List of breakout characters
A breakout character is a character in serial fiction who, initially having a minor role, becomes a more prominent, popular, discussed, and/or imitated individual. The series from which the breakout character springs may be in the form of a novel, magazine, television series, comic strip, game or combination.
- 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 sailor disappeared from the strip afterwards, fans demanded his return, and the series later became Thimble Theater, Starring Popeye.
- Krazy Kat evolved from an earlier comic strip of Herriman's, The Dingbat Family, which started in 1910 and was later renamed The Family Upstairs. This comic chronicled the Dingbats' attempts to avoid the mischief of the mysterious unseen family living in the apartment above theirs and to unmask that family. Herriman would complete the cartoons about the Dingbats, and finding himself with time left over in his 8-hour work day, filled the bottom of the strip with slapstick drawings of the upstairs family's mouse preying upon the Dingbats' cat.
This "basement strip" grew into something much larger than the original cartoon. It became a daily comic strip with a title (running vertically down the side of the page) on October 28, 1913 and a black and white full-page Sunday cartoon on April 23, 1916. Due to the objections of editors, who didn't think it was suitable for the comics sections, Krazy Kat originally appeared in the Hearst papers' art and drama sections. Hearst himself, however, enjoyed the strip so much that he gave Herriman a lifetime contract and guaranteed the cartoonist complete creative freedom.
- 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. He 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 appears undercover as Peter Parker's school principal. Coulson has also been the subject of a series of short films, has subsequently appeared in the Marvel Comics universe, and stars as the main character in an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series.
- Aldous Snow, Russell Brand's character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, initially 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.
- Captain Jack Sparrow, Johnny Depp's character in Pirates of the Caribbean, initially was written as a supporting trickster character to Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann. Depp's performance and the character proved popular enough to warrant Jack Sparrow's promotion to protagonist of the series by the fourth film.
- Throckmorton Philharmonic Gildersleeve (as portrayed by Harold Peary) was an antagonist on the long-running radio comedy Fibber McGee & Molly. The underwear salesman proved popular enough to warrant a spin-off, The Great Gildersleeve, which, like its parent show, would go onto a long run in radio, film and (briefly) television.
- Dr. Daniel Auschlander was portrayed (by Norman Lloyd) on St. Elsewhere. His character had been intended to appear in four episodes, when he had liver cancer. However, his character developed a connection to the show and became appealing with the show's audience. He remained with the series for six more years.
- 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 from 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 and Dean Winchester from the show's fifth season onward.
- 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.[dead link]
- Elmo (voiced and operated by numerous puppeteers, but primarily by Kevin Clash from 1984 to 2012) on Sesame Street, he joined the cast of the children's show 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 receiving his own segment within the show, "Elmo's World", and becoming a major marketing icon.
- J.J. Evans (Jimmie Walker) in Good Times, with his catch phrase "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 because 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's 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 was portrayed (by 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 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 new-found 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.
- Arthur Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler) in 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.[dead link]
- Mellie Grant portrayed by Bellamy Young in 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. Praised from the start as a villanous 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." 
- Stewie Griffin is voiced by Seth MacFarlane, the show's creator, on Family Guy. MacFarlane reported being very surprised that Stewie turned out to be the show's breakout character, and he had to work out stories to center around the character.
- Reverend Jim Ignatowski (Christopher Lloyd) on Taxi was originally a one-time character, a reverend who married Latka Gravas so he could remain in the country. The next season, he was reintroduced and, in a very memorable episode, received his cabbie license. Later that season, he was added to the main cast and remained at that status until the show ended in 1983.
- Florence Johnston (Marla Gibbs) on The Jeffersons, was originally supposed to make only one guest appearance. However, after more guest appearances, she became a series regular and the show's incorrigible scene-stealer.
- K-9 (John Leeson and David Brierly) in 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, has made appearances in the spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, and is now the central character of the spin-off series K-9.
- Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver) in 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 first 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 in Gilligan's Island after Dobie ended in 1963.
- 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.)
- Randy Marsh was voiced by Trey Parker on South Park. For the first several seasons, Marsh was simply a background character. However, over time, his character was developed further. As a result, his wildly over-reactive personality increased his popularity among fans, and eventually entire episodes were devoted to him (for instance, Bloody Mary, With Apologies to Jesse Jackson, Medicinal Fried Chicken, and others). By later seasons, he was considered to be the series' breakout character.
- Elijah Mikaelson (Daniel Gillies) on The Vampire Diaries, was originally brought in as a minor threat for the main characters and as a way to introduce villain Klaus. However, Elijah became extremely popular, not only with the fans, but with 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 show's most popular characters, surpassing several main characters.
- Bullwinkle J. Moose was voiced by Bill Scott on Rocky and His Friends. Although the series was originally named after Rocky the Flying Squirrel, it was Rocky's dim-witted (and much larger) sidekick, Bullwinkle J. Moose, who 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 on syndicated reruns of the series to this day.
- 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.
- Si Robertson on Duck Dynasty. Barbara Walters identified him as the breakout character of that reality TV series when interviewing the cast of that show for her Barbara Walters Presents the 10 Most Fascinating People of 2013 TV special.
- 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. Fan response completely changed the nature of the show and the set of focal characters.
- 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. The first "Spock-less" episode was the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
- 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 was 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) in 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.
- Boycie (John Challis), originally an occasional character in Only Fools and Horses, eventually he and his family get their own series The Green Green Grass.
- The Rabbids originally appeared in the game Rayman Raving Rabbids (2006) as antagonists. However, their popularity overcame that of the main character, Rayman. After appearing in two more Rayman games, they were promoted to stars of their own game, Rabbids Go Home (2009).
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Originally, the Arthur "Fonzie" Fonzarelli character was to be a comic relief dropout type, put there for comic contrast to the whitebread Richie and his pals. He was a tall, lanky guy, but when Henry Winkler blew everybody away at his reading, they decided to cut Fonzie down to Henry's size. Ultimately, Winkler molded the character around himself and everybody, including Ron Howard, realized this would be the show's "breakout" character.[dead link]
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