Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Posthumously on… : 16 TV characters who died after their performers did

Illustration for article titled Posthumously on… : 16 TV characters who died after their performers did

1. Will Lee, Sesame Street
With Sesame Street since its beginning in 1969, Will Lee used Mr. Hooper’s bow tie and glasses to cement his place in children’s television history, becoming easily one of the most beloved characters in the show’s early years. When Lee died of a heart attack in 1982, Sesame Street producers struggled with how to explain his sudden absence to viewers who, while children, would still notice if one of their old pals just disappeared. Ultimately, the Children’s Television Workshop decided that, like Lee, Mr. Hooper would have suddenly died, something that could ultimately be used to teach children about life and death. The whole thing played out in Episode 1839, “Farewell, Mr. Hooper,” which aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. In a six-minute segment, human characters on Sesame Street explained Hooper’s absence to Big Bird, and the show ended with both the birth of a new baby on the show and Big Bird placing a drawing of Mr. Hooper over his nest, thus demonstrating the circle of life to viewers. It’s certainly the single most heart-wrenching episode of Sesame Street, leaving viewers (and writers) choked up even now, more than 30 years later.

2. Robert Colesberry, The Wire
The unexpected heart-surgery-related death of executive producer Robert Colesberry was a blow to everyone on The Wire, but the resulting StairMaster death of his minor on-screen character, bumbling homicide detective Ray Cole, wasn’t an especially difficult event to write around. (There are plenty of mediocre cops in the show’s Baltimore PD.) It’s all the more touching, then, how much weight Cole’s death is given. His framed picture was added to the series’ opening credits, and at his raucous cop-bar wake (where Cole’s body is laid out on the pool table), rotund Sergeant Landsman (Delaney Williams) gives a (whiskey) glowing eulogy that makes coded reference to Colesberry’s role in producing the films Mississippi Burning and After Hours, and the miniseries The Corner. And then all the gathered cops sing along to The Pogues’ rousing “The Body Of An American” in tribute to their fallen comrade.

3. Marcia Wallace, The Simpsons
In theory, writing Edna Krabappel out of The Simpsons after Marcia Wallace died from breast cancer last year should have been easy. While Mrs. K has been Bart’s beleaguered teacher since the start of the series, her intermittent storylines (mostly revolving around her tumultuous love life) were less frequent than her quick-hit zingers, usually punctuated by Wallace’s inimitable “HA!” of temporary triumph. It’s only fitting, then, that Springfield’s other master of derisive laughter got in on Mrs. K’s touching goodbye. At the end of the episode “The Man Who Grew Too Much,” we see Ned Flanders (who’d landed Edna just a few seasons before) sitting by an open window, wearing a black armband and staring sadly at framed pictures of deceased wives Maude and Edna. Remembering the late Mrs. K, Flanders muses sadly, “Sure do miss that laugh,” and notorious bully Nelson Muntz, walking by, responds with his signature “Haw haw” before adding a heartfelt, “I miss her too.” Although no further details on how Mrs. K passed away have been revealed, showrunner Al Jean says that the character is to be respectfully retired, and this sweet little epilogue is as lovely a goodbye as Edna could hope for.


4. Howard Attfield, Doctor Who
For the fourth season of the revived Doctor Who, Catherine Tate agreed to play the companion, reprising her one-off character Donna Noble from the 2006 Christmas special, “The Runaway Bride.” Joining her were Jacqueline King and Howard Attfield, who had also debuted in the special as her parents, Geoff and Sylvia Noble. In October 2007, King and Attfield began filming scenes with Tate for the season premiere, but it soon became apparent that Attfield’s time was limited. He had recently undergone chemotherapy, though the production team only learned during filming that his cancer was not in remission. Attfield was candid about his questionable availability for subsequent episodes; writer Russell T. Davies briefly considered having Attfield film all his scenes for the season in a few days, or even incorporating the death of Geoff Noble into Donna’s arc for the season. Though Attfield completed his scenes for “Partners In Crime,” a broken leg and his generally weakened condition precluded any further filming, and he died on October 31. Refusing to recast the role, Davies instead elected to reshoot the episode, replacing Donna’s father—who was now said to have died offscreen sometime before season four—with her grandfather. This part was filled by Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred Mott, who had also begun life as an unrelated one-off character in another Christmas special, specifically 2007’s “Voyage Of The Damned.”

5. John Spencer, The West Wing
In an odd case of art imitating life imitating art, John Spencer’s character on The West Wing, White House Chief Of Staff Leo McGarry, had a massive heart attack in season six. Leo recovered from his heart attack in time to form the other half of the Democratic ticket (with Jimmy Smits’ Matt Santos) in season seven’s main plotline, the presidential election. But in December 2005, Spencer suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 58. His death was written into the show by having McGarry suffer another heart attack, this time on election night. According to the show’s producers, the original plan was for the Democrats to actually lose that election, but they changed that following Spencer’s death. As an unofficial tribute to the actor who had won an Emmy for this portrayal, they decided his character should go out a winner.

6. John Ritter, 8 Simple Rules (For Dating My Teenage Daughter)
John Ritter’s sudden death in 2003 from an aortic dissection put his sitcom 8 Simple Rules (For Dating My Teenage Daughter) in a precarious position. This was a quintessential family sitcom, with much of the comedy and plot derived from Paul Hennessy (Ritter) and his relationship with his wife (Katey Sagal) and daughters. When Ritter died after filming just three episodes for the second season, the series went on hiatus for a couple of months while producers decided what to do next. The show returned with a new title (the shortened, slightly enigmatic 8 Simple Rules), having killed off Paul Hennessy by giving him a heart attack while on a grocery run, and two new characters moved into the Hennessy home: James Garner as Sagal’s dad and David Spade as her nephew. Garner and Spade played off each other well as the new male authority figures in the household, but without Ritter’s congenial yet dyspeptic dad antics, the show lost a lot of its charm. 8 Simple Rules limped along for a third season but was canceled in 2005.

7. Cory Monteith, Glee
After 31-year-old Glee co-star Cory Monteith was found dead of “combined heroin and alcohol toxicity” on July 13, 2013, showrunners scrambled to decide whether to address the issue or just quietly drop his character. The latter would have been hard, given his central role on the series, but given how arbitrarily and abruptly plots, characters, and emotions have always come and gone on Glee, it wouldn’t have been unthinkable. Ultimately, they had his character, Finn, die as well—offscreen, abruptly, of never-revealed causes—and devoted a memorial episode to the characters singing mournful songs about their feelings and talking through their memories of him. Given Glee’s endless focus on crisis and catharsis and its status as an emotional purgative for its high-school fandom, the episode offered some necessary public mourning, complete with character-driven on-screen counseling and a suggestion of closure. But at the same time, given Glee’s focus on teen here-today-forgotten-tomorrow crises, it still seems disrespectful to turn Monteith’s real death into just another freakout-of-the-week focus, not that different from Tina’s burning need to be prom queen, or the endless who’s-dating-whom conflicts. And the way the show has continued to bring up Finn in memory—most recently, with Finn’s on-screen girlfriend, Rachel Berry (played by his offscreen girlfriend, Lea Michele), making her Broadway debut while flashing back to images of his approving smile—has continued to ride an uncomfortable line between exploiting a tragedy for unearned emotion and respecting a performer rather than awkwardly brushing his life and death under the rug.

8. Phil Hartman, NewsRadio
In the flawless ensemble of NewsRadio, Phil Hartman’s Bill McNeal was the bombastic and obnoxious linchpin, a character whose ego could power him through any adversity. After Hartman was murdered by his wife in 1998, the writers had to approach a fifth season without one of their best comic engines, as well as deal with the emotional void felt by both the cast and the characters. The season-five premiere, “Bill Moves On,” explained Bill’s death as a sudden heart attack and showed the WNYX team relying on coping mechanisms like multi-day benders and driving backhoes through walls. However, while Hartman had no opportunity to say goodbye, Bill got a chance to speak one last time in a series of letters written to be opened after his death. It’s a simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious collection of parting words, the writers paying him the best tribute by refusing to soften the character’s chaotic instincts even at the end. (Case in point, his parting words to Lisa: “Please think of me the next time you’re naked, because if it is at all possible to become a ghost, I will be there appreciating you in all your naked splendor.”)


9. Nicholas Colasanto, Cheers
For the first three seasons of Cheers, Nicholas Colasanto’s Ernie “Coach” Pantusso did more than tend bar at the tavern down the stairs from Melville’s Fine Sea Food—he gave Cheers its soul. Absentminded but lovable, the character was a change of pace from the one-off heavies and wiseguys Nicholas Colasanto had played in previous TV and film roles. A recovering alcoholic, Colasanto’s years of drinking aggravated the heart condition that eventually killed him in 1985, midway through Cheers’ third season. His declining health caused the performer to miss five live tapings that year; following his fatal heart attack, his character was sent on an offscreen “vacation.” The following year, Coach’s death was written into the series—via exposition for Cheers’ new idiot savant behind the bar, Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson)—but he retained a presence on the show’s set to the very end. A photo of famed Apache leader Geronimo was taken from Colasanto’s old dressing room and added to the bric-a-brac decorating the walls of Cheers, a portrait that Sam Malone (Ted Danson) can be seen adjusting in his final scene as Coach’s former employer and proudest charge.

10. Nancy Marchand, The Sopranos
When Nancy Marchand died in June 2000, the headline of her obituary in The New York Times described the actress as a “Player Of Imperious Roles.” That’s certainly one way to describe her portrayal of mafia mother Livia Soprano—though her son, Tony (James Gandolfini), would be more to the point (and much more profane). Marchand’s presence hangs like a dark shadow over The Sopranos’ first two seasons, a primary source of the Freudian angst and passive-aggressive anxiety that dictates Tony’s life. Marchand’s death scuttled plans for a storyline in which Livia testifies against her son, but she still managed to have ill effects on Tony from beyond the grave, and their unresolved issues are a subject of his therapy sessions throughout the entire series. Marchand’s death didn’t put an end to Livia’s physical presence on the show, either: She continued to be seen in flashback sequences, and a combination of existing footage, audio, and computer-generated imagery allowed the actress to make one final, surreal on-screen appearance in season three’s “Proshai, Livushka.”

11. Larry Hagman, Dallas
When Larry Hagman died in 2012, he’d already been struggling with health issues for years. He kept working, though, and was chipper enough to reprise his role as the devious J.R. Ewing on TNT’s 2012 update of Dallas. Hagman died about a year into filming the new show, and as a result, his character was killed off using manipulated unaired footage of the actor. The death was, of course, something that had almost happened 30-odd years earlier when J.R. Ewing was first famously shot. In 2012, though, Ewing was in control of his own fate, having hired his private investigator to off him after receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Dallas being the soapy, outlandish show it is, Ewing also managed to arrange his death so that his longtime rival, Cliff Barnes, got blamed for his assisted suicide.


12. Michael Conrad, Hill Street Blues
As the perpetually philosophical and verbose Sergeant Phil Esterhaus, Michael Conrad may not have been the face of Hill Street Blues, but for viewers of the NBC cop drama, he was certainly a big part of the show’s heart, winning two Emmys for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series and delivering the series’ signature line at the top of every episode: “Let’s be careful out there.” After battling urethral cancer for over two years and facing a gradually decreasing workload, Conrad died during the fourth season of Hill Street Blues, at which point it was decided that the actor was too synonymous with his character for anyone else to step into the role. Rather than suffering through the same fate, however, Esterhaus went out with far more of a bang: The character died “in the saddle,” having a heart attack in the midst of sex with his girlfriend, with the sad news later inspiring Officer Andy Renko to mutter, “Damn, that’s a good way to check out.”

13.–14. Selma Diamond and Florence Halop, Night Court
Although Selma Diamond spent a significant amount of the 1940s and 1950s writing for radio (You Bet Your Life and The Ozzie And Harriet Show) and television (Your Show Of Shows), she was well established as an on-camera comedian when she signed on to play Bailiff Selma Hacker on NBC’s Night Court in 1984. Four days after the series aired its second-season finale, Diamond—a notorious chain smoker—died of lung cancer, resulting in a season-three opener devoted to dealing with Selma’s death and determining who would be hired to replace her. The gig went to Florence Kleiner, played by Florence Halop, who was three years younger than Diamond and had a similarly high-pitched, raspy voice. Unfortunately, she also had the same predisposition toward lung cancer, as it turned out, resulting in the show’s fourth-season opening with the hiring of another new bailiff. This time, the producers played it safe, hiring the much younger Marsha Warfield, who played Roz Russell for the remainder of the series’ run.


15. Frances Bay, The Middle
In the early seasons of The Middle, while the family sitcom was still trying to find its footing, the cast extended beyond the five members of the Heck family—Mike, Frankie, Axl, Sue, and Brick—to feature Frankie’s elderly aunts Edie (Jeanette Miller) and Ginny (Frances Bay). Just days before the premiere of the show’s third season, Bay died at the age of 92, but it took several episodes before a decision was made on how to handle the character’s fate. (At one point, Edie explains away her sister’s absence by simply saying that she’s “in the potty.”) It wasn’t until midway through the season that Ginny’s death was ultimately revealed, during the opening scene of the “The Map,” with the family descending into an intense but funny discussion about mortality while Frankie tries to memorialize her aunt to the best of her ability, ultimately summing her up as having been “a nice lady who looked good and died in her sleep and lived a long life and is in a pretty place and met Patton and made a hell of a cheesecake.”

16. Jack Soo, Barney Miller
As Detective Nick Yemana, Jack Soo became the poster boy for cops who can’t make a decent cup of coffee to save their lives, but the character’s quick wit and droll delivery made him one of the signature characters of Barney Miller. During the show’s fifth season, Soo was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which spread quickly and took the actor’s life within only a few months. Soo’s presence on the show was so profound that the series did an entire episode where the cast sat around the office of the 12th Precinct—out of character—and showed clips of Nick Yemana’s funniest moments before wrapping their remembrances by raising their coffee cups in a farewell toast. When Nick died on the series, his character was never actually replaced with a new full-time detective, but the series still dealt with how his death affected his fellow officers, to the point where even the removal of his desk from the office was enough to inspire a wave of wistfulness.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter