Why So Many Stars Quit Shameless

In December 2020, Shameless returned to television for its 11th and final season. The story of the hardscrabble Gallagher family and the cloud of misadventures surrounding boozing, drugging patriarch Frank Gallagher and his brood of various (and variously hustling, scheming, and also boozing and drugging) children, the series was a perennial ratings hit for Showtime, gathered up an armload of Emmy nominations, and gained a reputation for living up to its name with storylines that reveled in bad behavior, shocking outcomes, and gallows humor.

11 seasons is a long time, and fans of the show have watched the Gallagher children grow up right before their eyes. They've also watched Frank, played to the hilt by a perfectly-cast William H. Macy, remain pretty much the same drunken, scheming lout he's always been. Some things never change. But moving parts are inevitable in a program with such a long lifespan, and over time, series regulars and fan favorites have found reason to depart (or return to) the comforts (or discomforts) of the show's South Side of Chicago setting. Here's why so many stars quit Shameless.

The goings and comings of Cameron Monaghan

As Ian Gallagher, one of Frank's middle kids on Shameless, Cameron Monaghan was a series regular from day one. And it was quite a journey for Ian, who learned he was gay, established a combative but loving relationship with Mickey (Noel Fisher), and navigated a lasting struggle with bipolar disorder, in addition to the everyday battles every Gallagher has with all of the other Gallaghers.

In Season 9 of Shameless, Ian headed off to the slammer, effectively written out of the show, and Monaghan penned a farewell to fans on Instagram (via Deadline). "This role has been a joy to inhabit, a wild and special ride, and I'd like to thank #Shameless as well as you, the viewers, for being there with him. Goodbye, Ian Clayton Gallagher. We'll meet again?" 

By the announcement of Season 10, however, the actor was back in the fold. "To hear the actor tell it, the decision [to leave] was a mix of wanting to spread his wings creatively and 'business,'" wrote The Hollywood Reporter in February 2019 of the actor's flirtation with departure, "meaning his contract was up and he likely earned a pay bump to return to Showtime's highest-rated scripted original at a time when it was losing its leading lady, Emmy Rossum." Monaghan basically confirmed the speculation, saying that after discussing Ian's future storylines with showrunner John Wells, they were able to get "to a place both creatively and financially where I felt comfortable coming back."

Justin Chatwin left and returned to Shameless

In June 2013, The Hollywood Reporter announced actor Justin Chatwin's departure from Shameless. Chatwin, who as Steve and/or Jimmy (as a criminal, he had his share of aliases) was involved in a volatile relationship with Emmy Rossum's Fiona Gallagher, saw his character depart at the end of Season 3.

Forever? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. "A Showtime rep confirms that Chatwin's days as a series regular have come to an end but that the actor could return for one or two episodes in season four," the 2013 THR piece noted. And in fact, Jimmy/Steve did return to future Shameless episodes, though only in guest-shot roles. As the world Shameless had built for itself continued to evolve, its cast's arrivals and departures evolved, too. Chatwin reflected on his Season 5 appearance in a subsequent 2015 interview with THR. "John Wells [series showrunner] said the show is like a plant in a garden, and it grows; you never know in what direction it's going to go, or what it's going to produce, or what it's going to look like. So people will leave and people will return and people will change."

Emmy Rossum said goodbye to fierce Fiona

With Frank Gallagher's unreliability one of the only constants in the Shameless universe, his oldest daughter Fiona was forced into de facto matriarchy. Fans connected with Emmy Rossum's ability to play the character with a mix of selflessness, flinty determination, and emotional turmoil. Since the series' beginning, Rossum was a constant alongside William H. Macy, to the point that her demand for — and receiving of — pay equal to her male co-star delayed the show's eighth season. So it was a shock to the system when Rossum announced in August 2018 that she had decided to leave Fiona, the Gallaghers, and Shameless behind.

"The opportunity to play Fiona has been a gift," Rossum wrote in her farewell Facebook post. "There are few characters — female or otherwise — as layered and dynamic. She is a mother lion, fierce, flawed and sexually liberated. She is injured, vulnerable, but will never give up. I knew it from the second I read the pilot script, this was different, this was special."

"I will never be saying goodbye to Fiona," Rossum later told Entertainment Weekly of her decision. "Fiona is a part of me and has been like every character is a part of you and you are a little bit part of them." And while Shameless showrunner John Wells didn't rule out a Fiona return in the show's wind-down period, Rossum herself moved on to co-produce and star in Angelyne for Peacock.

Fans wonder: Will Sheila ever return to Shameless?

Joan Cusack was a highlight of Shameless from the get go, playing the agoraphobic, secret sex toy collector Sheila Jackson, who was also an occasional love interest of Frank Gallagher. Cusack, a versatile actor with a magnetic screen presence, was an instant fan favorite in the Shameless ensemble, and that adulation was buoyed by industry affirmation, to the tune of Emmy nominations for Outstanding Guest Actress In A Drama Series in each of the five seasons in which she appeared on Shameless. The fifth was the charm, and Cusack took home the hardware in 2015, even as her character rode off into the sunset.

"When last we saw [Sheila]," wrote Looper in a piece entitled "The most popular Shameless character fans want the show to bring back, "she'd sold her South Side home, bought an RV, and was making a dramatic exit from Chicago, heading West with her brain-damaged daughter Karen (Laura Wiggins), Karen's adorable special needs baby, and her younger lover Jody (Zach McGowan) in tow."

Would the fans get their wish? It was a hot enough question that Cusack caused an Internet stir in September 2017 when she suggested a potential return during a September 2017 panel discussion at the Salt Lake Comic Con. "Joan said she still has a son in high school, so the character of Sheila won't be reappearing on the show right away, though it could happen after her son graduates," wrote the Daily Herald.

Isidora Goreshter: "I asked them to kill me"

Isidora Goreshter had one of the more memorable runs on Shameless, appearing as the Russian prostitute and savvy opportunist Svetlana over the course of five seasons. But in January 2018, the actress took to social media to announce that her time on the show was finishing up. "All good things must come to an end," Goreshter wrote in her farewell Instagram post (via Distractify). "6 years ago, what should have only been one days work changed my life forever. A huge thank you John Wells and Shameless for what turned out to be the most unexpected and life altering job an actor could ask for. I am forever indebted to you and your belief in me."

After Svetlana had been written out, but before the onset of Season 9, Entertainment Weekly asked Goreshter if her character's apparent departure from the show was permanent. "I don't really know what they have in store," she told the outlet, adding, "I asked them to kill me. I really wanted to have this gruesome death scene. But [showrunner] John Wells was like 'No, no, no, no. We want to leave the door open because you never know what can happen.' Ah, fine. I really wanted to, like, get thrown into the river."

Jake McDorman was Shameless's regular guy

Jake McDorman joined the cast of Shameless in Season 3 as recurring character Mike Pratt, Fiona's regular guy boss. But in Season 4, McDorman was a regular cast member, because by then he and Fiona were a hot item. In typical Gallagher family fashion, this did not last, and the frayed ends of their working and romantic relationship led to a dead end for McDorman's character arc on the show.

With a large ensemble cast, it's not unheard of for characters to surface and disappear as mechanisms to make the whole thing work, and McDorman was prepared for that. As he told Anthem as Shameless Season 4 got underway, "From episode one to twelve in each season, so much radically changes. Characters come and go. A lot of people make mistakes and there are a lot of triumphs. Everyone gets so excited when we get to have each season open and have things unfold from one script to the next."

With his Shameless stint in the can, McDorman downshifted into roles as a series regular on a series of high-profile, but canceled TV shows: a romantic comedy called Manhattan Love Story; a small-screen adaptation of the 2011 film Limitless; and the short-lived 2018 reboot of Murphy Brown. And speaking of small-screen adaptations, McDorman ultimately landed on the TV version of The Right Stuff in 2020, playing astronaut Alan Shepard.

Laura Wiggins: "Shameless was such a weird time in my life"

In the morally-warped world of Shameless, even a supporting character can travel through multiple states of crazy. In the case of Laura Wiggins, who appeared as series regular Karen Jackson in Seasons 1 and 2 and later recurred, she played a young woman who struggled with sex addiction, a torturous home life, the fallout from giving birth to a baby with special needs and questionable paternity, and who eventually incurred brain damage from being run over by a car. How's that for a story arc? As Den of Geek put it, "Karen is a very difficult character to like." And Looper declared that Karen and Frank Gallagher were both at fault for their illicit encounter, even though "Frank was too drunk and strung out on pain meds to know what he was doing when he had sex with his teenage neighbor."

Once the Karen Jackson character was written out of Shameless, Laura Wiggins moved on, too, but drew lessons from her time on the show. "Shameless was such a weird time in my life because I never really experienced any kind of role that put me that much in the spotlight before," she told Parade in an interview for her Shameless follow-up, the anorexia-focused Lifetime movie Starving in Suburbia. "I didn't end up going to do the show for too much longer but I think, in some ways, that was good because the nudity definitely puts you in a space where you're really worried about what you're eating."