How TV Shows Dealt with Untimely Cast Member Deaths

What happens when a cast member of a beloved TV series dies while the show is still on the air? What should the showrunners do to tastefully honor the actors that died but also keep the story alive? The answer, as history has taught us, is not simple. There are dozens of examples of television shows where a cast member died, from the 1950s to the 2010s. Here’s a look at how these TV shows dealt with cast member deaths, including the impact their untimely passing had on the stories being told.

What Happened in Real Life: Star and sitcom legend John Ritter died in 2003 from an undiagnosed aortic dissection.

What Happened on the Show: After a two-month hiatus,  Ritter’s character was said to have died following a collapse while shopping for milk at the grocery store. The show only lasted one more season.

What Happened in Real Life: In 2008, actor Stanley Kamel died of a heart attack between seasons six and seven.

What Happened on the Show: Kamel’s character, Monk’s therapist Dr. Charles Kroger, also died of a heart attack in an episode dedicated to Kamel. The show lasted for eight seasons and Dr. Kroger appeared in clips in later episodes.

What Happened in Real Life: Saturday Night Live alum Phil Hartman was shot to death by his wife while he was sleeping in May 1998. The fourth season of NewsRadio had already wrapped at the time of his death.

What Happened on the Show: Hartman’s character was said to have died of a heart attack in the first episode of season five.  Due to poor ratings and reviews, the show only lasted one more season.

What Happened in Real Life: Actor Will Lee, who played the beloved Mr. Hooper, died of a heart attackin December 1982.

What Happened on the Show: An episode called “Farewell Mr. Hooper” acknowledged that Mr. Hooper had passed away, with the other adults explaining his passing to Big Bird. As of 2016, the show is in its 46th season.

What Happened in Real Life: Lung cancer and emphysema took the life of actress Nancy Marchand, who played the feisty Livia Soprano.

What Happened on the Show: In a rare move, the producers used CGI and existing footage to give Livia one final scene before the character died in her sleep in the third season. The show went on to win numerous awards and lasted for a total of eight seasons before ending as one of the most-loved shows in HBO history.

What Happened in Real Life: David Strickland, who played rock music reporter Todd Stities, committed suicide in March 1999.

What Happened on the Show: The producers of Suddenly Susan decided to deal directly with Strickland’s death on the show, but in an ambiguous manner. His character did not show up for work in the third season finale, leading Susan to look into his absence. The episode ends without revealing what happened to the character, but an ominous phone call hints at the truth. The fourth season saw a large chunk of the original writers, producers, and actors leaving the show. Suddenly Susan was canceled after season four.

What Happened in Real Life: The West Wing‘s White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry was played by actor John Spencer, who died of a heart attack during the show’s final season.

What Happened in the Show: The McGarry character also was said to have died of a heart attack on election night in season seven. Actor and West Wing President Martin Sheen read a tribute to John Spencer before one of the show’s final episodes.

What Happened in Real Life: Actress and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego host Lynne Thigpensuffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died during the third season of The District.

What Happened on the Show: Thigpen’s character Ella Farmer died suddenly in an episode shot about three weeks after her funeral. The show lasted for one more season.

What Happened in Real Life: Actor David Bailey (the evil Alistair Crane on Passionsdrowned in November 2004 after only a few months on the show.

What Happened on the Show: The role was simply recast, played by soap star John Reilly.