While pondering on Wesley’s tribute post for his birthday next week, my thoughts ended up turning to another topic: that of replacement characters.
Of course, both Andy and Steve were replacement characters, as first Ray Collins’ health declined and then Wesley disappeared from the show for reasons still unknown. I love all the police characters, but putting personal preferences aside, did replacing one of the original, key characters really work?
Many shows have to deal with the problem of replacements somewhere along the line. In fact, it’s difficult to think of shows that don’t. Contracts expire and aren’t renewed, there are contract disputes, actors sadly become ill or die, or they simply want to move on.
Some shows honestly can’t seem to hold on when a key person leaves. James Garner’s departure from Maverick undoubtedly killed that show. They tried to struggle on, and perhaps they would have been successful for a while with British cutie Roger Moore, but the quality of the scripts had gone down with the departure of the series creator a year earlier and Roger was soon fed up. They even tried bringing in Robert Colbert to play a character so much like James’s that it was painful to watch. Even though James Garner’s and Jack Kelly’s characters were given the same speech pattern in scripts, the actors still managed to make them different. But Robert’s character was meant to be a clone of James’s in almost every way, right down to the exact same wardrobe, alarmingly similar name, and exact dialogue and delivery. That only worked for two episodes. Jack Kelly carried the final season alone and the show was canceled.
Other shows seem to manage to survive with cast changes, even though naturally the dynamic is forever different. M*A*S*H is perhaps one of the most successful examples of cast changes. Several key characters left over time: Trapper John, Colonel Blake, Frank Burns, and eventually Radar O’Reilly. But the show adapted to each loss and brought in someone new in most cases (there never really was a Radar replacement; Corporal Klinger took over his job). And although people were upset by the changes, many of them adjusted and accepted the newcomers and the show went on. Some people even preferred the new characters. I myself count Charles Winchester as one of the best things to happen to M*A*S*H. He was stuck-up and arrogant upon arrival, but he grew and adjusted and became one of the team. There was a good person under the stuffy exterior, one who honestly cared about people and even came to be fond of his strange comrades. Frank Burns was never depicted as being so deep, even though Larry Linville did try to portray him as a real person and not a one-dimensional caricature.
So how did Perry hold up? Ray Collins brought to life a beloved and adorable Lieutenant Tragg. He is heavily present in the early seasons, enjoying many scenes and hilarious exchanges with the other characters. To have his role gradually reduced and eventually eliminated out of necessity certainly changes the dynamic of the series. His strong presence is always missed.
But Lieutenant Anderson is a bright and eager young policeman when first introduced, not impish or dubiously friendly like Tragg is, but cheerful and congenial and intelligent. (And aloof.) He’s a different character for the series, perhaps one of the best changes they could have made since change had to come. A Lieutenant Tragg clone would have been a painful and very bad idea. One thing that often makes replacement characters work is when they’re different from the ones they’re replacing. Of course, Wesley had to struggle with using dialogue specifically written for Tragg for a while, but thankfully that soon changed.
Apparently the replacement worked, since the show continued. It likely helped that Andy is introduced gradually, often appearing with Tragg and then quietly taking some of the burden of extra screentime from him. Andy begins to appear more while Tragg appears less. Eventually Andy is the only one appearing at all, as Ray Collins’ health forced him to leave altogether.
The show changes in a negative way when Tragg is gone for good. So does Andy. Perhaps he misses his friend (if we take the stance that since Tragg isn’t seen, he must be gone as the actor is). Perhaps Andy finds he just can’t hack the burden without him. Whatever the reason, Andy is not the same cheerful fellow he started out as. Although he is stressed as early as season 6, it isn’t the dominant personality trait then as it becomes by season 8.
People have complained that all of the characters are far more serious by season 8. But while Perry and company seem to have used that seriousness to grow and mature, Andy just seems lost. He flounders, makes far more mistakes than before, and mostly seems very unhappy. Perhaps some of it is Wesley’s unhappiness with the amount of screentime he was getting. Largely, however, it seems to actually be written into the script. For some reason, they wanted to change Andy’s character in that way. And it was a very bad idea. Perhaps if they had left him as he was, or found a different way to make him more serious, there wouldn’t have been the need to replace him.
When that time came, the staff knew that the show was unlikely to continue. They must have had some hope of renewal or they wouldn’t have played with filming in color for one episode. But with only one more season as the most likely option, they chose Richard Anderson, a previous two-time guest-star, to come in and play the third police lieutenant.
It’s regrettable there is only one season with this intriguing character. Richard’s Lieutenant Steve Drumm takes some elements from both Tragg and Andy, as well as some fresh, new elements all his own, and becomes a very good representative for the police department in the series. Of course, with the formulaic nature of the series, the wrong person is still always arrested at first, but unlike how Perry can make both Tragg and Andy look like idiots on the witness stand, he really can’t do that with Steve. Steve is sharp as a whip. Alternately gruff and hardboiled and friendly and open, Steve is happy sharing lunch with Perry and company and is comfortable being their friend, but he won’t tolerate law-bending. Andy never does seem comfortable being very friendly and instead prefers keeping them at arm’s length. Like Steve, Tragg also seems quite comfortable being friendly, but unlike Steve, sometimes it’s difficult to tell how often Tragg means it and when it’s just an act. By contrast, and similar to Andy, Steve doesn’t put on airs. He is genuine through and through. I don’t think Steve could put on an act if he tried. It’s just not his nature.
The show always tries to be as kind to the police department as possible, but from the first season to the last, it certainly goes through changes in how it chooses to portray the main police characters. And by and large it seems to work. Even with season 8, I haven’t run across anyone else who feels that Andy is drastically different that year, so perhaps to the majority, they feel that things carried on the same as always. But in any case, each character is his own man and handles his role uniquely and expertly. With continuing strong characters, Perry managed to survive the cast changes. With lesser actors and lesser writing, it most likely would not have worked.
However, even though the police characters are supposed to be as much a part of the main cast as the lawyers, Della, and Paul, would replacing other characters have worked as well? They certainly had a devil of a time figuring out what to do with the district attorney character when William Talman was suspended. The clashes between Perry and Hamilton are such an integral part of the series, much moreso than any scenes between Perry and company with the police. Could the series have replaced, say, Hamilton and survived as it did with the police?
Again, the key is quality writing and acting. The acting was no problem; everyone is at the top of his game. But, as what happened when they tried to replace Tragg, there is no unique dialogue for Hamilton’s assistant D.A.s They all have lines originally written for Hamilton, so each actor had to figure out his own way to best interpret things differently to make for a noticeable character.
I still maintain that H.M. Wynant managed to do that the best. If they actually had done the unthinkable and refused to bring William Talman back, I think that of the parade of assistants seen, only H.M. Wynant and possibly Robert Karnes could have carried the prosecutor’s role long-term. Or, as with Andy, perhaps the staff would have gone with someone else who hadn’t even appeared as a prosecutor. Of course, again as with Andy, the writers would have then needed to flesh out the character and give him some unique dialogue not written for Hamilton.
But would it have worked? Would people have been as receptive as they were to the new policemen? That is honestly hard to say. Actually, the season 4 episodes with the assistants are very strong episodes and many are quite popular among fans. But it was only temporary. If things had continued in that vein, or if a new prosecutor had come in for good, it might not have worked that well. Many fans love the clashes between Perry and Hamilton. Having Perry clash with any other prosecutor just isn’t the same.
One could argue that the movies managed to survive and be strong without steady police or prosecuting characters, so possibly the entire cast of the original series could have changed except for Perry and Della and it would have worked. But I think not. The movies worked because so much time had passed following the end of the series and the old fans were thrilled to reunite with Perry and Della again. They were so happy to get those two back that they were just fine with everything else changing (again, out of necessity). And the young, incoming fans mostly didn’t know any different until later, when they started researching the original series.
Of course, I could be wrong. Perhaps Perry and Della really are the only mainstays as far as most fans are concerned, even in the original series. But one thing I am very happy about is that as far as the original series goes, that was something we never had to find out. Overall there were very few cast changes, especially compared to some other series.
Sadly, if the series had continued, it could have only gone another season or so with William Talman. So I try to console myself about the series ending feeling that it probably ended at the best possible time, carrying through with four of the original five main cast members to the end.
If it had continued, though, it likely would have only been for that one extra season, since Raymond Burr was tiring and apparently so was CBS. So it is interesting for me to ponder and dream about what season 10 of Perry would have been like.
Hopefully there would not have been any other cast changes.