How 9 TV Shows Handled the Death of a Star

'Superman,' 'Cheers,' and 'The Sopranos' are among the shows that had to deal with the loss of a beloved cast member

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The sudden passing of 31-year-old Glee star Cory Monteith left his fellow cast and crew members — not to mention the many fans of the actor and the show —  shocked and numbed.  Glee producers now have to face the difficult decision of postponing production of the show as they figure out a way to move forward in the aftermath of such a loss. Sadly, this was not the first time TV producers had to deal with the unexpected demise of a key cast member. Below, we list 9 tragedy-touched shows — and explain how they dealt with the loss…

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George Reeves in THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN

ABC / Getty Images

The Adventures of Superman 

Cast member and year of death: George Reeves, 1959

The popular TV series had to deal with unexpected death of John Hamilton, who played Daily Planet editor Perry White, in 1958 — an actor was hired to play White’s brother. But when Reeves died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head (many still believe was staged), producers came up with the idea of putting the focus on Super-pal (and Planet cub reporter) Jimmy Olsen, played by Jack Larson.

How the show incorporated his real-life death: After hearing of their plans to splice in footage of Reeves and shoot a stand-in from behind, an incredulous Larson rejected their offers — the series ended, with an impressive 104 episodes, in April 1958.

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Jim Davis in Dallas

Getty Images

Dallas

Cast member and year of death: Jim Davis, 1981

Davis — who played Jock Ewing, patriarch of the Texas oil-baron clan — was diagnosed with multiple myeloma during the fourth season of the blockbuster-hit series. To accommodate his worsening condition, he was often shot sitting – and he was given a hairpiece to hide the effects of chemotherapy. He passed away after production on the show’s fourth season had wrapped.

How the show incorporated his real-life death: His absence was not addressed until well into the series’ fifth season, when it was explained that Jock perished in a helicopter crash.

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Michael Conrad in Hill Street Blues

NBC / Getty Images

Hill Street Blues
Cast member and year of death:  Michael Conrad, 1983

Conrad played Sgt. Phil Esterhaus on the groundbreaking police drama. His work as the gruff but big-hearted cop — who famously ended every morning roll-call with the words “Let’s be careful out there!” — earned him two Best Supporting Actor Emmys. Esterhaus succumbed to urethral cancer during the show’s fourth season.

How the show incorporated his real-life death: It’s explained that his character expired heroically — in the throes of lovemaking.

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Nicholas Colasanto in Cheers

NBC / Getty Images

Cheers

Cast member and year of death: Nicholas Colasanto, 1985

Slow on the uptake, but endlessly charming and affable,  Colasanto’s “Coach” Ernie Pantusso was the warm heart of the Cheers cast — and an all-time great sitcom character. Colasanto, whose condition was weakened by years of excessive drinking, died of a heart attack at the age of 61, during the show’s third season.

How the show incorporated his real-life death: “Coach” was written off the show – and while the circumstances of his off-screen death are never explained, his name is frequently mentioned in subsequent episodes. In a touching tribute, a framed photo of Geronimo, which used to hang in Colasanto’s dressing room, was hung behind the bar.

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Phil Hartman in NewsRadio

J. Delvalle / NBC / Getty Images

NewsRadio

Cast member and year of death: Phil Hartman, 1998

The funny and affable Hartman, who played the hilariously ingratiating news anchor Bill McNeal, was killed by his wife as he lay sleeping — she took her own life a few hours later.

How the show incorporated his real-life death: His untimely death happened after production on NewsRadio‘s fourth season was completed.  On the first episode of season five it is revealed that McNeal died of a heart attack.

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NANCY MARCHAND in The Sopranos

HBO

The Sopranos

Cast member and year of death:  Nancy Marchand, 2000

Marchand was wonderful as Livia Soprano, the scheming matriarch whose casual cruelties form the root of son Tony’s anxieties — series creator David Chase (who supposedly based the character on his own mother) figured she would be an essential component of the acclaimed HBO drama. But the actress died, of lung cancer, during production of the show’s second season.

How the show incorporated her real-life death: Livia “dies”  (in her sleep) in the second episode of the third season, after producers — using computer-generated imagery and existing footage — give Tony and his mother a final scene together.

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The 29th Annual People's Choice Awards - Press Room

WireImage / WireImage

8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter

Cast member and year of death: John Ritter, 2003

Ritter, who played newspaper-columnist father Paul Hennessy, had already shot the first three episodes of the show’s second season when he was rushed to the hospital after complaining of chest pains during a rehearsal session. He died from an undiagnosed heart condition later that night.

How the show incorporated his real-life death: Production was suspended for two months. The renamed show — now called 8 Simple Rules — returned with a one-hour episode in which audiences learn that Paul died after collapsing while buying milk at a grocery store.

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John Spencing in The West Wing

NBC / Getty Images

The West Wing

Cast member and year of death: John Spencer, 2005

Playing Leo McGarry, the feisty White House chief of staff who served Jed Bartlett for two terms, Spencer gave his character such steely competence, it was hardly a surprise when show writers had him become the running mate of Presidential candidate Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) in the series’ final two seasons.

How the show incorporated his real-life death: McGarry — who survives a heart attack in season six — suffers a fatal one on election night (and does not see his ticket take the White House).

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Larry Hagman in Dallas

TNT

Dallas

Cast member and year of death: Larry Hagman, 2012

When TNT re-booted CBS’s long-running hit series in 2012, they made sure to bring back original stars Patrick Duffy, Linda Grey, and of course, Larry Hagman, whose J.R. Ewing was re-introduced as a depressed recluse living in a nursing home. (He, of course, soon returns to his conniving ways.)  Hagman died of acute myeloid leukemia in November of 2012.

How the show incorporated his real-life death: J.R., in a nod to his famous “death” in the season 3 finale of the CBS series, is shot and killed offscreen in an episode that ran in the reboot’s second season.

31 comments
Eileen
Eileen

What about Jack Soo (Yemana) from Barney Miller?

LuizCarlosBravo
LuizCarlosBravo

When the opera went on TV, the producer could make the actor speechless but he was present all the time, himself writing the lines.  I guess that he was happy, not having to memorize any line...

LuizCarlosBravo
LuizCarlosBravo

Too bad you didn't know about the "death" of an important cast member in a famous latin radio soap opera, many years ago.  It happens that said actor demanded an enormous raise in his salary and the producer an director, Felix Caignet, just had him suffer an accident.  But his role was crucial to the plot and Felix fired him andt kept him "alive" but speechless,  another actor reading his written lines ...

ww_adh
ww_adh

The new Dallas did a much better job of addressing Hagman's death than the original show did with Davis'. In the original show, many weeks went by with Jock away in South America (under rather bizarre and not particularly believable circumstances), with some (one-sided) phone calls with characters in Dallas until, just about to return home, his helicopter crashes and his body is never recovered. It was painful to actors discussing the possible return of a character that we, as viewers, knew would not be happening. In contrast, the new show developed a wonderful mystery storyline that gave its second season one of its best plotlines (and the funeral episode was truly moving).

mathisen.daniel
mathisen.daniel

Can't believe Andy Whitfield from Spartacus wasn't mentioned here...

A_Fools_Tale
A_Fools_Tale

Joseph Kearns (Mr. Wilson) died during the third season of Dennis the Menace.

dlbruce0107
dlbruce0107

My Sister Sam with Pam Dawber. The girl who played her little sister was murdered. Robert Wagner had a show where he played a father of two young girls one of them died in a plane crash very early in the first season -Samantha Smith.

Pete Duel of Alias Smith and Jones died of self-inflicted GSW.

y_p_w
y_p_w

Night Court had two bailiff characters die - Selma Diamond as "Selma" and Florence Halop as "Florence".  The deaths were written into the script, with Richard Moll's character Bull taking it really hard.

Bede140
Bede140

Dan Blocker-  Hoss from Bonanza,died from complications from gall bladder surgery.

Rhomega
Rhomega

I think Mr. Hooper deserves a mention.

cyberslammer
cyberslammer

Redd Foxx died during the production of the TV show The Royal Family...and it went on for a few more episodes.

FrankieWhittle
FrankieWhittle

The whole world knows that Cory has passed away. It should be written into the show honestly. Maybe not the actual cause of death, but the death should be written in so that fans can mourn with Cory's fellow cast mates.

SusanNichols
SusanNichols

Lynne Thigpen on The District.  They tried to keep the show going, but without her, it quickly fizzled.  The best acting I've seen from Craig T. Nelson was with Ms. Thigpen.  

denherden
denherden

Will Lee, Mr Hooper on Sesame Street. You. Will. Cry!

bobbyplaz
bobbyplaz

It was Dolph Sweet.  (See other comment from me.)

bobbyplaz
bobbyplaz

Who was the guy who played the father on Gimme a Break?  After he died, Nell Carter raised his daughters, right?

bobbyplaz
bobbyplaz

Who was the guy who played the father on Gimme a Break?  After he died, Nell Carter raised his daughters, right?

TimHaight
TimHaight

Rebecca Rebecca Schaeffer of My Sister Sam was murdered by an obsessed fan. 

RebeccaCaldwell
RebeccaCaldwell

Eight is Enough.  The actress who played the first mother died. 

T-Lynn
T-Lynn

David Strickland of Suddenly Susan (who died in 1999) also went without mention...  Or Redd Foxx for that matter.

laurabachner
laurabachner

You forgot Jon-Erik Hexum in Cover Up.  He also passed away from an accidental gun shot to the head.  He was using a stunt gun on the set and fired.  Although there was no real bullet, the wadding in the gun used as a fake bullet and the distance between the gun and his head was enough to kill him.  That was one beautiful actor! 

MarkTate
MarkTate

I certainly think that a mention of Chico and the Man and Freddie Prinze's suicide warrants mentioning.

MaryMitch
MaryMitch

@Bede140 And that was the death knell for the show; he was the heart of Bonanza. They mentioned "Hoss" had died but didn't address how; I think a "death episode" would have been terribly difficult for the cast and crew after working together for 13 seasons. In a later Bonanza tv movie, it was stated that Hoss had died heroically while rescuing a family whose wagon was caught in a flood.

jason.brabander
jason.brabander

@Rhomega - Amen to that.  And watching the gang have to explain things to Big Bird....my heart's tearing to shreds thinking about that scene.

RaviMeah
RaviMeah

@T-Lynn I was just about to mention that too. Poor chap had a great future ahead of him. Shame that TIME left him out of this list :-(

ShawnaWatson
ShawnaWatson

@T-Lynn I totally remember that show and the heartbreaking ending while Fat Boy Slim played. So sad.

SusanNichols
SusanNichols

@laurabachner -- So true.  He always seemed to enjoy everything he did with such a sparkle in his eyes.