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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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.


Jim Davis in Dallas

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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.


Michael Conrad in Hill Street Blues

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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.


Nicholas Colasanto in Cheers

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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.


Phil Hartman in NewsRadio

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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.


NANCY MARCHAND in The Sopranos


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.


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

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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.


John Spencing in The West Wing

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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).


Larry Hagman in 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.