There have been several iconic TV actors who died during their shows: John Ritter, Phil Hartman, Redd Foxx. But how were their deaths handled and could the show survive without them? In all of the above cases, the shows did not make it very far without their star actors. 8 Simple Rules lasted only one more season without Ritter, NewsRadio also just one more season, and The Royal Family did not even complete the rest of Season One without Foxx’s star power.
Of course, then there are the shows that delay the announcement of a character’s death while producers and writers try to figure out how they are going to reshape the show’s storyline. After Freddie Prinze’s shocking suicide, producers from Chico and the Man simply explained away his absence, until his death was addressed on the program one year after Prinze died. Producers from the nighttime soap Dallas did the same after Jim Davis (patriarch Jock Ewing) passed away.
There are a couple of film actors worth mentioning on this list as well, when narratives needed to be reworked because the actor died during the movie’s production.
Check out the different ways an actor’s death can be handled by the TV or film writers he leaves behind.
Phil Hartman died in 1998 after being shot by his wife, Brynn Hartman. At the time of his death, Hartman played news anchor Bill McNeal on the comedy NewsRadio. His death was addressed during the premiere of Season 5 in an episode called “Bill Moves On,” where it’s revealed that McNeal died from a heart attack.
After McNeil’s funeral, each character reads personal notes left for them by the news anchor. The producers opted to replace Hartman’s character with fellow SNL alum Jon Lovitz, who played an old friend of McNeal’s. NewsRadio wrapped after its fifth season.
Redd Foxx died of a heart attack at the age of 69 while filming his comeback series The Royal Family. The sitcom was only seven episodes into its premiere season when Foxx collapsed on the set during rehearsal. Jackée Harry was brought in as a replacement for Foxx (who played the character Al), as the younger sister to Al’s wife, Victoria. Harry’s character was there to help her sister deal with the loss of her husband, and his passing became a storyline in the show.
The retooling of the show was unsuccessful, however, and was cancelled later that same season.
Nicholas Colasanto, who played the slow-witted but beloved Coach on Cheers, died from a heart attack in 1985 at the age of 61. Colasanto passed just before Season 3 wrapped on the NBC sitcom. The show never really explained exactly what happened to Coach. There is a scene during the Season 4 premiere where Sam simply tells Diane that Coach died.
Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson) arrives from small town Indiana to visit his pen pal, Coach, not knowing that he has died. After Woody is told of his friend’s death, Sam offers him a job at the bar. The sitcom remained on the air for a total of 11 seasons.
Nancy Marchand died in 2000 at the age of 71. Most people remember her as Tony Soprano’s mother, Livia Soprano, on The Sopranos. Marchand passed away after the HBO program’s second season. The Sopranos was, of course, a mob show, but it was just as much a family drama. Tony’s mother often came up in his psychiatric sessions and became one of the primary fundamental reasons for his panic attacks and general depression.
When Marchand died, there was still a lot of narrative to explore in the troubled mother/son relationship. Producers wanted one last scene between Tony and his mother, so the show opted to go the special effects route. They used tape editing combined with computer technology to make a fairly realistic looking Marchand talking to her son one last time. Her character later dies at the end of the episode.
James Rebhorn died on 2014 at the age of 66 from melanoma. Rebhorn played Carrie Mathison’s father Frank on the Showtime series Homeland. Frank was always Carrie’s voice of reason: the two both suffered from severe mental illness, and Frank seemed to be the only person whom Carrie could truly confide in.
When Rebhorn passed away after Season 3, the producers opted to not bring up Frank’s death until the end of Season 4, so Carrie could work through the CIA’s extremely tumultuous situation in Pakistan. It was not until the last episode of the season that Carrie returns stateside to grieve her father’s death. The emotional time brings her closer to both Quinn and her baby.
Freddie Prinze, Sr., died in 1977 from a self-inflicted bullet wound to the head. The actor/comedian was filming the television show Chico and the Man at the time of his death. For most of Season 3, characters simply explain that Chico is away on business or visiting a relative.
The trend continues the following season, until the two-part episode titled, “Raul Runs Away,” which airs almost one year after Prinze’s sudden death. The episode reveals that Chico has passed; however, no explanation is given. The show was cancelled later that same year.
Jim Davis died in 1991 of cancer at the age of 71. He played Ewing family patriarch Jock Ewing on the nighttime soap Dallas. Davis battled multiple myeloma over the first three seasons of the show, and this condition meant he was absent from filming for parts of the third season. The writers worked his absence into the narrative by having Jock split from his wife Miss Ellie.
Davis died during Season 3, and the show opted to keep his character in the story by stating that he was out of the country for business. His character was finally killed-off in a helicopter crash during an emotional episode called “The Search.”
Diana Hyland passed away in 1977 at the age of 41 due to complications from breast cancer. At the time of her death, she was playing matriarch Joan Bradford on the comedy Eight is Enough. Hyland only appeared in four episodes of the first season before falling ill. After her death, the producers opted to write her character out for the remainder of the season. At the beginning of Season 2, it is revealed that family patriarch Tom has become a widower.
He meets a schoolteacher/tutor and is married during a TV movie special in 1977. Eight is Enough remained on the air for five seasons.
Paul Walker was on a Thanksgiving holiday break from filming Fast & Furious 7 when he died in a car accident in 2013 at the age of 40. Universal Pictures decided to delay filming of the high speed action film, though eventually the project continued. Walker still had a few scenes left to film at the time of his death.
The studio brought in Paul’s brothers Cody and Caleb to help finish Paul’s scenes. With the use of CGI, special lighting, and specific camera angles, both of his brothers could essentially act as body doubles for Paul. When the film was released in 2015, it went on to became a monster box office success, bringing in $1.5 billion dollars worldwide.
Walker’s death did affect the ending of the film. Director James Wan said in an interview with Collider, “The original ending of ‘Furious 7′ was setting up, you know, the bigger world of where the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise could go into. And that’s obviously very smart of them to think so. But when the tragedy happened, all of that became irrelevant. So it did not matter anymore, all of that stuff. And to the studio’s credit, they did not push for that. They realized how important it was to make a movie that finishes and that just outright is a tribute to Paul Walker. So I give them a lot of credit for being bigger than that and going along with this ending that is the right ending to go with.”
Michael Conrad died in 1983 at the age 58 from urethral cancer. At the time of his death, Conrad played Officer Phil Esterhaus on the NBC cop drama Hill Street Blues. You may remember his character reminding his fellow officers after roll call to “be careful out there.” Conrad’s death occurred during the fourth season of the show and producers decided to give his character a memorable demise.
The officer died from a heart attack in an episode title, “Grace Under Pressure,” while making love to his girlfriend, Grace, who had previously been depicted as a woman with a very high sex drive.