TV actors work long and they work hard, and sometimes they work right up until they can literally work no longer - right up until their death. On these sad but surprisingly frequent occasions, the character played by the recently deceased actor is usually written out of the story, or even simply recast.
When an actor’s death is written into the storyline of a TV show, it inevitably makes for a fraught and emotive plotline. Perhaps this may prove therapeutic for the fans, the cast and the writers. It can be seen as a way of remembering the actor who played that role; the performances from the other actors in the cast in these instances are all the more real because they're not only saying goodbye to a fictional character, but to their real life friend and colleague.
2 John Spencer on the West Wing
Coincidentally, before Jon Spencer died from a heart attack his character on the West Wing, Leo McGarry, suffered from an extremely serious heart attack as well. McGarry’s heart attack came at a time in the show when President Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen, was negotiating a peace deal with Israelis and Palestinians. McGarry disagreed with the President so much that the stresses ultimately lead him to have a heart attack at Camp David. When Spencer suffered a heart attack in real life and died at the age of 59, Aaron Sorkin and the other writers of the political drama wrote the scenario into the TV show and Leo McGarry suffered a second heart attack, which killed him.
14. Nicholas Colasanto on Cheers
Before Woody Harrelson joined the cast of Cheers as Woody, it was Coach Ernie Pantusso, played by Nicholas Colasanto who helped Sam Malone run the bar. Coach was a bit dim witted, but his naiveté and sincerity made for a lot of laughs on the classic sitcom. When Colasanto died Coach died too, but it was never explained how Coach died. Colasanto suffered a massive heart attack at age 61. He kept a picture of Native leader Geronimo in his dressing room on the set of Cheers, and when he passed away the picture was moved into the bar and became part of the set.
1 Phil Hartman on NewsRadio
Phil Hartman’s death was one of the most horrific and tragic in all of Hollywood. After his wife murdered him, fans of the Simpsons and Saturday Night Live star were grief stricken and shocked. At the time of his death, he was starring as Bill McNeal on the sitcom NewsRadio. After Hartman was killed, his death was written into the show. McNeal was said to have suffered a massive heart attack and died. Soon after, Jon Lovitz was added to the show as a replacement for Hartman. Radio Ink wrote an article about Hartman, which featured him on the cover, and the magazine was framed and placed in the character’s office on the set of NewsRadio as a tribute to Hartman.
12. Marcia Wallace on the Simpsons
When Marcia Wallace died of complications from cancer last year, the Simpsons writers had originally planned to retire her character Mrs. Krabappel. There were no plans to kill off Bart’s sarcastic teacher. However, it seems the plans have since changed. Before Wallace’s death, Mrs. Krabappel was featured in a major story arc where she married Ned Flanders. After Wallace’s death, a coda was added to the end of an episode where Flanders and Nelson Muntz bond over the loss of the character. Mrs. Krabappel’s death was also mentioned in the most recent Christmas episode of the series when Homer offers some compassion to two-time widower Flanders.
11. Nancy Marchand on the Sopranos
When Nancy Marchand died, so did Tony Soprano’s mother. Marchand played the mob boss’s mother, Livia Soprano, and when she died the storylines about Livia testifying in court about her son’s mob connections were obviously scrapped. Marchand died of lung cancer, and following her death the crew of the Sopranos used filmed footage and computer generated effects to create a final scene between Livia and Tony. The character of Livia Soprano was based on the real life mother of the Sopranos creator David Chase. Even after her death the character of Livia Soprano was frequently mentioned on the show, and younger versions of the character appeared in flashbacks.
10. John Ritter on 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter
John Ritter’s death became a major story arc on the sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. Instead of cancelling the show, the production team behind the ABC sitcom deciding to keep going even though the star of the show was now gone. Three episodes of the show’s second season had already been filmed when Ritter died from aortic dissection. His character in the show died of a heart attack. The following episodes dealt with the family dealing with the loss of the patriarch of the home, and James Garner and David Spade were added to the cast to take Ritter’s place.
9. Larry Hagman on TNT’s Dallas
The most famous storyline on the primetime soap opera known as Dallas, which originally ran from 1978 to 1991, was undoubtedly the mystery behind who shot J.R. When the show returned in 2012 much of the original cast returned including Larry Hagman. Hagman played oil tycoon J.R. Ewing. Unfortunately, Hagman passed away in 2013 from throat cancer not long after the show resumed. The writers paid homage to this classic storyline when Larry Hagman passed away by killing off J.R. This time the character didn’t recover from his gunshot wounds. An entire episode was devoted to J.R.’s funeral, and the episode also served as a tribute to Hagman.
8. Michael Conrad on Hill Street Blues
When Michael Conrad died of urethral cancer in 1983 his character on Hill Street Blues died, too. Conrad played Sergeant Phil Esterhaus on Hill Street Blues and his character had the famous catchphrase: “Let’s be careful out there.” Conrad was know for starring in comedic roles in movie like the Longest Yard and TV shows like All in the Family, so it came as no surprise that Conrad had cooked up a plotline for his character’s death in case he lost his battle with cancer. Conrad told the writers that if he died in real life he wanted Esterhaus to die of a heart attack while having sex, and that’s exactly the explanation the writers went with.
7. John Davis on CBS’s Dallas
Before J.R. Ewing died in the most recent version of Dallas, his father died in the original version. John Davis played Jock Ewing, and just like the actor who played his son he also died of cancer. When Davis lost his battle with cancer the writers of Dallas initially didn’t know what to do. They at first planned to recast, but eventually they decided to kill Jock Ewing by having him die in a helicopter crash. Even after the crash Jock Ewing was not declared dead until the following season of the show. Davis continued to act in the TV show until his death and even wore a wig to mask the fact he had lost his hair due to chemotherapy.
6. David Strickland on Suddenly Susan
David Strickland, who played music reporter Todd Stities on the Brooke Shields sitcom Suddenly Susan, committed suicide in 1999 by hanging himself with a bed sheet in a motel in Las Vegas. The death was both tragic and shocking to the cast and crew of the sitcom and television fans alike. Following his death, writers revealed that his character Todd had also died, and a special tribute episode was filmed. The tribute episode featured interviews with the actors from the show cut into the episode and featured a touching story that shows all the good deeds the character had done throughout his life. The episode that focused on Todd’s death never revealed how he died.
5. Cory Monteith on Glee
Cory Monteith’s death was a huge shock because of the way he died and the fact that he died at such a young age. He was 31 when he died. When Monteith died so did his character Finn Hudson. However, it was never revealed how the character died. Season five of the show featured a tribute episode to Monteith. Glee creator Ryan Murphy had said the original plan was to have Monteith’s character die of an accidental drug overdose just as he did in real life. However, that plan was scrapped. By not mentioning the cause of Hudson’s death Murphy said the show avoided being exploitative.
4. Lynne Thigpen on the District
Washington D.C. police chief aide Ella Farmer died in season 3 of the police drama the District after the actress who played her died from a cerebral hemorrhage. Lynne Thigpen who is remembered by 90s kids as the chief on the Carmen Sandiego shows, had been complaining of headaches in the days leading up to her death. She also starred in the children’s TV program Bear in the Big blue House as Luna the moon, and following her death the show went on a four year hiatus reportedly because the cast and crew just didn’t have the heart to continue the show after Thigpen’s death.
3. Redd Foxx on the Royal Family
When legendary comedian Redd Foxx died on the set of the Royal Family from a heart attack many thought he was faking - because it was a classic bit of his. However, this was real. After his death it was revealed that his character on the show had died as well, and the show was given a reboot of sorts. Jackee Harry was added to the cast as a relative in an effort to try and replace the legendary comedian Redd Foxx. Foxx died during the show’s first season, while the program was meant to be a comeback vehicle for the Sanford and Son star.
2. Will Lee on Sesame Street
In an effort to teach children about mortality, it was revealed that Sesame Street character Mr. Hooper had died after the actor who played him died in real life. Will Lee suffered a heart attack in December 1992, and Sesame Street aired an episode titled Farewell, Mr. Hooper nearly a year later.
In the episode, Big Bird drew pictures of all his grown up friends on Sesame Street, and when Big Bird shows everyone his picture of Mr. Hooper the rest of the adults on Sesame Street have to explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper has died and that he won’t be coming back.
1. Stanley Kamel on Monk
Dr. Charles Kroger died of a heart attack, as did the actor who played him. Stanley Kamel died in 2008 at the age of 65, and his character’s death was written into the show. Kamel’s last appearance was in Monk’s sixth season, but clips of him were used in the series final. The seventh season premier of Monk was dedicated to the actor who played Monk’s therapist. The episode reveals to the audience that Kamel had died five weeks earlier. The death of his therapist and friend came was a shock to Monk and proved incredibly difficult for the obsessive-compulsive detective to handle.
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