No syndicated programming schedule was complete in the 1990s without the one-two punch of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess. Though Xena (1995-2001) was a spinoff of the New Zealand-set Greek fantasy starring Kevin Sorbo, it quickly became more of a critical and commercial success—even knocking the vapid sand dune drama Baywatch off its ratings perch.
In honor of the series finale's 15th anniversary, check out some facts about the warrior princess’s near-encounter with Wonder Woman, why she ticked off Herc, and how Jay Leno almost ruined the show.
1. SHE WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO DIE.
Xena was originally introduced on Hercules to satisfy executive producer Rob Tapert’s wish for a dark, tragic figure to emerge as a counterbalance to the cheerful, completely non-conflicted Hercules. At the conclusion of a three-episode arc, the character was supposed to die. But Tapert and his fellow producers were so impressed with her that the already-planned Hercules spinoff series was remodeled for Xena.
2. LUCY LAWLESS WASN’T THE FIRST CHOICE.
Lucy Lawless had already appeared on Hercules twice—in two different roles—when the show began scouring for an actress to fill Xena’s boots. A British actress named Vanessa Angel (who had starred in the television adaptation of Weird Science) was hired, but fell ill before she was able to fly to the set. After some discussion over whether to stick to their original concept of a blonde Amazon, Tapert decided on Lawless, who dyed her hair from blonde to black. (The two married in 1998.)
3. HERCULES WAS NOT A FAN.
Brawny Kevin Sorbo was not entirely happy with the direction his bosses at Renaissance Pictures were taking with Xena. Having surpassed his Hercules in the ratings, he felt the companion show was making a mistake by having the heroine presented as his character’s physical equal. “I never understood why [Tapert] made her actually more powerful than Hercules,” he told author Rob Weisbrot. “Hercules is supposed to be the strongest person in the world and a half-god ... they made her a doctor and so many other things. And I found it just weird.” Because Sorbo complained so much, people on the set of Hercules would jokingly spit whenever the word "Xena" was mentioned.
4. LAWLESS FELL OFF A HORSE—ON THE TONIGHT SHOW.
Lawless was barely a year into her stint as Xena when a segment for Jay Leno’s Tonight Show went awry: she fell off a horse, fracturing her pelvis in multiple places. With the second season already in production, producers had to scramble for ways to continue shooting while their title character recuperated. They adopted the body-switch premise, with recurring characters Callisto (Hudson Leick) and Autolycus (Bruce Campbell) becoming possessed by Xena’s spirit. While the accident was serious—Lawless had to re-learn to walk—it did have one positive effect: the media attention raised the actress’ profile in the States, bringing the show increased attention. (Sorry, Hercules.)
5. THE KRISHNA DID NOT GO OVER WELL.
Xena’s timeline was cheerfully anachronistic, blending Greek mythology with multiple cultures and religions. When the show delved into Indian beliefs in a multiple-episode arc in 1999, Hindus were not amused by the show’s depiction of the Krishna being summoned to help Xena rescue her female companion (and possible love interest) Gabrielle. They protested Universal, the show’s syndicator, and demanded it be pulled from the air. Universal relented, though Xena’s fans then began a counter-protest over censorship. To appease all parties, the episode returned in a slightly edited form and with a new introduction by Lawless stressing that the show tried to portray the religion in a respectful way.
6. THE CREDITS HAD JOKES.
Long before Marvel Studios made sitting through the end credits a thing, Xena’s producers began inserting throwaway jokes for fans. Liz Friedman, an executive at Renaissance, got the idea after watching Hercules footage one day and wishing she could mention that no centaurs had been harmed. It turns out there was no reason they couldn’t. Xena soon began advising viewers that any winged harpies seen in the show were treated with the utmost respect.
7. POSEIDON WAS CREATED JUST FOR THE CREDITS.
The towering ruler of the seas was seen briefly in the show’s opening credits, an undulating testament to the questionable quality of 1990s television-grade CGI. Viewers kept wondering when he’d show up, unaware that he had been created specifically for the intro. So many fans demanded a proper story for Poseidon that he ended up appearing in two second-season episodes.
8. THE SUBTEXT WASN’T WELCOMED BY EXECUTIVES.
Xena’s immense popularity quickly spread to the gay and lesbian communities, who enjoyed the undercurrent of romantic tension between the character and her sidekick, Gabrielle (Renée O’Connor). Executives at Universal, however, weren’t as enthused: they told Rob Tapert that any explicit consummation would result in a surge of interest followed by a steep decline and forbid any overt references. In the end, the relationship between the two was never clearly defined.
9. THERE WEREN’T MANY FEMALE DIRECTORS.
For a show big on female empowerment, not many women got an opportunity to get behind the camera. Out of the show’s 100-odd episodes, five were directed by women (two of them by Renée O'Connor). Co-executive producer Eric Gruendemann told the Los Angeles Times that it came down to a lack of qualified candidates well-versed in both action and visual effects work. "We feel bad about it," said Gruendemann, "but we're not guilty because we've tried."
10. SHE WAS SUPPOSED TO MEET WONDER WOMAN.
Corporate red tape would never allow the two Amazons to meet onscreen, but they came close when DC entered into an agreement with Dark Horse Comics (publishers of Xena’s illustrated adventures) to produce a crossover. According to writer Beau Smith, the project was written and partially drawn before DC decided Xena’s cancelation in 2001 would have lessened interest. The project was scrapped; Lawless later voiced Wonder Woman for a 2008 animated Justice League movie.
11. A REBOOT IS COMING.
Last year, NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt told The Hollywood Reporter that the network was actively developing a new incarnation of Xena, with the 47-year-old Lawless likely to be involved creatively. Onscreen, however, is a different story. “We’d love to have Lucy be a part of it,” Greenblatt said, “if we felt that her presence didn’t overshadow the direction we take with it.” Good luck with that.