List of breakout characters
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A breakout character is a character in serial fiction (usually stories involving an ensemble cast), who becomes more prominent, popular, discussed, and/or imitated than was originally intended or expected. The series from which the breakout character springs may be in the form of a novel, magazine, radio or television series, comic strip, game or combination.
- Bugs Bunny (voiced by Mel Blanc) began, in his embryonic stages, as one of several potential foils (other unsuccessful competitors included Gabby Goat and Petunia Pig) for the Warner Bros. studio's lone big star in the late 1930s, Porky Pig. While Daffy Duck, who himself became a substantial star for Warner Bros., won that role, Bugs developed as a character in his own right by 1940 and became the biggest star in the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts, developing his own cast of foils and starring in shorts for Warner Bros. until 1964. TV Guide identified Bugs as the greatest cartoon character in history in a 2002 listicle.
- Stewie Griffin (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) on Family Guy. Creator Seth MacFarlane stated that he was very surprised that Stewie turned out to be the show's breakout character, and that this required him to write stories centering on him.
- Bullwinkle J. Moose (voiced by Bill Scott) on Rocky and His Friends. Although the series was originally named for Rocky the Flying Squirrel, Rocky's dim-witted sidekick Bullwinkle got most of the jokes while Rocky served as straight man. By 1961, the series had been renamed The Bullwinkle Show, a title that appears for the last three seasons of the series.
- Butters Stotch (Matt Stone) on South Park. Originally a background character in the show's pilot, the character eventually emerged as a submissive foil or victim of Eric Cartman's, and gradually became one of the show's most prominent characters, sometimes as the protagonist whose schemes drive the plots of episodes, as in "Franchise Prequel", or the character whose closing soliloquy provides the philosophical insight or "moment of clarity" that serves as the episode's thematic resolution, as in "Raisins", "Cartman Sucks", and "Butterballs".
- Nancy was introduced in 1933 in the comic strip Fritzi Ritz, which had debuted 11 years prior. Nancy soon emerged as a star in her own right, getting her own strip in 1938, while Fritzi Ritz's last strip would appear in 1968, becoming a supporting character in Nancy from then onward.
- Nero from The Adventures of Nero by Marc Sleen was originally introduced as a side character in the series De Avonturen van Detective Van Zwam, where Detective Van Zwam was the main protagonist. From the first Van Zwam story on, Het Geheim van Matsuoka ("Matsuoka's Secret") (1947) readers reacted more enthusiastically to the dumb, lazy, vain and stubborn character Nero than the more noble and clever Van Zwam. So, from "De Hoed van Geeraard de Duivel" ("The Hat Of Gerard the Devil" (1950)) onward the series was named after Nero instead.
- Popeye first appeared 10 years into the run of Thimble Theatre, a comic strip started in 1919 by E.C. "Elzie" Segar for the King Features Syndicate. The strip initially focused on Olive Oyl, her family, and her boyfriend Ham Gravy. Segar introduced Popeye as a sailor hired by Olive's brother Castor to facilitate a single adventure. When the character disappeared from the strip afterwards, fans demanded his return, and the series later became Thimble Theater, Starring Popeye.
- The Smurfs were originally supporting characters in Peyo's comic series Johan and Peewit in 1958. The popularity of the little blue men led to them getting their own series a year later, which was subsequently followed by massive merchandising, a television series and various other productions.
- Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Peter Sellers' character in the Pink Panther film series, was originally conceived as a supporting character to David Niven's gentleman burglar Sir Charles Lytton in the film that launched the franchise, but quickly became the protagonist,
- Aldous Snow, Russell Brand's character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall
- Yondu Udonta, portrayed by Michael Rooker in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, was originally written as a supporting ally of the titular superhero team, but following the positive reception for the character in the first film his role was upgraded significantly for the second, where he was considered by many critics to give a show-stealing performance.
Throckmorton Philharmonic Gildersleeve (as portrayed by Harold Peary, later replaced by Willard Waterman in 1950) was an antagonist on the long-running radio comedy Fibber McGee & Molly around 1939. The pompous underwear salesman proved popular enough to warrant a spin-off, The Great Gildersleeve, in 1941. Like its parent show, Gildersleeve would go on to a long run in radio, film and (briefly) television; the last episode of Gildersleeve aired in 1958.
- Carson Beckett, portrayed by Paul McGillion on Stargate Atlantis, was introduced in the pilot episode, originally intended to be an occasional guest star for scenes requiring a doctor. His character was an immediate hit with the fans from inception, and Beckett earned his own episode halfway through Season 1. He was upgraded to a regular in Season 2, becoming one of the six main characters and appearing in 15 episodes of the season. Despite his popularity, however, the character was killed off at the end of Season 3, which led to outrage among his fans, who campaigned so heavily for his return that the character was written back into the series a year later. He became a recurring character once again during the show's fourth and fifth seasons.
- Andy Bernard (Ed Helms) on The Office was originally signed to appear in 10 episodes during the show's second season. Realizing that Andy had similarities to a character they were thinking of creating, the producers gradually merged the two. Bernard became a regular in the third season when the Stamford and Scranton branches were merged and, by the end of that season, was the only character introduced in the former season who was still in the show. In the eighth season, Andy replaced Michael Scott as the regional manager of the branch when Steve Carell left the show.
- Castiel (Misha Collins) on Supernatural is noted for originally being conceived for a short six-episode story arc at the beginning of the show's fourth season. By the time the fourth season came to a close, not only had the character quickly become a favorite amongst fans, but he was subsequently upgraded from his previous supporting status to a series star alongside the show's main protagonists Sam Winchester and Dean Winchester from the show's fifth season onward.
- Naomi Clark on 90210.
- Sandra Clark (Jackée Harry) on 227. The series was originally intended as a vehicle for Marla Gibbs. Harry's character, however, proved to be a breakout success.
- Elmo (voiced and operated by numerous puppeteers, but primarily by Kevin Clash from 1984 to 2012) on Sesame Street, who joined the cast of the children's show in the late 1970s. Originally a supporting character, Elmo's popularity among the show's younger fans rose in the 1990s, which led to him receiving his own segment within the show, "Elmo's World", and becoming a major marketing icon.
- J.J. Evans (Jimmie Walker) on Good Times, with his catchphrase "Dy-no-mite!", came to dominate the family series, leading to friction with stars Esther Rolle and John Amos, who played his parents. Amos and Rolle's concern was not so much that they resented being upstaged, but rather that they felt the J.J. character was too stereotypical and not a good role model for young African American viewers. A showdown with the show's producers in 1976 led to modification of the character, Amos' character being killed off and a temporary departure by Rolle from the show. Rolle returned at the beginning of the show's final season in 1978–79, and J.J. became an even stronger focus of the show.
- J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) on Dallas. The initial concept of Dallas was a Romeo and Juliet-esque tale, focusing on two star-crossed lovers whose families are sworn enemies, with the amoral brother J.R. serving as a supporting character. However, the popularity of J.R. (and Hagman in the role) grew, and the producers acknowledged his new status as the series' breakout character. Two highly rated 1980 episodes became pop culture zeniths. In "A House Divided" and "Who Done It?", the audience witnessed J.R. being shot by an unknown assailant. After the cliffhanger was broadcast in March 1980, the audience was forced to wait until the October premiere of the next season for the cliffhanger's resolution. The summer of 1980 saw the emergence of a national obsession known as "Who shot J.R.?". Riding the crest of his newfound popularity, Larry Hagman threatened to leave the series unless his contractual demands were met. CBS leaked rumors of recasting, but Hagman eventually prevailed. As the series progressed, J.R. emerged as the central character until the show's cancellation in 1991, with Hagman serving as executive producer for the final few seasons. Hagman would go on to reprise the character in two TV movies and a revival series until Hagman's death in 2012.
- Fonzie (Henry Winkler) on the American sitcom Happy Days began as a fringe character, but quickly evolved into the focal point of the series. His character became the best friend to the main character, Richie Cunningham, displacing Potsie Weber's status as best friend. Winkler's billing in the credits rose to second (he refused to appear above Ron Howard, the star) and then first after Howard left the show to pursue directing. At one point, network executives hoped to retitle the show Fonzie's Happy Days.
- Mellie Grant portrayed by Bellamy Young on Scandal. Originally a recurring character meant to appear in only three episodes of the first season, the role of Mellie ended up appearing in every episode, became a main cast member by the second season, and by third was described by many as the breakout character of the show; as of the seventh and final season, she has risen from being merely the First Lady, then a U.S. Senator representing Virginia, to President of the United States, succeeding her husband. Praised from the start as a villainous scene stealer, Mellie eventually became much more developed and eventually integral to show, with Young receiving major acclaim for her performance, with one critic going so far as to say, "In Mellie, the show has its most fleshed-out character and in Young, its most compelling performer."
- Although Steve Harrington was initially portrayed as a rude, stereotypical high school boyfriend in Stranger Things, he evolved over the course of the series into a kind-hearted, empathetic, and charismatic character that has become a fan-favorite.
- K-9 (John Leeson and David Brierly) on Doctor Who, was a robotic dog who served as the Doctor's companion from 1977 to 1980. Following the character's departure, he appeared in the pilot for the aborted spin-off series K-9 and Company. He later appeared in three episodes of the revived series of Doctor Who, made appearances on the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, and is now the central character of the spin-off series K-9.
- Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox) on Family Ties.
- Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver) on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, was originally created as a supporting character, the best friend of the titular character Dobie Gillis, when the series began in 1959. By 1960, Denver had graduated to co-lead and Maynard was given the bulk of the comedy material, with Dwayne Hickman's Dobie as the straight man. Dobie Gillis was Denver's first professional acting job, and the breakout success of the Maynard character led to Denver starring on Gilligan's Island after Dobie ended in 1963.
- Sara Lance (Caity Lotz) in Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow is an original character and the sister of Laurel Lance. Originally thought to have died in events prior to the show's first episode, Sara showed up in Star City alive in season 2, having assumed the vigilante identity Canary. She joins Team Arrow for a while, until she is killed off in the season 3 premiere, thus paving way for Laurel to assume her identity and become the Black Canary. By this time, Sara had proven to be very popular with fans and critics, and her death led to outrage amongst the fans, especially when her mantle as the Canary was given to Laurel. Sara was eventually brought back to life in season 4, and ultimately went on to star as one of the leads in the Arrow spin-off Legends of Tomorrow.
- Benjamin Linus (Michael Emerson) in Lost was originally only supposed to be in three episodes of Season 2 in the fake persona of "Henry Gale", but the producers enjoyed his performance so much that they wrote him in as the leader of the Others. He became a series regular in Season 3 and remained a star character for the rest of the show. During the series' run, Linus was often hailed as one of the best villains on television, and Emerson was nominated for three Emmys, winning one for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.
- Todd Manning (originally and currently Roger Howarth, was played at one time by Trevor St. John) on One Life to Live, known for initiating the gang rape of Marty Saybrooke in 1993, was originally supposed to have a short-lived recurrence. However, once Howarth was seen to attract positive viewer reaction, the character was given a more primary focus. The character's popularity continued even after St. John assumed the role in 2003. (Note: St. John's version of the character was eventually rewritten as Todd's twin brother, Victor. Howarth returned as Todd in 2011.)
- Elijah Mikaelson (Daniel Gillies) on The Vampire Diaries and The Originals, was originally brought in as a minor threat for the main characters and as a way to introduce villain Klaus. He was then supposed to die after six episodes. However, the character became so immensely popular that the writers changed his storyline, revealing him to be Klaus' brother. He became an important ally to the main characters and continued to recur on the show. Gillies then brought the character over to the spin-off The Originals, where Elijah has become one of the main characters.
- Chloe O'Brian (Mary Lynn Rajskub) on 24. Rajskub's character first appearing during the third season of the series and initially appeared as a recurring character throughout seasons three and four before being promoted to a series regular in season five and continued in that role until season eight as well as reprising her role in 24: Live Another Day. By season six, Rajskub had become the second-billed cast member after lead actor Kiefer Sutherland and has second most appearances of any character after Jack Bauer. During her tenure on the series, Chloe becomes one of Jack's closest friends and allies and is considered a "fan-favorite" and has been included in AOL's list of the "100 Most Memorable Female TV Characters".
- Elka Ostrovsky was portrayed (by Betty White) on Hot in Cleveland. White was originally offered a guest role in the pilot episode, but her popularity prompted the producers to give her a permanent lead role.
- Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) on The Golden Girls, was the mother of lead character Dorothy Zbornak (Beatrice Arthur), and was originally written as a one-off character for the pilot. However, her blunt wisecracking became a signature of the show, to the point where she became a core member of the cast, replacing a gay chef named "Coco" who only appeared in the pilot. Petrillo would go on to appear in The Golden Palace and Empty Nest, with the character ending its run at the end of Empty Nest in 1995.
- Will Robinson (Billy Mumy), Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris), and Robot (Dick Tufeld/Bob May) on Lost in Space became focal characters of the series. The show was originally supposed to be a serious action/adventure series showcasing Guy Williams, but fan response prompted a shift in focus to these three characters.
- Schmidt (Max Greenfield) on New Girl (2011–2018).
- Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) on Arrow was introduced as an IT consultant at the main character's company midway through the first season. She quickly became a fan favorite and was made a series regular for the second season, with DC comics re-imagining her character for the New 52 as a facsimile of the live-action one.
- Spike (James Marsters) on Buffy the Vampire Slayer was originally intended to be a villain for a few episodes, but the character became recurring through the end of the second season, then a main character in the fourth season. He appeared regularly through the end of the series, then appeared as a main character during the final season of Angel.
- Spock (Leonard Nimoy) on Star Trek was the only character to be carried over from the original pilot to the second. Series creator Gene Roddenberry was pressured by NBC to drop the character from the second pilot, then later to keep the character in the background. Spock's popularity grew, and NBC soon reversed its stance, encouraging more focus on the character. Spock appeared in every episode of the original series, the animated series and the original cast movies.
- Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) on How I Met Your Mother. Over time, Stinson became a scene-stealer and has been credited for much of the show's success.
- Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) on Parks and Recreation. Originally a background character, he soon became what critics called the show's "secret weapon," and he quickly became a scene-stealer, noted for his frequent deadpan comedy and machismo.
- London Tipton (Brenda Song) on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and its spin-off The Suite Life on Deck.
- Steve Urkel (Jaleel White) on Family Matters was originally a one-shot character during the show's first season in 1989. He became so popular that he became a regular cast member from season two forward, practically synonymous with the series.
- Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) on Gossip Girl was the series' most critically acclaimed character, earning mainstream media recognition from Forbes, Rolling Stone, Variety, and numerous other periodicals. The character was acclaimed as having "stolen the spotlight" in the first season. Her wardrobe garnered real-life coverage from fashion outlets, and she has been cited as a trend-setter outside of the show.
- Jesse Pinkman was originally intended to be killed at the end of Breaking Bad's first season in a botched drug deal as a plot device to plague Walter White with guilt. However, Vince Gilligan said that by the second episode of the season, he was so impressed with Aaron Paul's performance that "it became pretty clear early on that would be a huge, colossal mistake, to kill off Jesse".
- Rabbids began as enemies in the Rayman video game series, before their "vicious, but (...) totally stupid" antics proved to overshadow the main character. They have since been franchised to television and their own spin-off video game series.
- Yoshi in the Mario series. Originally appearing in Super Mario World as a rideable pet, he became one of the franchise's main characters, often appearing as one of Mario's sidekicks, and getting his own series of video games.
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