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Sorry US Downton Abbey fans – the rumors are true!

As you’ve probably read by now, leading man Matthew Crawley is indeed leaving the hit UK period drama in the season 3 finale, which aired over the Christmas period in England (spoiler alert – Matt’s fate is revealed below, along with another key season 3 plotline!)

Crawley was played by Brit actor Dan Stevens, who admits in a newspaper interview that turning his back on the smash hit series was a tough decision. But I do have to wonder – why do actors leave hot shows prematurely?

In Stevens’ case the decision is permanent. The Downton Abbey season 3 finale sees Crawley killed in a car accident, shortly after the birth of his first son – and future Downton heir. There’s really no room for Crawley to come back – unless he has a last minute change of heart prior to the start of Season 4 filming. And story wise, it does feel a tad off given that the Downton clan is still reeling from the Season 3 death of Lady Sybil. It means Season 4 will feature grieving widow Lady Mary AND still grieving widower Branson!

But storylines aside I am curious as to why Stevens decided to leave Downton Abbey in the first place. Sure at the end of the day it’s his career and Stevens has the obvious right to make his own artistic choices – but was filming of the Brit drama really so arduous that it couldn’t be juggled with other projects?

I totally understand when a lead actor decides to leave a US network series. 22 episodes a year – the industry norm – equals 10 months of solid filming, especially if you’re a Julianna Margulies or a Nathan Fillion who anchor their respective shows. But Downton Abbey only produces 8 episodes a year. And it features a huge ensemble cast and multiple storylines. The fact is Matthew Crawley is generally on screen for only about 15-20 minutes per episode – so I doubt that filming takes up more than 3 or 4 months of time each year – max! That leaves most of the year free for Stevens to pursue other TV projects, movies and Broadway or West End shows. Heck, Downton star Hugh Bonneville (the Earl of Grantham) just signed up to play the lead in a new BBC sitcom.

The TV industry is littered with actors who left their respective shows at their peaks to pursue other career opportunities – and then found themselves in a career slump. 25 years after leaving Cheers, Shelley Long is still asked at EVERY interview about her career wrecking decision. In the 90’s David Caruso jumped ship from NYPD Blue after just one season, endured a couple of high profile movie bombs, and quickly scuttled back to TV in the generic CSI: Miami. And more recently we have Katherine Heigl, who left Grey’s Anatomy for a film career that’s already run out of steam… (I predict Heigl will be returning to TV in the 2014-15 TV season)

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Sure there have been many success stories – George Clooney for example who left ER after 5 seasons. But Clooney has terrific taste in material, left ER after well over 100 episodes, made a couple of cameo appearances in later seasons and also has a movie star glow that is almost incomparable.

Personally I honestly don’t know why Stevens didn’t stick with Downton for a couple more seasons. Let’s be honest, it’s not like he’s saddled with a dreadful show! Downton is an Emmy / Golden Globe winning phenomenon with a huge fan-base around the world. He shares the screen with legendary actors like Maggie Smith and the show is written by Oscar winner Julian Fellowes. Projects of this stature come around once in a lifetime – so why jump ship to pursue work that will likely be of lesser quality? Besides Downton allows Stevens to headline other, less commercial projects – such as his recent Broadway stint opposite Jessica Chastain. You think Stevens would land a coveted role like this were it not for Downton Abbey?

But that’s just my take – and as I say, it’s obviously Stevens’ career and he has to make his own choices. I wish him well – and who knows – in a couple of years time maybe he’ll have enjoyed huge success and people will be saying that leaving Downton was the best thing he ever did? We’ll see…