Sons of Anarchy remains one of the more surprisingly brilliant shows that helped build FX’s reputation in the oughts. Often criticized for its ]violence and questionable treatment of feminism and racism, the show routinely rose above its detractors to tell a story that honored both its roots in biker culture, as well as elevating those roots to a level of complexity no one could’ve predicted. While Kurt Sutter is the genius behind much of Sons of Anarchy’s success, the show’s ability to perfectly cast the fringe society that made up its universe ensured it.
If the show had cast meatheads and bombshells to create the perfect look of a NorCal biker gang, Sons of Anarchy would’ve collapsed under the weight of its own story. Sutter’s narrative, based on Hamlet, required performers capable of playing as many intimate moments as it did broad ones. Luckily, the show got it right almost every time, which is why it endures despite its general lack of political correctness.
That said, there were some missteps along the way. Not every character on Sons of Anarchy was a fan favorite, and some of those can be traced back to the choice of actor. This list covers the times Sons of Anarchy got it so right it hurt and the times they got it kind of wrong.
Here are 6 Casting Decisions That Hurt Sons of Anarchy (And 9 That Saved It).
15 SAVED: KIM COATES (TIG)
Tig Trager was arguably one of the more divisive characters on Sons of Anarchy. While he was one of the most loyal members of SAMCRO, he was often loyal to a fault. He secretly agrees to take out Opie on Clay’s orders, but accidentally ends Donna instead, and never pays for it. Oh, and there’s his odd phobia of dolls.
He’s also capable of remarkable tenderness for the innocent and vulnerable as evidenced in his fierce hatred of dog abusers and his revelatory relationship with Walton Goggins’ Venus Van Dam. We’re loathe to think of what a lesser actor would’ve done with Tig’s mess of contradictions, and we’re glad we got to witness Kim Coates bring him to life. He left us severely wanting more.
14 HURT: MICHAEL CHIKLIS
Kurt Sutter is a prolific writer and producer, and his first big hit was The Shield, the crown jewel in the then brand-new FX network. The level of violence and brutality on The Shield had never been seen outside of premium channels, and it went a long way toward putting FX and Sutter on the map.
It was no surprise Shield actors started showing up on Sutter’s next FX project, SOA. But not everyone fit like a glove, and Michael Chiklis was something of a disappointment to most fans.
One of the last major Shield stars to appear on SOA, fans were eagerly anticipating what kind of ruthless character Sutter would cook up for the former brutal antihero. When he showed up as a trucker who played “kindly stranger” to a doomed Gemma in her final episode, “Red Rose” it felt seriously anti-climactic. And why did this random character get the series’ final line?
13 SAVED: WALTON GOGGINS (Venus)
As much as we can accuse Sons of Anarchy of not being the most feminist show in history, there were plenty of times it was pretty woke. One of our favorite examples was the wonderful character Venus Van Dam, a trans woman and night worker.
Venus generally stayed on the periphery of SAMCRO business (thank goodness someone had the brains to do so), she helped out acting as bait and an informant at various points throughout the series, and served to highlight the softer side of the crew.
She even managed to redeem the irredeemably freakish Tig, and them ending up together was a happy ending antidote we desperately needed after nearly all of our favorite characters ended up as husks. Walt Goggins’ beautifully sensitive portrayal of Venus was nothing short of astounding. Here’s hoping she shows up in Mayans MC.
12 HURT: MARILYN MANSON (Tully)
We’re usually ready and waiting for whatever fresh crazy is in store when Marilyn Manson graces the set of any television show. He marvelously parodied himself in season 6 of Californication, and he did not disappoint as a roller rink server in Eastbound & Down. On Sons of Anarchy, his white supremacist, abusive criminal was stunt casting that didn’t really work.
He plays Ron Tully, the leader of a supremacist group in prison that Jax attempts to get close to.
He eventually assaults Juice and becomes a sort of protector to him, and he’s the one who mercifully orchestrates Juice’s elimination in the middle of a prison riot. Pitting Manson against Theo Rossi, who was masterfully bringing Juice’s tragic story to an epic crescendo, meant Manson’s performance was completely overshadowed. Another actor may not have suffered the same fate.
11 SAVED: MARK BOONE JR. (Bobby Elvis)
Mark Boone Jr. always brings to mind the famous Spencer Tracy quote from one of his movies with Katherine Hepburn, Pat & Mike: “There’s not much meat on her, but what’s there is cherce.” Hepburn’s a champion athlete trying to make a name for herself in a male-dominated world and Spencer’s her agent. The quote’s equally applicable to actors who are often typecast, but never make you sorry they were.
Mark Boone Jr. is one such actor.
He plays some variation of a crusty malcontent in most of his roles because he’s really, really good at it.
He’s also a good enough actor to bring real presence and heart to those roles when given a shot, and that’s what made Bobby Elvis such an enduring character. He rough around the edges for sure, but he was also incredibly wise and kindhearted. We will never forgive August Marks!
10 SAVED: PAULA MALCOMSON (Maureen)
With her waify looks, Paula Malcomson is often cast as a wilting flower, but the Irish actress showed some serious steel as Maureen Ashby on Sons of Anarchy.
A member of the Sons’ Irish contingent, she had a relationship with Jax’s father John Teller when the latter took a mental health holiday in Ireland when Jax was a kid. When Jax’s son Abel is taken to Ireland by Maureen’s brother, Gemma and Jax head overseas. They don’t find a meek, lovelorn mouse. Instead, they find hard-as-nails Maureen who goes toe-to-toe with Gemma and who’s not above choking out Cherry when the latter doesn’t want to spill the whereabouts of her lover.
Maureen served as an example of a den mother that was similar to Gemma, but far better at controlling her impulses.
Malcomson’s ability to convey such strength, intelligence and sensitivity made her the bright spot of the Ireland storyline.
9 HURT: WINTER AVE ZOLI (Lila)
Sons of Anarchy was pretty fond of its criminal with a heart of gold trope, and it executed that in a number of its female characters. Some manifestations were pretty successful – Wendy’s evolution from meth head to mother fighting for her sobriety was ultimately very satisfying – but some weren’t, and Winter Ave Zoli’s turn as woeful adult film star Lila was one of them.
Lila should’ve been someone we rooted for, but Zoli’s performance remained two-dimensional throughout her run on the show, despite her character evolving from actress to head of her own studio.
While she offered Opie respite after the passing of Donna, she always seemed content to sit back and not raise much of a fuss as he slipped further away. After that, whatever strength Zoli tried to impart in the character never read true and Lila never really graduated from the damsel in distress she started as.
8 SAVED: KATEY SAGAL (Gemma)
We’re pretty convinced there’s nothing Katey Sagal wouldn’t be perfectly cast as, but Gemma Teller Clay was so spectacularly perfect it stands out as a signature role for the veteran actress and singer.
Gemma was arguably one of the most complex characters on the show, always finding it difficult to balance love, control and obsession when it came to her family. She was capable of great acts of kindness and generosity, but could never seem to keep herself from squeezing everyone around her too hard.
When she finally took down Tara, it was an act that should’ve made her irredeemable, but her final episodes served to make her even more sympathetic as she grappled with the fallout of her actions. It’s hard to imagine anyone but Katey Sagal being able to express Gemma’s heart as well as her malice.
7 HURT: TARYN MANNING (Cherry)
While Sons of Anarchy certainly had its feminist moments, it’s no surprise a show about a biker gang would wind up objectifying women at many different points throughout its run. Taryn Manning’s Cherry is a prime example of that, but despite the show’s premise, it was never easy to watch. As much as we love Manning, her performance bears some fault in that.
Cherry’s desperation to move up from Sweet Bottom to Old Lady was always unpalatable. Sweet Bottoms are girls passed around from biker to biker and are required to “graduate” to Old Ladies – slightly more respected wives – if they want to stay in the gang, but not be treated like chattel.
Manning’s often manic vibe made the character kind of annoying instead of sympathetic, so we were more irritated than intrigued when she showed up in Ireland in season 3.
6 SAVED: RON PERLMAN (Clay)
When Sons of Anarchy was announced as a reinterpretation of Hamlet, but set against the backdrop of NorCal biker culture, audiences were constantly wondering how long Ron Perlman’s Clay Teller would stick around. Clearly meant to represent Hamlet’s treacherous stepfather Claudius, Clay seemed to need to be eliminated somewhat early or risk his villainy getting stale.
The show detoured from the Hamlet storyline for a few seasons, allowing Clay to gain some much-needed humanity before turning him fully dark again in deasons 4 and 5. He and Jax managed to establish an actual working father/son relationship.
Ron Perlman’s performance is largely responsible for the character’s depth and additional impact.
If Perlman had kept Clay two-dimensional, audiences would’ve just been waiting for him to get offed season after season, and we would’ve been robbed of the resonance of Clay’s eventual failure to be a semi-good guy.
5 SAVED: JIMMY SMITS (Nero)
When Nero Padilla came on the scene in the aftermath of a binge with Gemma is season 5, he was a much-needed antidote to the constant abuse she used to suffer at the hands of her ex, Clay. Nero was like Opie, but without the hopelessness, having turned his life around against the odds after spending 30 years in prison. Sure, he ran an illegal entertainment business, but compared to SAMCRO’S more nefarious activities, he was a boy scout. He also became a friend and kind of mentor to Jax, and in return gained got some spice injected into his life.
Smits’ performance served as an unexpectedly hilarious reflection to the craziness that constantly surrounded SAMCRO.
Even though he didn’t escape his association with the gang unscathed, we all breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t go down in flames like everyone else in the final season.
4 HURT: ALLY WALKER (Stahl)
If Ally Walker’s anything, it’s versatile. She’s slayed in roles that vary wildly from the tortured FBI Profiler in NBC’s The Profiler to looney tunes Ashley Bacon, Peter Gallagher’s former mistress in While You Were Sleeping.
She’s exceptionally talented and blessed with a huge range, which is why we’re still kind of perplexed that her character on Sons of Anarchy didn’t really land.
Maybe we just couldn’t get past ATF agent June Stahl’s brutal tactics or maybe the character was just too unlikable due to her pathological self-interest. Or maybe we just weren’t comfortable with the level of violence hurled at this woman despite the fact that she poked every bear she possibly could. Either way, it was hard to reconcile the sensitivity we’d come to associate with Walker with Stahl’s brazen corruption and we weren’t sorry to see her go.
3 SAVED: CHARLIE HUNNAM (Jax)
To look at his later roles, you wouldn’t think that Charlie Hunnam was possessed of much of a range. Since his starmaking turn on Sons of Anarchy, the Scottish-born actor turned up in Pacific Ring and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. He’s got the reluctant hero game down pat, that’s for sure, but Charlie Hunnam got his start in roles that were a far cry from Jax Teller.
He appeared as the titular character in BBC’s adaptation of Charles Dickens Nicholas Nickleby and he played naïve gay teen Nathan Maloney on Queer as Folk. If Sutter had cast a pretty-boy muscle man who looked good scowling, Sons of Anarchy wouldn’t have made it more than a season. The show needed someone capable of playing Jax’s complex and conflicted nature in addition to looking the part, and Charlie Hunnam was pitch perfect.
2 HURT: RYAN HURST (Opie)
Given the shows roots in Hamlet, the character of Opie was always destined to be one of the most tragic characters in the show – and for Sons of Anarchy, that’s saying something. Unfortunately, while all the characters managed to find some fun and joy along the road to utter destruction, Opie was always a major buzzkill. Some of those moments weren’t incredible television (RIP Donna), but after a while, we started to dread Opie’s storylines.
Ryan Hurst is a great actor, but he always played Opie with such a sense of doom and gloom that it became hard to invest in him.
Hurst’s propensity for tragic intensity occasionally turned to the melodramatic, and it always seemed like he’d given up on his own life before ever really giving it a chance. When he finally did meet his end, we were sorry we weren’t sorry to see him go.
1 SAVED: KURT SUTTER (Otto)
Kurt Sutter is no stranger to guest starring on his own shows. He’s appeared in both The Shield and The Bastard Executioner along with also starring as Big Otto Delaney in Sons of Anarchy.
Despite the fact that most of his work takes place behind the camera, he’s a Meisner trained actor and it shows in his incredibly compelling turn as Otto.
While SAMCRO’S resident prison boss never figured too centrally in the action for any length of time, he was always pivotal and riveting when he did show up. His life was plagued with degradation until his self-sacrifice, and in the hands of a lesser actor, audiences might’ve grown tired of his constant stream of cynical brutality.
Sutter’s ability to convey the weight of Otto’s determination in the face of his pain made the incredibly ruthless man more heroic than half the people on the outside.