Before Hannibal debuted, it was difficult to imagine anyone supplanting Anthony Hopkins as the definitive Dr. Lecter. But over the course of the cult NBC drama’s three seasons, Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen has done an expert job asserting ownership over the character, creating a version of the cannibalistic forensic psychiatrist that exists independently of Hopkins’s big-screen interpretation. It’s an achievement that many performers have attempted but only a relative few have achieved. Here are our picks for eight TV actors who have successfully made a popular movie character their own.
Alan Alda (M*A*S*H, CBS, 1972-1983)
Who He Plays: Wisecracking surgeon “Hawkeye” Pierce, serving as part of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War.
Who He Replaced: Donald Sutherland, who played the randy Hawkeye in Robert Altman’s 1970 comedy.
Why He’s Great: Other characters came and went from the 4077 during M*A*S*H’s decade-long run, but Hawkeye always stayed put. And a good thing, too, as Alda represented the heart, soul, and voice of the series. His Hawkeye has many of the same flaws as Sutherland’s version, but also had a deeply-rooted sense of fairness and compassion that his colleagues, and viewers, loved him for.
Sean Patrick Flannery (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, ABC, 1992-93)
Who He Plays: Globetrotting archeologist and adventurer, Henry “Indiana” Jones, Jr.
Who He Replaced: Harrison Ford and, technically, River Phoenix, who played young Indy in the opening sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Why He’s Great: The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles never quite found its rhythm as a show, but that wasn’t Flannery’s fault. Throughout the run of the series and four subsequent TV movies, he capably and confidently wore that famous fedora. Flannery traded Ford’s charismatic smirk for a youthful earnestness that was both age-appropriate and highly likable. There’s a reason why we preferred Indy’s teen adventures to the episodes starring his 10-year-old self.
Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, ABC, 1993-97)
Who They Play: Metropolis’s resident Man of Steel and its top daily newspaper reporter, Lois Lane.
Who They Replaced: Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, who made audiences believe that a man and woman could fly in 1978’s Superman: The Movie, as well as Superman II-IV (though Kidder was a mere cameo in Superman III).
Why They’re Great: The demands of blockbuster filmmaking meant that Reeve and Kidder only had a handful of scenes to dramatize Superman and Lois’s emotional connection. Cain and Hatcher were able to use the expanse (and lower budgets) offered by television to really carve out the dynamics of that relationship, especially in the early seasons when Lois had yet to learn Clark’s secret identity. Reeve will always be the definitive Superman, but Cain and Hatcher may just be the definitive team of Clark and Lois.
Richard Dean Anderson (Stargate SG-1, Showtime/Syfy, 1997-2007)
Who He Plays: U.S. Air Force Colonel turned intergalactic traveller, Jack O’Neill.
Who He Replaced: Kurt Russell, who played the stiff-upper-lip military guy to James Spader’s dorky archeologist.
Why He’s Great: In the film version, Roland Emmerich saddled O’Neill with a tragic backstory involving the accidental death of his son. That bit of history carries over into the TV series, but Anderson is further along the road to recovery, which allows him to crack a joke every now and then. The actor specifically requested that a comic dimension (which often manifested itself in an anti-authoritarian streak) be added to the character, feeling that Russell’s version would be too glum to play over the course of multiple seasons. Legend has it that the spelling of the character’s name was changed — in the film he’s O’Neil, in the show he’s O’Neill — in large part to reflect this personality shift. There’s a line of dialogue where Anderson says, “It’s ‘O'Neill,’ with two L’s. There’s another Colonel O'Neil with only one L, and he has no sense of humor at all.”
Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The WB/UPN, 1997-2003)
Who She Plays: High school cheerleader turned vampire slaying misfit, Buffy Summers.
Who She Replaced: Kristy Swanson, who starred in the movie version of Buffy that creator Joss Whedon has essentially disowned.
Why She’s Great: Due respect to Swanson, who is quite funny in the better-than-you-remember Buffy movie, but that incarnation of the character played up the goofiness of Whedon’s conceit and played down the tragedy. The writer used the TV series as a way to course correct, and Gellar was ready for every twist Whedon threw her way, displaying a remarkable range of emotion over the course of the show’s seven seasons.
Lena Headey (The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Fox, 2008-09)
Who She Plays: The mother of mankind’s post-Judgment Day savior, John Connor.
Who She Replaced: Linda Hamilton, who ranks only behind Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley as James Cameron’s best butt-kicking heroine.
Why She’s Great: Picking up from where Hamilton left off in T2, Headey emphasizes Connor’s plight as a mother, rather than as a pure soldier. In that way, it’s something of a trial run for Headey’s current role as Cersei on Game of Thrones, where viewers have come to see how her fierce desire to protect her children dictates all her actions, both good and bad.
Freddie Highmore (Bates Motel, A&E, 2013-present)
Who He Plays: Psycho killer in training, Norman Bates.
Who He Replaced: Anthony Perkins, who originated the character in Alfred Hitchock’s 1960 horror classic and reprised the role in two sequels and a TV movie.
Why He’s Great: Perkins’s “normal guy” routine always masked an already-split personality. But Highmore’s Norman still is — or at least, could have been — a relatively “normal” kid. He’s doing the heavy lifting of presenting how Norman became the psycho we meet in Psycho and, so far, it’s been a completely compelling evolution.