DOWN THE TUBES?; George Clooney is one more in a line of actors to walk away at the height of a TV show's popularity, hoping for even bigger fame. Many never come back.


You can bet at least one thought was racing through George Clooney's mind as he walked off the set of "ER" for the last time:

"Please, God, don't let me be another McLean Stevenson."

Poor McLean. He's destined to go down in history as the poster boy for bad career moves. There he was in 1975, with a co-starring role on a hit series ("M*A*S*H") and the TV world pretty much at his feet, and he decided to strike out on his own.

The result: A series of numbingly bad sitcoms and instant obscurity. Leaving "M*A*S*H" was the mistake of his career, a cautionary note to all those who would abandon a TV series before their appointed time.

Clooney, whose last episode of "ER" airs tonight on NBC, is only the latest in a long line of men and women who think they'll succeed where Stevenson failed. Not surprisingly, most have been proved wrong.

Here are a handful of actors who left their series in mid-run,and a brief look at their subsequent careers.

Pernell Roberts: Life on the Ponderosa held little appeal for Roberts, who left "Bonanza" after six seasons of playing Ben Cartwright's eldest son, Adam. Complaining loudly that "Bonanza" was racist, lousy television, Roberts left to pursue more "quality" projects, consisting mostly of guest appearances.

In 1979, 14 years after leaving Virginia City, Roberts returned to television as the star of "Trapper John, M.D." The series, in which he played second fiddle to co-star Gregory Harrison's pecs, shot to heck the notion he was holding out for quality TV. Semi-retired, he's outlived all his "Bonanza" co-stars (Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon), making him a staple of "Where-are-they-now?" columns. He reportedly has no regrets concerning his premature departure from a show that would continue for eight high-rated seasons without him.

Wayne Rogers: Speaking of Trapper John, here's the original TV version. But after three seasons at the 4077th, Rogers put in for an honorable discharge. Realizing that this was clearly Alan Alda's series, and not wanting to spend his TV life as a second banana, Rogers left to pursue leading-man roles.

Rogers found moderate success in TV films (including the excellent "The FBI vs. the Ku Klux Klan"), but all of his later series failed to capture the public imagination. None achieved the status of "M*A*S*H," which went on for eight more seasons after his departure and closed with a final episode that just about everyone in the country tuned in to see.

Among Rogers' series that failed to catch fire: "City of Angels," a small-screen version of "Chinatown" that lasted for 13 episodes in 1976; and "House Calls," a medical sitcom that actually made it through three seasons and 57 episodes on CBS from 1979 to '82.

McLean Stevenson: The granddaddy of all bad career moves. On "M*A*S*H," he had some of the best writers in television providing him with material, he was working with an extraordinary cast, and as the well-meaning, if befuddled, Henry Blake, he was provided a role perfectly suited to his light-comic talents.

And he ditched all that for "Hello, Larry" and a stint as a coach on "Celebrity Challenge of the Sexes." Ouch.

Farrah Fawcett: After making quite an impression on TV commercials, Fawcett got cast as one of "Charlie's Angels" (Jill, the one with the hair) in 1976 and promptly won a place in pop-culture history. The show, about three stunningly attractive police officers plucked off the force by a mysterious private investigator who needed others to do his legwork, was one of the first to suggest sex appeal alone could sell a series.

Fawcett's leonine sexuality, amply displayed on a poster that was required decor in college frat houses during the late '70s, convinced her she was destined for bigger things. So she ditched the show after one season, later agreeing to return for occasional episodes.

The result: some bad theatrical films ("Sunburn," "Saturn 3"), a few interesting ones ("Extremities," "The Apostle"), a steady career in made-for-TV movies (such as "The Burning Bed") and a much-publicized romance with Ryan O'Neal. Of late, she's most famous for zoning out on David Letterman and using her naked body as a paint brush for Playboy.

Abe Vigoda: A veteran career actor previously best known for playing in "The Godfather," Vigoda achieved his greatest fame as the eternally downtrodden, soon-to-retire Detective Fish on "Barney Miller." But when he was spun off to his own series, "Fish," the result was embarrassing and quickly forgotten. Since then, he's appeared as a guest star on occasion, generally playing a variation on his Fish character (that is, old and crotchety), and should rue the day he ever left the cast of one of television's gentlest pleasures.

Shelley Long: Long's career can be divided into three phases: 1) Her career leading up to "Cheers," which included playing a cave girl opposite Ringo Starr in "Caveman" and a hooker in "Night Shift."

2) Her five "Cheers" seasons as Diane Chambers, a role that won her an Emmy and critical kudos.

3) Her post-"Cheers" years, a series of bad movies and failed sitcoms (anyone remember "Kelly Kelly"?) that have left millions wondering, "What on earth was she thinking?"

Shannen Doherty: A child star who found prime-time fame on "Beverly Hills, 90210," Doherty left the show in 1994, earning scorn from producer Aaron Spelling and a reputation for being wild and uncontrollable.

Subsequent events, including a marriage that lasted about 20 seconds and some nude pictures in Playboy, seemed to mark her as a prime candidate for premature burnout; she scraped bottom in TV movies that had her infatuated with William Shatner and having sex with psychiatrist Judd Nelson on his office desk.

But things seem to have worked out. She dismisses her previous wild ways as simply the expected result of experiencing too much fame too fast and too young. And even Spelling welcomed her back to the fold, casting her as one of three twentysomething witches in WB's "Charmed" (a series that lives up to its title).

David Caruso: Another cautionary tale from the land of hyperinflated egos. After a single season on "NYPD Blue," Caruso bolted the show for a big-screen career that promptly went nowhere (You see "Jade"? Didn't think so).

Last season, he slunk back to TV as a U.S. attorney in New York on the CBS drama "Michael Hayes." It got canceled, and few people are breathlessly awaiting his next move.

Sherry Stringfield: This was one for the books. Stringfield left "ER" three years ago, at the height of its popularity, not because she was upset with her role on the show, not because she wanted to pursue other offers, not even because she felt the show was demeaning (see Pernell Roberts) or restrictive (see Wayne Rogers).

Nope, she just got tired of the grind and decided there was more to life than starring in a hit TV series.

Oddly enough, she said, she wanted a life.

Hard to say how her personal affairs have played out, but we'll get to see whether her acting muscles have atrophied soon enough: Next week, she'll be seen in "Border Line" on NBC, her first acting role (save for a milk mustache print ad) since leaving "ER."

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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