12 unexpected deaths of TV personalities
I didn't know Tim Russert on a personal level. I rarely even saw him in his own element as host of NBC's Meet the Press. However, when he suddenly died last Friday, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was the fact that he was a huge presence on television, particularly during this year's Presidential election. It made Russert feel like he was a part of the family.
So it has been with many television personalities that have left this earth before their time. It's the intimacy of the industry and the fact that this person has come into our homes night after night, week after week, that the unexpected death of these personalities hits us much harder than, say, movie stars. Unfortunately, there have been a number of these surprising deaths over the last few decades. Here are 12 such deaths that affected millions of television viewers.
John Belushi -- If the former Saturday Night Live star had died during this era of instantaneous information Belushi's death would probably not have been as much as a surprise as it was back in 1982. However, because the private lives of Hollywood stars were semi-private back then, Belushi's death due to a drug overdose hit every fan of SNL, as well as his movies, quite hard. It was only after the death that the public realized how hard John was abusing himself.
John Candy -- So many of those listed in this post had so much more left to do in their careers before their deaths. Former SCTV star John Candy was certainly one of them. Turning his success from the classic sketch show into a successful movie career, Candy was still going strong and was even branching out into some more dramatic roles in such films as Only the Lonely and JFK. The transformation to a more diverse actor ended in 1994 when he died of a sudden heart attack.
Johnny Carson -- Here is a perfect example of a major TV personality whose death was taken very personally by millions of viewers. That's because Johnny walked into our living rooms five nights a week for thirty years as host of NBC's The Tonight Show. The practical self-exile of Carson after he retired from the show in 1992 made his death even more poignant since fans never really had a chance to say a proper good-bye.
Chris Farley -- Unfortunately, the death of Saturday Night Live cast member Chris Farley was predicted by many who saw his downward spiral. With his constant weight issues, as well as drug and alcohol problems, there were many who thought his time on this planet would be short-lived. It's too bad they were right. Farley died of a drug overdose in 1997 at the age of 33 -- the same age of Farley's idol John Belushi.
Phil Hartman - Of the 12 deaths mentioned, four of these hit me the hardest. The first of these was the demise of Phil Hartman. I was in my car on the way to lunch when I heard about his death. It left a burning pit in my stomach and for days I wondered if the story was true or not -- especially the part about his murder at the hands of his wife. What made it so much more devastating was that Phil was in the middle of a successful television run with his role on NewsRadio and his many voice-acting gigs on The Simpsons. That, and according to all reports, he was an incredibly nice guy.
Jim Henson -- The untimely demise of Muppeteer Jim Henson has had the most lasting affect on me. I even remember where I was when I heard the news. I was home from college for the summer and a special report popped up about something that the first President Bush was going to talk about. Before that, though, the anchor mentioned the death of Sammy Davis Jr. and Jim Henson. Being brought up during the Sesame Street - Muppet Show generation it was like one of the people sitting in my living room had just passed away. I still feel a pang of sadness whenever I realize the potential that was lost that day.
Peter Jennings -- Sometimes the personalities that you think are indestructible are the ones that are really the most vulnerable. Peter Jennings was one of those personalities. When the World News Tonight anchor announced he had lung cancer back in April of 2005 viewers were confident that he would recover from this setback. But it wasn't to be, as he succumbed to the disease only four months later. Jennings' death, like that of Tim Russert this past week, was a hit to broadcast journalism that the networks may never recover from.
Michael Landon -- Here is another television personality who graced our screens for several decades then, just like that, left us due to pancreatic cancer. It was hard to tell that he was sick during his last appearance on The Tonight Show in May of 1991, one month after he was diagnosed. But, less than two months later, the former Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven star passed away at the age of 54.
Freddie Prinze -- So many unexpected deaths have been connected, one way or another, to drugs. Freddie Prinze is no exception. A instant television star, thanks to the NBC sitcom Chico and the Man, Prinze's life ended extremely abruptly at the age of 22 when he shot himself in the head after an overdose of quaaludes.
John Ritter -- I heard about John Ritter's death on my way to the airport and it hit me just as hard as Jim Henson's or Phil Hartman's death did. That was due to his constant presence on television thanks to Three's Company, which ran on several cable stations several times a day. Sadly, he died of sudden heart failure on September 11, 2003 while he was filming the second season of his new ABC comedy 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Daughter.
John Spencer -- Here is the last personality whose death hit me quite personally. Again, it was due to Spencer being a weekly television presence thanks to the popularity of The West Wing. Ironically, Spencer's character on West Wing had survived a massive heart attack with little damage. Unfortunately, no such success for Spencer as he died in 2005 at the age of 59.