If you’re a Hollywood star, unlike working in nearly any other field, no one is ever going to tell you that you have to retire just because of your age. Actors can keep working for as long as they are still capable of doing so. Granted, the roles might change a bit as one advances in years. But regardless of health problems and infirmities, there is almost always a place for such stars somewhere.
Some actors keep performing until the very end of their lives. But unfortunately, sometimes death arrives a little sooner than expected for others. Sometimes stars kick the bucket after decades of work, others have their little run-ins with the Grim Reaper at the height of their careers while still others perish right at the beginning of what might have been a long promising career. Such is life, or should we say ‘Such is death’.
For a television series, the death of an actor presents a huge problem for the production team. Writers must make a truly difficult decision. Should they recast the deceased or should they scrub the character entirely?
Well, if they choose to take the latter approach, a significant chunk of the series’ storyline gets chopped off rather abruptly. Whatever they had in store for that character in the plot department gets scrapped. Although that being said, the first option isn’t very ideal either. More often than not, the late actor was just too vital, cherished, or singular to simply recast with a fresh face.
Today, we’re going to be discussing some occasions when the deaths of actors ultimately meant the deaths of their on-screen characters as well. Join Facts Verse to learn more about the TV Deaths That Happened Because the Actor Died in Real Life.
Paul Hennessy – 8 Simple Rules
After spending several years trying his hand out as a film actor, John Ritter returned to the small screen in 2002’s 8 simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. Television had always been good to Ritter. He took home an Emmy for his unforgettable work on Three’s Company. And then went on to star for three years on the 90s CBS romantic comedy Hearts Afire.
On 8 Simple Rules, Ritter played the frazzled family man Paul Hennessy who is understandably extremely nervous about his children growing into rebellious, independent teenagers. Ritter had only completed one full season of the series when he fell very ill on set in September 2003. At first, he complained of nausea, weakness, and chest pain. Later that afternoon, the 54-year-old actor passed away from a rare condition called aortic dissection.
Obviously, his death created a major hurdle for the producers of 8 Simple Rules to contend with, But after a brief hiatus, the series returned. heavily modified of course, to accommodate the loss of its leading star. A two-part episode entitled ‘Goodbye’ explained that Paul passed away after collapsing at the grocery store. Join Facts Verse to learn more about the TV Deaths That Happened Because the Actor Died in Real Life.
In the episodes that followed, James Garner and David Spade joined the cast as Grandpa Jim. And Nephew CJ, who moved into the family home to assist freshly widowed Cate Hennessy – played by Katey Sagal – in raising her three children.
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And don’t you dare think about going anywhere so soon. Stick around to see whatever happened to J.R from Dallas. Sure, everyone obsessed with trying to figure out who shot him back in the day, but if you hold on for just a minute, you’ll find out how he really died. Join Facts Verse to learn more about the TV Deaths That Happened Because the Actor Died in Real Life.
Mr. Hooper – Sesame Street
Will Lee was a regular on the set of Sesame Street right from the get-go. He played Mr. Hooper, the soft-spoken, friendly owner of Hooper’s Store. Big Bird was good friends with the gentle elderly man. And not just because he could whip up one heck of birdseed milkshake.
Lee appeared as Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street until November 1982. A month after his last appearance on the beloved children’s show. Lee died of a heart attack at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. He was 74 years old.
According to a survey conducted just months before his death, Mr. Hooper was the most recognizable human adult on Sesame Street. After his death, the show’s producers stuck between a rock and hard place so-to-speak. How were they going to take on the enormous responsibility of having to explain Mr. Hooper’s death. And really just the notion of death in general – to their young and vulnerable audience? They could have moved on like nothing ever happened. But that wouldn’t have paid Will Lee’s memory the respect that he deserved. Join Facts Verse to learn more about the TV Deaths That Happened Because the Actor Died in Real Life.
Ultimately the show decided to address Mr. Hooper’s death very directly with a little help from some consulting child psychologists. On Thanksgiving Day in 1983, PBS aired the heartbreaking episode.
In it, Big Bird struggles to find Mr. Hooper. The adults on Sesame Street must be the ones to break the news to him that the elderly shopkeeper has died and that death is final. Big Bird then learns a very valuable lesson. It’s perfectly okay to be sad about a loss. But he also discovers that Mr. Hooper’s memory will live on forever in the hearts and minds of all those who loved him. Join Facts Verse to learn more about the TV Deaths That Happened Because the Actor Died in Real Life.
Coach – Cheers
Nicholas Colasanto had a pretty prolific career in television in the 1960s and 1970s, both as an actor and director. In 1982, he joined the cast of Cheers where he portrayed Ernie Pantusso. The laid-back bartender who used to coach bar owner Sam Malone back in this baseball days. Coach quickly became Colasanto’s best-known role which was quite the feat considering how active he was throughout the rest of his career.
When he signed on with Cheers, Colasanto was well into his 50s and was already dealing with some heart issues. In 1984, his health took a concerning turn when he was hospitalized for water in his lungs. Unfortunately, he couldn’t get clearance to return back to the set of Cheers. And just a few months later in February 1985, the 61-year-old star died of a heart attack.
Woody Harrelson, who was still pretty much a nobody at the time, was called in to play Cheers’ new bartender, Woody Boyd. Coach’s death briefly explained and he continued to get shout-outs from time to time throughout the rest of the series.
Bill McNeal – NewsRadio
Phil Hartman proved himself as the comedic genius that he was during his nine-year stint on Saturday Night Live back in the late 80s and early 90s. On SNL he brought life and laughs to unforgettable characters like the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Frankenstein, and an especially slimy take on then-president Bill Clinton. He then signed on to another witty ensemble show, NBC’s workplace comedy, NewsRadio.
Hartman was cast as Bill McNeal, a rude, gregarious, self-obsessed news anchor for New York Cities radio station WNYX. He played that role with pride from 1995 to 1998 when he made his final appearance in a Titanic-inspired season four finale.
In the Spring of 1998 right before the fifth season of the series entered production, Hartman’s rocky marriage to his wife Brynn Omdahl ended in an unexpected travesty. The perpetually troubled model and actress shot her sleeping husband to death before turning the gun on herself. Hartman was only 49-years-old.
The fifth season premiere which aired in the fall began with the episode ‘Bill Moves On’. In it, the WYNX team attends the funeral of Bill McNeal before returning to the office. It’s explained that McNeal died from a heart attack. The bulk of the episode consisted of the cast of characters discussing Bill’s life and crying over his loss. One can imagine that some of those tears may have very well been real and directed towards Hartman. Join Facts Verse to learn more about the TV Deaths That Happened Because the Actor Died in Real Life.
J.R. Ewing – Dallas
Larry Hagman portrayed one of the most recognizable – albeit polarizing – characters in TV History. Hagman played the infamous and villainous, backstabbing oil tycoon J.R. Ewing on Dallas from 1978 to 1991. The Lonestar state magnate acted so repulsively that it wasn’t that surprising when somebody took a shot at him in that notorious season two finale. That cliffhanger may have been one of the most talked-about television moments of all time when an unidentified gunman shot down JR leaving millions of perplexed viewers to wonder whether the character would survive.
J.R. Did survive the attack and it was later determined that his assailant was none other than Kristin Shephard, his sister-in-law, and ex-lover. J.R. Survived another little run-in with death in the final episode of the primetime soap opera in 1991 when a ghastly poltergeist convinced the miserable man to kill himself. Seeing as how his character returned for the 2012 Dallas reboot. We can safely assume that he did not go through with the suicide.
In 2012, however, shortly after the reboot series first season aired, Hagman died at the age of 81 after putting up a valiant fight against cancer. Dallas’s producers decided to roll with it have J.R. Die as well. They even brought back the old ‘Who Shot J.R.’ campaign to do it.
In a 2013 episode, it’s explained that J.R. concocted a plan to have an unidentified individual gun him down in order to pull off one last sketchy business deal while he dealt with the fact that he was dying of terminal cancer. Join Facts Verse to learn more about the TV Deaths That Happened Because the Actor Died in Real Life.
Gramps – Lassie
Lassie premiered in 1954. Audiences couldn’t get enough of watching the eponymous canine hero, saving the day for the Miller family. Which consisted of single mother and farmer Ellen played by Jan Clayton. Her 11-year-old son Jeff played by Tommy Rettig, and the stand-in patriarch of the family Gramps.
Gramps was Jeff’s paternal grandfather and was portrayed by actor George Cleveland. After doing three seasons of the series, both Rettig and Clayton wanted out of their contracts so that they could move on to other roles and opportunities. The producers of the series were willing to accommodate so they came up with a plan to ship Lassie off to live with a new family.
But before they could fully implement these changes, George Cleveland died suddenly of a heart attack in July of 1957 at the age of 71. Join Facts Verse to learn more about the TV Deaths That Happened Because the Actor Died in Real Life.
Instead of sticking with their initial plan, the producers decided to incorporate the death of Cleveland into the show by also killing off Gramps. No kid-friendly show had ever dealt with the issue of death in such a way before and they figured it could be a teachable moment.
Well, here we are once again at the end of another facts-packed video. Even though the subject material we’ve covered here is admittedly a bit morbid. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed reflecting on the lives and careers of these late performers with us. It’s our sincerest hope to show them the respect and dignity that they deserve.
Anyway, now’s your turn to let your voice be heard. In the comments section, let us know which celebrity death shocked you the most. And feel free to bring up someone that we didn’t have time to include in this video. This short list after all is just the tip of the iceberg.
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