When death becomes TV

Larry Hagman, John Ritter, Freddie Prinze and John Spencer -TV shows face their worst fears adjusting to the unexpected loss of an actor.

2013-07-15_1653It’s never easy for television producers having to lose one of their own and to face the stark situation of how they will resolve the situation for their characters.

Still reeling from the death of Cory Monteith, Glee producers are yet to determine how they will deal with the loss of the actor who played Finn. It hardly seems fitting to replace him with another actor. Audiences just wouldn’t buy it, especially given Lea Michele had been partnered with him off-screen.

US website TV Line has reminded us of other shows that have faced similar situations when actors such as Larry Hagman, John Ritter, Freddie Prinze and John Spencer all died suddenly while shows were still in production. In 8 Simple Rules the family man played by John Ritter (pictured) went out to buy some milk, and simply never came home.

Here are just a few of the ones they have referenced:

After being felled by complications from heart disease in February 1985, Nicholas Colasanto made his final appearance as “Coach” in the Season 3 finale. The following season’s premiere established Coach’s death, while introducing his pen pal Woody/new cast member Woody Harrelson.

Chico and the Man
Freddie Prinze committed suicide in January 1977, at age 22 and midway through Season 3 of this urban sitcom. At first, the show sent the titular Chico off-screen to visit his father in Mexico, then filled his place on the canvas with a young orphan named Raul. Toward the end of the series’ fourth and final season, when Jack Albertson’s Ed (“The Man”) had a breakdown, it was revealed that Chico had at some point died.

Jim Davis played family patriarch Jock Ewing through much of Season 4, until he died of multiple myeloma in April 1981. Miss Ellie’s husband was kept off screen for the next 13 episodes, and ultimately killed in a helicopter crash during Season 5.

Larry Hagman reprised his iconic role as J.R. Ewing right up until he succumbed to myeloid leukemia in November 2012, early into production of Season 2 of the TNT drama. J.R. appeared in several episodes of Season 2, then became the target of a murder mystery, in part thanks to some computer trickery using existing Hagman scenes.

The District
Lynne Thigpen’s run as Washington D.C. police chief aide Ella Farmer ended in spring 2003, when the actress suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Ella, in turn, died suddenly in a late Season 3 episode.

8 Simple Rules
After John Ritter died as the result of an undiagnosed aortic dissection in September 2003, Season 2 of the ABC sitcom took a two-month hiatus, ultimately returning with a special “goodbye” episode tributing the comedy great. James Garner (as Katey Sagal’s TV dad) and David Spade (as cousin C.J.) filled the cast void, though the show would last only one more season.

Gimme a Break!
When Dolph Sweet died of cancer in May 1985, so did widower “Chief” Kanisky, leaving Nell Carter’s Nell to run the household for two more seasons.

Hill Street Blues
Sergeant Esterhaus urged the boys in blue to “be careful out there” until midway through Season 4, when Michael Conrad died of urethral cancer in November 1993. Esterhaus himself was killed off in that season’s Episode 14, replaced by Robert Prosky’s Sergeant Stan Jablonski.

When Stanley Kamel died of a heart attack in April 2008, Monk’s shrink, Dr. Charles Kroger, himself suffered the same fate during Season 7, in an episode dedicated to the late actor.

Phil Hartman was tragically shot to death by his wife in May 1998, after production on Season 4 of the NBC workplace sitcom had wrapped. In the Season 5 opener, it was revealed that his Bill McNeal had died of a heart attack.

Suddenly Susan
After David Strickland, who played music reporter Todd, killed himself in March 1999, the sitcom paid special tribute to the actor in an episode that deftly established that Todd had died, too.

The West Wing
During the acclaimed drama’s seventh and final season, White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry died of a heart attack – the same sad fate met by portrayer John Spencer in December 2005.

17 Responses

  1. Just adding that in the case of Phil Hartman, all of the Simpsons character whose voices he brought to live, the actor Troy Mclure and lawyer Lionel Lutz, never appeared on the show again. Producers just decided not to find another voice over actor to replace him.

  2. I was hoping someone would mention Spartacus. That was really sad as the actor was hoping to star in the next series of the show after his cancer treatment, but unfortunately it came back with a vengeance 🙁

    I remember the Mark Priestley episodes of All Saints too – those were really harrowing as his character was dealing with the disappearance of his wife and you could see how depressed he was, especially when he did emotional scenes. He committed suicide on the night the wedding episode aired.

  3. You forgot Bonanza (1959-72) and the death of the much loved Hoss (Dan Blocker). The death happened during the US summer between seasons and the first episode of the final season (the first without Hoss) featured Little Joe crying over and mourning the loss of his fiance. No mention is made of Hoss’s death during the episode except for a shot of a framed photo of Hoss on his father’s mantlepiece during the episode while the others are mourning Little Joe’s fiance.

    You could also mention 1980s series Cover Up and the death of Jon Erik Hexum who died accidentally when he fired a gun loaded with blanks against his head to demonstrate it wasn’t loaded, and the recoil caused a brain hemorrhage. They tried to continue the show with another actor but it didn’t work and the show was cancelled soon after.

  4. @HardcorePrawn – Dad’s Army had the same problem when James Beck (Pvt Walker) died in between taping episodes. They had one episode where he appeared in location film inserts but not in the studio; and then in the next episode (the last of that series) he was said to have nipped up to London, from whence he never returned.

  5. A notable UK show to be affected by the death of a star was Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.

    Gary Holton died of an overdose midway through filming the second series, after all of his scenes in Spain had been filmed, but prior to most of the Spanish-set interior shots (which were actually filmed back in Britain).

    As a result his character could be seen in most exterior shots, with explanations regarding his whereabouts given for his non-appearance in interiors (“He’s met a girl and said he’ll meet us at the club later…” etc.)

    A “double” was also cast to make the occasional appearance in the background of some scenes. A rather sad and ham-fisted way of dealing with his death and one which gave the influential show a macabre feel.

    When the show eventually returned for a third series (16 years later) his character Wayne was announced to have died and the remaining characters held…

  6. The Cheers situation was a bit tricky, because they had already filmed some important episodes in advance due to Shelly Long’s pregnancy. So they kept making silly excuses for why Coach wasn’t in certain episodes towards the end of the season. But the first episode recorded after Nicholas Colasanto’s death had a previously unused cold open where the camera lingered on Coach just before the opening credits.

    The episode of Newsradio after Phil Hartman’s tragic death was very moving.

  7. Agree recasting would be stupid, and the only obvious recent example I can think of where that’s happened is Spartacus – but they had little choice considering the show was built around one character.

    As nevothirty says when an actor dies the character usually dies too – and I think in this case they have little option but to kill Finn off. I think then with this news, questions over Lea and some of the originals being dropped the producers now have an opportunity to evolve the show and focus more on the new class rather than shoehorning the original cast in at every opportunity.

  8. As steveany said,Scrubs killed off J.Ds dad played by John Ritter as he’d appeared a couple of times as J.Ds dad.

    I’m sure Cheers ran close to 6-8 episodes in season 3 without Coach in them but he did appear in the final ep of S3.So I assume they changed the order of the eps after he died as for the missing eps he was said to be off at a family reunion – a black family who he’d befriended years earlier.

  9. @carolemorrissey, Mark Priestly, they were able to write him out, the police came to talk his character Dan, towards the end we are told the his wife has been murdered and he has gone to spend time with his family. that was the end of his character.

    I don’t know where Finn and Rachel’s relationship is in Glee, but they won’t replace him, the fans won’t accept that, and Lea Michelle won’t want anyone replacing her boyfriend.

    When an actor dies there character normally does to.

    It will surprise me if lea stays with Glee, I also think this will be the last season.

  10. Can’t add much to the tv end of it,but the subject brought to mind Ed Wood’s masterpiece(lol) Plan 9 from Outer Space,starring Bela Lugosi but filmed mostly after Bela Lugosi’s death.To compensate for the now permanent absence of Mr. Lugosi Wood got his wife’s chiropractor to act as Lugosi’s double to finish off some scenes.Hence the walking around with the cape covering his face..didn’t help that the double was a lot taller and skinnier than the ex actor either.Aw..they sure don’t make movies like they used to.

  11. Yeah, this is an interesting compilation, David.
    A tad macabre, maybe.
    John Ritter also put in the odd appearance in Scrubs as JD’s dad and I’m fairly sure they made an episode exclusively about his passing.
    Quite moving too, as I recall.
    Not to be clever in hindsight but Ritter looked to be pretty ill in his Scrubs appearances.

  12. There was also Nancy Marchand who played Tony’s mother Livia in The Sopranos. Nancy died at the beginning of the 3rd season, so they CGIed her image in and sound bites from previous scenes into her ‘final’ episode, writing her character off dying in her sleep.

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