James Hibberd
September 16, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

To a legion of fans, he was Spartacus. Actor Andy Whitfield died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in Sydney, Australia, on Sept. 11. The 39-year-old Wales native was a relative unknown when he landed the lead role in Starz’s production of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, yet his searing and iconic performance earned him faithful fans and helped explode the show’s ratings, making it the network’s first breakout hit. Production on the series’ second season was halted after Whitfield was diagnosed, and the actor was briefly back on board to continue with the show last summer. But when Whitfield relapsed, Starz made the painful choice to recast the role. Starz president and CEO Chris Albrecht called Whitfield ”a champion on screen who was also a champion in his own life. Andy was an inspiration to all of us as he faced this very personal battle with courage, strength, and grace.”

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