Revisiting the Collective: Supporting Characters That Became the Star


(CS: The latest chapter in my continued slow mission of reposting as many of my Collective Publishing pop culture columns to give them an online home again. As I've been doing this series, it has been heartbreaking to learn that I've somehow lost at least a year's worth of the articles to the Abyss of No Return. My guess is that when I had to reformat a laptop I failed to move several of my pieces over to a cloud. I wasn't thinking of such majestic magic as a daily thing in the mid-2010s. Now everything I write automatically gets saved on One Drive and Google along with on my hard drive.

This was originally posted on January 15, 2014.)
One of the crucial ingredients to a work of fiction drawing a huge audience is creating memorable characters that connect and resonate. This means the creator tries to make a protagonist that is not only relatable but one with attributes that are special enough to make the reader or viewer wish they could be that person. A main character can’t be very special if they don’t do anything or interact with anyone, so there is a need for supporting characters to help on the journey or assist in rounding out the lead character. 

Sometimes it is this supporting character that stands out and starts to become much more popular than the character intended to be the focal point. The much more beloved supporting character then ascends to the throne of the lead. 

Here are several very popular characters that initially were either to be minor characters or supporting characters that ended up becoming the centre of their fictional world. (CS: Apparently, Holly Gibney was designed to be nothing more than a minor character that dropped in for a scene or two in Stephen King's Mr. Mercedes but he ended up being fascinated by her and beefed up her role significantly in the novel. She has since returned with major roles in the two novel sequels, a lead role in the novella If It Bleeds, and her own novel in 2023, Holly. This is an example of the author liking to write a certain character that with the exposure connects with an audience. )

Wolverine (X-Men): If your introduction to the Wolverine character was through the movies then you’d be justified in believing he has always been the centrepiece of the franchise. He has been the main character in three out of the four X-Men pictures, and on top of that had two spin-off movies named after him. (CS: After this was published, he got another standalone in Logan and the lead roles in X-Men: Days of Future Past that blended the prequel series with the original. This year he will have a major lead part in Deadpool 3.) It has gotten to the point where I’m just waiting for the series to be retitled Wolverine and His Mutant Pals. 

Several decades ago when it was strictly a comic book property, the X-Men series was actually about a team and tried to give focus to a variety of characters. There were a few minor members on the team that got a little less attention, and in the 1970s one of those minor characters that Marvel was even considering dropping because he was so pointless was. . . wait for it. . . you’ll never see this coming. . . Wolverine. 

In 1977 the editors had decided that two lesser-known characters Thunderbird and Wolverine were too similar and so one had to be written out. Writer John Byrne, as a Canadian, decided to protect his fellow Canadian and started to flesh out the Wolverine character to be far more compelling and complex. It not only ended up keeping Wolverine around, but he started becoming the most popular member of the team. It resulted in him turning up in various other comic books and even getting his very own series, and so by the time the movies came around, he was clearly the lead character. (CS: All due to the power of maple syrup and poutine.)

Lestat (Interview with the Vampire): Before Twilight barged into pop culture, Lestat was likely the most famous vampire not named Dracula. Anne Rice’s break-out debut novel, Interview with the Vampire, actually only had Lestat as a minor character who is absent for significant chunks throughout the novel. Many may forget that it is actually Louis de Point du Lac who is the vampire being interviewed in the original and he was the central character the reader was to care about. 

Lestat ended up being the most popular and the vampire that the fans wanted to read more about. When the success of the original led to The Vampire Chronicles series, it was Lestat who became the central character. Lestat was fleshed out over further novels and became the misunderstood monster with a tormented soul that likely spawned the army of Young Adult vampire novels that have dominated the bookshelves for the past decade. (CS: Anne Rice definitely played a huge role in making vampires sexy rather than fierce monsters.)

The Fonz (Happy Days): If someone mentions Happy Days then likely the first character to strut into your mind is the Fonz. He was by far the most popular and stand-out character from the series, but he wasn’t originally intended to be the focal point of the show. The series was conceived to be about a teenager named Richie Cunningham growing up in the idyllic 1950s along with his best friend Potsie.
The Fonz wasn’t supposed to be anything more than window dressing to set the mood of the time period and occasionally pop in for a few minor storylines. Henry Winkler brought a special kind of charisma and energy to the role that resonated with audiences and quickly turned the Fonz from a minor recurring character into one of the main leads thus shunting down Potsie to a solid secondary role. 
The Fonz also started becoming a mentor-type to Richie that then made the big brother Chuck Cunningham less integral, which led to the sibling’s fateful walk up the stairs in season 2 that wrote him out of existence. (CS: One of the infamous sitcom examples of the character not only exiting the show but never being acknowledged to the point of the parents claiming to have only had two kids. What did you do Chuck? What did you do? Talk about being ostracized.)

The Fonz ended up becoming so popular that studio executives wanted to rename the series Fonz’s Happy Days, but to the credit of Winkler, he vetoed it and felt it was unfair to the other stars in the show. By the end of the series, Richie Cunningham was cut down to a semi-recurring character (Ron Howard had started to concentrate on filmmaking) and Fonz was clearly the centrepiece of everything happening on the show. 

In the 1980s, Fonz did finally get his name on a TV show when ABC rolled out the animated series, The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang (finally providing what the world always wanted with the addition of a time-travelling storyline and a talking dog). (CS: I loved my 1980s Saturday Morning Cartoons, but I even don't remember ever watching this one.)

Steve Urkel (Family Matters): If we’re going to talk about a character completely taking over a sitcom then the infamous Urkel must be mentioned. Family Matters was initially a spin-off from Perfect Strangers that was going to focus on Harriette Winslow’s (a minor character in the other series) life at home with her family. Urkel was supposed to be a one-episode character designed for a particular story and then disappear to never be bothered with again. 

Jaleel White brought a great sense of comic timing and style to the character that he won over the audience and landed himself a full-time position on the show. Even when he got the spot, he was supposed to just be a smaller comic relief role while the show still concentrated on issues in the family. Urkel became an unexpected major fan favourite and White proved to be able to take on several goofy scenarios, so the show started to be written around the character. 

This actually happened to the detriment of many of the other characters on the shows as several started to pull a Chuck Cunningham by being erased from memory. (CS: While many minor and supporting characters disappeared without a word, the only main character to be retconned out of the series was poor Judy Winslow, the youngest daughter played by Jaimee Monae Foxworth. It was another case where the parents only referenced having two kids going forward. At least send the poor kid to boarding school or something.) The focus became so Urkel-centric that it no longer was a family sitcom, but rather about the wacky adventures of a nerd and the series started to get incredibly absurd and for many, irritating. (CS: At one point it was meant to be a sitcom that dealt with real family issues, but the Urkel effect harmed the series' legacy and reputation. Most of the cast feels it was a negative going in the new direction.)

Stifler (American Pie): Stifler was a stereotypical high school jock obsessed with sex in the original and more designed to be an antagonist to some of the main characters. Seann William Scott did such a great job as the cocky jerk that many movie-goers saw him as one of the highlights of the original film. This meant that he was brought back in a more major role in the sequel and given some of his own storylines. 

This made Stifler an even more popular character and so by the third and fourth film, his stories started to become as major as Jason Biggs’ Jim (the lead character). Stifler became the ass with a heart of gold in the third picture and had suddenly been retconned into becoming one of the leads' best friends. (CS: There is no way the Stifler in the original is getting a groomsmen slot in Jim's wedding.) This was also the role that convinced Hollywood that Scott was a star and he was given the lead in many pictures to try to prove that through the mid-2000s. 

Unfortunately, it was usually met with “Hey, why is Stifler in an action movie? And where are the rest of the American Pie guys?” (CS: Scott never became the next big movie star, but he is a pretty underrated actor and comedian, and most of his work ages fairly well when he was given a chance to showcase his skills rather than just redoing 'Stifler'.)

Captain Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean): It was always clear that Disney had hopes that Pirates of the Caribbean would be a franchise. In the original picture, it was also obvious the main protagonists were supposed to be Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan. It was designed to be about Turner slowly learning about his roots and becoming a pirate while developing a relationship with the tough but lovely Swan. Sparrow was to just be a supporting comic relief character and possibly not even one that would make it to every following picture. (CS: I'd argue against this slightly, as I feel it is setting up Sparrow to return in at least a supporting role, but he definitely wasn't designed to be the main lead.) 

Then they cast Johnny Depp and he put together one of the most memorable and over-the-top performances in a big blockbuster that stole the show. Suddenly, Turner was shoved to a supporting role in the following films and was completely written out along with Swan in the third picture. (CS: To be fair, their story was done. So of course, they were brought back in small supporting roles for a fifth movie.) The franchise continues and will likely have at least one more left, but it is now the Jack Sparrow show. Sparrow is so synonymous with the Pirates franchise that it is kind of hard to imagine he wasn’t always intended to be the focal point. (CS: Now, there are constant rumblings of rebooting the franchise and not having Sparrow in it at all. I feel that would successfully kill it for good.)

Slimer (Ghostbusters): The lovable green ghost didn’t even have a name in the original film, but ended up being in one of the most memorable scenes when he “slimed” Peter Venkman (Bill Murray). He was the most talked about character from the film, and so he was immediately given a major role when they adapted the movie into a cartoon series, Slimer turned into a good guy and was a mascot for the team. His popularity in the animated series then meant he got a much more substantial role in Ghostbusters 2(CS: Oddly enough, the nostalgia-drenched Ghostbusters: Afterlife that just couldn't stop referencing almost everything from the original for some reason completely left out Slimer. I'm still baffled by this. He seems to be coming back in this year's sequel.)

He became such a popular character that by the third season of the animated series, it was renamed Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters, which was an hour-long show and Slimer had his own half-hour segment. 

Minions (Despicable Me): This is likely one of the cases where the studios and filmmakers were banking on the minor characters stealing the show and launching a merchandising bonanza. It is almost impossible to think that people working on a children’s movie wouldn’t know the funny and cute yellow helpers of Gru (Steve Carell) were destined to be loved by both children and adults. 
But Jar Jar Binks is proof that making a comic secondary character designed to become the stand-out star doesn’t always work, so it is still impressive how much the little goofballs became a hit. The second movie was almost entirely marketed around the Minions, and they were given a much more significant role in the sequel. Their importance will increase when they’re now being given their own movie in the summer of 2015. (CS: This is the biggest example of the supporting characters taking over the top spot. The latest Minions movie did better domestically at the box office than the last Despicable Me movie. A rare case of the spin-off being hotter than the main series.)

What are some supporting characters that ended up becoming your favourites and were the best part of the story for you?