After last night’s Glee, an emotional tribute to Finn Hudson (without revealing his cause of death but rather focusing on his life), we decided to look back at how other television shows have handled a death in the family. The scenario can be traced back to Dan Blocker’s unexpected death before filming began on Bonanza’s final season. As a result, Bonanza was one of the first (if not the first) television show to address an actor’s death, and it did so by killing off Hoss, Blocker’s character. Many shows have followed that same path, while others found ways to shift the show’s focus, replace an actor, or even use old footage to give someone a proper goodbye.
Here’s a look at how other shows have reacted to an unexpected real-life death:
Phil Hartman, News Radio
Production on season 4 of News Radio had wrapped before Hartman was shot to death by his wife in May 1998. But when the show returned in its season 5 opener, Hartman’s character, Bill McNeal, had supposedly died of a heart attack.
Nancy Marchand, The Sopranos
After Marchand, who played Tony’s mother Livia, died of cancer in June 2000, her character appeared in one finale scene using CGI and previous sound clips of her speaking. Livia then later died.
Will Geer, The Waltons
Geer died from respiratory failure in April 1978, which lead to Grandpa Walton’s death in the show’s season 6 finale.
John Ritter, 8 Simple Rules
An aortic dissection took Ritter’s life in September 2003, causing the show’s second season to take a two-month hiatus. When the show returned, it aired a special goodbye episode to Ritter with the last of his footage. James Garner and David Spade then joined the series to try and fill the void.
John Spencer, The West Wing
Spencer, who played Leo McGarry on The West Wing, died of a heart attack in December 2005. He then appeared in a few season 7 episodes before McGarry, who was running in the Vice Presidential race, suffered an off-screen heart attack on Election Night.
When Hagman died of cancer in November 2012, the Dallas remake was still early in the production of season 2. J.R. Ewing appeared in a few episodes (thanks to previous footage and some trickery) before being shot. But this time around, unlike in the original series, the “Who shot J.R.?” mystery turned into the “Who killed J.R.?” mystery.
Other examples include Lynne Thigpen’s death during The District, in which her character, Ella, died suddenly as a result; Michael Conrad’s Sergeant Esterhaus in Hill Street Blues was killed and then replaced by Sergeant Stan Jablonski; Stanley Kamel’s Dr. Charles Kroger died of a heart attack on Monk; Nicholas Colasanto, who played the beloved Coach on Cheers, left a void when he died that was eventually filled by Woody Harrelson; Barbara Colby was replaced by Liz Torres on Phyllis; Andy Whitfield was replaced by Liam McIntyre on Spartacus (after a six-episode prequel aired to delay production); and The Royal Family tried to switch the show’s focus to a new member after Redd Foxx died.
Which show do you think handled this tough situation most deftly?