in 2009, with Peyton and the show’s resident dreamboat, Lucas Scott (Chad Michael Murray), driving off into the future in a convertible together at the end of the series’ sixth season.
At the time of her departure, Burton made it sound like it was all business. “There really wasn’t a lot of turmoil,” Burton told Entertainment Weekly. “It was a fabulous six-year run, which is how long my contract was for, and I feel really lucky to have been a part of the show.” However, Burton didn’t go back to “One Tree Hill” for its final installment in 2012.
That may have had something to do with the allegations and horrific on-set environment she discussed with Variety in 2017: Burton claimed that show creator Mark Schwahn — who was accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of cast and crew members on “OTH” and “The Royals” — forcefully kissed and touched her without his consent, in addition to dispensing verbal abuse and spreading lies about non-existent physical relationships with other female cast members.
If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN’s National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
Cindy Williams left Laverne and Shirley — and Laverne — all alone
“Laverne & Shirley” was a delightful and successful sitcom, likely because of the dynamic between its two stars: Penny Marshall as Laverne DeFazio and Cindy Williams as Shirley Feeney, a pair of scrappy best friends, roommates, and brewery employees living in 1950s and ’60s Milwaukee (and later Burbank, California). At one point the most-watched show on TV, ratings stayed high through the series’ seventh season in 1982, but then dropped precipitously in the following season, likely because of the loss of interplay between Laverne and Shirley — because Williams departed the series.
According to Marley Brant’s “Happier Days: Paramount’s Classic Television Sitcoms, 1974-1984,” Williams learned she was pregnant before Season 8 began production. She claimed that producers promised to work it into the show, but then decided against it, also reneging on some salary agreements, as well as a special, pregnancy-accommodating shooting schedule. “I thought I was going to come back and they’d hide [my baby bump] behind benches, couches, pillows, and that wasn’t it,” Williams explained to “Today” in 2015. “When it came time for me to sign my contract for that season, they had me working on my due date to have my baby. And I said, ‘You know, I can’t sign this.'”
This led Williams to walk off the set in August 1982 and to file a $20 million lawsuit against said producers, per Brant. With the actor and showrunners feuding, Williams never returned to “Laverne & Shirley” by the time it went off the air in the spring of 1983.
Nicolette Sheridan wasn't desperate enough to go back to Desperate Housewives
After premiering on ABC in the fall of 2004, “Desperate Housewives” became just about the hottest show on TV. Depicting a wealthy suburban street where below the calm surface lies a tawdry web of scandal, death, and adultery, the soapy drama was offset with plenty of dark and ironic humor. A lot of the lightness came from soap veteran Nicolette Sheridan, portraying the deliciously wicked villain of the piece, Edie Britt. In the fifth season of “Desperate Housewives,” Edie received her comeuppance: She crashed her car into an electric pole, got out, stepped in a puddle, and was electrocuted to death.
Sheridan wasn’t pleased with her exit from the hit series. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the actor sued ABC and “Desperate Housewives” creator/producer Marc Cherry for $20 million, alleging wrongful termination. That suit stretched on for years, with a judge dismissing the affair in 2013, per the AP. While the feud waged, “Desperate Housewives” ended its run in the 2011-12 season. Cherry said at a Television Critics Association event (via THR) that he wanted Edie — and thus, Sheridan — to come back to help wrap up things.
“That’s news to me,” Sheridan revealed on the “Today” show (via THR) about Cherry’s plans. “I had an amazing time playing that character. I loved her dearly, but they killed her! She’s dead.”
Elizabeth Perkins didn't want to trample through the Weeds
When it debuted on Showtime in 2005, “Weeds” was about Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker), a newly widowed mother of two who looked to keep her ritzy upper-middle-class lifestyle alive by operating an illegal marijuana distribution ring. Over the course of eight seasons, Nancy and her family move from the Los Angeles area to a San Diego suburb, Seattle, Michigan, New York, and Connecticut, necessarily but unceremoniously adding and dropping characters along the way as Nancy gets deeper into criminal enterprise.
In the first five seasons, Elizabeth Perkins was a member of the regular cast, portraying Botwin’s self-centered, unhappy, and downright mean neighbor, Celia Hodes. Then the actor left the show, and Celia’s fate, beyond that she moved to Mexico, was never explained, according to ET.
“Weeds” concluded in 2012 with a time jump set 10 years in the future, at the bar mitzvah for Nancy’s son, Stevie. Among the Botwins’ assembled family and friends: not Celia Hodes. “They asked me to come back for the final episode, but it was, I think, just to sort of stand around at the bar mitzvah,” Perkins told Yahoo! Entertainment. “I just felt like, no, Celia should die.” She was also locked into production on a new TV series and couldn’t get away, and added, “But, it just seemed like Celia deserved a better send-off.”
Lisa Edelstein refused to return for the House series finale
On the Fox medical mystery procedural drama “House,” the only person that could keep the arrogant rogue genius and diagnostic physician, Gregory House, in line was his boss (and object of his desire), Lisa Cuddy, his hospital’s dean of medicine. For seven seasons, Drs. House and Cuddy butted heads, but “House” ran for eight seasons — Dr. Cuddy quits her job, unable to take any more of her colleague’s antics after he crashes a car into her home.
Dr. Cuddy’s portrayer, Lisa Edelstein, was ready to move on professionally at that point, as well. “It was very sad and very disappointing and a really difficult decision to make,” Edelstein told TV Line in 2011. “But ultimately I felt like it was the best thing for me to do for myself and for my business.” As for why she didn’t go back for the last “House” episode in 2012, Edelstein didn’t think it would have made sense.
“If someone drives a car through your living room you should do what I did and get the f**k out of town,” the actor later quipped to TVLine in 2015. “You file a police report and you leave — and you don’t come back for the f**king finale.”
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