The Untimely Passing of Some of Television’s Stars And The Impact On Their Shows

With the recent tragic death of Cory Monteith, many Glee fans are wondering how his character will be dealt with in the soon to air 5th season. According to recent news stories, the third episode of season 5 will be the memorial episode for Cory Monteith’s character Finn Hudson. Monteith was found in his hotel room after passing away from a combination of heroin and alcohol on July 13th.

This has got us thinking here at Grizzly Bomb because while rare, there have been several moments like this in television history. On more than a couple of occasions, actors have passed on during production. Here, we look at a few of the most famous of the last quarter century or so, and how the television shows have coped and moved on (whether successfully or not).

William “Will” Lee (1982)

william lee

Famously known as Mr. Hooper from Sesame Street, Lee’s death was one of the most influential moments in television history. Instead of replacing Lee’s character on the children’s show, there was a special episode of Sesame Street all about his death. He died of a heart attack on December 7, 1982. In the episode, Big Bird is told of the death and each adult comforts and grieves with him. This is known as one of the most iconic moments in television history as the children’s show addresses death head-on and doesn’t sugarcoat it and provides a discussion between parents and their kids watching the show. It will be always one of those moments in television that will produce tears in many sets of eyes.

Nicholas Colasanto (1985)

nicholas colasanto

“Coach” Ernie Pantusso was the kindly bartender in the classic TV show Cheers, portrayed by actor Nicholas Colasanto from 1982-1985. Colasanto also was in Raging Bull, playing mob boss Tommy Como. When Colasanto passed away in February of 1985 of heart trouble, the “Coach” character was written out of the show with his death being addressed on the first episode of the season, while Woody Harrelson joined the show as the character Woody Boyd: the bartender who had to replace Coach. The show was able to move from that loss and would air for several more seasons.

Phil Hartman (1998)

phil hartman

The Simpsons was always on the TV while I was growing up. Phil Hartman voiced some of the more hilarious characters on there and it was a tragedy on May 28, 1998, when his wife shot him in the head in a murder/suicide. The former SNL cast member was also starring in NewsRadio at the time. On The Simpsons, Hartman’s famous characters Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz were retired. On NewsRadio, his character, Bill McNeal, was killed off via a heart attack in the first episode of the 5th season. The show was barely renewed by NBC at that point and the death of Hartman sealed the deal as that season became the comedy’s last one despite bringing in Jon Lovitz to fill the void.

Nancy Marchand (2000)

nancy marchand

Nancy Marchand’s death in 2000 while she was on The Sopranos came as a surprise for the audience and the producers. Playing an integral part of season one, one could tell that she was a character the show would rely on for years. However, she passed away in June of 2000 and the show was deep into production. She died in between season two and three and her last appearance was in the opening episode of the third season. David Chase and the Sopranos team decided to use CGI and body doubles with spliced audio to construct a performance for Nancy’s Livia Soprano character. Unfortunately, it was the year 2000 and CGI back then was not as good as the CGI now. It’s sad that she passed and while good intentioned to close her story arc by having “her” perform one last time, the final product came back as awkward and distracting.

John Ritter (2003)

john ritter

John Ritter was about as difficult a celebrity death for me as Cory Monteith. Ritter played Jack Tripper on Three’s Company, one of the most fun sitcoms I watched growing up. He died September 11, 2003 of an aortic dissection caused by an undiagnosed thoracic aortic aneurysm while 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter was still in production. The show addressed the death head on in some gut-wrenching episodes and even brought on James Garner and David Spade to try to transition the comedy to the post-Ritter era. However, Ritter was such a huge part of the show that eventually the show ended as it had lost its heart and soul in the iconic actor.

Jerry Orbach (2004)

jerry orbach

Best known as Detective Lennie Briscoe from Law and Order, Jerry Orbach joined the show in 1992. However, Orbach was no one-trick pony; he also did the voice of Lumiere in Disney’s Beauty & the Beast, which is one of my favorite movies of all time, and played Billy Flynn in the original Broadway production of Chicago. Orbach passed away in 2004 after receiving treatment for cancer. In 2005, Detective Lennie Briscoe was written out of the show and never seen again. His death was mentioned by other characters and there were passing comments made of his illness, however, there was no big, official “goodbye”. With as influential a character as Briscoe was, I felt there should have been at least an entire episode devoted to his passing. Obviously, no Law and Order episode, no matter which part of the franchise, will be the same without Lennie Briscoe and his dry humor.

John Spencer (2005)

john spencer

It was a sad day when John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry on The West Wing, passed away by heart attack on December 16, 2005. The Emmy award winner had been in several television and movie projects, dating back from The Patty Duke Show, to LA Law to the action blockbuster The Rock.

Perhaps the most powerful of the reactions by the different shows, Leo McGarry also died of a heart attack on election day as a Vice Presidential candidate. His death happened before the polls closed. Admirably, his running mate, Congressman Matt Santos, chooses not to exploit his death for better poll returns. The Santos-McGarry ticket ends up winning and McGarry is laid to rest as the posthumous Vice President-elect.

The way that the West Wing ended the story arc quite possibly could be the best way anyone has found to deal with such a situation, and they turned out an excellent episode in his honor.

Larry Hagman (2012)

larry hagman

Larry Hagman was best known as J.R. Ewing from the television show Dallas. He played the character in the original TV series Dallas, and reprised him with the revival of the show on TNT in 2012. Hagman was also Major Anthony Nelson (“Master”)  in I Dream of Jeannie. Dallas was in production during Hagman’s death on November 23, 2012, which was the result of complications from acute myeloid leukemia. J.R. was killed off on the show, followed by J.R. Ewing funeral episode that aired this past March.

Lee Thompson Young (2013)

lee thompson young

For those not raised on a healthy diet of the Disney channel during the late 90s and early 2000s, Lee Thompson Young was the star of “The Famous Jett Jackson” and guest star on “Scrubs”. He was found dead on August 19th, 2013 from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was working on the TNT show “Rizzoli & Isles” at the time as a regular. In a note from the Executive Producer of TNT’s Rizzoli & Isles, Young is described as a good-hearted and intelligent man. As for the show itself, it remains to be seen what will happen to his character.

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