10 actors who quit their hit TV shows too soon — and 4 who left at the perfect time

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Regé-Jean Page left "Bridgerton" after just one season.Morgan Lieberman/Getty Images
  • When a star leaves a TV show in its prime, it's often to try to become a movie star.

  • Even though an actor may be beloved on TV, that doesn't always translate to box-office success.

  • But sometimes it does — here are stars who made it work, and some who didn't.

With the release of the first four episodes of "Bridgerton" season three on May 16, it's worth taking a look back at the show's very first heartthrob played by Regé-Jean Page.

Page left the show at the top of the world — he hosted "Saturday Night Live," people were clamoring for him to become the next James Bond, and the hype was high.

But since then, Page hasn't had the career we would've expected.

Page isn't the only one who might have left his star-making TV show too soon — there are plenty of TV stars who probably jumped the gun on their movie careers. Of course, there are also celebrities who made the most of leaving their shows, like George Clooney, who became a successful businessman and a movie star after leaving "ER."

Here are some celebrities who probably should have stayed for another season or two and some who made the right decision to jump ship.

Regé-Jean Page left "Brigderton" after one season, but he's only been in two projects since.

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Regé-Jean Page.David M. Benett / Getty Images

Page was on top of the world after the first season of "Bridgerton" dropped on Netflix in December 2020, becoming one of the biggest hits of the year.

But Page decided not to stick around for season two — not even for a small cameo.

So, what did he do instead? He had a supporting role in the mediocre Netflix action movie "The Gray Man" (his performance was not critically acclaimed) in 2021 and appeared in a smaller role in "Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves" in 2023, which was well-received but not a huge hit.

Perhaps he could've kept the momentum going if he made even a small appearance in season two of "Bridgerton." His on-screen love interest, Phoebe Dynevor, popped up in a few episodes, and then she had a lead role in the Netflix hit "Fair Play" in 2023.

Playing a double role on "The Vampire Diaries" was surely exhausting for Nina Dobrev, but her career nor the show was the same after she left.

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Nina Dobrev in 2023.Taylor Hill/FilmMagic/Getty Images

After six seasons of playing the saintly Elena Gilbert and the villain you love to hate, Katherine Pierce, it makes sense that Dobrev would want to move on from "The Vampire Diaries."

But the projects she's chosen since she left the show haven't been huge hits. Her final episode aired in May 2015. Since then, she's appeared in one movie with a fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes: "Dog Days" in 2018.

It's rough to compare that to the 11 "rotten" films she's been in.

David Caruso quit "NYPD Blue" after one season to try movies, but he ended up back on TV.

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David Caruso.Walt Disney Television/Getty Images

By season two of "NYPD Blue" in 1994, it had become a huge hit, and part of that was Caruso's role as the first-billed Detective John Kelly.

Apparently, Caruso asked for more money, but the network declined, so he decided to take his talents to the big screen. He was written off in the fourth episode of season two. Producer Steven Bochco said in his memoir, "Truth Is a Total Defense," it was clear that Caruso "felt he was too good for television ... He wanted to be a movie star."

He only appeared in seven movies post-"Blue," and he was nominated for Razzies for two of them. In fact, his career was basically DOA until he scored the role of Horatio Crane on "CSI: Miami," which lasted for 10 seasons from 2002 to 2012.

Farrah Fawcett was never able to escape "Charlie's Angels" even though she was only on it for a season.

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Farrah Fawcett.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Fawcett is inextricable from "Charlie's Angels" — would you believe she only starred in the show's first season, from 1976 to 1977? She was even nominated for a Golden Globe for the role. But she left after just one season to pursue movie stardom, according to the Washington Post.

In fact, that's why her film career's trajectory is so disappointing. Perhaps the only other role Fawcett is known for is 1976's "Logan's Run." She also appeared in "Saturn 3," and "The Cannonball Run," both of which got her nominated for Razzies.

Noel Fisher left "Shameless" to pursue a film career, but he ended up back on the show a few years later.

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Noel Fisher.Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

On "Shameless," Fisher played the foul-mouthed criminal with a heart of gold Mickey Milkovich. He was recurring in the first two seasons, then bumped up to a series regular from seasons three through five, which ended in 2015.

By that point, Mickey was a beloved part of the "Shameless" family, but he decided he wanted to start "journeying" and left, he told the Chicago Tribune in 2019.

Simultaneously, he began appearing in would-be franchises, like 2014's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and its 2016 sequel. The latter ended up being a box-office flop, hence his full-time return for seasons 10 and 11.

Mischa Barton left "The OC" during season three, and she is now best known for appearing in "The Hills" reboot.

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Mischa Barton.Alexander Koener/Getty

Barton's Marissa Cooper was the heart of "The OC" — or at least, she was supposed to be. But by season three, it became clear that Coop had gone as far she was going to go, and she was killed off during the season three finale in 2006. She even pushed for the death, as opposed to a more open ending, because "I was getting no time to do any of the other offers that were out there," she told The New York Times in 2019.

Since then, the quantity of Barton's filmography is immense, but the quality varies. She's only appeared in three "fresh" movies since leaving Newport, according to Rotten Tomatoes: 2013's "Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain," 2018's "Painkillers," and 2020's "Spree."

Her most high-profile project post-"OC" is appearing on the first season of "The Hills: New Beginnings" in 2019.

Wil Wheaton left "Star Trek: The Next Generation" after four seasons, which he regretted.

Wil Wheaton
Wil Wheaton.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Wheaton had actually been a movie star before "Star Trek," as he had starred in '80s classic "Stand By Me" as a kid. But he began starring on "TNG" during its first season, and over time, the character Wesley grew more and more hated until he left in season four in 1991.

During a fan convention appearance in 2012, Wheaton explained why he left.

"I left 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' when I was 18 years old, and initially I thought it was a really smart business career move," he said. "In some ways it was, and in more ways it wasn't," he added.

He never really had another successful film or TV show, and instead, he became more of an online personality. Wheaton was also embraced by the "Trek" community once again and hosts the after-shows for all the new "Trek" programming.

Shelley Long left "Cheers" and could never replicate that success.

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Shelley Long.NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Sam and Diane of "Cheers" are one of the most important will they/won't they couples in sitcom history, which is why it might be easy to forget that "Cheers" lasted a whole six seasons after Diane left the bar to write her book, leaving her ostensible soulmate behind.

But why would Long leave one of the most popular shows of the '80s? In addition to rumored friction with costar Ted Danson, Long reportedly wanted to become a movie star and spend more time with her family.

She left the show in 1987, and two years later starred in the biggest hit of her career, 1989's "Troop Beverly Hills." Long also played Carol Brady in the "Brady Bunch" films in the '90s.

But besides that, she didn't do much.

In the latter half of her career, once again, TV proved to be the best. She appeared in eight episodes of "Modern Family" as the Pritchett matriarch, which was well-received.

Katherine Heigl became a rom-com queen while working on "Grey's Anatomy," but once she left, the roles dried up.

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Katherine Heigl.Michael Tran/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Heigl played Dr. Izzie Stevens for six seasons of "Grey's Anatomy," a performance that earned her an Emmy (and potentially another one, had she not taken herself out of the running).

But by the sixth season, Heigl's relationship with Shonda Rhimes had reportedly soured, and she was written out of the show, making her last appearance in 2010, according to E! News.

Meanwhile, Heigl had become a box-office draw, starring in 2007's "Knocked Up," 2008's "27 Dresses," and 2009's "The Ugly Truth." But after her acrimonious departure in 2010, coupled with some poorly received comments to Vanity Fair regarding "Knocked Up," Heigl's movie career came to a halt.

She starred in "Life As We Know It," "New Year's Eve," and "One for the Money," before slowly returning to TV with roles in "Suits" and "Firefly Lane."

Topher Grace's exit from "That '70s Show" might not have been the best move.

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Topher Grace.Phil McCarten/Invision/AP

Grace played the sitcom's main character, Eric Foreman. When he left, he was replaced with some guy named Randy for the final season, who basically took over Eric's life.

He left the show in 2005, the year after starring in "Win a Date with Tad Hamilton" and making a cameo appearance in "Ocean's Twelve."

Two years later, he was poised to have his big break in "Spider-Man 3," but the movie was hated by many Spidey fans, and his performance as Venom wasn't widely praised.

That was basically it for Grace's career as a leading man. He was part of the ensemble of "Valentine's Day" and starred in the flop "Take Me Home Tonight" in 2011.

He's had small parts since then in films like "Interstellar" and "BlacKkKlansman," but nothing compares to his run as Eric, which is why his return to TV in 2021 for the ABC sitcom "Home Economics" was important for his career.

He even cameoed in "That '90s Show" in 2023, almost two decades after leaving the original.

On the other hand, George Clooney left "ER" after five seasons to pursue a film career, and he became an A-lister.

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George Clooney.Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Clooney played Dr. Doug Ross for the first five seasons of "ER" from 1994 to 1999, and he became a star both on and off the show. He left after five seasons (all that was contractually obligated), according to SF Gate, to become a movie star. "ER" executive producer John Wells even said Clooney "lost literally millions of dollars by staying on the show."

His gamble worked. Clooney is now one of the most famous people on the planet, an Oscar and Golden Globe winner, the face of an iconic franchise (the "Ocean's" films), a successful producer, owner of a tequila brand, and People's 2006 Sexiest Man Alive.

Chevy Chase quit "Saturday Night Live" midway through its second season and became a movie star in the '80s and '90s.

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Chevy Chase during season one of "SNL.'NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal/Getty Images

Chase was arguably the first real "SNL" breakout star, and the first "Weekend Update" anchor for its inaugural season in 1976. His success was so immediate that he left the show midway through the second season — while he claimed it was for love on "Today," others have a more cynical view.

While it took a few years, Chase's status as a comedic box-office draw cannot be overlooked. In a single decade, he starred in "Caddyshack," three "National Lampoon's Vacation" films, "Spies Like Us," "Three Amigos," "Fletch," and "Fletch Lives."

Chase continued to work throughout the '90s, and while his career slowed down after that, he is surely one of "SNL's" biggest success stories, box office-wise.

Ashton Kutcher skipped out on the last season of "That '70s Show" to try his hand at movies — it worked out better for him than Topher Grace.

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Ashton Kutcher.Getty/Frazer Harrison

Both Kutcher and Topher Grace left "That '70s Show" after seven seasons to concentrate on movies in 2005, ScreenRant reported, missing out on the disastrous eighth and final season. Kutcher quickly established why Michael Kelso was the breakout character from the show.

While his films aren't exactly well-received by critics, they've proven to be box-office successes, such as "What Happens in Vegas," "No Strings Attached," "Jobs," and "Open Season," to name a few. In 2023, he co-starred with Reese Witherspoon in the rom-com "Your Place or Mine."

Eddie Murphy left "SNL" and immediately became one of the biggest movie stars in the world.

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Eddie Murphy.Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Murphy can actually be credited with saving "SNL" in the '80s, one of the worst periods of the show's tenure, in addition to his status as one of the biggest movie stars of all time, as Entertainment Weekly reported.

He left "SNL" in 1984 after four years, but even before he left, Murphy was already big-time. He starred in "48 Hours" (1982), "Trading Places" (1983), and "Beverly Hills Cop" (1984), all before he officially left.

But after he was free of "SNL's" schedule, he began a run that has still yet to be replicated, starring in "Coming to America" in 1988, "Another 48 Hours" in 1990, "Beverly Hills Cop II" in 1994, "The Nutty Professor" in 1996, "Mulan" and "Dr. Dolittle" in 1998, "Bowfinger" in 1999, "Shrek" in 2001, "Daddy Day Care" and "The Haunted Mansion" in 2003, "Shrek 2" in 2004, and finally, "Dreamgirls" in 2006, which earned him an Oscar nomination.

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