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The Wicked Behind-the-Scenes Drama of the Original Charmed: The Feuds, Firings and Feminist Fury

As tensions resurface, a look back on Shannen Doherty, Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan's initial run as the witchy Halliwell sisters.

By Tierney Bricker Aug 24, 2020 6:45 PMTags
Charmed FeatureWB/E! Illustration

Life on the set of the original Charmed? Anything but charming a lot of the time.

That didn't stop the CW from reintroducing three witchy sisters to a whole new generation with the 2018 reboot, updating the Power of Three by casting three Latina women, making one of the sisters a lesbian and clearly establishing that "tearing down the patriarchy" was just as important as vanquishing demons.

But once again, even the most out-there plot lines couldn't compare to the unscripted drama that purportedly haunted the stars behind the scenes when they were making the original series, which premiered in 1998 and ran for eight seasons.

Over the weekend, Rose McGowan and Alyssa Milano tangled over political matters on Twitter, leading McGowan—who joined Charmed in 2001 as a replacement for Shannen Doherty—to accuse Milano of making the set atmosphere "toxic AF," after which the Twitterverse promptly took sides. Asked for comment, Milano said in a statement to E! News, "Hurt people hurt people. Commenting any further doesn't align with my wellness plan." (All other parties have been reached out to for comment as well.)

This marks the latest chapter in what has been an overarching Charmed saga—one that already included actors being let go for no reason, a decade-long feud, and the resentment some of the original cast members felt about the remake, which has been renewed for a third (albeit COVID-delayed) third season.

Watch out, something wicked (and nostalgic) this way comes...

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Back in 1998, when it was announced that Shannen Doherty was picked as one of the leads of Charmed, TV fans in the know were a bit surprised given her history with its prolific producer Aaron Spelling

CBS

A quick refresh: Doherty was the female lead of a little teen drama called Beverly Hills, 90210, which Spelling created. From the show's start in 1990, Doherty, who was coming off of Heathers, had a bit of a 'tude and bad girl rep. 

"I'm not saying I don't have my moments of bitchiness, because everybody has them, but it's never for no reason," she explained to People in 1993. "I've always been a ballsy kid. I know it pisses some people off, but isn't the end result much better?"

After years of reported on-set fighting with her fellow cast members (she and Jennie Garth allegedly came to physical blows) and the crew, Doherty was officially booted out of America's most famous zip code in season four. (Writer-producer Larry Mollin claimed that she angered the staff by chopping her hair halfway through shooting the season finale, which was the final straw.)

So, the fact that Spelling was ready to work with Doherty again was somewhat surprising. But Charmed creator Connie M. Burge told InTouch that the uber-producer was "extremely supportive of the idea of casting her as Prue," the eldest Halliwell sister, who had telekinetic powers.

Also working in Doherty's favor was her history and chemistry with Picket Fences star Holly Marie Combs, cast as middle sister Piper, who could freeze time. "She was also dear friends with Shannen," Burge said, "so they had terrific chemistry with each other."

For the third sister, Phoebe (who had the gift of premonition), producers initially cast Lori Rom, who filmed the original pilot and even attended events to promote the show. But Burge said her exit was due to "personal reasons."

ABC via Getty Images

Enter stage left: Alyssa Milano, who was a big get for Charmed thanks to her Who's the Boss? and Melrose Place fame. 

After Milano took over the role, Burge said the youngest Halliwell sis changed a bit, because, "I think that Alyssa definitely brought a...excuse me, sexiness to the part." 

And when Charmed premiered in October 1998, it was an immediate hit for The WB and its highest-rated debut ever, with the Power of Three joining the struggling network's line-up of strong young women that included Buffy Summers, Felicity Porter and Joey Potter. 

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"Charmed is a perfect postfeminist girl-power show," Milano told EW of the response to the series. "Even independent of their special powers, these women are strong, but they're still feminine and accessible."

Executive producer Brad Kern credited the success of the show largely to the chemistry of the starring trio, saying in an E! special, "I think that we kind of caught lightning in a bottle with the girls and their chemistry. I like to think that we maintained it with good stories and good scripts and good production. But it starts out with the girls."

In the same special, Milano gushed, "I feel that we're incredibly lucky that the three of us found each other. We all have horses so we all have things that are in common. Holly and I keep our horses at the same ranch so we go riding all the time together and we're very similar and, um, very close, we're blessed in that way. It's like a big slumber party every day. We giggle a lot."

Doherty and Combs were even bridesmaids at Milano's 1999 wedding to musician Cinjuna Tate. (They divorced 10 months later.) 

Paramount Pictures

But the spell seemingly had worn off by the beginning of season three, with reports of major on-set tension between Doherty and Milano, with no reason ever given for their falling out. A popular theory is that Doherty was jealous of Milano's growing popularity. Another is that Doherty was just frustrated with the direction the show was going in and wasn't shy about making her opinion known. (Burge reportedly left the show ahead of season three when she became frustrated that storylines were more focused on the sisters' relationships with their love interests than each other.)

Things between the on-screen sisters got so bad that they reportedly only spoke when absolutely necessary. "There were times when I'd come in and say, 'Good morning, Shannen,' and she didn't say anything to me," Milano admitted. "And there were times when she'd come in and say, 'Good morning, Alyssa,' and I wouldn't say anything to her." 

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The studio brought in a mediator. It didn't help. The writing was on the wall, according to one source: "It eventually became clear that [either Doherty or Milano] had to go."

While reports suggested Milano offered producers an ultimatum, the star denied doing so. Other reports claim Doherty asked to be let go. 

WB

Finally, in May 2001, it was announced that Doherty was out after three years and 66 episodes, déjà vu all over again for Spelling and Doherty.

"We have had a long and prosperous relationship with Shannen and we didn't want to hold her back from what she wanted to do," Spelling Television said in a statement. "We wish her all the best and much continued success."

As for Doherty, who had just directed the season finale, she said in a statement: "I have certainly enjoyed my time with Charmed, in particular the dedicated cast, crew and staff. I had the opportunity to create a character, learn and perform my own stunt work and direct three episodes of the show. At this time, I feel that I have accomplished everything I set out to do when I returned to series television."

While no mention of on-set tension was in that statement, Doherty spilled a little bit of tea when she sat down with Entertainment Tonight in May 2001 for an exclusive interview about her hasty exit. 

"There was too much drama on the set and not enough passion for the work," said Doherty, who at the time had recently pleaded no contest to drunk driving for a December 2000 arrest. "You know, I'm 30 years old and I don't have time for drama in my life anymore."

She didn't exactly call Milano out, but it's clear she was much closer to Combs, whom she alleged also wanted out of the series.

The WB/Richard Cartwright

 "To me it's sort of whatever. I'll miss Holly a lot and that's really the only thing I want to clear up. She is one of my best friends and I love her dearly. And there were never, ever, ever any problems between the two of us, and we will always be pals," Doherty said. "And she doesn't even know if she's going back to the show because she doesn't want to be there without me."

Combs stayed (after reportedly renegotiatating her contract to make $60,000 per episode) and eventually became a producer in season five, though she was publicly vocal about her thoughts on how the producers handled Doherty's exit, telling EW, "It was done very poorly, in my opinion."

Doherty wasn't done making pointed references to her feud with Milano, going on to say, "I want to work with actors who really, really care and that want to be there every single day. I don't want to work with people who bitch about their job and complain about it and say that they hate it or anything else."

So what was Milano's side of the story? 

In a 2001 interview with Entertainment Weekly ahead of the fourth season, Milano said, "I think it's hard when you put…[long pause]…two very different people together. I'm very laid-back and passive. I have my Buddha. I come in here and meditate. [Shannen's] got a lot of energy, she's very headstrong, she wants to get the job done."

After Doherty's interviews about her departure and comments about Charmed being "a show for 12-year-olds," Milano said, "I think it's unfortunate that she left, and that she needed to bad-mouth everyone involved and the audience. She sounds really angry. I just hope I didn't contribute to that anger."

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Over a decade later, Milano sort of reignited the feud when she was asked about Doherty's firing on Watch What Happens Live! in 2013. 

"I don't know if she got fired, we never really found out what happened," Milano said. "I can tell you that we were on the air with her for three years and there were definitely some rough days. Holly and Shannen were best friends for like 10 years before the show started so it was very much sort of like high school. I would hope that in our thirties it wouldn't feel like that anymore." 

Combs was not down with Milano's Mean Girls assessment, taking to Twitter to write, "Working on Charmed was nothing like high school. I went to high school. It was a very important job to me and always will be."

Stefanie Keenan/WireImage, Tibrina Hobson/Getty Images

Doherty also chimed in: "Yeah, agreed, considering it helped me support my family and pay for my dad's medical issues, but everyone has their opinion and views." She did try to be fair to Milano, noting that WWHL can be "tricky" and clarifying that there's "no drama" going on. 

And in 2015, BFFs Doherty and Combs did a joint interview on Sway's Universe, where Combs addressed Milano's high school comment once again, saying, "She didn't go to high school! What are we talking about here? Her mother was at my wedding? Like, why? We were all friends and at times we weren't." 

Doherty added, "Were there times that were rough? Yeah, when you work that closely together there's always going to be times that are rough."

But by June 2017, it seemed like the epic rift had reached its conclusion, as Milano told E!'s Daily Pop hosts that she and Doherty had reconciled

"I think we're just at ages now that what happens 15 years ago, or however long ago that was, it's irrelevant," Milano admitted.

In 2015, Doherty was diagnosed with breast cancer, and Milano cited that as one of the driving forces behind their reunion. 

"I think that what she has gone through, [and] motherhood in my life, I think it just changes people," Milano said. "I'm so happy that she's feeling well. I prayed for her every day that she would feel well and I can't wait to see her."

Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage.com

But back to 2001: With Doherty officially out, so began the search for a new female lead to play Paige, a half-sister who can move objects with her mind. Producers really wanted Tiffani Thiessen, who ironically replaced Doherty on 90210, to once again step in. Spelling told Entertainment Weekly, "Tiffani was our first choice to take over for Shannen...Tiffani told us she wants to do a half-hour comedy." 

Their next pick? Jennifer Love Hewitt, who also declined (though she did have ghost-whispering in her future). 

Rose McGowan, known for her film roles in Scream and Jawbreaker and engagement to rocker Marilyn Manson, was then cast as the new family member. 

"It worked out to our benefit," Kern told TVLine of casting McGowan, "because Rose presented a wholly different character and a light, goofy approach—the opposite of what Shannen had brought to the show. Rose's quirky, approachable personality shined through and gave us plenty to work with."

In her 2018 memoir Brave, McGowan looked back on the pressure of joining an already established show.

"I wasn't going to be playing Shannen's role, but it was still someone new for the fans to bond with. I had been told that many show don't survive a major cast change," she wrote. "I knew that I had a slim chance at success here. People had to fall in love with my character as quickly as possible or Charmed would die. I thought about how big the crew was and how they would all be out of a job if I failed. So I made myself look super nonthreatening. I gained weight, about ten pounds, for the role."

She also wrote about the toxic behavior on set from male crew members, calling her time on Charmed a "deadening experience" and a "prison for [her] mind."

The WB/James White

Ahead of her second season on the show, McGowan got in trouble for dying her hair without approval, and she decided to begin hypnotherapy to deal with the stress.

"I found the repetitive days so opposite my natural rhythms that I became sick over and over. And it was at times a very stressful environment. I started to have panic attacks because of everything I was pushing down," she wrote. "I was sick about four or five times a season." 

Still, she ultimately wrote of the show, "For a long time Charmed was—and might still be —the longest-running female-driven hour-long show in history. I wish we got more credit for that, because it's important." (In 2012, Desperate Housewives became the longest-running female-driven show.)

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After McGowan's arrival, Charmed continued to be a ratings success for the WB, becoming its second highest rated show, and stayed on the air for five more seasons. 

However, by the end of its seventh season, there were rumors the show wouldn't come back for an eighth due to the main trio's contracts being up. Eventually, an eighth season was ordered...but with some major stipulations.

Mandatory budget cuts saw the exit of Dorian Gregory (who played Darryl Morris), and the demotion of Brian Krause, who played fan-favorite Leo Wyatt, Piper's husband. "We couldn't afford to have him in all 22 episodes," Kern told TVLine, "so Brian's character was frozen in Episode 10. The leap of faith for me was hoping beyond hope of talking him into coming back for the series finale. He was under no obligation to do that. I was banking on the fact that he was truly a great guy, loyal to the audience, and he was."

WB

The network also wanted fresh new faces brought in if they ultimately wanted to continue the show for a ninth season without Combs, Milano and McGowan, or make a spinoff, so a pre-Big Bang Theory Kaley Cuoco was brought in. Her character Billie was a novice witch who became a pseudo-younger sister for the Halliwells—but she wasn't exactly a favorite for fans or critics. 

Fresh off of 8 Simple Rules, this was Cuoco's first experience on an hour-long drama and she admitted that sitcoms were "so much easier to understand." In audio commentary for the DVD release of season eight, she recalled not being comfortable with some of the costumes she was put in. 

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When Charmed ended its run in 2006, it beat Laverne & Shirley as the longest-running series with female leads. But those female leads were not happy with how The WB handled the show's ending.

"They made a big announcement that we were canceled. I'm like, How is it possible to cancel something that doesn't exist?… [Since] all three contracts are done, there's effectively no show," McGowan said. "So then why would you [announce a cancellation]?… Kind of lame to dishonor something that's worked for them for so long."

Combs added, "The WB never treated us well, so we didn't expect a lot of farewell wishes and flowers or cards."

CW

And when the reboot was finally getting made, starring Madeleine Mantock, Melonie Diaz, and Sarah Jeffery as 2018's Vera sisters, some of the OG witches were less than thrilled by the concept—from Jane the Virgin executive producer Jennie Urman, with a pilot script written by Jessica O'Toole and Amy Rardin—which had been dangled like a carrot in front of fans' faces for years before finally coming to fruition. 

The most vocal of the original Halliwell sisters was Combs, who took to Twitter immediately to express her disappointment. 

"Here's the thing. Until you ask us to rewrite it like Brad Kern did weekly don't even think of capitalizing on our hard work," she wrote at the time. "Charmed belongs to the 4 of us, our vast amount of writers, crews and predominantly the fans. FYI you will not fool them by owning a title/stamp. So bye."

And Combs especially took issue with the fact that the new iteration of the beloved show was being described as a "fierce, funny, feminist reboot of the original series," mostly that final F-word: feminist.

"Guess we forgot to do that the first go around. Hmph," she tweeted. She then followed up with a message to people who didn't understand why she wasn't supportive of the new show, which was going to be produced and written by women. 

"While some may not get why I take issue with the network that didn't want to renew Charmed 12 years ago 'reimagining' it now let me just say I understand it perfectly," she continued. "Also this kinda stuff given all that Rose and Alyssa have done lately...um no. Just No."

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Combs was referencing her former co-stars' involvement in the #MeToo movement after the New York Times and The New Yorker reported decades' worth of sexual misconduct and assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein in October 2017. Milano was even one of the first actors to help revive Tarana Burke's decade-old #MeToo movement with a tweet, while McGowan was one of the most prominent celebrities to speak out early about Weinstein, participating in the New York Times exposé.

But McGowan criticized Milano after she publicly voiced support for Georgina Chapman, Weinstein's estranged wife, the Project Runway All Stars host calling the Project Runway All Stars judge "a good woman" during an interview on Megyn Kelly Today

"You make me want to vomit. You actually gave me a body flashback. Well done, fake one - People," McGowan tweeted about her former on-screen sister, along with a link to an article citing Milano's remarks.

While promoting her E! show Citizen Rose, McGowan revealed she joined Charmed back in 2001 for a very specific reason: to maintain visibility following her alleged assault by Weinstein, which McGowan said happened in 1997.

"I did the TV show so I could gain a foothold internationally in all areas," she explained, "so when the news broke I could have a foothold and people would pay attention in every region across the globeThis is a long plan."

McGowan expressed contempt for a 2013 attempt to revive Charmed, simply tweeting, "Lame lame lame lamertons."

The WB Television Network

Though Doherty took issue with the "offensive" insinuation that the original version was not feminist, she tweeted, "I love Charmed. I also want it to be respected. I'm simply choosing to be constructive about it because negativity has no place in my life." 

For Milano, she was hurt that none of the original cast or creative team was initially contacted or asked to be included in any way, but told Parade, "I feel like it's either going to succeed or not, and if it succeeds again, a whole new generation will be exposed to the beauty of what Charmed was able to be for people, and if it doesn't succeed, then we don't have to hear about it anymore."

The reboot's executive producer Urman told reporters that she could "empathize" with the original cast's feelings, specifically Combs', saying, "It was a huge part of her life and if [she's] watching it go in a different direction, then of course that's going to be hard. I understand that."

But she noted that the reboot is a new story and  new take on the sisterly coven, not a remake, saying they "didn't want to mess with that mythology, obviously, because it was eight years."

On Oct. 7, 2018, Charmed celebrated its 20th anniversary, with some of the Halliwell witches taking a moment on social media to acknowledge the milestone.

"To all the fans—there is no one like you. Thank you for loving the show we loved so much," Milano tweeted. "And thank you for listening, sharing, and growing with me. I appreciate you." 

Ever the middle sister, Combs used fan art to acknowledge all of the women who helped create Charmed's enduring legacy—drama and all.

(Originally published Oct. 12, 2018, at 12:41 p.m. PT)

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