TV

How 10 TV Shows Dealt With The Death Of Their Actors

Say what you will about Glee — it’s awful, offensive, hypocritical, run by an egomaniac who pleasures himself to photos of his bald scalp in Teen Vogue — but it’s hard to deny that Finn was one of the very few good things about it. On a show full of unintentional stereotypes, Finn was arguably the only “real” character; his pain about going from being a high school somebody to a college nobody felt authentic, and because I hate the idea of giving Ryan Murphy a compliment, I’m going to give all the credit in the world to actor Cory Monteith, who died this weekend.

Monteith played Finn Hudson with just the right amount of cheerleader-dating quarterback egotism and goofy musical theater earnestness, and now the show has a giant hole to fill for next season, a hole that will likely be filled with a subtle mashup of “I’ll Be Missing You” and “I Will Remember You,” in an episode decidated to Trayvon Martin. That is, obviously, a terrible idea and Glee should have been cancelled after one season, but it’s worth taking a look at how other shows dealt with the loss of one of their stars, to get a sense of what Glee might do.

Nancy Marchand, The Sopranos

The most famous example, and the exact opposite of what a show should do. Nancy Marchand, who played Tony Soprano’s angry, ancient badger of a mother Livia, died from lung cancer in 2000. Livia was still a major character in the Sopranos universe, though, so creator David Chase was tasked what with to do with her, both in terms of her relationship with Tony and the possibility of her speaking to the FBI. Naturally, Chase killed Livia, but not before she shared one final scene with her son. Well, “she.” The Livia that appears in “Proshai, Livushka” was created using CGI and previous sound clips of Marchand speaking. It cost $250,000, but looked like $25, money that a summer intern later spent on cheap beer and thawed ziti at the Olive Garden.

Phil Hartman, The Simpsons

*sigh* I won’t bother with the specifics of Hartman’s forever-too-soon death; the monster who committed the murder doesn’t even deserve hate-filled recognition. We’ve previously covered how NewsRadio handled Bill McNeal’s “absence,” but The Simpsons did something different: instead of killing off Troy McClure or Lionel Hutz, the characters were simply retired. (His final episode, “Bart the Mother,” was in season 10, perhaps not coincidentally around the time the show’s quality began to feel more wrong than that man’s face, mommy.) The other show that felt the string of Hartman’s passing: Futurama. He was preparing to voice cocky captain Zapp Brannigan, a character written specifically for him. Billy West later took over, and mimicked his voice after Hartman’s.

John Ritter, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter

This is completely beside the point, but did you know that there actually WERE eight rules? The first reads, “Use your hands on my daughter and you’ll lose them after,” and the list ends with, “Dates must be in crowded public places. You want romance? Read a book.” Even a cast as talented as the one 8 Simple Rules had couldn’t sell lines like that, though. There was Katey Sagal, Kaley Cuoco, and, of course, John Ritter, who played Paul Hennessy, the quintessential sitcom patriarch, for one full season, before Ritter died of a heart attack in 2003. He appeared in the first three episodes of season two, but in the fourth, the aptly-titled “Goodbye,” viewers learned that while out buying milk, Paul collapsed and passed away. Creator Tracy Gamble retooled the show, adding David Spade and James Garner to the cast, but ratings quickly tanked, because David Spade, and the sitcom was cancelled after one more season, because David Spade.

Nicholas Colasanto, Cheers

Whenever I think about Nicholas Colasanto, I feel guilty. Colasanto was all set to retire from acting after nearly thirty years in the business, and a heart disease scare in the 1970s, when he was offered the role of Coach on Cheers. He took it, and before long, Cheers was one of the biggest shows on TV, thanks in no small part to the slow, yet cheerful Coach Ernie Pantusso. By season three, however, Colasanto’s health was beginning to worsen and he had trouble remembering his lines. In late 1984, he checked into a hospital; in 1985, Coach appeared in his final episode, “Cheerio Cheers,” and Colasanto died. The guilt: his replacement, Woody Boyd, introduced the world to Woody Harrelson. The world is worse off for losing Colasanto; the world is better off with Woody Harrelson in it.

Barbara Colby, Phyllis

Only three episodes into Phyllis, where she played Phyllis’s boss, actress Barbara Colby was shot and killed in a Los Angeles parking lot by two gunmen who stole no money or jewelry. In fact, according to Colby’s friend James Kiernan, who was also hit by a bullet on that fateful day but lived, they took nothing, and they have never been identified. Phyllis was to be Colby’s breakout role, but instead, because of two anonymous drive-by assholes, she died, and the part went to Liz Torres, who would later play Miss Patty on Gilmore Girls.

Andy Whitfield, Spartacus

To quote Mr. Ufford, “Andy Whitfield, the original star of Starz’s surprise hit Spartacus, died yesterday at the age of 39 from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was ripped.” To delay production between season one (Spartacus: Blood and Sand) and season two (Spartacus: Vengeance), Starz commissioned Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, a six-episode prequel about gladiator Gannicus that aired in 2011. After Whitfield withdrew from the role and eventually passed away, Liam McIntyre was recast as the titular character. He, too, is ripped.

Redd Foxx, The Royal Family

Redd Fox hadn’t starred in a successful TV show since Sanford and Son went off the air in 1977, so he had a lot of riding on The Royal Family went it premiered in 1991. The ABC sitcom, produced by Eddie Murphy, was about a mailman (played by Foxx) and his wife who were all set to enjoy their retirement years, until their daughter and her three kids, one of whom was played by Glee‘s Naya Rivera, move in with them. In a darkly ironic twist of fate, The Royal Family‘s original name was Chest Pains, which is what Foxx felt on October 11, 1991, when he suffered a heart attack on set. He died later that evening. Originally, producers decided to end the show out of respect to Foxx (well, that, and the fact that he had only filmed seven episodes), but they changed their minds and The Royal Family ran for six more episodes, with an added emphasis on new cast addition Jackée Harry. CBS canned the show with two episodes left unaired.

John Spencer, The West Wing

John Spencer, who won an Emmy for his work as White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry on The West Wing, died of a heart attack in December 2005. He only appeared in a handful of season seven episodes, and as a way of writing his character off, McGarry was said to have suffered an off-screen heart attack of his own on Election Night. His name remained in the credits during the show’s final season, so even though he was dead, he still had to suffer through the indignity of the Aaron Sorkin-less West Wing.

Harry Goz, Sealab 2021

To one generation, Harry Goz was a Broadway legend. To another, less Teyve-inclined one, he’s forever the voice of Captain Hazel “Hank” Murphy on Matt Thompson and Adam Reed’s wonderful Sealab 2012. After Goz died in 2003, during season three, Captain Murphy went off to fight in the Great Spice Wars. Sealab 2021 continued on Adult Swim for another season, but without Murphy as a center, the show felt a little aimless, like The Office without Steve Carell. Can we go back in time to kill Andy Bernard and save Harry Goz? Please.

George Reeves, Adventures of Superman

To learn about George Reeves’s death, consult your local library for a copy of Hollywoodland on Blu-ray, or if you’re from Iran, read about it on Wikipedia. The tl;dr version goes like this: Reeves, who portrayed the Man of Steel on Adventures of Superman, died of a gunshot wound to the head in his bedroom. He may have committed suicide; he may have been murdered. No one’s quite sure, but it did give rise to the so-called Superman Curse. Anyway, after the murder-cide, producers naturally wanted to continue the successful show, with the attention moving from Superman to Jimmy Olsen. But because there’s no Superman show without Superman, Jack Larson, who played Olsen, would act opposite “a composite of stock shots of George Reeves and a look-alike stunt double to be filmed from behind.” Good sense eventually prevailed, and the idea was scrapped and the show put to rest. (Fun Wikipedia fact: “In 1958, producer Whitney Ellsworth created Superpup, a never-aired-on-TV spin-off pilot that placed the Superman mythos in a fictional world populated by dogs. Featuring live-action actors in dog-suits portraying canine versions of Superman and other characters, the pilot was filmed on Adventures of Superman sets and was intended to capitalize on the success of its parent series.” I WANT THIS NOW.)

(via Getty Image)

×