The Show Must Go On: 10 TV Series That Dealt With Death
When Fox’s Glee returns to the air for its fifth season tomorrow, it will do so with the weight of tragedy behind it. Cast member Cory Monteith, who played Finn Hudson, died of a drug overdose in July. A tribute episode is planned for October 10 — “The Quarterback” — in which Finn will die and be written out of the show.
It certainly won’t be the first time a TV series has had to deal with the loss of a major cast member, and will definitely not be the last. Here are ten other television series that also had to make the tough decision to carry on under similar circumstances.
With filming of Cheers’ third season nearly complete, Nicholas Colasanto (“Coach” Ernie Pantusso) died of a heart attack in February at age 61. Colasanto had suffered from heart disease for years and was in fact planning to retire from acting before being offered the role of Coach. In the first episode of season four, Sam Malone reveals that Coach has died. He was replaced on the show by fresh-faced hayseed Woody Boyd, played by Woody Harrelson. As a tribute to Colasanto, a portrait of Gernonimo that he hung in his dressing room was placed in the bar. In the series’ final episode, Sam walks over to the picture and straightens it.
8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter
While 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter was originally developed as a star vehicle for John Ritter, it was left without its lead actor after he died of a misdiagnosed aortic dissection just a few episodes into its second year. Rather than replace Ritter outright, the show introduced two new characters — Jim Egan (James Garner) and C.J. Barnes (James Spade), the father and nephew of Katey Sagal’s character, respectively. Ritter’s death was incorporated into the show in the second season’s fourth episode, when it’s revealed that his character collapsed at the grocery store while buying milk.
Never a highly rated show to begin with, the renamed 8 Simple Rules received a surprise third-season renewal but was canceled without much fanfare in the spring of 2005.
Ask any kid of the 1970s who Mr. Hooper was, and they’ll likely recall two things. The first is that he (played by Will Lee) was the kindly old man who ran Hooper’s Store on Sesame Street. The second is that Lee’s death in 1982 resulted in one of the most profoundly sad moments in television history.
During the show’s Thanksgiving Day 1983 episode, Big Bird basically serves as a surrogate for Sesame Street’s viewers when the cast explains to him that Mr. Hooper has died. All at once it was one of the most poignant and emotionally devastating moments ever aired, and is all the more effective for the way it deals so directly with death on a show geared toward children.
While Bonanza has faded somewhat from memory — only natural, given it aired its last episode 40 years ago — it still remains one of the most popular shows ever. In 1972 the program made a bit of history when they opted not to replace Dan Blocker as Eric “Hoss” Cartwright. The larger-than-life Blocker died in May of that year from a post-operative pulmonary embolism following surgery to remove a failing gall bladder, aged 43 years.
The producers made the bold decision (at the time) and killed Hoss as well, and dealt with it directly in the show’s 14th and final season. A 1988 made-for-TV movie explained that Hoss had drowned attempting to save a person’s life.
The tragic 1998 murder of Phil Hartman not only robbed us of a genuinely funny and decent person, but left the cult favorite NBC sitcom NewsRadio without one of its major characters, the bombastic Bill McNeal. So when the show returned for its fifth and final season it was without McNeal, whose off-screen death was attributed to a heart attack. The season’s first episode, “Bill Moves On,” showed the rest of his WNYX coworkers mourning his loss in their own peculiar and, yes, funny ways. It was a fitting and beautiful tribute for both the character and the man.
In the season’s second episode viewers were introduced to Max Louis (Jon Lovitz), who gamely attempted to fill the rather large hole left by Hartman’s death. When asked why he took the role, Lovitz replied that it was “for Phil.”
(I couldn’t find any clips from “Bill Moves On,” so let’s watch something more cheery instead).
Chico and the Man
The producers of the 1970s sitcom Chico and the Man were faced with a rather unique predicament following the suicide of co-star Freddie Prinze in January 1977. Not only did they have a show built largely around Prinze but he was Chico, half of the show’s name. The first thing they did was to have Prinze’s co-star, Jack Albertson, thank the audience for their sympathy after the closing credits of the first episode to air after Prinze’s death (“Chico’s Padre,” 2/4/77).
Then, after briefly contemplating canceling Chico and the Man outright, the producers opted to write the character out of the series and replace him with a new one. It was first stated early in season four that Chico was visiting his father in Mexico, but later in the season Albertson reveals the truth. The show was canceled after the season.
The West Wing
For six seasons on The West Wing the character of White House Chief of Staff (and later Vice Presidential nominee) Leo McGarry was played by John Spencer, who won an Emmy for his work in 2002. Spencer died of a heart attack in December 2005, having completed work on two episodes for the show’s seventh and final season.
Martin Sheen broke character to pay tribute to Spencer at the beginning of “Running Mates,” the first episode to air after Spencer’s death. Spencer made his last appearance in the series in “The Cold,” aired March 12, 2006, and Leo McGarry himself died off-screen in the “Election Day Part I” episode, which aired three weeks later. McGarry’s death was also from a heart attack, and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Having two actors die on a show is unfortunate enough, but it’s also odd when those two played essentially the same character. It starts getting bizarre when it turns out that the two died the same way.
That’s exactly what happened on the long-running sitcom Night Court, which suffered the loss of its first two female bailiffs, played by Selma Diamond and Florence Halop respectively, over the course of its first three seasons. Diamond played the acerbic, chain smoking Selma Hacker for the first two years before her death from lung cancer in May 1985. She was replaced by Halop in the role of Florence Kleiner, who succumbed to lung cancer in July 1986.
Of the two deaths, Diamond’s was reflected more seriously in the show. After Halop the producers opted for a younger actress to play opposite Richard Moll’s character Bull Shannon, so they cast the then-32-year-old Marsha Warfield as Roz Russell. She remained with the show for six seasons until it ended in 1992.
Even for a series that killed visible characters on a routine basis over six seasons, the death of Nancy Marchand proved to be a real problem. Her character, Livia Soprano, was New Jersey Mafia boss Tony Soprano’s mother and one of the show’s great antagonists. When Marchand died in June 2000 from lung cancer and emphysema at age 71, a major plotline involving Livia had to be rewritten, arguably causing a major shift in the series’ narrative.
That’s all well and good, but what’s most notable about Marchand’s death is that it led to one of the most bizarre attempts to write a character out of show. Her last “appearance” on The Sopranos was in the season three episode “”Proshai, Livushka.” In actuality, the final scene between Livia and Tony involved some computer-generated trickery that was… well, it was a bit awkward.
Thankfully, viewers were spared any attempt to portray Livia’s actual death, as the character passed in her sleep in the same episode. A much younger Livia was subsequently portrayed via flashback by other actresses in later episodes.
The classic nighttime soap Dallas was well on its way to becoming one of America’s most popular shows when it suffered loss. Jim Davis, who portrayed Ewing family patriarch and oil baron John Ross “Jock” Ewing, Sr. died of cancer in April 1981, as the series’ fourth season was airing. In fact, Davis had been suffering for some time and the writers sent Jock and his wife depart for a second honeymoon late in that season.
As smart as it may have been to leave Jock’s exit as open-ended during season four, that’s how dumb his storyline was handled from there. Season five progressed with Jock still alive but “away” in Washington, D.C. and South America. Finally, Jock is revealed to have died in a helicopter crash while in South America.
Why the delay? Reportedly the producers considered replacing Davis as Jock, and may have been buying time to find a new actor. Instead, almost a year went by before they finally gave up and killed the character.
But there was redemption of a sort for Dallas earlier this year, when none other than Larry Hagman died. In the seventh episode of the revived series’ second year, “The Furious and the Fast,” iconic TV villain J.R. Ewing is shot off-screen while on the phone with his son and protege. I’d be shocked if it wasn’t a clear callback to the famous “Who Shot J.R.?” incident from the original series.
Ewing, and by proxy Hagman, was given a tearful send-off in the next episode. His presence and legacy continued to play a huge role in the rest of the season, proving that while great actors may die, great characters never do.