Actor goes from second banana (or other side role) to lead

There have been several cases of this, especially of actors who later became iconic in that role

Jeremy Brett – Regarded by many (including me) as the quintessential Sherlock Holmes in the Granada TV/WGBH series. But he had earlier played Dr. Watson to Charlton Heston’s Sherlock Holmes in Crucifer of Blood. It’s hard to imagine Brett as Watson, having him cemented in the Holmes role, but then again, it’s hard to imagine Heston as Holmes. Or Brett as Freddy Eynesford-Hill in My Fair Lady, for that matter.

David Suchet – He’s performed at Hercule Poirot on ITV (and PBS and A&E in the US), doing every single Poirot story Agatha Christie wrote. He also read several of the Poirot stories on audio. He seems to be as quintessential playing Poirot as Brett does doing Sherlock. I even like him better in the role than Albert Finney. No one else seems to do the role justice (sorry Kenneth Branaugh, Peter Ustinov, Tony Randall, Alfred Molina, et al.). But he apparently first appeared as Poirot’s foil, Inspector Japp in Thirteen at Dinner, opposite Peter Ustinov as Poirot (Ustinov, according to Suchet, suggested that Suchet could play the role).

Bela Lugosi – When they adapted the radio character Chandu the Magician (1932-3) to the movies in 1933, Bela Lugosi played the villain Roxor opposite Edmund Lowe as Chandu. The next year the character appeared in a 12-part serial, but this time with Lugosi playing Chandu. I think it’s a unique case of Lugosi, who often played the villain, switching to a role as hero he had originally been a villain for.

Keye Luke – The perpetual actor who first became famous as Lee Chan, “Number One Son” of detective Charley Chan in a series of movies made by Fox (and later continued by Monogram), eventually played Charley Chan himself – sort of. He voiced the character in the TV cartoon series The Amazing Chan and the Clan Chan. He was evidently the first actor of Chinese descent to play Chan. Much earlier, Luke had played another Chinese detective, Mr. Wong (a role originated in the movies by Boris Karloff) in Phantom of Chinatown (1940), the first actor of Chinese descent to fill that role, as well. There were supposed to be more, but the pulled the plug on the series after the first Keye Luke film.

Many other cases exist of well-known actors playing non-lead roles stepping into the lead position, but that’s a little different from the cases cited above (Phil Silvers , for instance, turned down the role of Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, then played Marcus Lycus in the film version, then played Pseudolus in the Broadwat revival.

The TV show Law & Order did this a number of times (someone who guest-starred on the show would be cast in a lead role as a completely different character). E.g. Jerry Orbach, S. Epatha Merkerson, Michael Imperioli.

It was not that unusual for 60s TV shows.

Harry Morgan went from a guest star on MASH to star, though it was a different character.

Martin Landau was hired as a guest star on the first episode of Mission: Impossible. They liked him so much that he guest starred in every episode the first season (and possibly beyond – for contractual reasons, he couldn’t be added as a regular).

IIRC, Landau and his wife (Barbara Bain) did the first three seasons of M:I before leaving over a salary dispute. The show was never the same after that.

Ronnie Schell played “PFC Duke Slater” on Gomer Pyle, USMC before leaving to do another sitcom, Good Morning, World, set in a commercial radio station.

GMW lasted only one season, after which Schell returned to GP as “Corporal Duke Slater.” He didn’t replace Frank Sutton as Gomer’s “Sgt Carter,” but he did become the platoon’s second-in-command.

I don’t think it was never explained what happened to his predecessor (“Cpl Boyle,” played by Roy Stewart). Maybe he was the only Marine at Camp Henderson ever sent to Vietnam…

We used to watch a cop show, The Closer, with Kyra Sedgwick as the head of a special crimes unit. I think my wife has seen every episode, as they run during dinner prep time.

One day I was surprised to see a minor character (played by Mary McDonnell, who I knew from Dances With Wolves and Battlestar Galactica) in charge of the unit. All the other characters were there, with their usual banter, but this police captain from way down the chain of command was barking orders.

Turns out The Closer had ended, Kyra Sedgwick and JK Simmons had left, and they’d just kept the show going, renamed it Major Crimes , and promoted some of the cast members.

I remember watching Good Morning World. I still think of it as the show that Goldie Hawn was a regular in before Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In came out.

Just thought of another one – Charles Gray played “Mr. Henderson” in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice. As one of the “Sacrificial Lambs” (as Raymond Benson called them), Henderson promptly gets killed. But he showed up two movies later as Ernst Stavro Blofeld in Diamonds are Forever.

It’s not unusual for the Bond films to re-use actors in different roles. There are plenty of examples, but they’re generally all background characters. This is a rare case of a prominent actor showing up as a more significant character. It was kind of strange, because not only does Gray look memorable, his appearance is completely different from the bald Blofeld that had been established in the previous two films.

The Bond films did it again, when Maud Adams – the Sacrificial Lamb in The Man with the Golden Gun got to play the more significant title character in Octopussy. (And she later got a cameo in A View to a Kill)

Any of those sitcom spin-offs would fit the bill.

Spin-off, in the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

especially : a television show starring a character popular in a secondary role of an earlier show

Probably not what the OP is looking for, though.

I think Dennis Franz’s transition from Sal Benedetto to Norman Buntz on “Hill Street Blues” would count, since Buntz was one of the lead characters. One of the stranger transitions.

How about The Fonz? I don’t think he was supposed to be a major character when they brought him on to Happy Days.

Or Klinger on MASH? Not exactly a lead, but he was a pretty significant character who started as a throw-away.

Peter Capaldi, by contrast, went all the way over from ‘Guy Who Might Get Rescued By Doctor Who Or Might Just Be A Sacrificial Lamb’ to the significant title character of — uh, ‘Doctor Who’.

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, first as a secondary character in Breaking Bad then as the lead role in Better Call Saul.

In the first season of The Avengers, the lead character was David Keel, played by Ian Hendry. John Steed, played by Patrick MacNee was the sidekick. As the season progressed, Steed’s role gradually got larger.

Ian Hendry wanted to do theatrical films, and declined to do a second season. John Steed became the lead. Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman, became the sidekick. Some people claim that Blackman’s character was so strong because they simply gave her scripts that had originally been written for Hendry.

Anthony Dawson played the henchman Professor Dent in Doctor No. He then played Blofeld in From Russia with Love and Thunderball. (Well, his hands and the back of his head, anyway. Eric Pohlmann did the voice.)

Going back a long way for this one. The old sitcom “My Living Doll” had Julie Newmar as a sexy robot. Co-star Bob Cummings left the show rather abruptly and then Jack Mulaney who had been the friend took over as mail lead.

Betty MacDonald wrote a best-selling novel called The Egg and I. In 1947, it was made into a movie starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. There were two supporting characters named Ma and Pa Kettle. Audiences loved them so much that Universal Studios made nine more movies with the Kettle family.

The first (1963) “The Pink Panther” film starred David Niven, with Peter Sellers as the inspector the second billed actor. Niven didn’t appear in the 1964 “A Shot in the Dark” and Sellers’ character was now the lead.

Nor was Steve Urkel on Family Matters.

In 1960, Jock Mahoney played a villain in Tarzan the Magnificent. Two years later he would play Tarzan himself in Tarzan Goes to India, then again in Tarzan’s Three Challenges.

Saul Rubinek – He didn’t become a lead, but at least made a lateral move. In the pilot for the A&E Nero Wolfe series, The Golden Spiders, he played Saul Panzer. But in the series that followed he played newspaperman Lon Cohen. Both characters are about of equal importance. Rubinek also read several of the Nero Wolfe books on audio, which means he also effectively played Archie Goodwin (in whose voice the books are told).