This week’s entry: List of television actors who died during production
What it’s about: While the streaming era has shown that even the most unlikely show can come back from cancellation, some of television’s leading lights faced the Great Cancellation from which no one returns, while their show was on the air. An actor’s death is always a loss to their fans, beyond the universal grief of friends and family. But a TV series losing a cast member also faces the impossible question of how to continue. Wikipedia looks at shows throughout history that had to deal with such tragic circumstances.
Strangest fact: It took a long time for television to get past the denial stage of grief. Wikipedia’s list is in chronological order, and the most common phrase in the early entries is, “character written out without explanation.” At best, characters like Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched (Alice Pearce died of ovarian cancer during season two), or Mr. Wilson on Dennis The Menace (Joseph Kearns died of a cerebral hemorrhage after roughly 100 episodes) went out of town on vacation and never returned. Often a deceased actor’s character was never mentioned again on screen.
It wasn’t until 1977 that a series publicly acknowledged an actor’s death (at least, as far as this list is concerned), when Chico And The Man star Freddie Prinze committed suicide. Co-star Jack Albertson broke character to thank the audience for its outpouring of remembrance and support, and while the show initially used the old standby of the character going out of town, an episode acknowledged that the character had died. Almost immediately afterwards, shows began addressing actors’ deaths by having the series deal with the character’s death.
Biggest controversy: John Ritter’s death could have been prevented. In 2003, the television fixture was in the middle of his fifth and sixth starring TV roles, headlining 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter and voicing Clifford The Big Red Dog. During rehearsals for the former, he felt chest pains and was rushed to the hospital. He was treated for a heart attack, but his condition worsened. In fact, he had an aortic dissection, a tear in the body’s largest artery. Doctors operated to repair the damage, but he died during surgery.
His wife, Wings actor Amy Yasbeck, sued for malpractice, claiming that, when Ritter was given a full-body scan two years earlier, doctors missed enlargement of the aorta, a key warning sign. The jury concluded that the doctors who operated on him were not negligent, but the hospital did make a multi-million-dollar settlement. 8 Simple Rules returned after a two-month hiatus, with James Garner and Suzanne Pleshette joining the cast as Ritter’s character’s grieving in-laws; Clifford cut its second season short and rebooted as Clifford’s Puppy Days, with some of the same voice cast.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Sometimes dealing with death can make for groundbreaking television. When Will Lee died of a heart attack in 1982, Sesame Street spent a few months airing episodes Lee had already taped without any acknowledgement, and then filmed episodes without his character, Mr. Hooper. But eventually the show’s producers decided they needed to address Lee’s death, and the best way to do that would be head-on. “Farewell Mr. Hooper” finds Big Bird asking the adults when the shopkeeper is coming back. They have to tearfully explain that he isn’t. As they did when they created the show, the producers researched extensively on child psychology and the best way to communicate serious subjects to preschoolers, and in doing so, helped a generation of kids better understand death. Caroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird for the show’s entire run, called it “one of the best things we ever did.”
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: We feel bad about hating Caillou when our kids were preschool-age. The cloying, inexplicably bald 4-year-old was voiced for three years by Jaclyn Linetsky, a teenage Canadian actor who was also a regular on teen tennis drama 15/Love. She was driving to set with co-star Vadim Schneider when their van lost control and hit a semi truck head-on, and the two were killed instantly. Caillou quietly recast, while Love had the characters die off screen.
Also noteworthy: Death is one of the sad consequences of a long-running series. British soap opera Coronation Street has aired nearly 9,200 episodes as of press time, since it premiered in 1960. Over the years, the series has lost nine cast members. In eight instances, the character was killed off as well. Only Blanche Hunt was recast when actress Patricia Cutts took her own life in 1974.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: When Wayne Allwine died in 2009, he passed on the role of perhaps animation’s most famous voice: Mickey Mouse. Allwine had voiced the mouse for 32 years and was only the third actor to hold the role, (apart from two one-offs), the first of whom was Walt Disney himself. (An endearing side note: Allwine married Russi Taylor, the modern voice of Minnie.) Allwine was replaced by Bret Iwan, the current Mickey, although Chris Diamantopolous has also voiced the character in the current Mickey Mouse animated series since 2013.
Believe it or not, voicing Mickey isn’t the most secure job at Disney. One of the one-off Mickeys, Alan Young, voiced Scrooge McDuck in all but three appearances from 1974 to 2016, a 42-year run with the character that, as far as we know, must be unrivaled in TV or film. John Kassir temporarily assumed the role for the Christmas special Duck The Halls, and David Tennant is set to play Scrooge in the upcoming reboot of DuckTales.
Further down the Wormhole: Scrooge McDuck was introduced as an antagonist for Donald Duck, but his popularity soon gave him his own comic, which has run since 1952. He’s been characterized throughout as stingy, ruthless, but also scrupulously honest. He’s often cynical, not completely forgiving his enemies, and insisting that “only in fairy tales do bad people turn good.” Fairy tales have provided more than their share of grist for the Disney mill, and while talking animals are a staple of Disney films and fairy tales alike, they’re far more rare in real life. Or are they? We’ll listen to a few next week.