1. Eight Is Enough
Eight Is Enough had to adapt quickly to the 1977 death of Diana Hyland, who succumbed to breast cancer 12 days after the first episode aired. She filmed four episodes before dying. Hyland’s character Joan, the mother of the family, was written out of the remaining five season 1 episodes. For season 2, the series was retooled. The premiere “Is There a Doctor in the House” established patriarch Tom Bradford as a widower.
2. Hill Street Blues
Michael Conrad was an essential part of Hill Street Blues, famously doing the weekly roll call. He died of urethral cancer in 1983 during the show’s fourth season. His character, Sgt. Phil Esterhaus, went out with a bang, dying off-screen during sex with Grace Gardner in the episode “Grace Under Pressure.” In the same episode, Lucille Bates was offered a promotion to roll call sergeant, as all of the officers struggled to deal with Sgt. Esterhaus’ sudden death.
Nicholas Colasanto, who played lovable bartender Coach, died in 1985 of a heart attack at 61. Cast members learned shortly before a live taping, which was canceled. Colasanto had been on leave and recovering but assured his costars that he would be back at work soon. In season 4, Cheers jumped forward in time several months: Coach’s pen pal Woody (played by Woody Harrelson) showed up to meet his friend in person, only to be informed by Sam that Coach had died some time prior. Sam then hired Woody as the new bartender.
Between the fourth and fifth season of NewsRadio, Phil Hartman was murdered in 1998 by his wife Brynn Hartman. Hartman’s death was written into the show, with his character Bill dying off-screen from a heart attack. In the season 5 premiere, “Bill Moves On,” the other characters mourn his death: Cast members were so distraught over Hartman’s recent passing that they broke down crying repeatedly while filming. In the second part of the premiere, “Meet Max Louis,” Jon Lovitz was brought in as Hartman’s replacement.
5. Suddenly Susan
The writers of Suddenly Susan debated how to incorporate the death of David Strickland in 1999. The day he was due in court on drug charges, Strickland committed suicide in a Las Vegas hotel room. Ultimately, his character Todd Stiles was killed off on the show, however ambiguously. In the Season 3 finale “A Day in the Life,” Susan spent the day looking for Todd, learning about all the good deeds he had been doing under their noses. The episode ended with the phone ringing — presumably news of Todd’s death — but it cut out before his fate could be revealed. Brooke Shields and the other cast members also gave out-of-character interviews about David Strickland, which were featured throughout the episode.
6. The Sopranos
Sopranos creator David Chase had big plans for the character of Livia Soprano before Nancy Marchand died in 2000 between the second and third season. In order to provide some closure, Livia and Tony had a final scene in the season 3 episode “Proshai, Livushka,” with Livia’s part created using CGI and sound clips from her previous episodes. In the same episode, she suffered a massive stroke off-screen. Livia continued to appear in flashbacks, played by a different actor, as Tony’s mommy issues were never really resolved.
7. 8 Simple Rules
When it comes to how TV shows deal with a cast member’s death, 8 Simple Rules is one of the most commonly cited examples. John Ritter died suddenly in 2003 from an undetected heart condition during the show’s second season. The episode “Goodbye” began in standard fashion, until Cate received an alarming call. After a commercial break, the laugh track was dropped, and the remainder of the very emotional two-part episode was spent mourning Ritter’s character Paul’s death. The series continued, but the show did not shy away from plot lines about grieving Paul. Cate did eventually get another love interest, played by Adam Arkin, but the series was canceled after the low-rated third season.
8. The West Wing
John Spencer had nearly completed his West Wing run when he died in 2005 of a heart attack at 59. His character Leo had suffered a heart attack in the show’s sixth season, and in the episode “Election Day Part 1,” he suffered another, with Annabeth discovering his body in the last moments. “Election Day Part II” dealt with Leo’s death — he would have been vice president had he lived. Spencer’s name remained in the opening credits through the remainder of the seventh and final season.
9. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills
There was plenty of protestation when The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills decided to air its second season shortly after the 2011 suicide of Russell Armstrong. The season was hastily reedited: Taylor’s estrangement from her husband and his abuse were already going to be featured, but the production now had to restructure the episodes for sensitivity reasons. Before the premiere, the cast members gathered for a brief discussion of Russell’s suicide, as well as the obligatory, “The show must go on.” It did.
Original Dallas cast member Larry Hagman figured prominently into the TNT reboot, but he died in 2012 from throat cancer during the second season. While he had been slated to appear in six episodes, his iconic character J.R. Ewing was written off, shot (again) in the episode “The Furious and the Fast.” His character got a major funeral, including past Dallas stars as well as real-life Dallas notables. And the mystery of the season mirrored the famous “Who Shot J.R.?” question. This time, it was a question of who killed him.
And now we come to Glee. While it feels “too soon” to talk about how the show can continue without Cory Monteith, this is a very real question writers and producers are currently discussing. After all, the first five episodes have already been written, and were apparently Finn-heavy. Shooting is scheduled to begin soon. While the obvious choice seems to be writing Finn’s death into the show, there is the concern that this course of action forces cast members, including Monteith’s real-life girlfriend Lea Michele, to relive the very recent death of a friend. At the same time, glossing over Monteith’s death and simply writing Finn out of the show could be criticized as callous, not to mention unrealistic. The season 5 premiere of Glee is scheduled for Sept.11.
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