Teen Drama Actors Who Left Their Series
You’re cast on a television show. It becomes a hit. Then what? Do you stay or do you go? And is it even up to you? In the case of the teen dramas, a number of actors came and went over the years — some by choice and some not.
Beverly Hills, 90210
Jason Priestley (Brandon Walsh)
Priestley left the FOX series early in season 9. In episode 9.05, “Brandon Leaves,” Brandon moves to Washington, D.C., for a job with the (fictitious) New York Chronicle. Priestley, who had become a producer on the show back in season 6 and directed 15 episodes, made a cameo in the series finale, appearing in videotaped messages to Donna and David on the eve of their wedding. It was Priestley’s choice to leave the show, a decision he came to regret. While promoting his memoir in 2014, he told CNN:
“I felt that the character of Brandon had kind of run his course. I had explored everything I wanted to explore with him. In retrospect, I do regret leaving. Understanding what I do now about story and character, I believe that [Aaron Spelling] was pushing the story in a direction that would have had Brandon and Kelly end up together at the end of the show and I think I probably should have stuck around to its fruition… I think my departure also hurt Aaron’s feelings. Aaron and I had worked very closely together for a number of years. He gave me a lot of opportunities, and I feel like my departure hurt his feelings and I never meant to do that.”
Priestley further said that with his departure, “I think there was no more moral center to the show. There was no more lynchpin. There were no more Walshes in the Walsh House. It kind of didn’t make sense anymore. So, I regret leaving the show for all those reasons.”
Shannen Doherty (Brenda Walsh)
Doherty’s exit from “Beverly Hills, 90210” at the end of season 4 is among the most controversial — if not actually the top one — in the genre. The tale has been told a little differently over the years depending on who’s telling it, but here is what executive producer Larry Mollin said in my 2010 interview with him:
“She just kind of pissed everyone off eventually and she pissed off the most important person, which was, you know, Tori… I think they were willing to go with her but, basically, what happened was, in the middle of a show, she cut her hair and totally screwed us up for continuity so everyone was pissed off at her. Like I said, not the writers so much, but the producer people. And the other kids were out to get her head, because she had pissed everybody off, and they basically went to the old man [Aaron Spelling] and said she had to go… But it was unfortunate she left, because we had all intention of keeping her there. And I always feel bad, because it was my idea to send her to England to get acting lessons, which kind of became a bad joke because she was a good actress. I never thought she was a bad actress.”
Though Doherty’s character was a focal point of the series, along with Priestley’s, in its early days, she ultimately appeared in less than half of the show’s 10 seasons. She was even infamously blurred out in a scene shown at the end of “The Final Goodbye” special that aired one week before the series finale in 2000. Doherty went on to star in another Spelling show, “Charmed,” but ended up leaving that one too.
Luke Perry (Dylan McKay)
Most people tend to forget Perry wasn’t in the pilot of “Beverly Hills, 90210.” He first appeared in the series’ second episode and later left in episode 6.10, “One Wedding and a Funeral.” The hour is often recalled as the show’s most tragic, with Dylan’s wife Toni being murdered just one day after their wedding. In our aforementioned interview, Mollin asserted Perry was “tired” of the show by that point, as were other cast members, and it was reported then and later that the actor wanted to focus on movies. But he ultimately returned in episode 9.07, “You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello,” just two episodes after Priestley’s departure. Perry then stayed, credited as a “special guest star,” through the series finale.
Gabrielle Carteris (Andrea Zuckerman)
So Doherty left at the end of season 4 and Perry left early in season 6. Carteris, meanwhile, left toward the end of season 5, with Andrea and husband Jesse moving to Connecticut in episode 5.30, “Hello Life, Goodbye Beverly Hills.” Her exit was largely storyline-driven, as Mollin explained in our interview, and Carteris went on to host a short-lived talk show. She returned, however, for brief appearances in seasons 6, 8, and 10.
James Eckhouse (Jim Walsh) and Carol Potter (Cindy Walsh)
While the Walsh parents were fairly integral to the series in its early seasons, Jim and Cindy slowly became less and less important. Eckhouse and Potter officially exited with the season 5 finale, “P.S. I Love You,” with Brandon and Brenda’s parents relocating to Hong Kong for Jim’s work, just like his job was the reason they moved to Beverly Hills in the first place. In our 2010 interview, Eckhouse told me:
“I was well aware that my shelf life on the show was limited because the show was about the kids; it wasn’t about me or us. Originally it was but, you know, people want to see young faces, not old faces, on television. So it wasn’t really any kind of surprise or anything like that. I was glad to be on it for as long as I was. But after five years you re-negotiate your contract. Your contract is for five years. So that means if a show’s successful, it starts to become very expensive to have that large of a cast as regulars. It’s really strictly a financial thing, which now that I direct and produce, I completely understand. They wanted me to sort of sign on for a certain number of episodes and I had felt I really had done wanted I wanted to do. I did some directing. I was running a theater company at the time in Los Angeles. I loved the income but knew I had to move beyond it. I just didn’t want to spend the rest of my life being associated with being ‘the dad from 90210’ — not that that’s so bad; it’s a great thing, but I knew I needed to move on.”
For her part, Potter told me the year prior that the decision to write out Jim and Cindy was “made by the executives in charge, and conveyed to us through our agents. I think they felt that it was handicapping the kids to have their parents around all the time, so they had to get rid of us.” Potter returned for one episode in season 6, Eckhouse for one episode in season 7, and then they returned together for the season 8 finale. They also had the briefest of cameos in the finale of season 6.
Tiffani Thiessen (Valerie Malone)
In the wake of Doherty’s departure, Thiessen was brought on to the series at the start of season 5. She chose to leave the show in season 9, with her exit coming in the very same episode that Perry returned, although their characters didn’t cross paths. (This episode was recently discussed in depth on the “Beverly Hills 90210 Show” podcast’s Patreon with writers Gretchen J. Berg and Aaron Harberts — it’s really worth watching.) Like Carteris and Priestley, Thiessen returned for the series finale, but she did not participate in last year’s “BH90210.”
Kathleen Robertson (Clare Arnold)
Robertson made her debut in season 4 as a recurring character, but was upgraded to a series regular in season 5. She last appeared in the season 7 finale, episodes 7.31-32, “Graduation Day,” with Clare choosing to follow her dad to Paris, even thought it meant breaking up with Steve. On the “Beverly Hills 90210 Show” podcast in November, Robertson explained she chose to leave because she was “ready to do something new.”
Hilary Swank (Carly Reynolds)
Along with Vincent Young (Noah), Swank was one of two new cast members at the start of season 8. She was brought on as a new love interest for Ian Ziering’s Steve and contracted to appear for the full season, but was infamously fired partway through and only appeared in 16 episodes. Producers apparently felt she wasn’t working as an addition to the show, so writers changed directions and sent Carly (and son Zach) to Montana to take care of her ailing father. What seemed devastating to Swank at the time ultimately proved to be the best thing for her career: By leaving “Beverly Hills, 90210” behind, she was able to change her focus to movies and went on to win not one but two Academy Awards — and today is still the only teen drama star with an Oscar. In an interview with People last year, Swank said she was, in hindsight, “so grateful” for being fired from the series, a sentiment she has expressed more than once over the years.
Vanessa Marcil (Gina Kincaid)
Season 9’s “You Say Goodbye, I Say Hello” was quite the episode. In addition to marking Thiessen’s exit and Perry’s return, it was also Marcil’s first appearance. She started out portraying Donna’s cousin, though it was revealed in season 10 that they were actually half-sisters. Episode 10.17, “Doc Martin,” in which Donna and Gina’s father dies, was Marcil’s last. Feeling partially responsible for his death and ostracized from the group, Gina opts to leave town. Dylan initially plans to go with her, but changes his mind (in large part because of his feelings for Kelly).
Other regular cast members who left “Beverly Hills, 90210” include Jamie Walters (Ray), another controversial exit that Mollin discussed with me at length, and Mark D. Espinoza (Jesse), who departed with Carteris. And we can’t forget Douglas Emerson (Scott), who was an original cast member until his character was killed off in season 2. Of that decision, executive producer Charles Rosin said in our 2009 interview, “Given our low license fee from the network, we were always trying to cut costs — and Doug Emerson was a nice young man, but not a gifted actor. I still wanted to find a memorable way to write him off the show.”
Meredith Monroe (Andie McPhee)
Along with Kerr Smith, Monroe joined “Dawson’s Creek” in its second season. The pair played a brother and sister who moved to Capeside, but while Smith stuck around through the end of the series, Monroe didn’t. In episode 4.07, “You Had Me at Goodbye,” Andie left town to stay with her aunt in Italy. She returned for the season’s penultimate hour, episode 4.22, “The Graduate,” and also appeared in the series finale, though her scenes were cut from the broadcast version and appear only on DVD (and possibly streaming? I’m admittedly not sure). In 2018, creator Kevin Williamson told The Hollywood Reporter:
“I wasn’t thrilled with the way Andie left the show because I really loved that character when she first came on. And by the time she left, everyone hated her. I didn't think the audience needed to turn against her the way they did. That’s why I wanted to bring her back for the series finale and we did — we just ran long and had to cut it.”
John Wesley Shipp (Mitch Leery)
Dawson’s dad was killed off with episodes 5.03, “Capeside Revisited,” and 5.04, “The Long Goodbye.” (Notice how many of these episodes have “goodbye” in their titles?!) As Shipp told me in our 2009 interview:
“When Kevin Williamson left the show [between seasons 2 and 3] and it became more and more of [a teen drama] and the parents were increasingly de-emphasized, that led to my leaving. At the end of the four seasons and the kids were going to be going to college, I saw the handwriting on the wall. We would be standing in the background with Lily and waving at Parents Day and I really had no interest in doing that. So when they wanted to renegotiate our contact, I set my price really high. Then they started production on the fifth season and two weeks into production, the WB shut them down because they had no story and that’s when [executive producer] Paul Stupin came to me in L.A. and said if we gave you the money you were asking, would you come back and kill the character? I kind of budged my heart for a minute but I have to tell you, it was a great decision. It was the perfect time to leave ‘Dawson’s Creek.’ I did indeed get two beautiful episodes that made me feel like the previous four years had been about something.”
Shipp, however, was disappointed two years ago when he and Mary-Margaret Humes (Gail) were not invited to be part of the in-person 20th anniversary cast reunion for Entertainment Weekly. Notably, Monroe was included.
Mischa Barton (Marissa Cooper)
This is another departure to file under one of the genre’s most controversial. Barton actually spoiled her character’s death in an “Access Hollywood” interview before the fateful season 3 finale, “The Graduates,” aired. Reflecting on the decision to kill Marissa off, creator Josh Schwartz said in 2016, “There were a lot of factors involved, and it was something we really wrestled with. There were a lot of reasons, both creative and cynical.” Of fan reaction in the aftermath, he acknowledged, “We realized that people were very attached to that character. There was a lot of anger and fan art that came our way.” The following year, he said the question of why Marissa was killed off is the question he’s asked the most. His answer:
“It’s a complicated, multifaceted question. It had as much to do with creatively feeling like this was always in the cards for this character and she was an inherently tragic heroine, and part of the Ryan / Marissa story was him trying to save her from a fate that she couldn’t be rescued from, and part of it had to do with pressure from the network in terms of ratings, and what we could do for the show’s fourth season. For a lot of critics, that character was a source of frustration. For a lot of audience members, that was their favorite character.”
He also insisted it wasn’t quite Barton’s decision. “Mischa didn’t want off the show any more than any of the other kids wanted off the show,” he said, further claiming, “She certainly wasn’t actively seeking to leave the show.” For her part, last year Barton defended the plot twist, but said she understands why fans wanted more of Marissa.
Chris Carmack (Luke Ward)
From the start of the series, Luke was presented as Ryan’s foil, though they later became frenemies of sorts as the show burned through quite a bit of plot in season 1. In season 2, he appeared in the premiere, “The Distance,” living with his dad in Portland… and that was it. In an interview timed to the show’s 10th anniversary in 2013, Schwartz confessed, “If I could go back in time and do it all over again I would have for sure kept Anna [Samaire Armstrong] and Luke in the show… If I could do it all over again, I would have slowed down aspects of those stories and we probably could have kept those guys around. We always talked about Ryan / Anna. We always talked about Luke / Summer.”
Alan Dale (Caleb Nichol)
Like Marissa, Caleb, too, was killed off the show, but at a very different age and under very different circumstances. In episode 2.23, “The O.Sea,” after Julie (Melinda Clarke) has a last-minute change of heart and decides not to poison her husband, Caleb suffers a fatal heart attack, sending daughter Kirsten (Kelly Rowan) into a tailspin. Dale joked in 2007, the same year the show ended, “I've been lucky in lots of ways in shows like ‘The O.C.’ that have become a smash. Then I leave and it dies.”
It’s also worth noting that while Tate Donovan (Jimmy) stopped being a series regular after season 2, he still made appearances in seasons 3 and 4.
One Tree Hill
Chad Michael Murray (Lucas Scott) and Hilarie Burton (Peyton Sawyer)
I’ve made no secret over the years of my disappointment with Murray and Burton’s exit. In fact, at the time, I wrote on the original TeenDramaWhore.com:
“To continue next season without Chad Michael Murray and Hilarie Burton is a travesty. Yes, I understand they aren’t the only important cast members. But you take away them and you take away a part of what makes ‘One Tree Hill’ what it is. And you do a disservice to the remaining cast, because you break apart so many relationships: Nathan and Lucas, Haley and Lucas, Brooke and Peyton, just to name a few.”
I went on to praise the now-disgraced Mark Schwahn for his steering of the series to that point, but wrote, “His willingness to continue the show without CMM and Burton just doesn’t add up. I do believe there’s more to the story than what we know.” Well, as it turned out, my hunch was correct, but in a way I never imagined: As I wrote about in “Separating ‘One Tree Hill’ From Mark Schwahn,” Schwahn had actually been sexually harassing Burton for years. Knowing that now, it’s hardly surprising anymore that only Murray made a return appearance, and only one time at that, in episode 9.07, “Last Known Surroundings.”
Craig Sheffer (Keith Scott)
Well, this was certainly a death — a murder, rather — no one saw coming. After school shooter Jimmy (Colin Fickes) kills himself in episode 3.16, “With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept,” Dan (Paul Johansson) picks up the gun and fatally shoots his own brother. It was a game-changing moment for the series (one that didn’t even occur in a season finale) that had consequences for the rest of the show. Sheffer returned for dream sequences in season 4, and again in season 9, when Dan himself died. When he found out Sheffer would be returning for his send-off, Johansson said, “I was tearing up and thinking it was the most perfect thing that I could imagine.”
Moira Kelly (Karen Roe)
Kelly was arguably a casualty of the four-year time-jump between seasons 4 and 5. With the core characters now out of college, there was less and less of a reason to have some of the parents around, with even Dan and Deb (Barbara Alyn Woods) only appearing off and on in seasons 7-9. Kelly returned for the show’s 100th episode (episode 5.12), the appropriately titled “Hundred,” in which fans learned she had reunited with Andy and was raising daughter Lily (whose father was Keith) with him. Kelly also reprised her role in the season 6 finale, episode 6.24, “Remember Me as a Time of Day,” as Lucas and Peyton welcomed their first child (and Peyton nearly died in the process). That episode, of course, was also Leyton’s last.
Barry Corbin (Brian “Whitey” Durham)
Like with Karen, there was little reason to keep Whitey around in the later seasons given that he was Lucas and Nathan’s high school basketball coach. But he did have two memorable follow-up appearances after he stopped being a series regular in season 4. In episode 5.05, “I Forgot to Remember to Forget,” flashbacks showed Lucas working alongside Whitey, who reminded him there are more important things in life than basketball (like love). Then, in the aforementioned season 6 finale, episode 6.24, Dan pays Whitey an unexpected visit, and the two of have an emotionally charged discussion about Dan’s shameful (and murderous) behavior.
Danneel Harris (Rachel) was another one-time series regular who was written off the show but returned sporadically in the later seasons, most notably for arcs in seasons 5 and 7.
Taylor Momsen (Jenny Humphrey)
Fans like to joke Little J slowly crossed over to the dark side during the four years Momsen starred on “Gossip Girl.” Innocent Jenny’s darker turn seemed to match Momsen’s own. With her increased focus on music, it was revealed in 2011 that Momsen wouldn’t be returning to the series for season 5. She had already been appearing sporadically, with an “indefinite hiatus” announced in season 4. Reflecting years later on her diminishing involvement, executive producer Joshua Safran told Vulture, “I would say Jenny’s transformation to a darker character wouldn’t have happened had Taylor wanted to be Jenny… It was hard at a certain point to write for the old Jenny; we had to write for the new Taylor.” Added co-creator Stephanie Savage, “At a certain point, she just felt like she didn’t want to be an actress anymore, which, considering how young she was when she started on the show, was something that we felt like we had to be respectful of.” To everyone’s credit, Momsen at least returned for a(n extremely brief) cameo in the series finale.
Jessica Szohr (Vanessa Abrams)
At the same time Momsen’s exit was announced, so was Szhor’s. And she, too, returned for a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in the series finale. For author Cecily von Ziegesar, it might’ve been too little, too late. In 2008, a year after the TV adaptation of her book series premiered, von Ziegesar told MTV, “I think Vanessa is one character they ruined. In the book, she’s kick-ass and has a shaved head and wears lots of black... and I think a lot of the readers who don’t usually read teen fiction indentify with Vanessa. Even though I don’t like Vanessa’s character, it’s nothing against Jessica. I just wish Vanessa was like she is in the books a bit more.”
Dustin Milligan (Ethan Ward)
First off, kinda strange that Luke’s last name was “Ward” on “The O.C.” and so was Ethan’s on “90210.” And while “The O.C.” is often given grief for burning through a lot of plot in its first season, nu90210 kinda did as well. After all, we were introduced to Ethan as Naomi’s boyfriend, then he moves on to Annie, and by the end of the season, he’s confessing his feelings for Silver. All in one season! He then ends up spending the summer with his father in Montana (again Montana!) and opts not to return to Beverly Hills. Of course, this wasn’t Milligan’s choice, but that of new showrunner Rebecca Sinclair. The news of Milligan’s exit was described as a “shocker” at the time, particularly since he had been set up as one of the series’ “leading men.” It was a decision that continues to reverberate today, with the cast discussing Milligan’s departure during an online reunion last year.
Rob Estes (Harry Wilson), Lori Loughlin (Debbie Wilson) & Ryan Eggold (Ryan Matthews)
Estes was theoretically the “Jim Walsh” of the series, but arguably a more involved player given that he was not just Dixon and Annie’s dad but also the school principal. Alas, Estes ended up leaving the show after season 2 in part due to a salary dispute and in part due to Sinclair wanting to “focus more on the younger cast members… and less on the older.” This was also the explanation given for Jennie Garth’s exit, though Garth wasn’t a series regular like Estes. And while Estes departed, his on-screen wife, Loughlin, stuck around a bit longer before leaving along with Eggold at the end of season 3. A similar reason for their exits was given: The “fourth season will find the West Bev crew transitioning to college, which means there will be less emphasis on teachers and parents.” Loughlin did return for a guest appearance, though, in the season 5 premiere.
Gillian Zinser (Ivy Sullivan)
Zinser wasn’t an original cast member and started off in a recurring capacity in season 2, but was promoted to series regular status in early 2010. But by the spring of 2012, it was reported Zinser wouldn’t be returning for season 5. Co-showrunner Patti Carr left the door open for her to come back, however, telling TVLine that fall, “Gillian had some other interests this season, and we wanted to make her available to pursue those. But we do have a deal for her to appear on the show, and we’re hoping that the character does come back at some point in the year.” Sadly, that never happened. Even sadder, in my opinion, was that Zinser was completely left out of last November’s reunion special, “ET Presents… 9021OMG! The Cast Tells All.” It’s unclear if that was Zinser’s choice, but it’s certainly eyebrow-raising given that she was in more than half the series.
Which teen drama exit hurt your heart the most? And which cast departure had you saying “good riddance”? Share in the comments!
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One Tree Hill: I wish they never killed off Keith (boo hoo), I wish Lucas and Peyton (especially Lucas because he was the star of the show) would have stayed. I wish Karen stayed longer.
Beverly Hills, 90210: I wish Jim & Cindy would have been around more, even just doing more cameos towards the end. When Luke left it wasn’t a huge deal because by then I wasn’t watching the show as much as I had previously. I did love that Luke came back in the later seasons. It was because of him I started watching again. I wish Jason would have stayed for the whole series. I wish Shannen would have been there the whole time also. I was so sad when she left because I liked her with Dylan. It’s to bad that behind the scenes shenanigans can cause us to lose major characters.
I literally did cartwheels when Vanessa and Jenny left GG! On the OC, while I preferred Summer to Marisa, I did think from a creative standpoint it was a huge mistake killing her off. On OTH I was devastated when Keith was killed... I've never been able to rewatch that episode. On Beverly Hills, 90210 I was miserable when Brenda, Dylan and Brandon left - - they were the show for me. I honestly was never attached to anyone on nu90210 so no departures affected me, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss looking at Rob Estes every week:) Dawson's I was never a huge fan of. I think I quit after the first 3 seasons