As the old saying goes, the show must go on. After all, Hollywood is an industry that stops for no one. Still, some actors aren’t easily replaced. When principal stars of a television series pass away during their production they leave the studio executives and producers in a difficult bind. On some shows, they simply ignore the fact that the character is missing hoping that no one will notice. On others, the person’s absence is explained away by saying that they moved or decided to pursue another path of some kind. At times, however, the loss is so substantial that the show’s production has to be shuttered completely.
When Dan Blocker who played Hoss on Bonanza suddenly died in 1972, his absence was too substantial for the show to continue on as usual. The cast, crew, and fans of the series couldn’t just ignore that he was gone. One more season of the legendary western was produced but ratings indicated clearly what viewers thought should become of the program. The network pulled the plug on the series in 1973.
Even though Blocker’s death was a landmark event in television history it wasn’t the first time – nor would it be the last – that a show would have to make the same kind of hard choice following the death of a lead character. We’ve compiled a handful of other heartbreaking deaths that happened during the production of some deeply loved television series. We’ve also done our best to highlight how the show’s production team dealt with their loss. Fair warning though, we’ll be talking about sensitive subject material like drug addiction and suicide.
Nana Bryant – Make Room For Daddy
She was a Hollywood veteran who starred in dozens of films and TV shows before landing the role of Danny Thomas’s affable mother-in-law on Make Room For Daddy. Very early in the show’s production, she got sick and suddenly died. No explanation was ever given to explain her absence. To the viewing audience, she just vanished without a word. Poof!
Shortly after her death, Jean Hagen, who portrayed Danny’s Wife, Margaret, decided she no longer wanted to be a part of the series and left. Her exit was explained away by saying that she had died off-screen. It’s rather strange that the writers would take the time to write that into the script but not Bryant’s death.
John Hamilton & George Reeves – Adventures of Superman
Hamilton played Perry White, Clark Kent’s boss at the Daily Planet. He sadly died in 1957. The writers had initially intended on his character being sent away on assignment allowing for his position to be replaced by his brother, but unfortunately, before they could write that plotline into the script, Superman himself, played by George Reeves also died.
To this day, Reeve’s death remains the subject of great controversy and mysterg. Although it was officially ruled a suicide, many believe that he was either murdered or the victim of some kind of accidental shooting. He was just 45 years old when he passed.
Ward Bond – Wagon Train
He had over 200 credits under his belt when he died in 1960 at the age of 57. A massive heart attack took him out and his good friend John Wayne gave his eulogy at the funeral. Similar to Nana Bryant, Bond’s sudden Renaissance on Wagon Train was never explained. His character, Major Seth Adams, was swapped out with Christopher Hale – played by John Mcintire. Wagon Train continued on for another 4 seasons, so apparently, his death wasn’t the end of the world, but it certainly shook things up a bit.
Henry Kulky – Voyage To The Bottom of The Sea
‘Voyage’ underwent some major changes between the first and second seasons. Not only did the show make the jump from black and white to color but the storyline took a major turn as well. Season one leaned heavily upon cold war spy themes with just a dash of science fiction thrown in for kicks but season two and subsequent installments shifted towards fantasy with the frequent addition of seas monsters and such.
But one of the biggest changes after season one was the replacement of Henry Kulky’s character Officer Curly Jones with Francis Ethelbert Sharkey. Kulky died after suffering a massive heart attack while studying a script.
Smiley Burnette & Bea Benaderet – Petticoat Junction
Two elderly Hooterville residents died during the making of the light-hearted rural sitcom. Both Burnette and Benaderet both passed not too long after each other as well. Burnette passed first. He played Charley Pratt, engineer of the cannonball train on Petticoat Junction but had a long career starring in various country and western shows.
Benaderet’s passing was arguably more significant, however. She passed just one season after Burnette did. She played the matriarch of the family, Kate Bradley, who also acted as the proprietor of the Shady Rest Hotel. At first, her absence was explained away by saying that she was out of town on business, but it was later implied that she had died.
The hole left by Kate Bradley’s departure was filled by June Lockhart. Strangely, on the day that the last episode aired, Burnette’s replacement, Byron Foulger, also passed away.
Dan Blocker – Bonanza
As we already touched on in the intro, Blocker’s death was one of the most significant losses in television history. Season 14 premiered with a two-parter titled ‘Forever’ directed by co-star Michael Landon which attempted to explain his death in some kind of tactful way. Although it wasn’t directly addressed – which was on purpose mind you- the audience is given a clear impression that Hoss was gone for good. It’s really of no surprise though that Bonanza wasn’t able to find its footing without Blocker. Season 14 would be the final chapter of the series.
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And you should definitely keep watching. We’re not even halfway through our list yet. We still have a lot of stars to show our respects to.
Nicholas Colasanto – Cheers
One of the saddest things about Colasanto’s death was how his health slowly went downhill. Sometimes it’s easier to see an actor meet a quick and sudden end rather than observing them slowly fading away. No one wants to witness someone’s suffering, just as no one wants to suffer.
His heart condition progressively got worse throughout the series third season. His character was gradually scaled back up until filming his last episode which was ironically titled ‘Cheerio, Cheers’. It wouldn’t be until the first episode of the next season that Colasanto’s death was formally addressed. When his young pen-pal from Indiana comes to visit it’s revealed that Coach had died. Even so, Woody stuck around and became a fixture of the series.
Will Geer – The Waltons
He was an actor, musician, and activist but he was probably best known as Grandpa Zebulon Tyler Walton. He died on April 22, 1978, of respiratory failure at 76. At his death bed, his family sang him his favorite song ‘This Land is Your Land” by Wood Guthrie and read him Robert Frost poems.
Patrick Swayze – The Beast
He’s probably best known for acting in films like Dirty Dancing and Ghost, but this Hollywood heartthrob was working on a television series called The Beast when he passed away from complications of pancreatic cancer in 2009. The show only lasted a season and was canceled after his death. Unfortunately, the crime drama was already suffering from low ratings prior to his death. Swayze’s demise was a tough blow for Hollywood and it’s a shame he didn’t go out on a higher note.
Luke Perry – Riverdale
He became a teen idol by portraying Dylan McKay on Beverly Hills, 90210 from 1990 to 1995. He went on to have a thriving film and television career starring in shows like Criminal Minds, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Will & Grace. He also landed roles in films like Fifth Element and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
On the CW’s Riverdale, he played Fred Andrews. On February 27, 2019, he suffered a massive stroke at his home in Sherman Oaks, Los Angeles. He was put on life support but died several days later at the age of 52. After his death, his Riverdale character was also killed off the show and was honored with a tribute episode for the series fourth season premiere.
Cory Monteith – Glee
One of the more tragic television deaths in recent years has to be Cory Monteiths. He was only 31 years old when he died from an accidental drug overdose. He had been battling addiction for a number of years before it finally took his life. His character, Finn Hudson, was subsequently written out of the show but his departure was never explicitly explained. An emotional song-filled tribute episode was produced to give him a fitting farewell.
Freddie Prinze – Chico and The Man
Even though he was essentially one half of the show’s main duo and namesake, Chico and the Man continued on for another season after Prinze’s 1977 suicide. His absence was explained by saying that he had left to go work with his dad. Later on in the series, Raul finds out that Chico had indeed died. Still, his death was never specifically explained.
Prinze had been dealing with chronic depression for years before he took his own life. He relied heavily on medication to level out his moods but that proved to be not enough to save his life. He had a history of playing Russian roulette before he shot himself on January 28, 1977. He was put on life support but was taken on the following day. He was only 22.
Alice Pearce – Bewitched
She played the hilariously nosy next-door neighbor, Gladys Kravitz for the show’s first two seasons. Unfortunately, she passed away towards the end of season two’s production. She was posthumously honored with a Primetime Emmy in 1967. She was just 48 when she died from ovarian cancer.
Following her death, the writers of Bewitched simply swapped her out with a different next-door neighbor.
Well, here we are once again at the end of another facts-packed video. Hopefully, this one wasn’t too depressing.
So much pain, so much heartache. Fortunately, all of these stars were able to leave their mark before he moved on from this world. Which death shock you the hardest? Nicholas Colasanto, Dan Blocker, Somebody we missed? Let us know in the comments section below.
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And as a friendly reminder, if you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, counselors at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached 24 hours a day 365 days a year at 1-800-273-8255.