Five deaths that rocked television, or at least their shows
I'm feeling a little melancholy today. This past Friday, a friend of mine lost two daughters in a senseless automobile accident. They were thirteen and eighteen; one having just started college and the other just entering the magical teen years. It was so sudden and insane that I can't really wrap my brain around it. As a parent, I can only begin to understand what he and the girls' mother are going through, but even then I'm sure it pales in comparison to the reality.
As I thought about this blog and things to post on television, I was struck by how death can have a dramatic and instant impact on a fictional show as well. Sometimes when an actor dies, the show is able to move on with relative smoothness, but other times there is an irreplaceable hole that just never seems to be filled.
1) Eight Simple Rules (for Dating My Teenage Daughter) - John Ritter
When star John Ritter passed suddenly mid-season, Eight Simple Rules didn't end immediately, and even managed to retain much of its quality, thanks in large part to impressive work by Katey Sagal as new widow Cate Hennessy. The creators opted to work in Ritter's sudden death from an aortic dissension by having his character Paul Hennessy also die suddenly. The show bravely continued two more years, having the family deal directly with the loss of its primary breadwinner and patriarch in a realistic fashion, something few shows had done to such an intimate degree. Ratings declined, however, and even the additions of James Garner as Cate's father, and David Spade as her nephew weren't enough to revive them. Considering the show mustered another two seasons, it's hard to say if the loss of Ritter doomed the show, or shifts to less and less ratings-friendly time slots did it in.
2) NewsRadio - Phil Hartman
While NewsRadio was an ensemble cast, and Phil Hartman was by no means considered the main star, his character was significant enough that his sudden death between seasons four and five stunned both the audience and the cast. An argument could be made that the show could have continued without Hartman, had they not so quickly replaced him with Jon Lovitz. Nothing against Lovitz, as I think he's a tremendous comedian and by itself his character was funny, but one couldn't help but be reminded of Hartman every time he was on screen, and of how different they were. Maybe if some time had lapsed before Lovitz' character had been introduced, things could have changed, but who knows. Hartman was a beloved actor/comedian dating back to his time on Saturday Night Live, with Lovitz (the two of them had known each other and worked together dating back to time spent together with improv group The Groundlings), and his sudden murder by his wife rocked the tabloids the summer between those two seasons. It was such a high profile murder, that nothing perhaps could have saved the show from a gaping Hartman sized hole in every episode.
3) The Royal Family - Redd Foxx
While hardly a success for CBS in the 1991-1992 season, The Royal Family didn't really get a chance to see what it could have been. The comeback vehicle for comic legend Foxx proved too late as the actor died of a heart attack after shooting only seven episodes. Producers originally opted to end the series, but changed their minds and decided to use the series to show a family coping with the sudden loss of ... sound familiar? Jackee Harry joined the cast as widow Victoria's (Della Reese) sister. Of course, then the show went on hiatus from November to April and when it came back it was a whole different monster; Harry was now Reese's eldest daughter and it was as if the show had never featured Redd Foxx at all. This brings it into the realm of sudden, pointless and unexplained cast changes which is another list altogether. Luckily after 15 episodes, the plug was pulled and Foxx can remain remembered for Sanford & Son and other works.
4) Chico and the Man - Freddie Prinze
A groundbreaking show, Freddie Prinze played Chico, a street-smart Hispanic kid who finds a job at a run down garage, in Chico and the Man. The chemistry between Jack Albertson as "The Man" and Prinze catapulted the show into a top ten hit in its first two seasons. By the third season, Prinze's real-life drug abuse began to impact his physical appearance on the show, as he became emaciated and haggard looking, and ultimately led to his suicide during the airing of the third season. Fans struggled with acceptance as the season played out with Prinze still on the air. Rather than let the show end, producers continued, explaining away Prinze's absence by saying he was visiting his father in Mexico. They brought in a 12-year old kid as the new "Chico," shortly followed thereafter by Charo as his aunt. Ratings continued to slide as fans were less than enthused, and the fourth season proved to be its last. There's another list, bringing in a kid to try and bolster ratings; note to producers: this almost never works.
5) Sesame Street - Will Lee
When Will Lee died suddenly of a heart attack in December of 1982, producers of Sesame Street were left with a major decision. Lee played Mr. Hooper, beloved proprietor of Mr. Hooper's Store and a central human figure in the series. But how should a children's show populated by puppets handle such a serious matter? Should they address the death, or just work around the character, something that could have easily been done considering the frantic and haphazard pace of the show. In a landmark decision for children's programming, producers ultimately decided to write in Mr. Hooper's death and have the cast deal with his passing directly, showing children about death and the natural grieving process. It proved a moving and powerful bit of television that garnered Sesame Street tremendous critical accolades, and though I was a young lad at the time, I still remember Big Bird struggling to understand what had happened to his friend.
I realize there are many prominent deaths I did not cover, Jerry Orbach of Law & Order, John Spencer of The West Wing, and on and on. I focused on the ones that seemed to dramatically impact the flow, direction and popularity of their programs. I also was trying to go more for the deaths that were surprising, straying away from older characters whose deaths, while no less significant, may have been less unexpected. I'm sure its likely that I've still missed some that had a deep impact on you, but that's what the comments are for.
In remembering these actors and their performances, think of this as a tribute to their greatness and importance in television, rather than a depressing examination of their absence.