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'Downton Abbey' star Dan Stevens won't return for fourth season as Matthew

Nick Briggs / Masterpeice Theater

Dan Stevens (as Matthew Crawley) and Michelle Dockery (as Lady Mary Crawley) in "Downton Abbey."

Looks like "Downton Abbey" may have to hunt down a new heir: A spokesperson for the hugely popular PBS series has confirmed to Deadline that star Dan Stevens (who plays Matthew Crawley) has not re-signed for the series' fourth season.

Note: Potential spoilers ahead.

Season three of the series ended its run in the UK with a Christmas special that aired there Tuesday and, according to Deadline, "explains Matthew's exit." Season three of the series begins airing in the U.S. on Jan. 6, which means that American fans will have to wait some months before learning how he'll depart.

E! Online points to an interview with the U.K.'s Telegraph in which Stevens opens up about his decision to leave the series.

"We were always optioned for three years ... And when that came up it was a very difficult decision," Stevens explains of his choice to leave the show. "But it felt like a good time to take stock, to take a moment. From a personal point of view, I wanted a chance to do other things," he said. "It is a very monopolizing job. So there is a strange sense of liberation at the same time as great sadness because I am very, very fond of the show and always will be."

As for his final episode, Stevens admits, "It was very emotional shooting the end of this series, because those guys are like family. We have been living together for three years and have been on the most amazing journey." Stevens adds, "I don't think any of us, with the possible exception of Maggie [Smith], have had this kind of explosion in our career paths, and may never again. It has been so bizarre, and only those who have been through it can understand it."

The exit wasn't entirely unexpected; back in October Stevens hedged about whether he'd re-up: "I think we'll have to wait and see really," he told the Wall Street Journal about that fourth season. "You do feel a certain obligation to shows that raise your profile like 'Downton' has. But there are definitely other exciting opportunities out there."

"Downton's" fourth season is set to begin shooting in winter 2013. Meanwhile, Stevens has already been expanding his resume, appearing on Broadway with Jessica Chastain in "The Heiress," and starring in and executive producing the upcoming independent film "Summer in February."

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