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A breakout character is a character in serial fiction who, initially having a minor role, becomes the most prominent, popular, discussed, and/or imitated. The series may be in any medium (novels, magazines, television series, comic strips, games).
- Popeye first appeared ten 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 sailor disappeared from the strip afterwards, fans demanded his return. The series became Thimble Theater, Starring Popeye.
- The Joker first appeared in 1940 in the debut issue of Batman, a series by DC Comics. The first concept sketches of the serial killer, made by Jerry Robinson, drew inspiration from Conrad Veidt's portrayal of Gwynplaine in the 1928 film The Man Who Laughs. Plans were to have the Joker die at the conclusion of his second appearance. Editor Whitney Ellsworth saw the potential for more stories from the Joker and requested the insertion of an extra panel at the end of the episode to show that the Joker had survived. The character's unpredictable but lethal behavior made him readers' most requested adversary for the Batman, and today the Joker is one of the most famous comic-book villains of all time.
- Opus the Penguin, of Bloom County, Outland, and Opus, was originally featured in a two-week narrative in Bloom County during the 1980s. Fans requested more appearances of the penguin and series creator Berkeley Breathed was pleased with how well the character integrated with other characters in the strip. Opus was made a permanent character, displacing the original cast as the focus of the strip and its sequels.
- Death (DC Comics) started out as a supporting character in Neil Gaiman's Sandman but with her perky smile and upbeat personality became popular and gained a couple of mini-series devoted just to her.
- Ray (Achewood) first appeared as part of a trio of roughly identical cats three months after the comic began; their role was limited to competitive swearing. Both Ray and Roast Beef quickly developed beyond their initial roles; the comic's second sustained story arc revolves around the two characters starting up a business and is the basis of most of the strips for the rest of that month; indeed, several arcs have focused almost totally on Ray, with Roast Beef acting as comedic foil in most of his appearances.
- The Smurfs started as minor characters in the Johan and Peewit comic books. They then appeared in their own strips and even got their own TV series and a movie franchise.
- Squirrel Girl made her first appearance in "The Coming of ... Squirrel Girl" in Marvel Super-Heroes vol. 2, #8, a.k.a. Marvel Super-Heroes Winter Special (cover-dated January 1992). She ambushes the superhero Iron Man, teams up with him, and, after Iron Man is captured, defeats the villainous Doctor Doom. The character grew in popularity, going on to guest star in various minis, and is now a recurring cast member of New Avengers.
- Woody Woodpecker began as a minor character in Walter Lantz's Andy Panda series. He eventually starred in his own series and became the studio's most popular character.
- Boba Fett was originally a bounty hunter from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, which are both part of the Star Wars series. He had only a few lines, but his costume, his ship, and other factors gained him many fans, so he became a prominent character.
- Porky Pig of the Looney Tunes film series. Porky started out as a supporting character to short-lived star Beans the Cat. Only a year later, Porky quickly shone, and the other characters who appeared since his debut were sent to early retirement. He then owned much of the limelight until Bugs Bunny came along.
- Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseau (Peter Sellers) in The Pink Panther series of films. In the first film, David Niven's suave jewel thief was the main character. But audiences and critics so loved the bumbling Clouseau that later films in the series were written around him instead.
- Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) in Pirates of the Caribbean, initially the character was written as a supporting trickster character, under Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. Depp's performance and the character proved popular enough to warrant him as the protagonist of the series, shown in the fourth film.
- Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, initially the character was written as an author, but was changed to a rockstar after Brand's audition. Brand received rave reviews for his performance and the character proved popular enough warrant his own spin-off movie, Get Him to the Greek.
- Phil Coulson first appeared as a member of the fictional agency S.H.I.E.L.D. in Jon Favreau's 2008 film Iron Man, but soon went on to appear in most of the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and in the cartoon series Ultimate Spider-Man, where he is undercover as Peter Parker's school principal. Coulson has also been the subject of a series of short films, and has subsequently appeared in the Marvel Comics universe.
- Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) in the Tremors series. In the first two movies of the franchise (Tremors and Tremors 2: Aftershocks) Gummer played a supporting role, becoming popular among the fans thanks to his paranoid, survivalist, anti-government gun nut persona. In the third installment and on the TV series, Burt is featured as the protagonist. In the prequel Tremors 4: The Legend Begins, the main character is Hiram Gummer, an ancestor of Burt, also played by Gross.
- J. Jonah Jameson (JK Simmons) in the Spider-Man series. J.J. Jameson was originally a cameo role in the first film but the character proved to be very popular due to Simmons' fast talking dialogue, witty insults and obsession with publicizing Spider-Man.
- Bender from Futurama. Originally Fry was the main character but Bender became a breakout character due to his crazy antics and even got his own episodes.
- 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 loved 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.
- Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) in Gossip Girl. 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. Additionally, her wardrobe has garnered real-life coverage from fashion outlets, and has been cited as trend-setting outside of the show.
- Bubbles (Mike Smith) on Trailer Park Boys. Bubbles was introduced in a short film before Trailer Park Boys started called The Cart Boy. His first appearance overall was in the pilot episode. He is most known for his hoarse voice, large glasses and love for kitties. Bubbles is best friends with Ricky and Julian and appeared in all episodes, movies and TV specials. After his first appearance, Bubbles became popular worldwide, the series' breakout character and the most popular character on the show.
- Carson Beckett (Paul McGillion) on Stargate Atlantis. Carson Beckett was introduced in the pilot episode, originally meant to be an occasional guest star for scenes requiring a doctor. His character was an immediate hit with the fans from the start, and Carson Beckett got his own episode halfway through season 1. He was then upgraded to a regular in season 2, becoming one of the six main character, appearing in 15 episodes of the season. Despite his popularity, however, the character was killed off at the end of season three. This led to an outrage among the fans, and they campaigned so heavily for his return, that the character was written back in a year later, becoming a reoccurring character once again during the show's fourth and fifth season.
- Butters Stotch (voice of Matt Stone) on South Park. Originally a minor character, Butters' rising popularity lead to him temporarily becoming one of the main characters briefly during the show's fourth season. Many episodes still put him in a major role.
- Bobby Singer (Jim Beaver) on Supernatural. Originally Bobby was supposed to only be in the end of the first season. However after John Winchester's (Sam and Dean's biological father) died Bobby was portrayed as the father figure for the boys. He was considered a reoccurring character, however he appeared in an abundant amount of the seasons. He is known as the go to know-it-all hunter. Infact after Bobby's eventual death a new hunter comes up and takes Bobby's place. That hunter was asked by Sam if he was the "new Bobby." He is known to constantly call Sam and Dean "Idjits" or shout out "balls" in frustration. In the eighth season it was shown that when he died he went to Hell, and Sam brought him out to bring him to heaven for the second trial to close up the gates of Hell.
- Castiel (Misha Collins) on Supernatural. Collins' character on the show 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 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 and Dean Winchester from the show's fifth season onwards.
- Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) on The X-Files. Originally the Cigarette Smoking Man was written as an extra (hence the character's name) in the Pilot. It was over time, however, that the producers realised that Davis was an accomplished actor and hired him for additional episodes. The character would later become the main villain of the series.
- Dr. Daniel Auschlander (Norman Lloyd) on St. Elsewhere. His character was supposed to go on for four episodes, when he had liver cancer. However, there was something appealing with the connection of the show that had some audience response. He stayed with that series for six more years.
- Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) in Cheers. Frasier was a psychiatrist and bar regular. Frasier started out as Diane Chambers's love interest in the third season (1984–85). In the fourth season (1985–86), after Diane jilts him at the altar in Europe, Frasier ends up frequenting Cheers and becomes a regular. After the series ended, in the spin-off Frasier, he gives child custody of their son Frederick to Lilith and moves to Seattle.
- Elijah Mikaelson (Daniel Gillies) on The Vampire Diaries. The character was originally brought in as a minor threat for the main characters and as a way to introduce villain Klaus. Elijah became extremely popular, however, not only with the fans, but the producers as well, and his planned death was postponed. He eventually became the brother of Klaus, and an important ally to the main characters. Although still a recurring character, Elijah shows up frequently and is considered to be one of the shows most popular character, surpassing even several main characters.
- Elmo (portrayed by numerous puppeteers, but primarily by Kevin Clash from 1984 to 2012) on Sesame Street. Elmo joined the cast of Sesame Street in the early 1970s, shortly after the show's debut. Originally a supporting character, Elmo's popularity among the show's younger fans rose in the 1990s, which led to him getting his own segment within the show ("Elmo's World") and becoming a major marketing icon.
- Fonzie (Henry Winkler) in the American sitcom Happy Days. The character of Fonzie started out as a fringe character but quickly evolved into the focal point of the series. His character became best friend to the main character, Richie Cunningham, displacing Potsie Weber, the character originally intended for that relationship. Winkler's billing in the credits rose all the way to second (he refused to go before Ron Howard, the star) and then first after Howard left the show to pursue directing. At one point, network executives even hoped to call the show Fonzie's Happy Days.
- Janitor (Scrubs) (Neil Flynn) on Scrubs. As the sociopathic Janitor who appears to have no name and keeps tormenting the show's main character, Neil Flynn's character became the fan's favorite. Flynn was originally billed as a recurring guest star throughout Season 1, although he appeared in all 24 episodes of that season. He was promoted to a series regular beginning with Season 2. Creator of the series Bill Lawrence admitted : "When we watched the pilot, we knew instantly we had to keep this guy around."Flynn is an improv comedian and, as such, ad-libs many of his lines.
- J.J. Evans (Jimmie Walker) in Good Times. With his catch phrase "Dy-no-mite!", J.J. came to dominate the series. This led to friction with stars Esther Rolle and John Amos, who played his parents, not so much because they resented being upstaged but because they felt the character was too stereotypical and not a good role model for young African American viewers. A showdown with the show's producers led to modification of the character, Amos's character being killed off and a temporary departure by Rolle from the show (she returned at the beginning of the show's final season). J.J. became even more the focus of the show.
- J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) in 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 he became 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, the audience had to wait until the October conclusion. The summer of 1980 was all abuzz with a new national obsession known as "Who shot J.R.?". Riding the crest of his new-found popularity, Larry Hagman threatened to leave the series unless his contractual demands were met. CBS leaked rumors of recasting, but the actor eventually prevailed. As the series progressed, J.R. emerged as the central character until its 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.
- Randy Marsh (voiced by Trey Parker) On South Park. For the first few seasons, Randy Marsh was simply a background character, and served only as "Stan's Dad." But over time, his character was developed more. As a result, his wildly over-reactive personality caused his popularity to grow among fans and he eventually even started having entire episodes devoted to him. (e.g. Bloody Mary, With Apologies to Jesse Jackson, Medicinal Fried Chicken, etc.) By later seasons, he was considered to be the series' breakout character.
- Reverend Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd) on Taxi. Ignatowski was originally a one-time character, a reverend who married Latka Gravas so he could stay in the country. The next season he was re-introduced and (in a very memorable episode) got his cabbie license. Later that season he was added to the main cast and remained that way until the show ended in 1983.
- Spike (James Marsters) on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Spike was originally intended to be a villain for a few episodes, but the character became recurring through the end of the second season and became a main character in the fourth season. He regularly appeared until the end of the series and then appeared as a main character during the final season of Angel.
- Spock (Leonard Nimoy) on Star Trek. Spock 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, and later to keep the character in the background. The character quickly became popular and NBC soon reversed its stance and encouraged more focus on the character. Spock was in every episode of the original series, the animated series and the original cast movies; the first "Spock-less" episode was the pilot episode of Star Trek The Next Generation.
- Stewie Griffin (voiced by Seth MacFarlane) on Family Guy. Show creator MacFarlane reports being very surprised that Stewie turned out to be the show's breakout character, and that when this turned out to be the case he had to work out stories to do with the character.
- Todd Manning (originally and currently Roger Howarth, was played by Trevor St. John) on One Life to Live. The character, known for initiating the gang rape of Marty Saybrooke in 1993, was originally supposed to be short-lived, but once Howarth was cited as having drawn in notable positive viewer reaction, the character was slated to become a main focus. Note: Trevor St. John's version turned out to be Todd's twin brother Victor. Roger Howarth returned as Todd in 2011. The character's popularity continued even after St. John assumed the role in 2003.
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