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October 6, 2015

12 unexpected deaths of TV personalities

by Richard Keller, posted Jun 17th 2008 11:58AM

The death of Jim Henson rocked the emotions of people who didn't even know him.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.

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John Ritter is the only person on that list that I really know of very well and his death did hit me and 1 of my friends quite hard. Was a sad event.

One thing that makes me sad just thinking about it is that my favourite actor is Leslie Neilson. He's over 80 years old and I just know that before long, his death will come and cause much sadness for many people.

June 18 2008 at 6:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Don't forget Lynne Thigpen (The District with Craig T. Nelson, All My Children) and David Strickland (Suddenly Susan).

June 18 2008 at 12:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I remember when Phil Hartman died I said to some guys at work, "Nothing makes a regular guy feel his own mortality more than the death of Phil Hartman." I didn't have to explain to anyone what I meant.

June 17 2008 at 10:16 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

For me, when I was a kid it was Rebecca Schaeffer.

To be so young and die at the hands of a stalker....that was very scary.

June 17 2008 at 9:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Jim Henson hit me very hard. I still wonder what all we've missed since then. Chris Farley and Phil Hartman hit me even more so, especially since they were so close together.. I find myself tearing up slightly whenever I watch the final bit from their last stint in SNL together, when they did the song from The Sound of Music and it ended with Chris "falling asleep" on Phil as he looked to the camera and said goodbye to everyone. It was touching even then, but became evem more poignant after the news.

June 17 2008 at 9:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Morjana Coffman

I remember when Dan Blocker (Hoss) of Bonanza died suddenly in May of '72 of a pulmonary embolism.

Mr. Blocker died at the end of the 13th season, and the 14th season premiere of Bonanza was about the loss of Hoss. I remember Ben in Hoss' bedroom, looking at a photo of Hoss, and not only was Ben (Lorne Greene) crying, but was so I. (And I think everyone in my home was crying as well.)

June 17 2008 at 7:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Will Lee AKA Mr Hooper from Sesame Street...

June 17 2008 at 6:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

John Belushi was the worst for me. I would have been only 10 at the time; probably too young to have been allowed to see his best film work, and I knew little or nothing about his drug use. But I knew he was a first class talent, and too young to die. After that, nothing has surprised or shocked me in the least. And seeing that no-talent schmuck Jim get by on the last name and a slight resemblance to his superstar older brother keeps the hurt fresh.

Freddie Prinze's death occured before that, but Belushi was a much brighter star.

June 17 2008 at 5:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Jim Henson. *shaking head in disbelief*

June 17 2008 at 5:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mike Doran

I was 11 and my brother was 12 when we first heard of the death of Ernie Kovacs in a car crash in January of '62. Our dad would let us stay up late to watch his shows, and we knew he had another one coming up ia week or two (that one aired as scheduled without commercials). Kovacs was 42, which to us at the time was old -- our parents were only a few years younger. Now, I'm coming up on 58 and boy, how things have changed -- I look at Ernie's old shows on tape, and all I can see is how he was hamstrung by starvation budgets that make the shows look cheap by today's standards. Imagine what he could have done with real money. Oh well...

June 17 2008 at 3:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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