How TV Shows Have Handled The Unexpected Deaths And Departures Of Their Stars
So many of these stars were lost too soon.
Many TV shows feature a revolving door of supporting characters and guest stars, but what happens when they lose one of their lead actors? Whether due to tragic circumstances, an abrupt dismissal or a simple decision to move in a different direction creatively, the loss of an important cast member can often leave a series’ fate in limbo.
More often than not, however, the show must go on — although how a character’s absence is explained can differ from project to project. Here’s how these TV shows handled the unexpected death or sudden departure of one of their main stars.
Following the loss of Luke Perry, who died in early March 2019 after suffering a massive stroke, the cast and crew of “Riverdale” are still mourning and determining how best to move forward. Perry played Archie Andrews’ loving and supportive dad, Fred.
According to cast member Cole Sprouse, the series will address his death, although it remains unclear exactly how.
“I can’t go too much into the spoilers of it, but we do have something planned narratively,” he said.
‘The West Wing’
John Spencer (below, third from left) played Vice Presidential hopeful Leo McGarry on “The West Wing.” The Emmy winner had filmed several episodes of season seven when he passed away suddenly from a heart attack in 2005. His death was written into the show, with his character also dying of a heart attack on election night.
‘That ‘70s Show’
Topher Grace became famous for his role as Eric Forman on “That ’70s Show,” but left to focus on his movie career at the end of season seven. The rest of the cast remained for the eighth and final season, and Grace’s absence was explained as Forman leaving Wisconsin to teach in Africa. However, Grace did return and reunite with the cast for the series finale in 2006.
James Rebhorn played Carrie Mathison’s dad, Frank, on “Homeland,” for three seasons before dying of melanoma in 2014. Though CIA agent Mathison is stationed abroad for much of that season, the show does address his death by showing her receiving the news that her father passed away. The season four finale also showcases his funeral.
“Monk” marks another example of a TV show that wrote in the death of one of its stars. In 2008, Stanley Kamel, who played Monk’s psychiatrist, Dr. Charles Kroger, died of a heart attack. In a season seven episode, it was revealed that his character passed away in the same circumstances.
“Empire” has returned for a sixth season, but without its scandalized star, Jussie Smollett. After the actor faced accusations of allegedly staging a hate crime attack in January 2019, he was suspended from the final two episodes of the show’s fifth season. But it wasn’t until weeks later that Fox confirmed the actor won’t appear in the drama’s next season. (Prosecutors dropped charges against Smollet in March 2019.)
‘NCIS: Los Angeles’
Actor Miguel Ferrer battled throat cancer for some time before passing away from the disease in early 2017. The series dealt with his death by having Ferrer’s character, Owen Granger, admitted to the hospital after being stabbed. Then when a colleague goes to visit him, he is suddenly gone, having left the hospital on his own.
‘The Big Bang Theory’
Carol Ann Susi was never actually seen on “The Big Bang Theory,” as she lent her voice to her role off-camera, but she did play a significant character on the show. Susi played Howard Wolowitz’s mom, Debbie, for several seasons, and served as a surrogate parent to other characters on the show as well. When Susi died after a short battle with cancer, the sitcom paid tribute to her in an episode in which Debbie passes away while on vacation in Florida and is remembered fondly by the gang.
‘Law & Order: SVU’
For 12 seasons, “Law & Order: SVU” centered around the partnership of Mariska Hargitay’s Olivia Benson and Christopher Meloni’s Eliot Stabler. But fans were left surprised when Meloni left the show after season 12 when contract negotiations broke down. When season 13 returned, the series explained his absence by having Stabler retire offscreen in the wake of a precinct shooting.
Only a month after the premiere of CBS’ 2017 adaptation of “Training Day,” star Bill Paxton passed away suddenly. He died at the age of 61 of a stroke following heart surgery. Since the first season had already finished filming its initial 13 episodes, the network opted to air the full season before ending the show altogether.
Anton Yelchin was completing voice work on the first season of Netflix’s animated series, “Trollhunters,” when the 27-year-old died in 2016 during a freak accident with his car. Though Yelchin had recorded enough dialogue to be throughout the show’s first two seasons, Emile Hirsch took over the role of Jim to fill in portions of its third and last season. The show dedicated its final run of episodes to the late actor.
‘House of Cards’
Following the slew of sexual assault and harassment allegations against Kevin Spacey in 2017, Netflix cut all ties with the star. The decision left the future of its flagship drama “House of Cards” in limbo. After several weeks of uncertainty, the streaming service ultimately announced that it would move forward with a shortened final season that shifted focus to Robin Wright’s character, Claire Hale. Meanwhile, Spacey’s character Frank Underwood was murdered, with viewers eventually learning he was poisoned by his own formerly loyal assistant.
“Murphy Brown” was off the air for 20 years before its reboot in 2018. During that time, co-stars Robert Pastorelli (below, left), who played housepainter Eldin, and Pat Corley, who played Phil the bartender, passed away of a drug overdose and heart failure, respectively. Following its return to TV, the sitcom revealed that their characters had also passed away.
Nancy Marchand, who played Tony Soprano’s no-nonsense mom Livia, battled cancer throughout her entire time on the series. After Marchand succumbed to the disease in 2000, the writers incorporated her death into the show, closing out the central relationship between Livia and Tony. But unlike in most other cases of shows that lost their stars, the death of her character didn’t happen entirely offscreen. Instead, they used outtakes and voiceovers from past episodes and CGI to recreate the final scenes featuring Livia.
Fans of “The Office” were left broken-hearted following the exit of Steve Carell’s character Michael Scott at the end of season seven. The show tried to compensate for his absence in season eight by bringing in a series of big names as guest stars, including Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, and Ray Romano. But the show was never quite able to recapture the same magic, and it ended with a ninth and final season, featuring a cameo from Carell in the finale.
‘Rizzoli & Isles’
In 2013, “Rizzoli & Isles” star Lee Thompson Young died from suicide at age 29. His character, Detective Barry Frost, also passed away on the show. The show initially dealt with Young’s tragic death by having him go on vacation, but later revealed that the detective lost his life in a car accident. The series also featured a funeral for his character, with his partner Jane Rizzoli delivering a touching eulogy.
‘8 Simple Rules … For Dating My Teenage Daughter’
The ABC sitcom ran for two seasons before the death of star John Ritter, who passed away unexpectedly from heart issues in 2003. Following his death, the sitcom took a two-month hiatus before paying homage to the star with a special tribute episode in which character Paul Hennessy also dies. The show only lasted one more season after Ritter’s death.
“Nashville” was saved from cancellation when it moved from ABC to CMT after season four. However, at that point, star Connie Britton, who played country music singer Rayna Jaymes, was ready to move on creatively. The show dealt with her character’s exit by having her die from serious injuries sustained in a car accident. The show lasted one final season on CMT before being canceled.
Cory Monteith, who starred as Finn Hudson on “Glee,” died of a drug overdose in 2013 at age 31. His death occurred only a couple of months before the Fox series was set to return for its fifth season and left the cast, crew and fans reeling. After temporarily delaying production, the series addressed Monteith’s death in an emotional season five episode, “The Quarterback,” in which it’s revealed that Finn has also passed away offscreen.
Following the end of season four of “NewsRadio,” star Phil Hartman was shot and killed in his sleep by wife Brynn Hartman (who later also died by suicide). Despite his death, the show returned for a fifth season in fall 1998. In the premiere, it was revealed that his character, Bill McNeal, died of a heart attack. Hartman’s real-life friend and former “Saturday Night Live” Jon Lovitz joined the cast for the remaining episodes of the show.
‘Two and a Half Men’
It’s hard to forget the infamous and highly publicized implosion that led to Charlie Sheen’s sudden exit from the long-running comedy, “Two and a Half Men.” But his dismissal didn’t prevent the series from continuing. Ashton Kutcher joined the cast opposite Jon Cryer during season nine. The show stayed on the air for another four years, wrapping with season 12
Glenn Quinn, who played Becky’s husband Mark Healy on the original run of “Roseanne” died of a drug overdose in 2002. So when ABC decided to revive the series in 2018, fans wondered how his death would be addressed. The reboot indicates that Mark had died, although it doesn’t specify a cause, and widower Becky dealt with her grief throughout the season.
‘Will & Grace’
During the show’s original run, Debbie Reynolds appeared in 12 episodes as Grace’s mother, Bobbi Adler. Sadly, Reynolds passed away in 2016 from a stroke — immediately following the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher. The next year, NBC brought “Will & Grace” back to its lineup and the show paid tribute to Reynolds in a March 2018 episode, during Grace and Will posthumously celebrate Bobbi’s birthday.
‘Laverne & Shirley’
What is “Laverne & Shirley” without Shirley? Fans found out the answer to that question after Cindy Wright left the show when producers reportedly tried to force her to work on her due date. On the show, the character of Shirley is said to have moved her new husband overseas, shortly after finding out she’s pregnant. Meanwhile, the “Laverne & Shirley” went on with only Penny Marshall’s character Laverne for 20 more episodes.
The season three finale of “Cheers” marked the final appearance of cast member, Nicholas Colasanto, who died of a heart attack in 1985. His character, Coach, was revealed to have passed away on the show’s season four premiere. That same episode also introduced new cast member, Woody Harrelson.