TV URBAN LEGEND: Danielle Fishel was originally cast in another non-Topanga role on Boy Meets World.
The enduring popularity of Boy Meets World is one of those rare instances in which a show that was only moderately successful in its originally airing -- the sitcom never finished in the top 30 in the Nielsen ratings, peeking peaked at No. 36 in its second season -- finds a new life in syndication. (The most famous example of this phenomenon is The Brady Bunch, which also never cracked the top 30.)
After completing its seven-season run in 2000 on ABC, Boy Meets World was syndicated first on the Disney Channel and then on ABC Family, wrapping up in 2007. The series was off the air for a few years before returning in 2010 to ABC Family, and has grown only more popular in recent years, with MTV2 adding it to the schedule in 2011. That increase in popularity led the Disney Channel to order a sequel, Girl Meets World, starring the pre-teen daughter of the show's main couple, Cory and Topanga (played by Ben Savage and Danielle Fishel). The series, which premiered in June, has already been renewed for a second season.
For whatever reason, Cory and Topanga have become an iconic couple for a generation of fans. However, surprisingly enough, they almost never came to be! Read on to find out what happened...
Like many television series, Boy Meets World spent its first season tinkering with its formula. Rider Strong played Shawn, the best friend of Cory Matthews, but the producers wanted to develop a second best friend. In a number of episodes, they tried out new actors in that role, but none of them took. It got to the point where the cast would refer to the third seat at lunch with Cory and Shawn as the "seat of death," as every actor who took that spot was replaced. The show was in so much flux that the quest for a second best friend for Cory ended up with Shawn gaining a sister for a single episode. In an early episode, the plot initially hinged on the sister of Cory's second friend (whoever it would have been that episode) messing up Cory's hair to amusing effect. As the script developed, however, the writers felt they didn't have room for this new actor -- but they needed the sister for the sake of the plot. So they gave the other actor's lines to Rider Strong and, as a result, for a single episode, Shawn had a sister. She was never mentioned again.
The episode in question, "Cory's Alternative Friends," finds Cory forced to hang out with the geeky kids at school after his hair mishap makes him a social pariah. He ends up banding with the misfits to stage a protest against the school board for forcing out the school's librarian. Their protest (handcuffing themselves to the school's lockers to block kids from exiting the school on Friday afternoon) succeeds, and one of the girls in the group is so impressed with Cory that she gives him his first kiss. That girl was Topanga Lawrence, a modern-day flower child (series creator Michael Jacobs came up with the name for the character while driving past Topanga Canyon in California, a popular spot for hippies during the 1960s). Topanga’s role in the episode was a significant one, and producers made it clear they were considering making her a recurring character -- likely with the intent of ending the "second best friend" experiment.
Danielle Fishel auditioned to play Topanga, but lost the role to another actress. She then landed a smaller part, which turned out to be in the episode in which Topanga was introduced (the fourth episode of the series). The class is paired up for science projects: Cory and Shawn are initially a team, until Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) splits them up, making Cory work with Topanga instead. The episode opens with two girls doing a project about how certain chemicals could cause dangerous algae blooms that can kill off fish in water sources. Originally the two girls were to be played by Fishel and Marla Sokoloff (who later landed a recurring role on Full House as Stephanie's best friend, and then joined the cast of The Practice).
In her new memoir Normally This Would Be Cause For Concern, Fishel recalls her first day on the show:
I showed up to work and realized that my part was in the same episode as the role of Topanga. This was pretty cool, because I got to see how the girl who got the job acted the part out. They obviously liked her, so maybe I could learn something from her.
First of all, this girl was incredibly sweet. She was also very talented. The role was meant for someone who could talk very slowly and still be funny. She seemed to know how to do that. I watched her work with our director the whole first day. Even though I had been in acting classes before, this was like my first real lesson. It changed my life.
I remember David Trainer, our exceptionally gifted director for the first two seasons, giving her notes on how to improve her performance. She seemed to have trouble there. He’d give her a note telling her to change something, and she’d do it the exact same way again. I felt like a little kid in a classroom; I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Can I try?” Even at twelve, I knew that was unprofessional, so I kept my mouth shut.
On set the next day, she wasn’t there. They had let her go, and the executive producer, Michael Jacobs, needed to find a new girl to play Topanga. To this day, I don’t know why Michael gave me another opportunity to audition for Topanga, although I suspect it was because it was easier than having to do a whole new casting call, but he did. It was down to me and another girl, Marla Sokoloff, who was also doing a guest spot on the episode.
Fishel of course beat out Sokoloff, but she notes that wasn’t the end of her worries, as her first table read as the new Topanga went poorly: Fishel was pretty much the opposite of a "flower child" at the time, so she had difficulty getting herself in that frame of mind. Her natural style was peppy and preppy, and Topanga was anything but that (although, as Fishel became a recurring character and eventually one of the show's leads, Topanga's personality was changed to be closer to Fishel's). Jacobs gave the actress extensive notes and warned her that if she didn't improve the next day he would replace her (Sokoloff, after all, was still on set).
Fishel worked on Jacobs' notes all night long with her mother and came to work the next day feeling prepared. In her book, she recalls the moment of judgment:
The run-through came and went, and once again, I felt pretty good about what I had done. This time, however, I was painfully aware that I had felt the same way the day before, when I was told my whole performance needed to change if I wanted to keep my job.
Michael started the notes session off with me again. My heart stopped beating regularly, and my palms got sweaty. “Danielle, yesterday I gave you an enormous amount of notes. I did that because I believed you were capable of handling them,” he said in front of all the writers and producers and my fellow actors. Then he stood up. I panicked. Was he going to fire me, slam his script on the ground, and storm out of there? “However, with your performance today, you exceeded my expectations,” he concluded. He started clapping, and all the writers stood up and clapped next to him. Michael wasn’t going to fire me. He believed in me. He gave me a freaking standing ovation.
So Fishel got the role, and reappeared in Season 1 a number of times (she even gained her own sister, who also was never seen again after one appearance) and became a recurring character in Season 2. By the third season, she became a member of the main cast as the show began to focus heavily on the Cory and Topanga relationship, with the characters ultimately getting married in the final season. Obviously, we can't know for sure that the mystery original actress wouldn’t have done well with the role as well. But the odds of a first-season guest becoming the breakout the breakout star of a series aren’t particularly high, so it seems unlikely we would have seen Cory and Topanga work out the same way with an actress other than Fishel.
The legend is...
Thanks to Danielle Fishel for the information! If you're interested in her at all, buy her new book, Normally This Would Be Cause For Concern.
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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