Determining the success of a TV series is hardly an exact science. Even a well-written, star-powered show doesn’t guarantee ratings gold. Actors fortunate to find steady work in a long-running hit series rarely replicate the scenario. But there are a few actors who have managed to buck the trend by headlining two or even three successful series during their careers. This list is not all-inclusive, but here are some of the most notable performers who hit it big more than once.
12. Larry Hagman
In the 1960s, he was Major Tony Nelson on the fantasy sitcom, I Dream of Jeannie. Two decades later, Hagman took a dramatic turn when he slipped into the shoes of tycoon J.R. Ewing in the nighttime soap, Dallas. Ironically, the Texas native started his career in the entertainment industry in the city of Dallas in the 1950s as both a production assistant and actor. Over the years, Hagman has built up an impressive resume that extends beyond his two starring roles. He’s set to reprise the Ewing character in 2012 on a reboot of Dallas on cable network TNT.
11. Bea Arthur
With her gravelly voice and propensity for sharp, witty dialogue, Arthur was a comedian with a style that cannot be imitated. As Maude Findlay, Arthur rose to fame when her liberal character became the perfect foe for the extremely conservative character of Archie Bunker (portrayed by Carroll O’Connor, see below) on All in the Family. Arthur became such a standout that she eventually received her own series, Maude. After six seasons, she called it quits in 1978, but returned to series television in 1985 as divorcee Dorothy Zbornak in the oft-rerun sitcom The Golden Girls. In later interviews, Arthur would frequently quip that the producers were seeking a “Bea Arthur-type” to fill the role. As luck would have it, Arthur fell in love with the script for the pilot episode and was willing to return to series television. Her entire career spanned nearly six decades and included a variety of supporting roles and specials. She died in 2009 at age 86.
10. William Shatner
He rose to fame with his portrayal of James T. Kirk, captain of the USS Enterprise, on the cult classic Star Trek. But through the years, Shatner has assumed a variety of other roles as well. He also had the starring role of Sgt. Thomas Jefferson (T.J.) Hooker on the aptly titled 1980s drama T.J. Hooker. Shatner, a Canadian native, proved three times can be a charm when nearly two decades later he headlined the David E. Kelly-produced legal drama Boston Legal for five seasons. Over the years, Shatner also has undertaken a number of disparate roles on the small screen, from hosting reality and game shows to serving as a celebrity pitchman in commercials.
9. Ed O’Neill
It seemed O’Neill would be forever synonymous with his cantankerous, down-on-his-luck character of Al Bundy on the sitcom, Married…With Children, which ran 1987-1997. But the Ohio native’s career has been rejuvenated in recent years as a headliner in the popular comedy Modern Family. Once again portraying a patriarch — but a far cry from his previous standout role — O’Neill earned an Emmy nomination in 2011 for his portrayal of Jay Pritchett opposite his much younger co-star, Sophia Vergara. While he is best known for his comedic roles, O’Neill also has been cast in a number of dramas throughout his career.
8. Michael J. Fox
Fox, a Canadian native, struggled for a number of years when he ventured to the U.S. before landing the breakout role of Alex P. Keaton on the hit 1980s comedy Family Ties. The family-centric show was initially envisioned as a series chronicling the travails of a former hippie couple (Michael Gross, Meredith Baxter) attempting to raise their children in a new era. As with so many family shows in this era, Fox became a standout — and heartthrob — as one of the children. Nearly a decade after the curtain closed on the sitcom, Executive Producer Gary David Goldberg created another sitcom, Spin City, and had Fox in mind for the lead role. Portraying Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty, Fox was part of an ensemble that depicted life — with a comedic twist, of course — in local New York City government. Fox left the show after four seasons when he revealed he had Parkinson’s disease. Since then, he has been an advocate to find a cure for the condition. Fox also continues to act periodically and, most recently, has taken a periodic supporting role in the CBS series The Good Wife.
7. Michael Landon
Landon will forever be associated with his heartwarming, affable roles on TV. He came into America’s living rooms in 1959 as “Little Joe” Cartwright on the western Bonanza — a role that he would portray for 14 seasons. A year later, Landon stayed on the open frontier with a different period piece, Little House on the Prairie. For eight of the show’s nine seasons, Landon portrayed patriarch Charles Ingalls and garnered high accolades from industry peers and audiences alike. Landon, who died in 1991 at age 54 of pancreatic cancer, rounded out his career in the late 1980s, playing the angelic character — literally — of Jonathan Smith on Highway to Heaven.
6. Andy Griffith
With his signature down-home, Southern twang, Griffith is best known for two very different characters in the legal profession. Throughout most of the 1960s, Griffith portrayed Sheriff Andy Taylor in his self-titled sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show. Two decades later, Griffith portrayed attorney Ben Matlock in the long-running drama Matlock. Griffith’s career also includes roles in some of television’s earliest series, including roles in highbrow anthology series, and parts in a number of movies. By the way, Griffith’s co-star on The Andy Griffith Show, Ron Howard (Opie) went on to star in a second show himself, Happy Days.
5. Carroll O’Connor
He created one of the most remembered — and most controversial — characters of all time. Everyone knows the character of Archie Bunker because of O’Connor’s unabashed ability to step into the role of his ultra-conservative, bigoted family patriarch on Norman Lear’s groundbreaking sitcom, All in the Family. He played the role for 13 seasons, the last four on a follow-up series, Archie Bunker’s Place. After CBS abruptly ended that series in 1983 — an act that O’Connor publically denounced — the Manhattan native returned to series television in the late 1980s as Police Chief William Gillespie in the drama In the Heat of the Night, a show set in the fictitious town of Sparta, Mississippi. O’Connor died in 2001 at age 76.
4. Bob Newhart
Known for his deadpan style of comedy — complete with the signature stammering while delivering dialogue — Newhart will long be known as one of the leading funnymen in entertainment history. Americans laughed out loud for six seasons as he portrayed psychologist Bob Hartley in The Bob Newhart Show. After a four-year respite from regular series television, Newhart delivered another smash hit — this time with a series simply known as Newhart. In the follow-up, which had one of the most memorable and bizarre series finales of all time, the Illinois-born comedian starred as the owner of a Vermont inn. Over the years, Newhart had roles in a number of other series, including an ill-fated attempt at launching a third sitcom, Bob, two years after Newhart finished its run.
3. Mary Tyler Moore
Her first foray into a successful series didn’t bear her name, but Moore was an important part of The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s as erstwhile wife Laura Petrie — the better half to Van Dyke’s character, Rob Petrie. Four years after signing off the show, Moore stepped into her own, playing the lovable character of single, independent career woman Mary Richards in the Minneapolis-based sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Considered one of the best ensemble shows of all time by critics and audiences, Moore’s second successful sitcom also was considered groundbreaking at the time because it broke convention and depicted the liberated sense of the era. The MTM Show was so popular and such a cultural phenomenon that it boosted almost every member of the cast to stardom, as several cast members went on to star in MTM spinoffs or other series. The roll call includes Ed Asner, who garnered two Best Actor Emmy Awards for his work on The Lou Grant Show; Valerie Harper, who won a Lead Comedy Actress Emmy for her headline role in the award-winning spinoff Rhoda; Cloris Leachman, who won a Golden Globe for her acting in the hit spinoff Phyllis; Gavin MacLeod, who achieved bigger fame as Capt. Merrill Stubing in the hit series The Love Boat; and Ted Knight, who had top billing in the 1980s series Too Close For Comfort. Oh, and Betty White had bigger things in store, too (see below).
2. Betty White
Since the dawn of TV in the 1950s, White has maintained a steady presence through a number of avenues — hosting game shows, acting in movies and playing a number of supporting roles on TV. She became a recognizable face in the early to mid-1950s, portraying the predicament-prone titular character in Life with Elizabeth. While she will always be remembered for her ensemble work as sardonic Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, White is best known to today’s generation for her starring role as naïve Rose Nyland in The Golden Girls. Two decades after the hit geriatric sitcom signed off, White continues acting and made headlines in 2010 as the oldest guest host (at age 88) on Saturday Night Live. Most recently, she has starred in the TV Land comedy, Hot in Cleveland, portraying Elka Ostrovsky, the elderly Polish caretaker of a building.
1. Lucille Ball
With her red hair and wacky antics, Ball will long be revered as one of the legendary comediennes of the silver and small screen. From 1951 to 1974, Ball worked almost constantly on series television with some variation on the harebrained antics for which she became known. With then-husband Desi Arnaz at her side, Ball portrayed Lucy Ricardo in the classic, I Love Lucy and, later, The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour throughout the 1950s. After her much-publicized divorce from Arnaz in 1960, Ball branched out on her own. After a two-year hiatus, she starred in The Lucy Show, playing widowed Lucy Carmichael. The series lasted six seasons, and Ball went on immediately to star in her third successful sitcom, Here’s Lucy. In the new iteration, Ball played Lucy Carter, a woman getting into an assortment of antics at Carter’s Unique Employment Agency. Ball’s real-life children, Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr., were featured in the sitcom, which lasted six seasons. After a dozen years off from weekly series TV, Ball came out of retirement and starred in a famous flop, Life with Lucy, that didn’t even finish its 13-episode run. Ball, who died in 1989 at age 77, later said she was devastated by the failure of her fourth sitcom.