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‘Downton Abbey’ finale: 5 more actors who walked away from TV shows that made them

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen Sunday’s season finale of “Downton Abbey,” stop reading.

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The worst-kept secret in television history is out: Matthew Crawley, the dashing heir to Downton Abbey, is dead.

In Sunday’s season finale of the popular PBS period drama, the new father perished in a car crash before he could even pass out “It’s a Boy!” cigars back at the estate. At least U.S. viewers weren’t subjected to the tragic episode on Christmas like British fans. Happy holidays, indeed.

Dan Stevens, the actor who plays Matthew, opted not to renew his contract, leaving “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes little choice but to off the poor bloke.

Stevens told The Daily Telegraph he decided to leave the award-winning, cultural phenomenon for the freedom to pursue other parts.

“I want to do the best work I can in as interesting a range of roles as I can,” Stevens said. “And I think a moment like this is quite unique and presents those opportunities more than ever before.”

Stevens admitted he doesn’t “know exactly what is around the corner.” Neither did many actors before him who walked away from the hit shows that spawned their success.

Some found themselves on the path to superstardom. Others took a wrong turn into obscurity. It’s too soon to tell where Stevens is headed. Let’s just hope he drives better than Matthew.

Five other TV stars who quit while the getting was still good:

George Clooney

He hung up his scrubs in 1999 after five seasons on “ER” playing the original Dr. McDreamy, Doug Ross. Giving up medicine for the movies paid off handsomely for the Academy Award-winning actor/Darfur peace broker. That’s not the case for some of his fellow “ER” castmates. Sherry Stringfield’s career could use some CPR, while Anthony Edwards made his return to series television this month with “Zero Hour,” which is zero good.

McLean Stevenson

The Bloomington native shot to fame as Lt. Col. Henry Blake on “MASH.” The Korean War-set dramedy ranked among the country’s Top 10 shows for nine of its 11 seasons (1972-1983). Stevenson bolted in season three and kicked himself later. “The mistake was that I thought everybody in America loved McLean Stevenson,” the late actor said in a “MASH” retrospective. “That was not the case. Everybody loved Henry Blake.”

Shelley Long

After a slow start, NBC’s “Cheers” was the toast of the sitcom world when Long called it quits in 1987. “Have a good life,” Sam (Ted Danson) says wistfully as his on-again, off-again lover walked out of his Boston bar. “I didn’t want to keep doing the same episode over and over again,” Long said a few years ago during an interview on Australian TV. Long played Mrs. Brady on the big screen and does the occasional TV guest spot, but she’s never recaptured the fame she had while playing Diane. Sometimes you want to stay where everybody knows your name.

David Caruso

His turn as brooding Det. John Kelly shot him to stardom on “NYPD Blue” when the cop drama debuted in 1993. Caruso bailed on the acclaimed ABC series four episodes into its sophomore season. (Maywood-born Dennis Franz stuck around for the entire 12-year run and has four Emmys to show for it.) Caruso’s film career never took off — probably best not to say “Jade” in his presence — and he landed back on the TV cop beat on the recently canceled “CSI Miami.”

Steve Carell

Seven seasons as the World’s Best Boss were enough for “The Office’s” Michael Scott, who resigned two years ago. Carell told Reuters “it was time to try something else” because “you never know what might be on the other side.” Turns out the other side has included a decent amount of movie work. His film “The Way, Way Back” debuted at Sundance earlier this year and “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone” hits theaters next month. Hindsight likely will prove his decision a smart one. Ratings for the NBC comedy had been trending downward — a pattern that escalated after his exit. “The Office” goes out of showbusiness for good with a Scott-free series finale May 16.