1. Josh Charles, The Good Wife
Most of the time when a character dies on TV, it’s because the series’ writers have decided it’s the right time for the character’s story to end, especially in our era of highly serialized dramas. But sometimes, a character dies not because the producers thought it best, but because it was the best solution they could come up with for an actor who desperately wanted off the show. Rather than send that character off to some new job or locale, the writers kill them off. Some shows choose to handle the death in between seasons, to give fans a chance to hear the news and get used to a reboot. Other shows opt for more flair. Sudden death, it turns out, is a popular way to solve the problem of a departing actor—whether that’s in a gunfight, a car accident, or a sudden, irreversible illness.
Sunday’s The Good Wife gunned down one of its series regulars without any warning—because the show needed to write actor Josh Charles out of the series storyline. Charles wanted to pursue other career options, and as Robert and Michelle King published in an open letter to the show’s fans, they chose fireworks to send him on his way. Charles’ Will Gardner dies in a shootout in a courtroom during an otherwise normal trial. The episode jarringly shifts from the feel of a legal procedural to that of a crime show; there’s blood on the ground and police shouting into walkie-talkies, and then Will’s co-workers find his body in the hospital, with just one shoe on. What started as an HR discussion between Charles and the showrunners ended up shifting the course of the entire series.
2. Sylvia Costas, NYPD Blue
Playing a little-seen spouse in a workplace drama can be a thankless job, and Sharon Lawrence got tired of popping into NYPD Blue to calm down homicide detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) whenever he seemed about to relapse into alcoholism. Her character, Sylvia Costas, was also an assistant district attorney, but she was always tangential in a show about cops. So at the start of the sixth season, according to the Los Angeles Times, she told the show’s producers, “Unless there’s juicy stuff to do here, we should really think about what purpose the character’s going to be serving.” Her juicy moment came in the season finale, when a defendant in a murder trial went on a shooting spree in a courtroom. In contrast to the slow reveal of Will’s death on The Good Wife, Sylvia is seen slumping to the floor and getting out her final words to husband Andy: “Take care of the baby.” The scene was dangerously close to campiness, especially since Andy had already endured the fatal shooting of his adult son, a battle with prostate cancer, and the lingering death of partner Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) from heart disease. His character would continue to live up to the nickname Alan Sepinwall gave him when the NYPD Blue finally ended: “Sufferin’ Sipowicz!”
3. Crystal Reed, Teen Wolf
When Will Gardner was unexpectedly struck down on The Good Wife, fans freaked out and social media blew up. If there were more demographic overlap between The Good Wife and MTV’s teenybopper horror series Teen Wolf, fans could have experienced a dress rehearsal for their big existential crisis six days earlier, when, during the penultimate episode of Wolf’s third season, the hero’s ex-girlfriend Allison Argent (Crystal Reed) was unexpectedly stuck down while helping to protect him from Japanese demons. Like Josh Charles, Reed had secretly negotiated her exit from the show, telling the Huffington Post that “there’s nothing more that I can give to this character” and that, at 29, she’d spent enough of her career playing a high school student. At least the show gave her the gooey, romantic exit that Good Wife fans could only daydream about: Allison died in Scott’s arms, using her last breath to tell him that he was her first love, “the person I’ll always love,” implying that she regretted having broken up with him.
4. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Lost
Though Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje was the fifth series regular killed off on Lost, he was the first who died specifically because he asked out of his contract. (Michelle Rodriguez’s Ana Lucia died in season two, but the actress and producers had only ever agreed to a one-season arc for the character in the first place.) Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Mr. Eko—a drug runner impersonating a priest who embodied many of the series’ most potent themes—was by far the most popular of the “Tailies” with fans, his quiet demeanor playing well off of Terry O’Quinn’s John Locke, and though he, too, had initially been intended to last for only one season, producers longed to have him return for longer. Instead, the actor wished to leave the series to pursue other projects, and the only agreement that could be reached was to have him return for a handful of episodes at the beginning of season three. Mr. Eko died in the season’s fifth episode, a victim of the Smoke Monster, and he became one of Lost’s most potent might-have-beens.
5. Denise Crosby, Star Trek: The Next Generation
Toward the end of The Next Generation’s first season, there had already been reports in the media that Denise Crosby was dissatisfied with her role and that her character, security chief Tasha Yar, would be killed off. So it wasn’t a complete surprise when she tried to rescue Counselor Troi from a shuttlecraft trapped inside a sentient, shape-shifting tar pit named Armus and was instead blasted across a rocky planet to her death. Ever since the episode aired, Crosby has maintained that it was her decision to leave (“I didn’t want just to say, ‘The frequency’s open, sir,’ for five years”) and creator Gene Roddenberry’s decision to give her a sudden, senseless death appropriate to her occupation. The mission goes on, but at the end Yar is pronounced dead and given a sort of funeral in which a holographic Yar plays messages to the crew. It’s a bit of a ret-con, finally revealing something about Yar after her death, but Crosby has said that if she had more character work like that, she might not have asked to leave in the first place.
6. Kal Penn, House
Brought in as one of the replacements for Dr. House’s diagnostic team, Kal Penn’s Kutner provided a welcome dose of goofiness to House’s typical proceedings. But in 2009, after only a year on the show, Penn decided to take a break from acting to join the Obama administration as an associate director in the White House Office Of Public Engagement. Instead of transferring Kutner to another hospital (or having him awkwardly hang out in the background like they did for Drs. Chase and Cameron), House’s writers decided to have him commit suicide in the cold open of “Simple Explanation,” without warning or explanation. Kutner’s death hangs over House for the rest of the season, as he tries, and fails, to understand the seemingly inexplicable. While shocking, it provided the show with something all-too-rare: a mystery its protagonist couldn’t solve.
7. Nan Woods, China Beach
In the first season and a half of the Vietnam War drama China Beach, Nan Woods played the major role of Red Cross volunteer Cherry White. As her comic-book name suggests, Cherry was a blissful innocent, the symbolic representative of the simplistic, optimistic naïveté that many Americans once felt about the war. Then, at the end of the episode “Tet ’68”—set during the offensive that shocked the American news media and signaled the beginning of a change in how Americans would come to think about Vietnam—she was killed by an explosion just when she was greeting the new day, rhapsodizing about the beauty of the sunrise. It’s poignant enough that it seems like the writers had been planning this from the start, but in fact, Nan Woods had turned in her notice, deciding that acting was not for her. With her career seemingly well underway, she retired—at 22.
8. McLean Stevenson, M*A*S*H
Many TV viewers got their first taste of sudden and shocking character death with McLean Stevenson’s Henry Blake on ’70s sitcom M*A*S*H. Believing he was being shunted unfairly into a supporting part in favor of Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers, the actor announced he was going to leave the program. The writers, hoping to drive home the horrors of war, had Blake die on his way home, his plane shot down over the Sea Of Japan. There were no survivors.
9. John McIntire, The Naked City
The father-son relationship between rookie detective Jimmy Halloran (James Franciscus) and his stern but wise lieutenant, Dan Muldoon (John McIntire), was at the center of this ’50s police procedural—at least until the 25th episode, when Muldoon perished in a spectacular explosion after his squad car slammed into a gas tanker. Although “The Bumper” plays like it was written to replace a character (or an actor) who wasn’t working out—Horace McMahon stepped in immediately as an even gruffer precinct head, and stayed until the end of the series—McIntire apparently opted out on his own, claiming he wanted to spend more time with his family on their Montana ranch. In the era before spoilerphobes, producer Herbert B. Leonard announced the character’s death six weeks in advance and even rubbed salt in the wound by pointing out that the incineration of Muldoon (an Irish-American) would air on St. Patrick’s Day. It was the first time a character in a running series was killed off on-screen.
10. Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown Findlay, Downton Abbey
In the middle of Downton Abbey’s third season, as the show struggled to keep pace with its sudden and meteoric popularity, two of its main characters got restless. The first was Dan Stevens, a Cambridge-educated writer and actor who found himself in the (apparently) uncomfortable position of being a globally recognized heartthrob. The second was Jessica Brown Findlay, a 20-year-old former ballerina who suddenly found herself at the cusp of a film career. Despite lucrative contracts with the series, both sought an out—and in true Downton style, creator Julian Fellowes gave them both rather lurid ends. Brown Findlay shocked viewers by suddenly dying after childbirth in the fifth episode—all the more devastating, because no one knew she was planning to leave the show. Stevens, on the other hand, didn’t manage to keep his exit a secret, out of his own disdain for Downton. His character was rather anticlimactically killed off in a car accident in the last minutes of season three, just moments after the birth of his son, in a scene that was more funny than tragic.
11. Terry Farrell, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
At the time of the “somebody will die” episode at the end of Deep Space Nine’s sixth season, the series was embroiled in a lengthy, costly war between its Starfleet heroes and The Dominion. Science officer Jadzia Dax was not the first notable character to die in that war, but she was the most prominent—as a lead character, as Captain Sisko’s oldest friend, and as a woman who had spent much of that season fighting for the husband she leaves behind. Allegedly, actress Terry Farrell reluctantly decided to leave when producers failed to grant her contract requests, and she signed onto Ted Danson’s new sitcom, Becker. Thus was Jadzia, who ominously stayed behind while Sisko led the crew on an attack mission, murdered by series villain Gul Dukat on his psychotic religious quest. Unlike The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine is built for senseless murders, and the producers make the most of this one. Sisko spirals, Dukat wins, and Dax returns (if not Jadzia) in the body of Nicole De Boer’s Ezri, an exciting new status quo for the characters to adjust to in the wake of Farrell’s departure.
12. Ernest Borgnine, Airwolf
The helicopter-themed action series Airwolf—an unabashed attempt by CBS to compete with ABC’s TV adaptation of the film Blue Thunder—came to the end of its network run after three seasons, but the studio’s desire to expand the number of episodes for a future syndication package led to the series being resurrected for a fourth season on the USA Network. Unfortunately, the shift in networks also resulted in the series’ budget being slashed substantially, causing Jan-Michael Vincent, Alex Cord, and Ernest Borgnine, the core trio of Airwolf’s cast, to be priced right out of their jobs. As a result, the opening episode of season four quickly dispensed with all three of their characters. Michael Coldsmith-Briggs III (Cord) received an off-screen reassignment to the Middle East, while Vincent returned for the season premiere so that his character, Stringfellow Hawke, could be wounded in an explosion and removed from duty. Worst of all was the final fate of the character Dom Santini, which had to be delivered without the presence of Borgnine. The character was killed off in series-appropriate fashion—a helicopter crash—but with his back to the camera, while a body double for Borgnine went up in flames.
13. T.R. Knight, Grey’s Anatomy
The staff at Seattle Grace Hospital was embroiled in some hot drama in 2009 when T.R. Knight, one of the show’s core cast members, departed at the end of season five. Knight told Entertainment Weekly that he left the show for several reasons including, but not limited to, some gay slurs winged at him by cast member Isaiah Washington, but ultimately said he left because of a “breakdown of communication” between himself and the show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes. For what it’s worth, Knight’s George did get to leave the show in a blaze of glory, with the character joining the Army and then heroically pushing a woman out of the way of an upcoming bus only to be struck so hard he became a disfigured John Doe. He’s taken to Seattle Grace, where the crew works on him for hours before realizing who he is, only to ultimately flatline and be declared brain-dead in an emergency surgery. He’s rarely mentioned on the show today, a mere five years after his departure.
14. Sasha Alexander, NCIS
Though the death of NCIS Agent Caitlin Todd was pretty dramatic, it turns out the departure of Sasha Alexander from the cast was less so. Citing the grueling schedule of a weekly one-hour drama to be too much of a grind, Alexander requested to be let out of her contract. Series creator Don Bellisario seized this as a prime opportunity to raise the dramatic stakes for the remaining characters, who must now avenge her death. Toward the end of the second season finale (after the team seems to narrowly escape the impending threat), Todd is shot in the head by a sniper. The shooter turned out to be a nebulous Middle Eastern terrorist trifecta, Mossad agent/Hamas double-crosser/Al-Qaeda cell leader Ari Haswari. To prove there was no bad blood, Alexander returned for a season-nine alternate-universe episode—that old chestnut—“Life Before His Eyes.”
15. Kathryn Joosten, The West Wing
Kathryn Joosten’s Mrs. Landingham became a series regular in the second season of The West Wing, after her acerbic turn as President Bartlet’s executive assistant made her indispensable to the main cast. But one day in the middle of production for the second season, when Joosten was having a cigarette with showrunner Aaron Sorkin, she mentioned a project she was interested in pursuing. In a panic, Sorkin thought of an out for the character—she would get killed in a car accident, and that would spur Bartlet into a spiritual crisis. And then he decided the result would be so good he was just going to go with it. Mrs. Landingham walked out of the White House never to return, the show got one of its best episodes from her death—the sublime “Two Cathedrals”—and Joosten was out of a job. The moral of the story here is “don’t smoke”—especially not with Aaron Sorkin.
16. Isaac Hayes, South Park
By its ninth season, South Park had already outgrown most of its early running jokes. Kenny no longer died in every episode, for instance, and Isaac Hayes’ character, Chef, no longer greeted the kids so often with his sing-songy “Hello there, children!” But while Chef may have been fading from the picture already, it’s hard to argue that Trey Parker and Matt Stone didn’t hasten his exit with “Trapped In The Closet,” a season-nine episode that casts Scientology as a bizarre scam to con desperate people out of their money. Hayes, a Scientologist, didn’t leave the show right away after “Trapped”—a few months later, in January 2006, he expressed little concern when The A.V. Club asked him about the episode. But by March, he had bailed on the show, saying that it had moved beyond satire into “intolerance and bigotry toward religious beliefs.” After Hayes left, Parker and Stone didn’t just kill Chef off—mere death doesn’t mean much on this show. Instead, in the 10th-season episode “The Return Of Chef,” South Park brings the character back, using dialogue pieced together from previous Chef appearances. The plot concerns Chef’s indoctrination into a cult of globetrotting pedophiles and ends with a veiled lesson that we shouldn’t blame Chef for leaving South Park; instead we should blame the “fruity little club” responsible for “scrambling his brains.” Hell hath no mockery like a South Park scorned.