How TV Shows Dealt with Untimely Cast Member Deaths
What happens when a cast member of a beloved TV series dies while the show is still on the air? What should a showrunner do to tastefully honor the actor that has died but also keep the story alive? The answer, as history has taught us, is not simple.
There are dozens of examples of television shows where a cast member died, from the 1950s to the 2010s. Here's a look at how these TV shows dealt with cast member deaths, including the impact their untimely passing had on the stories being told.
What Happened in Real Life: Star and sitcom legend John Ritter died in 2003 from an undiagnosed aortic dissection.
What Happened on the Show: The comedy series premiered its second season with the three episodes Ritter had already filmed, then after a month hiatus, Ritter's character is said to have died following a heart attack while shopping for milk at the grocery store. The show only lasted one more season.
What Happened in Real Life: Actor Stanley Kamel died of a heart attack in April 2008, filming his last episodes in season 6.
What Happened on the Show: Kamel's character, Monk's therapist Dr. Charles Kroger, also dies of a heart attack and is replaced by a new therapist. The show lasted for two more seasons.
- Photo: NewsRadio / Sony Pictures Television
What Happened in Real Life: Saturday Night Live alum Phil Hartman was shot to death by his wife while he was sleeping in May 1998. The fourth season of NewsRadio had already wrapped at the time of his death.
What Happened on the Show: Hartman's character is said to have died of a heart attack in the first episode of Season 5, and his character is replaced by one played by Jon Lovitz. Due to poor ratings and reviews, the show only lasted one more season.
What Happened in Real Life: Actor Will Lee, who played the beloved Mr. Hooper, died from a heart attack in December 1982.
What Happened on the Show: An episode called "Farewell, Mr. Hooper," which aired a year of Lee's death, acknowledges that Mr. Hooper had passed, with the other adults explaining death to Big Bird. As of 2019, the show is in its 50th season.
What Happened in Real Life: Lung cancer took the life of Nancy Marchand, who played the feisty Livia Soprano, during the second season in 2000.
What Happened on the Show: In a rare move, the producers used CGI and existing footage to give Livia one final scene before the character dies in her sleep in the third season. The show went on to win numerous awards and lasted for a total of six seasons before ending as one of the most-loved shows in HBO history.
What Happened in Real Life: David Strickland, who played rock music reporter Todd Stities, took his life in March 1999.
What Happened on the Show: The producers of Suddenly Susan decided to deal directly with Strickland's death on the show, but in an ambiguous manner. His character disappears in the third season finale, leading Susan and others to look into his absence. The episode ends without revealing what happened to the character, but an ominous phone call hints at the truth and footage of Strickland is shown. The fourth season saw a large chunk of the original writers, producers, and actors leave the show. Suddenly Susan only lasted a little longer - it was canceled after Season 4.