Few actors have left as big a void on a TV series than Steve Carell on The Office. For seven seasons, Carell amazed with his phenomenally nuanced performance as Michael Scott—at once the world’s worst boss, but also a deeply empathetic and lonely human. After Carell’s exit in the show’s seventh season, the NBC series had serious trouble recovering, and the quality certainly dipped in its final two seasons. Some shows can soldier on with cast changes, but when it came to The Office, the series was a shell of its former self without Michael Scott.
But new revelations have pulled back the curtain on the circumstances of Carell’s exit—namely that the insanely talented performer wasn’t actually itching to leave the show at all, and was game to return for at least Season 8. Interviews in Andy Greene’s newly released book The Office: The Untold Story of the Greatest Sitcom of the 2000s claim that Carell’s decision to leave The Office had more to do with network ambivalence than a burning desire to break free from the constraints of a broadcast sitcom.
It all started when Carell gave an interview in April 2010 to the BBC. With the final year of his contract looming, the actor noted that Season 7 would “probably be my last year.” But as Carell explained to The Office boom operator/sound mixer Brian Wittle, it was the reaction to these off-the-cuff comments that actually convinced him it was time to leave:
“I sat with him one time and he told me the story. He was doing a radio interview and he haphazardly mentioned, almost unconsciously, that it might be his last season. He didn’t plan on saying it out loud and he hadn’t decided anything. He was kind of thinking out loud, but he did it in an interview in public and it created news. Then what he said was the people connected to the show had no reaction to it. They didn’t call and say, ‘What? You wanna leave?’ He said he didn’t get any kind of response from them. When he realized he didn’t get any kind of response from them, he thought, ‘Oh, maybe they don’t really care if I leave. Maybe I should go do other things.’ So I think that made it easier, because when the news broke that he was considering it, the people that are in charge of keeping him there didn’t make a big effort to do so until afterward.”
Hairstylist Kim Ferry backs up Wittle’s recollection of the events, noting that the network decided not to pick up Carell’s option for another season:
“He didn’t want to leave the show. He had told the network that he was going to sign for another couple of years. He was willing to and his agent was willing to. But for some reason, they didn’t contact him. I don’t know if it was a game of chicken or what… He planned on staying on the show. He told his manager and his manager contacted them and said he’s willing to sign another contract for a couple years. So all of that was willing and ready and, on their side, honest. And the deadline came for when they were supposed to give him an offer and it passed and they didn’t make him an offer. So his agent was like, ‘Well, I guess they don’t want to renew you for some reason.’ Which was insane to me. And to him, I think.”
It’s worth noting that negotiations for Carell’s contract extension came just as NBC was going through a regime change. Jeff Zucker was on his way out, and Bob Greenblatt was on his way in. The Office producer Randy Cordray recalls in the book that Greenblatt “was not as big a fan of The Office as we wished he would’ve been. He took The Office for granted.” Cordray added, “If you’re not respected and don’t even get offered a contract or a discussion of a future contract, then you move on,” adding that he thinks Carell would have stayed with the series had NBC handled things differently.
Greenblatt claims he can’t remember the sequence of events, and goes on to say, “but I think Steve was already departing the show when I arrived. I couldn’t do anything about that since it preceded me.”
Ferry says she feels bad because the perception was that Carell was choosing to leave this beloved series, when that wasn’t the truth:
“[Carell] was like, ‘Look, I told them I want to do it. I don’t want to leave. I don’t understand.’ It just is mind-boggling how that happened. And I feel bad because I think a lot of people think he did leave the show on his own merit and it’s absolutely not true. I’m telling you. I was there. I was there. He really wanted to stay. And it devastated all of us because he was the heart of our show.”
Legendary casting director Allison Jones put it succinctly:
“As I recall, he was going to do another season and then NBC, for whatever reason, wouldn’t make a deal with him… Somebody didn’t pay him enough. It was absolutely asinine. I don’t know what else to say about that. Just asinine.”
This isn’t the first time contract negotiations have led to a high-profile TV series exit, but again, Carell’s loss was felt deeply on this particular show. Ratings for The Office declined sharply in Season 8 and Season 9, and the void left by Michael’s exit no doubt is part of the reason why the producers decided to end the series altogether after just a couple more seasons.
So yeah, the real reason why Steve Carell left The Office is that NBC didn’t pick up his contract. Big mistake. Huge.