As The Good Wife mourned and started the slow process of moving on from the shocking loss of Will Gardner last night, Josh Charles was on ESPN with Keith Olbermann reprising his old Sports Night routine. It's all very cute, but I watched the clip after choking up throughout last night's Good Wife and felt a twinge of rage, since Will's death was written into the show because Charles decided it was time to move on.
Alright, Josh, maybe you were sick of playing the same character and managed to negotiate a clever contract so you could get out of it faster. But you better not rest on your laurels. Charles told Letterman he has no plan for his future. That begs the question—why leave a buzzy, acclaimed show when it's arguably doing better than ever? Charles isn't the first to make this decision, but here are some good examples to follow and obvious mistakes to avoid:
Lesson One: Know Your Limits
David Caruso was so convinced of his epic stardom after one season of NYPD Blue that he left four episodes into the second after demanding an untenable raise. His first film, gritty drama Kiss of Death with Nicolas Cage as the villain, was ignored by audiences, and his second, Jade, was a Joe Eszterhas sex thriller that was laughed out of theaters. Caruso hadn't earned the public's respect enough to open a movie, and he was never leading-man material, so all his offers were for real creepshows. Charles isn't a creep, but he's also beyond traditional leading man territory. One reason he worked so well on The Good Wife was his deployment as an ace in the hole supporting character. If Charles starts booking lame rom-com projects, his career will be putrefying rapidly.
Lesson Two: Don't Just Disappear
When Letterman asked Charles what he was planning next, he joked that he had no plan. He is, in fact, making a couple of independent movies, and would apparently be open to appearing on TV again. That's fine, but it also doesn't sound like anything special. Be careful about your next projects, Josh, but also make sure to keep working. Shelly Long departed from Cheers in 1987 to pursue a film career and spend time with her new baby. She then appeared in two huge flops (Hello Again and Troop Beverly Hills) over the next four years before basically vanishing altogether. If you want to pursue a film career, be in some films.
Lesson Three: Don't Do a TV Show Just to Be a Star
Despite its title and ostensible focus on Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) The Good Wife is a thunderous ensemble show that wisely places plenty of focus on all of its amazing cast. Charles never dominated, but he always got juicy material (and an Emmy and Golden Globe nomination). Sure, he could probably line up a real starring role on TV now, but be careful what you wish for. When McLean Stevenson left MASH at the end of the third season because he felt like a second fiddle to Alan Alda, he quickly landed The McLean Stevenson Show, which lasted 10 episodes. Then he jumped to In the Beginning (5 episodes). Then Hello, Larry (which cobbled together one and a half seasons). After that, his welcome was officially worn out.
Lesson Four: Are You Sure You Want to Direct?
Anthony Edwards had been the star of ER for eight seasons when he finally asked to leave and saw Dr. Mark Greene killed off in extended, wrenching circumstances (it basically took him three episodes to bid adieu). Edwards wanted to concentrate on directing, and jumped right in with, uh, nothing. He's finally working on a project for this year called My Dead Boyfriend starring Heather Graham and Gina Gershon. Like Edwards, Charles has directed a couple episodes of his TV show and has expressed an interest in doing more. But that doesn't mean that's going to be your new career.
Lesson Five: Have You Tried Being George Clooney?
Many actors have left TV shows to mixed results, and heck, even George Clooney looked like he might be in hot water for a minute there. His first efforts (filmed while he was still on ER) were The Peacemaker (largely ignored) and Batman & Robin (the less said, the better). But once he left the show for good in 1999, at the grand old age of 38 (Charles is 42), things quickly took off. The lesson here is: if you're George Clooney, things might just work out for you.