A secondary character of some importance in the world at large has disappeared or been rendered incapable of performing his usual duties: they've been kidnapped, or have run away, or they might have even died. Alternatively, they might need to be in two places at once to satisfy conflicting commitments. Someone else (usually one of the program's leads) finds themself dragooned into service; they must impersonate the missing person during some critical event or meeting... or for much longer. While sometimes the impostor receives sufficient briefing and/or real-time aid to bring off the deception seamlessly, it's more common for time or other constraints to prevent this seemingly necessary step. In a comedic setting, naturally, Hilarity Ensues; in more dramatic locales, the results can be anything from painfully embarrassing to potentially fatal. Eventually the missing person (if they aren't deceased) is recovered, but often only after they learn An Aesop about some aspect of the world which was hidden from them in their usual role. Compare with Prince and Pauper and Decoy Leader. Closely related to El Cid Ploy and You Will Be Beethoven. The former trope name comes from the title of an episode of Angel which used an inversion of this plot, wherein the title character went missing and was impersonated by a member of the supporting cast. It might also be considered a subversion, as the missing character ended up learning absolutely nothing. Usually — but not always — involves an Identical Stranger. See also Body Double and Mock Millionaire.
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- This is basically the plot of The Jungle King. When the king Maximilien is kidnapped, General Glump uses the king's twin brother, Irwin, to impersonate his brother, teaching him to behave properly as a King.
Anime and Manga
- In El-Hazard: The Magnificent World, Makoto Mizuhara is forced to impersonate the missing Princess Fatora until she is rescued. He pulls this off with surprising ease.
- In episode 12 of Mai-Otome, Mashiro runs away rather than meet a foreign prince, and Arika is forced to impersonate her. However, in a double invocation of the trope, the prince is himself an impostor, the female bodyguard of the true prince who himself is missing. Naturally, the real Mashiro and Prince Takumi meet, neither knowing who the other is. Pleasantly enough, this is not played for laughs, despite the strong tendency of anime using this trope to do so. What is played for laughs is Nina claiming to be Arika just for the hell of it — and to further perpetrate the joke, Mashiro introduces herself as Nina, completing the circle.
- Inverted in an episode of Sailor Moon, where Usagi is kidnapped by Kaolinite because she suspects Usagi has the Talisman in her Heart Crystal and has some leads that about Usagi being Sailor Moon. Since her Transformation Trinket has been taken away, Usagi can't transform... and then, Minako must pretend to be Sailor Moon. Everyone else is fooled, but Usagi is less than impressed.
- Subverted in the anime Pani Poni Dash!. Form teacher Rebecca Miyamoto disappeared just as the PTA are about to sit in during her class and her loyal students all but press gang Serizawa Akane to be her replacement or as Akane herself thinks, a "kagemusha". The subversion is that Rebecca had been present all along, using her disguise skills to appear as various other members of the cast. This is revealed in a sequence that pays homage to Cutey Honey. She did this because she hated such visits from the PTA.
- Utilized in the manga Princess Prince, where Half-Identical Twins trade places after one gets pregnant. The twist is that not only is the "replacement Princess" a boy, but his "fiancee" is well aware of this.
- In Death Note, this is played with - all the relevant major characters know about the deception, and it's all in all a pretty twisted case of the trope.
- Specifically, Light takes on the guise of L, after killing the real L. Near, however, knows L is dead and figures out who the new L is pretty easily. After the grand finale, Near himself takes up the mantle of L.
- This is the entire plot of the manga Magical × Miracle.
- In Tentai Senshi Sunred, Sunred receives the outfit of Sakyun, a fellow toku hero, back from the laundromat. He decides to beat up Florsheim, the local villain group, for the hell of it. It's only when ink is sprayed on the suit that Sunred realizes he has to return it to its rightful owner. This is the closest Sunred ever gets to acting like an actual toku hero.
- In Detective Conan, Conan frequently has to recruit others to play his 17-year-old self, Shinichi, to avoid suspicion by Ran. Likewise, he's had Ai Haibara pretend to be Conan a couple times, and once asked Kid to pretend to be Ai's own 17 year old self. Kid also likes to pretend to be Shinichi(or quite literally ANYONE ELSE) to avoid capture on multiple occasions.
- In Lupin III vs. Detective Conan, a Crossover Made-for-TV Movie, Ran turns out to be a near ringer for the princess of a small European country. She ends up involuntarily impersonating the girl for a while, to help draw out a murderer.. The princess, meanwhile, got a chance to enjoy the way the other half lives.
- In The World God Only Knows, Elsea has to fill in for the idol Kanon as Kanon is the host of Apollo. She gets stabbed and enters a dormant state to save herself.
- In The First President of Japan, the Communist Big Bad has a Chinese diplomat killed. He finds a very suitable replacement in some average Joe off the street—in fact, it's pointed out how uncanny the resemblance is. The villain just about got away with it, but an analyst lined up a still from the impostor's conference with an older still, thereby figuring out what had happened.
- In Pokémon, a Torchic, Treecko and Mudkip were being prepared as choices for the starter Pokémon of a new Hoenn Trainer. Ash and his friends were tasked with watching over them before the new Trainer came, but the Torchic accidentally evolved into Combusken, forcing them to use May's Torchic as a temporary replacement and try to convince the new Trainer to pick Mudkip or Treecko.
- Happens accidentally to Shakira in an issue of The Warlord. Shakira discovers she is a dead ringer for a kidnapped princess. She takes the princess's place, leading the kidnappers to believe the princess has escaped.
- Jon Sable, Freelance #49 is an Homage/Whole Plot Reference to The Prisoner of Zenda with Jon standing in for a kidnapped European monarch.
- In Superior, Simon Pooni is given the powers and film appearance of his favourite comic book character, Superman expy Superior. When his bully is given the powers of Superior's foe Abraxas and Simon is depowered, the bully begins to destroy the city to lure out Superior. With Superior no where to be seen the actor who played him, Tad Scott, appears and tries to pretend to be Superior to lure the bully away from the city.
- The plot of the movie Dave, where the title character takes the place of the President of the United States after the latter unexpectedly suffers a stroke while having sex with an intern. Dave has to fool not only the country but the late president's wife, for Rom Com reasons. At the end, Dave-as-President is giving a speech, fakes having a stroke and fainting, and they replace him with the real comatose President so Dave can go back to his normal life. By which we mean he goes to run for his city council as himself.
- The cult favorite Bubba Ho Tep relies on the premise that in the early '70s, Elvis Presley traded places with an Elvis impersonator; the impersonator died in 1977, and the real Elvis lived to a ripe old age in a retirement home.
- Premise of the 1988 movie Moon Over Parador. An actor who has just finished filming a movie on location in the fictional Latin American Banana Republic of Parador gets coerced into pretending to be that country's dictator (whom he resembles and was already good at impersonating) when the latter unexpectedly dies.
- Mel Brooks' film History of the World Part I uses this trope near the end, when the urinal boy replaces Louis XVI (both played by Brooks). Origin of the phrase, "It's good to be the king." Or, at least, origin of its entrance into pop culture.
- This is the premise of the Wayans Bros. movie White Chicks.
- The premise of the movie Bad Company, in which a dead CIA agent posing as a nuclear arms dealer has to be impersonated by his Separated at Birth identical twin brother.
- This is the basic premise for Akira Kurosawa's movie Kagemusha, where the thief disguises himself as the warlord.
- In the Bollywood movie Don, the protagonist, Vijay, has to go undercover to impersonate the dead eponymous character, a leader of an underworld gang in Mumbai, in order to help the police arrest the rest of the gang. In The Remake, this trope is subverted as Don kills Vijay and ends up acting as Vijay acting as himself to fool both his gang and the police.
- Happens in The Great Race (as part of The Prisoner of Zenda parody) with Fate being a dead ringer for the king of Pottsdorf.
- In The Passenger Jack Nicholson's character assumes the identity of an acquaintance for reasons that remain difficult to fathom, even keeping meetings with men who turn out to be quite dangerous and who expect him to provide things he cannot.
- Most of the plot complications in A Very Long Engagement are caused when the identities of two young WW1 soldiers are switched. The character involved, Manech, has lost his mind and isn't really able to clear things up - it's the people around him who, for their own reasons, practice the deception.
- Happens in Hair (the movie): George Berger impersonates Claude Hooper Bukowski to extract Claude from the base for a last meeting with Sheila, taking his place, but while Claude is away, the unit flies out to Vietnam, taking Berger with them. The film ends with the main cast singing at Berger's grave. Damn you, Milo Forman!
- This was a staple of several Danny Kaye movies. In On the Double he impersonated a British army officer, while in On the Riviera he impersonated a womanizing French pilot.
- The Soviet classic Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession involves a minor Soviet official and a well-known thief ending up in Ivan the Terrible's court. By chance, the official (also named Ivan) looks exactly like the Tsar (who has been sent to 70s Moscow), so the thief forces him to wear the royal robes and pretend to be the Tsar, while the thief pretends to be a knyaz (minor noble) named Mikoslavsky (his name). Immediately, the problem with the knyaz arises, as the real Knyaz Miloslavsky was recently Impaled with Extreme Prejudice by order of the Tsar. The thief, naturally, claims that it was the other Knyaz Miloslavsky. The official is reluctant to pretend to be someone else, especially since he has to deal with state business, such as receiving a foreign ambassador.
- Played for Laughs in Naked Gun 2½ when Drebin's team sneaks into a concert hall disguised as a mariachi band set to play. Accidentally stumbling on stage and facing an audience, they perfectly improvise "Bésame Mucho" to stay hidden.
- Thanks to her resemblance to late Princess Ananka, John's wife Isobel in The Mummy (1959) stops the mummy Kharis (who loved Ananka in the past) from strangling her husband by making herself look even more like her.
- This trope is central to the story of The Prisoner of Zenda, where Rudolph Rassendyl has to impersonate his royal cousin who has been kidnapped the day before his coronation.
- The Discworld novel Hogfather does this, with Death impersonating the Hogfather (the local equivalent of Santa Claus). It's also the plot of Mort, with Mort impersonating Death.
- Conan the Barbarian: In the only Conan novel written by the character's original creator, The Hour of the Dragon, Conan is incapacitated on the eve of battle by a wizard's servant. In order to keep his army from being demoralized and consequently losing his kingdom, he has one of his most promising commanders don his armor and lead his men in his place—only for the commander to have a cliff face dropped on him, making the world at large believe that King Conan is dead. The rest of the novel revolves around Conan trying to win back his throne and overthrow his usurper.
- In Saint Camber, Alister Cullen dies in arcane combat with Ariella. Camber finds his body and takes his identity because King Cinhil trusts Alister above any other Deryni. With the aid of his son Joram, Camber alters the appearance of the corpse and himself to make the world think he is dead and Alister lives; his later efforts to make sense of the scraps of memory left in the corpse endanger the deception and fuel the demands for his sainthood.
- In the book Hit or Myth, Skeeve has to disguise himself as King Roderick for a day so the king can take a vacation. Then the king does a bunk, leaving Skeeve to carry on the charade... which includes marrying the king's fiancée...
- Older Than Feudalism: In The Iliad, when Achilles refuses to fight, his friend (and possible lover) Patroclus dons his armor and fights the Trojans and their many allies in his stead. Until he's killed, then Achilles is mega-pissed. However, Achilles is the protagonist while Patroclus is a side character.
- There's a rather strange, but sad, example on Catch-22 — while in hospital, main character Yossarian is roped in to play a dying soldier visited by his family, because the real soldier is already dead and the doctor doesn't want to disappoint them. Made especially weird by the fact that Yossarian insists they call him by his real name, rather than the dead soldier's name, and manages to convince the family (except the mother) that the soldier's name was Yossarian all along.
- In Mary Stewart's The Ivy Tree, a young woman just come to town is recruited to impersonate the long-missing heir of a local estate, so as to convince the missing woman's grandfather to change his will. Subverted in that it's eventually revealed she is the heir, going along with the scheme for her own reasons. The deception is particularly startling because the whole book is in her first-person perspective.
- In Keith Laumer's Worlds of the Imperium, the protagonist is dragooned by agents from the Imperium's Alternate History to replace a dictator (the version of himself from a third Alternate History). The dictator lost both legs to war wounds, a fact kept secret from the public. The impersonation thus fails immediately when the protagonist is seen by someone who has actually met the dictator.
- In The Lies of Locke Lamora, the titular thief is hired by The Gray King to impersonate him at a meeting with the local crime lord. He assures Locke that no harm will come to him. It does.
- The Mad King by Edgar Rice Burroughs is very similar to The Prisoner of Zenda except that at the end the hero gets to marry the princess and remain as king after the real king is murdered.
- Near the end of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, the heroic army is Storming the Castle of the villains, but Prince Josua and Sir Camaris unexpectedly end up sneaking in via the tunnels — in Camaris' case because he is compelled by the Great Sword he is carrying and Josua because he wants to try to persuade Camaris to return (and another, more personal reason). This leaves the army without its two main leaders, so the remaining ones quickly grab two lookalikes, dress them appropriately, and send them off to lead instead.
- In the second Codex Alera novel Max winds up having to impersonate the First Lord using watercrafting after he collapses from exhaustion so the First Lord's enemies won't realize he's incapacitated. Which becomes absolutely hilarious when Max has to seduce the First Lady to keep the masquerade up.
- In Elise Title's The Face in the Mirror a model who greatly resembled a missing research scientist was pressed into impersonating her. It was eventually revealed that they were twins separated at birth.
- The main plot of the first book of the Ascendance Trilogy by Jennifer A. Nielson. A young man taken from an orphanage is trained, along with two other candidates, to impersonate a missing prince (by a nobleman with dubious motives) and take the throne, which will otherwise be a source of civil war, after the king dies. The young man actually is the prince, who was living in hiding.
- In the Relativity story "Caffeine Headache," most of the people in the city begin acting weird due to something in the coffee. The superheroes struggle to maintain order, but Michael (the Black Torrent) is out of town. (He's actually in South America investigating the farms where the coffee originated.) His father dons the superhero costume and goes out in his place.
- Since his father was the original Black Torrent, this is a combination of this trope plus Mandatory Unretirement.
Live Action TV
- Probably one of the weirdest versions of this trope is in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Host", which is the introductory episode of the Trill. The Trill ambassador is killed in an attack, but his symbiote is still alive. However, no other Trill is able to make it before it dies, so Commander Riker has the symbiote implanted in him. Thus, Riker is forced to carry out the ambassador's mission, which is a slight problem when the factions that requested the ambassador see him.
- Played straight only with time travel in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's "Past Tense", where Sisko's presence in the past causes the premature death of an important historical figure a few days before he was supposed to die heroically. Sisko then has to impersonate him.
- In a later season, Nog was studying Earth's history, and when he encountered an entry about the historical figure, passed comment about how closely Sisko resembled a picture of him (the picture, of course, being that of Sisko). Quark shrugs it off, saying "All hew-mons look alike".
- Sisko also, at one point, gets kidnapped by Miles 'Smiley' O'Brien from the Mirror Universe, because Mirror-Sisko was killed-in-action and they need someone to convince Sisko's Mirror-wife to join the rebel cause. Subverted when at the end of the episode Mirror Jennifer asks what happened to her real husband revealing she knew all along who he was.
- Hogan's Heroes does this three times. The first is when Kinch impersonates an African prince, the second when Crittendon impersonates an English traitor, and the third in reverse where the heroes help a German defector, who looks exactly like Schultz, escape by dressing him up in Schultz' uniform.
- JAG: In "Sightings", after Meg is captured, she is made to announce over a loudspeaker that Lt. Rabb should hand himself over or she will be killed. Since they don't know J.D. is there as well, and haven't seen Harm yet, J.D. and Harm change clothes, allowing J.D. to serve as a distraction while Harm sneaks in to do his hero thing.
- The Get Smart episode "The King Lives?".
- The classic Doctor Who serial The Enemy of the World is centered around the Doctor impersonating wannabe world dictator Salamander in order to uncover information that would discredit him.
- The Angel episode "Guise Will Be Guise", in which Wesley is forced to play the part of the missing Angel. (Considering that this story kicks off Wesley's years-long transformation from comic relief to tragic hero, this might be be the most successful impersonation in history.)
- Happened occasionally on Sliders, when one or another character had to fill in for alternate-world versions of themselves.
- In NCIS, Ducky impersonates the deceased arms dealer to try to capture La Grenouille.
- Tony and Ziva impersonate two dead, married assassins to foil an assassination plot.
- In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow impersonates the captured alternate universe Willow to get her mooks to go outside.
- The Buffybot takes this role at the beginning of Season 6, impersonating the dead Buffy on patrols and Parent-Teacher Days.
- In the Simon & Simon episode "Walk a Mile in My Hat", a potential client shows up looking for A.J. while he's out of town, and Rick decides to impersonate A.J.—clothing and behavior included—to get her business. A.J. comes back after the case has gotten complicated and winds up taking on Rick's persona just to shake up the opposition.
- Done a few times on Xena: Warrior Princess, where Xena has at least two Identical Strangers who she either impersonates or impersonate her.
- In two episodes of Hercules The Legendary Journeys, Iolaus is required to step in for his lookalike cousin, Prince (later King) Orestes.
- In an Airwolf episode, the pilot was recruited to fly a plane during an air show while the look-alike Soviet pilot was debriefed by the Firm to see if he actually wanted to defect. Unfortunately the Soviets got wind of it, brought his wife to threaten him, the pilot and the wife got kidnapped.
- An episode of The Jamie Kennedy Experiment had the mark told he bore a striking resemblance to a foreign prince who was too hung over to appear at a press conference, and was asked to take his place.
- Played for laughs in Blackadder, when a woman comes to see her condemned husband but Blackadder has already has him executed ahead of schedule, and so Blackadder himself has to impersonate him. With the aid of a bag over his head.
- The clones of Orphan Black frequently need to impersonate each other. Since they're clones, this is easier for them than a number of other examples, but it doesn't mean there aren't still hilarious complications.
- Prickly City: Senator Kevin refuses to go see his constituents. So Winslow goes in disguise.
- The play Lend Me a Tenor features a stage manager's assistant stepping in for a famous opera star who has supposedly committed suicide just before a performance.
- In A. A. Milne's play The Ugly Duckling, the prince and princess who are supposed to marry are both so plain that they have better-looking servants stand in for them at the betrothal. (At the actual wedding they plan to be wearing full armor and a face-obscuring veil, respectively.)
- In The Taming of the Shrew, a servant, Tranio, switches clothes with and fills in for his master, Lucentio, as part of a classic Zany Scheme. Later, he pushes the scheme further by getting another character to impersonate Lucentio's father.
- In Final Fantasy VI, Celes is asked to stand in for opera singer Maria, who happens to look exactly like her, because Setzer is planning to kidnap Maria. Amazingly, this resemblance also includes the ability to competently sing opera.
- This is the premise of Rondo of Swords. A prince is killed during an invasion, and asks his body double to stand in for him permanently. Since the double has been doing this for years already, he does a fairly convincing job, though "Serdic's" memory turn out to have some rather conspicuous holes.
- Most of the first part of Wild AR Ms XF revolves around Clarissa impersonating Princess Alexia.
- In Sluggy Freelance Torg is forced into impersonating Lord Torgamous, a medieval warlord who just happens to look exactly like him. It doesn't work out so well.
- The Torg Potter arcs are this as well, although it requires little effort on Torg's part to pull it off.
- In Bob and George, Dr. Light decides to force the Author to serve as Megaman.
- In The Gamers Alliance, when King Marcus is kidnapped on the eve of the Grand Alliance's march to Maar Sul, the heroes who know about the king's disappearance quickly come up with a plan to make one person impersonate Marcus and thus keep the budding Alliance together until the real Marcus has been located. The candidate for "fake" Marcus ends up being Ronove who quickly goes drunk on power as soon as he gets the crown on his head, and Hilarity Ensues.
- The Superman: The Animated Series episode "Knight Time" uses this plot, with Batman disappearing, and Superman putting on his costume. Bane sure picked the wrong episode to return in...
- "I'm twice as strong as before!" [Tries to beat up Superman.]
- Also includes a hilarious scene where Superman mimics Batman's voice flawlessly, surprising Robin. When asked how, Supes replies with "Precise muscle control." It beats "Super Ventriloquism", at least. He also says "I have a really good ear"... in Robin's voice, freaking him out.
- Well, you didn't really think it was all down to the glasses, did you?
- In the Classic Disney Short A Knight For a Day, Dogface squire Cedric accidentally knocks out his master Sir Loinsteak right before a jousting match and has to take his place.
- In a Danny Phantom episode, Tucker and Sam took turns dressing as Danny Fenton to ensure his parents of his whereabouts since the real Danny is currently stuck in ghost mode. They had to keep running away, declaring "a ghost took their face" since...well, his parents would probably notice that they're respectively a different race and gender than their actual son.
- The Flintstones had Fred fill in for a prominent billionaire who ran off to play hooky for a day. Not only did did this guarantee that Hilarity Ensues, but let's just say it Didn't End Well for either of them.
- In a Phineas and Ferb episode, their dad accidentally gets into Perry's secret base and has his memory wiped. Perry has to stand in for him at Candace's Father/Daughter Competition in a robot version of him that Carl had made "just for this type of situation."
- In the Batman: The Brave and the Bold episode "Night of the Batmen," Green Arrow, Aquaman, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man all independently decide to fill in for an injured Batman. In this case, it's the impersonators that learn the Aesop, that Batman doesn't need anyone's help, because he's Batman. Even working together, they end up being captured, and Batman has to build a robotic suit and rescue them while he's still recovering.
- Danger Mouse: In "The Spy Who Stayed In With A Cold," Danger Mouse is captured by the motorbiking Mongols. Agent 57, whose head cold makes him randomly change identities when he sneezes, takes on DM's form and completely flummoxes the Mongols into retreating.
- In Barbie in the Princess and the Pauper, Barbie "stars" as both Princess Anneliese and a poor girl named Erika. The Princess is betrothed to King Dominick, but when she's kidnapped, Dominick thinks she's run away and threatens to call off the wedding. To buy time, the Princess's tutor, Julian (Ken), convinces Erika to fill-in for her until everything can be straightened out.
- Canadian Member of Parliament Rahim Jaffer was impersonated on a radio phone-in show by an aide in March 2001. He was apparently double booked. And the aide sounds nothing like him.