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TV deaths that happened because the actor died in real life

Unlike a lot of industries, television doesn't have a mandatory retirement age. Actors can keep on working for as long as they are able, even as old age, health problems, and other infirmities set in. Some performers continue to work up until the very end of life. But that group doesn't just include those actors who are long in the tooth or suffering from a lengthy illness –  death sometimes arrives unexpectedly. Actors perish after decades of work, at the peak of their powers, and at the beginning of what should have been long careers. That's life — or, in this case, death.

For television, an actor's death presents a variety of problems. Writers face a difficult choice: Should they recast, or end the actor's role prematurely? On the one hand, the latter choice cuts a storyline off at an abrupt point, ruining whatever plans were in place. On the other hand, the former choice introduces issues of its own: Often enough, the deceased actor was just too vital, beloved, and/or singular to be recast. Here are some times when the deaths of actors meant the deaths of their TV characters, for better or for worse.

A.D. Owen Granger on NCIS: Los Angeles

Miguel Ferrer was part of an accomplished show business family: He was the son of Oscar-winning actor José Ferrer and '50s pop singer Rosemary Clooney, as well as a cousin of superstar George Clooney. A prolific actor, he joined the cast of CBS's NCIS: Los Angeles in 2012 to play Owen Granger, assistant director of the NCIS and overseer of the Office of Special Projects in the L.A. branch. Ostensibly arriving to hunt down a killer, he's really there to keep an eye on (and hassle) the show's regular squad and bring his secrecy-shrouded experience as a CIA officer to the table.

In a 2016 episode, A.D. Granger tells his colleagues that he's dying from a form of cancer, possibly related to exposure to Agent Orange during his time carrying out government missions in Southeast Asia. He evades death at the hands of his enemies twice, once via a stabbing and again when an assassin tries to taint his IV drip with poison. Granger then disappears, absconding from his hospital bed and presumably dying from terminal cancer offscreen. By the time Granger's storyline was wrapped in 2017, Ferrer had died too. Like his character, Ferrer suffered from cancer, and passed away at age 61.

Paul Hennessy on 8 Simple Rules

After a few years plying his trade as a film actor, John Ritter returned to television in 2002's 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. The medium had always been good to him: He won an Emmy for his work on Three's Company, and starred for three years on the '90s CBS rom-com Hearts Afire. In 8 Simple Rules, Ritter played befuddled family man Paul Hennessy, who is deeply anxious about his kids aging into rebellious, independent teens. Ritter had only filmed one full season of the ABC sitcom when he fell ill on set in September 2003, complaining of nausea, weakness, and chest pain. Later that day, 54-year-old Ritter died of an undiagnosed heart ailment called an aortic dissection.

After a brief hiatus, 8 Simple Rules returned to television, necessarily revamped due to the loss of its star. The two-part episode "Goodbye" reveals that Paul died after collapsing at the grocery store. In subsequent episodes, James Garner and David Spade join the cast as Grandpa Jim and nephew C.J., respectively, who move in to help the widowed Cate Hennessy (Katey Sagal) raise her three kids.

Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street

Will Lee was a regular presence on Sesame Street from the beginning, portraying Mr. Hooper, the kindly proprietor of Hooper's Store. Big Bird absolutely adores the sweet old man, and not just because he mixes up a mean birdseed milkshake. Lee made public appearances as Mr. Hooper and recorded segments for Sesame Street up until November 1982. One month later, Lee died of a heart attack in New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital at the age of 74. 

A survey conducted shortly before his death found that Mr. Hooper was the most recognized human adult on Sesame Street. In the wake of his death, Sesame Street producers were left with the monumental task of having to explain the death of Mr. Hooper — and the concept of death in general — to an audience of extremely young and emotionally vulnerable children. The series ultimately decided to tackle the death head-on, with the help of some consulting child psychologists. Airing on Thanksgiving Day 1983, the absolutely heartbreaking episode finds the childlike Big Bird unable to locate Mr. Hooper, and the adults on Sesame Street gently explaining to him that the old shopkeeper has died, and that death is final. As Big Bird learns, it's okay to be sad about loss — but also, that Mr. Hooper will live forever in the memories of all who loved him.

Mayor Adam West and Angela on Family Guy

As an animated series, adhering to the rules of reality isn't usually much of a concern to the makers of Family Guy. However, when the highly recognizable actors behind certain recurring roles pass away, the show usually retires their characters by having them die, following it up with an uncharacteristically sweet and sentimental on-air tribute.

Carrie Fisher — forever Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies — appeared often on Family Guy as Peter Griffin's lascivious boss, Angela. Fisher died in 2016, and the show paid homage two years later, with Peter (Seth McFarlane) delivering a graveside eulogy at Angela's rainy day funeral. Peter calls her "fearless, spontaneous, honest about herself just as much as she was about the world around her," obviously referring more to the actor than her character.

2017 brought another major death to the show's door with the passing of Adam West. The man best known for playing Batman had become nearly as beloved for his portrayal of Mayor Adam West, a bizarre version of himself who rules over Family Guy's Quahog. In the 2019 episode "Adam West High," the mayor's passing is commemorated when the town decides to rename the local high school after him. Later on, he appears in the form of a spirit and saves Brian from dying in a bus accident.

Mrs. Krabappel on The Simpsons

It is arguably easier for an animated series to handle the death of a cast member. As the performer's image is not used, producers can get a new, soundalike actor to take over a role vacated by a death. Case in point, Grey DeLisle-Griffin became the new Martin Prince on The Simpsons after the death of original actor Russi Taylor in 2019. Writers weren't interested in killing off a child character — but that's not the direction they took when Marcia Wallace died in October 2013. Previously best known for portraying receptionist Carol on The Bob Newhart Show, Wallace used her distinctive voice to play Bart Simpson's sarcastic and long-suffering fourth grade teacher Mrs. Krabappel for well over 20 years. 

Wallace simply wasn't replaceable, and so her character was retired. About a week after the 70-year-old passed away, The Simpsons paid tribute in an episode's opening credits: Bart's chalkboard message that week reads, "We'll really miss you, Mrs. K." A March 2014 episode includes an epilogue in which Krabappel's husband, Ned Flanders, daydreams about their good times together, and is joined in his mourning by one of her students, Nelson Muntz.

Leo McGarry on The West Wing

John Spencer worked extensively from the 1960s on, frequently playing tough and world-weary cops, lawyers, soldiers, and sundry other authority figures. They all prepared him for his signature role, that of recovering alcoholic and Secretary of Labor-turned-White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry on NBC's behind-the-scenes political saga, The West Wing. Spencer earned five Emmy nominations for this role, an advisor and close friend to Martin Sheen's President Bartlet, finally winning the prize in 2002.

In the show's seventh and final season, McGarry is picked to be the vice presidential candidate on the ticket of  presidential candidate Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits). The duo wins the election, although McGarry doesn't live to see it — he dies of a heart attack in his hotel room on election night, just before the polls close. This sad twist was necessitated by the death of Spencer, who suffered a fatal heart attack a few days before his 59th birthday in December 2005.

Coach on Cheers

Nicholas Colasanto worked extensively in television in the 1960s and 1970s, both as an actor and as a director. In 1982, he started work on Cheers, portraying Ernie Pantusso, the easy-going bartender who'd once coached bar owner Sam Malone in his baseball days. Coach became Colasanto's most recognizable role — a truly impressive feat, given the breadth of his career.

When he was cast on Cheers, Colasanto was well into his 50s and already suffering from heart problems. His health took a turn for the worse in late 1984: Following a hospitalization for water in his lungs, he couldn't get medical clearance to return to the rigors of shooting Cheers. In February 1985, the 61-year-old actor died of a heart attack. A few months later, Woody Harrelson joined the cast as Cheers' new bartender, Woody Boyd, following a brief explanation of Coach's passing. Coach is mentioned sporadically throughout the rest of the show's run.

Bill McNeal on NewsRadio

Phil Hartman dominated Saturday Night Live during his nine-year stint on the show with characters like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Frankenstein, and a particularly smarmy take on Bill Clinton. He then moved on to another sharp ensemble show: NBC's workplace sitcom, NewsRadio. Hartman played Bill McNeal, an obnoxious, rude, self-absorbed newsreader for New York City radio station WNYX. He portrayed the part with relish from 1995 to 1998, making his final appearance in the Titanic-themed fourth season finale.

In May 1998, before the fifth season of NewsRadio went into production, Hartman's troubled marriage to wife Brynn Omdahl ended in unspeakable tragedy. According to the Los Angeles Times, the troubled model and actress shot a sleeping Hartman to death and then took her own life. Hartman was 49. NewsRadio's fifth season, which aired the following fall, begins with "Bill Moves On," in which the WNYX team heads to the office after the funeral of Bill McNeal, said to have died from a heart attack. Most of the episode consists of the other characters talking about Bill and openly crying — tears that might well have been real, and meant for Hartman.

Fred Andrews on Riverdale

Riverdale is the place where multiple generations of iconic teen entertainment converge. Based on the classic Archie Comics stable of characters, the CW series deposits Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and the rest of the gang in a dreary, foggy, Twin Peaks-like town absolutely rife with dark doings. Many of the grown-ups are played by teen idols of yore, including '80s Brat Packer Molly Ringwald as Archie's mother and Luke Perry, the brooding, side-burned Dylan McKay from Beverly Hills, 90210 as Archie's wise and doting father, Fred Andrews. 

Riverdale's first season ends in a cliffhanger, in which Fred is shot by a masked assailant. He survives, but in the first episode of season four, Archie finds out that his father has unexpectedly been killed by a hit-and-run-driver after he stopped to help a stranded motorist played by Perry's 90210 love interest, Shannen Doherty. That abrupt choice came about due to the tragic real-life death of the actor. In February 2019, Perry suffered a severe stroke at the age of 52 and was immediately hospitalized and placed in a medically induced coma. He died a few days later.

Livia Soprano on The Sopranos

The Sopranos blew audiences away with its thoughtful exploration of what makes a man turn to a life of violent crime. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a complicated guy: He's a mob boss and a family man, who has his rivals killed but then needs to discuss it with his therapist. The Sopranos suggests that a lot of Tony's anguish and emotional pain stems from his mother, Livia, a manipulative, self-serving, conspiratorial abuser.

Nancy Marchand played the character with a fascinating, chilling intensity. A four-time Emmy winner for her work on newspaper drama Lou Grant, Marchand added two more nominations to her resume for portraying Livia. The second, however, came posthumously. in June 2000, 71-year-old Marchand died of cancer and chronic pulmonary disease. The Sopranos' third season hit HBO in early 2001, and in the episode "Proshai, Livushka," it's revealed that Livia Soprano died in her sleep, having suffered a stroke.

Andrew Campbell on Mad Men

Andrew Campbell wasn't a main character on Mad Men, but he was an influential one — the stern, aloof, and disapproving father of slimy young advertising executive Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) made quite the mark on his son's psyche. He appears in just one first season episode, 2007's "New Amsterdam," and could have eventually made some return appearances if not for the tragic and unexpected death of his actor, Christopher Allport. In January 2008, Allport was killed by an avalanche while skiing in California's San Gabriel Mountains. In the second season episode, "Flight 1," employees at the Sterling Cooper ad agency listen to radio news reports about an American Airlines flight that crashed shortly after taking off from New York City. That is, in fact, an actual tragedy that occurred in March 1962 – another testament to the '60s-set show's commitment to historical accuracy. Later in the episode, Pete learns that his father was on the flight, and that he didn't survive.

The two bailiffs on Night Court

It's a sad and shocking event when an actor appearing on an in-production  TV show passes away, but it's downright unheard of for the same fate to affect a series twice. Yet that's what happened to Night Court. The sharp, adult-oriented NBC sitcom premiered in January 1984, and among its motley crew of overnight courtroom staff was veteran actress Selma Diamond as elderly, wisecracking bailiff Selma Hacker. Diamond only appeared in 36 episodes of the show's first two seasons: She died of lung cancer at age 64 in May 1985.

When the third season of Night Court debuted later that year, Selma Hacker had died offscreen, sending co-bailiff Bull Shannon on a drunken bender. Order is restored with the arrival of Selma's replacement, Florence Kleiner. Florence Halop played the character, who was very similar to the previous bailiff. Tragically, after just 22 Night Court episodes, 63-year-old Halop died too, also of cancer. In the fall of 1986, Marsha Warfield joined Night Court as its third and final female bailiff, Roz Russell. Thankfully, Warfield survived the show, and performs to this day.

J.R. Ewing on Dallas

Larry Hagman played one of the most famous TV characters of all time, but not one of the most beloved: Hagman portrayed a legendary villain. From 1978 to 1991, he starred as backstabbing oil magnate J.R. Ewing on Dallas. The Texas tycoon behaves so badly that somebody was bound to take a shot at him, and in 1980, somebody finally did. The second season of Dallas ends on a cliffhanger, when an unidentified attacker guns down J.R., leaving millions of viewers to wonder if the character would survive. He did survive the shooting, which came courtesy of Kristin Shepard, his sister-in-law and ex-mistress. J.R. Ewing survives another brush with death in the final episode of Dallas, which aired in 1991, when a ghost convinces the wicked man to kill himself. Whether J.R. lives or dies isn't explicitly revealed, but modern fans can assume he survived, as he's a main character in TNT's 2012 Dallas continuation.

Shortly after the 2012 show's first season aired, Hagman died in November 2012 at the age of 81, after a fight against cancer. Dallas decided to have J.R. Ewing die, too, and writers revived the "Who Shot J.R.?" slogan to do it. In a 2013 episode, an unidentified person puts a bullet in the industrialist, later revealed to be a setup by J.R. himself, to arrange one more tricky business deal while he dealt with terminal cancer.

Finn Hudson on Glee

Portraying dim but sweet jock-turned-chorus member Finn Hudson on Fox's musical dramedy Glee was a breakthrough role for Canadian actor Cory Monteith. The likable star anchored the popular teen show for four seasons, all the while quietly struggling with a powerful drug addiction. His mother, Ann McGregor, told ABC News that Monteith started using drugs at 15, and struggled with substance addiction off and on for the next decade and a half. In July 2013, the body of the 31-year-old actor was found in his Vancouver hotel room. He had died of a fatal overdose of heroin and alcohol.

In October 2013, Glee aired an episode entitled "The Quarterback," in which Finn's friends, fellow club members, family, and teachers all agonizingly mourn the deceased teenager. The series noticeably refuses to discuss how Finn died. "What can you say about a 19-year-old who dies?" his stepbrother, Kurt (Chris Colfer) says. "Everyone wants to talk about how he died, but who cares? It's one moment in his whole life." Finn is remembered frequently through the rest of the show's run.

Mrs. Wolowitz on The Big Bang Theory

Apart from the occasional shot of an arm, or a glimpse of her from across a vast distance, Mrs. Wolowitz was never actually seen on The Big Bang Theory. In the tradition of Vera from Cheers or Maris from Frasier, Mrs. Wolowitz's appearance exists only in the minds of viewers. This makes sense, as producers likely would've had a tough time finding an actor who fit the description laid out in numerous bits of dialogue, which imply she is an impossibly large person. Instead, Carol Ann Susi provided a voice for the character — an extremely loud and exaggerated New Jersey accent — heard when yelling at her son, Howard (Simon Helberg), from around the house they shared. Susi, who'd amassed dozens of acting credits, died of cancer in November 2014 at the age of 62. A few months later, in the 2015 episode "The Comic Book Store Regeneration," The Big Bang Theory's writers said goodbye to Mrs. Wolowitz. While visiting her sister, Gladys, in Florida, she passes away in her sleep.

Richard Gilmore on Gilmore Girls

Each and every episode of the warm, crackling, low-key dramedy Gilmore Girls features an odd credit: "Special appearance by Edward Hermann." The actor appeared in a majority of episodes, so he was a regular cast member — the unique introduction spoke to his status as the best-known and most esteemed member of the Gilmore Girls ensemble. Before he portrayed the impeccably dressed, propriety-obsessed wealthy dad and grandpa Richard Gilmore, Herrmann had portrayed President Franklin Roosevelt in multiple TV projects, had been part of projects like American Playhouse and St. Elsewhere, and served as the voice of the History Channel. As the New York Times aptly put it, he had an unmistakably "noble air."

Gilmore Girls ended its original seven-season run in 2007, but returned for four made-for-Netflix movie-length episodes in 2016. In the interim, Herrmann ultimately lost a struggle with brain cancer, spending nearly a month in a New York intensive care unit before passing away in December 2014 at age 71. Accordingly, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life involves his character's passing. A few months before the events of the miniseries, Richard Gilmore dies of a heart attack, leaving the Gilmore women, particularly his wife Emily (Kelly Bishop), in deep grief and struggling to move on.

Detective Barry Frost on Rizzoli & Isles

Lee Thompson Young became a teen TV star by playing a teen TV star: As Jett Jackson on the Disney Channel's The Famous Jett Jackson, he portrayed a young actor struggling with fame, family, and school from 1998 to 2001. Young successfully transitioned to more adult projects, including Flashforward, Scrubs, and Smallville. The most prominent role of Young's adult life was that of Barry Frost on Rizzoli & Isles, a detective who often assists the titular duo.

On August 19, 2013, Young did not report to the Rizzoli & Isles set as expected. According to USA Today, police went to his home to see if he was alright, and discovered that the 29-year-old actor had taken his own life. The show briefly shut down production, and in June 2014, addressed the fate of Young's character. In the episode "Goodbye," Frost is revealed to have died offscreen in a car accident, and the other characters attend his memorial service.

Peter Gregory on Silicon Valley

A versatile character actor, Christopher Evan Welch appeared in many films and TV shows of the 21st century, including The Master, Lincoln, and Law & Order. But he's likely best known for what would turn out to be his final role: Inscrutable, stoned-faced, idiosyncratic venture capitalist Peter Gregory on Silicon Valley. Welch appeared in five episodes of the first season of the HBO tech world satire, courted for his cash by the main characters as they work to launch a potentially revolutionary app.

In December 2013, four months before Silicon Valley debuted, Welch died in a Los Angeles hospital at age 48, following a years-long battle with lung cancer. Silicon Valley waited until its second season premiere in 2015 to mention what happened to Peter Gregory. Richard (Thomas Middleditch) sees a news item online about the investor's sudden death, and later learns from Gregory's associate Monica (Amanda Crew) that he keeled over during a safari while trying to run from a stray hippo that wandered into his tent.

Dr. Kroger on Monk

USA's 2002 series Monk is memorable for its unique tone. It follows a detective, Adrian Monk (Tony Shalhoub), who often solves grisly crimes ... but Monk is also a comedy, with a lot of carefully and consciously kind humor derived from the title character's obsessive-compulsive disorder. Helping to strike that balance was the character of Dr. Charles Kroger, Monk's patient and helpful psychiatrist, who helps him work through his OCD and lingering grief over the death of his wife. So it was a major blow to the show when the actor who portrayed him, Stanley Kamel, passed away from a heart attack in April 2008, at age 65. The first episode of the show's seventh season, the first without Kamel, aired in July 2008 with a dedication to the actor. It's mentioned in dialogue that Dr. Kroger similarly died of a heart attack. Hector Elizondo then joined the cast as Monk's new psychiatrist, Dr. Neven Bell.

Doyle on Angel

Angel is a show about ageless beings and supernatural events, so death isn't all that final a concept for its various vampires, demons, and, yes, angels. When the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff premiered in 1999, there were only three main characters, one of them being Doyle, a half-demon good guy who receives alarming visions that vampire detective Angel (David Boreanaz) uses to solve mysteries. Portraying the impish Irish rogue was Glenn Quinn, previously known for his work as Becky's ne'er-do-well husband Mark on Roseanne. 

In "Hero," the ninth episode of Angel, Doyle sacrifices his own life to save Angel's, and never appears on the show again. However, frequent Angel writer and director Tim Minear really wanted to bring Doyle back. "Every once in a while I'd bring it up — but I'd get shot down," Minear told a Buffy/Angel blog in 2007. Any Doyle return was rendered impossible, however, in 2002, when Quinn died of a drug overdose at age 32. Years later, his Roseanne character was also made deceased: An episode of the 2018 reboot series mentions that Mark has died, and ends with a dedication to Quinn.