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Regarding Cote de Pablo's exit from "NCIS": Is it ever smart for an actor to leave a hit TV show at the peak of its popularity?
— Leonica, New York
Put it this way: I've pinged talent managers, TV historians, and everyone in between. And for the most part, they answer me with the same two words:
If you've heard of him, it's likely because of the decade he spent co-starring on "CSI: Miami," a gig that ended last year. But before that, Caruso spent another near-decade in the wilderness. The flame-headed actor made big news in 1994 when he announced his departure from the wildly popular "NYPD Blue" after only one season, reportedly annoyed that he didn't get the raise he wanted. A slew of failed films followed, and eventually TV Guide ranked his fateful decision No. 6 on their list of TV's Biggest Blunders.
"He left 'NYPD Blue' thinking he was going to have a film career," says David Bushman, television curator at the Paley Center for Media. "The fact that he came back to TV to do 'CSI: Miami,' which is considered to have resuscitated his career, that was not what he had in mind when he left 'NYPD Blue.'"
However the hallowed ancestor of ill-advised departures is mostly likely that of McLean Stevenson, an original "M*A*S*H" cast member. The actor left the show at the height of its success; he and co-star Loretta Swit have said that Stevenson was feeling outshone by other cast members and wanted to leave so that he could play a lead. He later admitted that leaving the show was a serious mistake, and his career never recovered.
"Ultimately, he became the butt of so many jokes," Bushman tells me.
All that said, however, some actors do know how to leave a show and make their careers work, the two most shining examples being Johnny Depp and George Clooney.
Depp left "21 Jump Street" a year before that show went off the air in 1991. Clooney quit in 1999, a full decade before "ER" folded. Both, of course, are now considered A-list film stars.
So why did they succeed where many others have failed? Preparation. Both Depp and Clooney (and John Travolta, by the way) established themselves on quality movie projects before cutting the TV cord.
"Johnny Depp did 'Edward Scissorhands' in 1990," Bushman points out, and — success or not — Clooney did a Batman picture. He also forged his now-very-lucrative relationship with Steven Soderbergh, via their first picture together, "Out of Sight," in 1998.
"Of all of the actors who have left a big TV show at the height of success," Bushman says, "no one has done it better than Clooney."