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Firefly Actors You May Not Know Passed Away

To many, the science fiction series "Firefly" will always stand for criminally unrealized potential. Launched on Fox in 2002, "Firefly" tells the story of the spaceship Serenity and her rag-tag crew of outlaws and malcontents as they travel a distant star system, looking for jobs. It was creator Joss Whedon's passion project, but unfortunately, that didn't help the series survive. Only 11 of the 14 produced episodes ever aired on Fox — and not in chronological order. The network reportedly wasn't a fan of Whedon's creative choices and stuck the show in a time slot known for poor ratings. 

Thankfully, we can now watch all 14 episodes via streaming or home release (and in any order we choose). Whedon also got the chance to tell at least a little bit more of his story in the 2005 film "Serenity," and the narrative has continued in other media, such as comics. "Firefly" itself, however, doesn't seem to have much of a chance of coming back, particularly considering the persona non grata status Whedon has since earned. And even if something were to change in that regard, not all of the people who helped make "Firefly" the cult classic it is are still with us. Actors who served as villains, memorable side characters, and even a member of the series' regular cast have passed away. Even if you're a dedicated Browncoat, you may not know that these actors from "Firefly" have died.

Ron Glass' Shepherd Book was a mystery

The best known cast member of "Firefly" to have died since the series shuttered is Ron Glass, who played the mysterious preacher Shepherd Book. Book originally boards the ship as a passenger, but inexplicably remains on board, serving as an angel on the shoulder of Captain Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), a man whose faith has been shattered by war. As the series progresses, however, it's made clear that Book was not always a religious man, and hints are dropped that he has a dark (and possibly classified) past. Both "Firefly" and the film "Serenity" end without that past being clearly defined, though Book's story did end up getting revealed in the comics.

As beloved as Glass is by "Firefly" fans, Book isn't the role for which he's most known. That honor belongs to his time on the Emmy-winning ABC sitcom "Barney Miller," in which he played Detective Ron Harris. Like Book, Harris stands apart from his colleagues; unlike Book, Harris is a bit full of himself, harboring dreams of a writing career and eventually publishing a memoir. 

After "Firefly," Glass landed a number of recurring and one-off roles on shows like "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," the legal drama "Shark," and a number of "CSI" series. He also enjoyed a good deal of voice work in animated series like "All Grown Up!" and the video game "Fable II." 

Glass died of respiratory failure in November 2016. He was 71.

Tom Towles started an important brawl

Tom Towles' contribution to "Firefly" is limited to a single scene, but it's an important one. "The Train Job" opens with Mal, Zoë (Gina Torres), and Jayne (Adam Baldwin) at a bar, where Mal gets in a fight. Later, we learn this happens on the same day every year — Unification Day, celebrating the victory of the governing Alliance over the separatist movement known as the Independents, a war that saw both Mal and Zoë fight for the losing side. This time, Mal's pointless brawl starts with Lund (Towles), a loudmouth drunk who toasts the Alliance's victory and turns menacing when he sees that Mal didn't join in. The scene is a lot more important than it seems on the surface. While chronologically the second episode, "The Train Job," was the first episode to air on Fox. Rather than the war flashback that opens the series pilot, it's the barroom brawl that establishes Mal's feelings about the Alliance.

Towles was perfect in this scene, though he was best known as a horror actor — he was a favorite hire of Rob Zombie, appearing in "Halloween," "The Devil's Rejects," and "House of 1000 Corpses." Perhaps his most memorable role, however, remains that of serial killer Otis — partner to Michael Rooker's Henry — in the controversial 1986 psychological horror film "Henry: The Portrait of a Serial Killer." He died in 2015, 40 years after his debut in the 1975 crime drama "Dog Day Afternoon," after complications following a stroke.

Larry Drake left an unforgettable mark on television

The rich and privileged of "Firefly" aren't often shown in a kind light. One of the few exceptions is Sir Warwick Harrow, portrayed by the late Larry Drake. When we meet him in "Shindig," he initially comes off just as snooty and arrogant as the rest of Persephone's rich and powerful. Eventually, however, he proves to be a man whose respect is just not easily won. Once Mal wins that respect and convinces Harrow he doesn't mean to swindle him, the nobleman both hires Mal and acts as his second in a duel.

Drake may not have been Hollywood's best-known actor, but in the roles for which he's remembered, he was irreplaceable. He won two Primetime Emmy Awards for his performance as mentally challenged office messenger Benny Stulwicz in NBC's long-running legal drama "L.A. Law," reprising the role for the reunion special "L.A. Law: The Movie." He also played the villain Roger Durant in both of Sam Raimi's "Darkman" films and the titular murderer of the 1992 slasher flick "Dr. Giggles."

2016 was an unhappy year for "Firefly" alum — in March, eight months before the death of Ron Glass, Drake passed away at the age of 66. At first the cause of death wasn't known to the general public, but TMZ later revealed that Drake suffered from a rare blood cancer that caused his blood to thicken, contributing to his early passing. 

Larry Pennell played a stand-up guy

Larry Drake doesn't play the only rich character to show a backbone in "Shindig," nor was he the only Larry on the set. After Kaylee (Jewel Staite) finds herself shamed for wearing a dress not up to the party-goers standards, the eloquent and chivalrous Murphy, played by Larry Pennell, comes to her defense, despite never having met her before. Murphy takes the embarrassed Kaylee under his wing, bringing her into conversation with a group of men more appreciative of not only her dress, but her mechanical knowledge of fixing and maintaining spaceships. 

Pennell only had a small role in "Shindig," but he was possibly the most experienced screen actor to ever appear on "Firefly." He made his big screen premiere in the 1955 Western "Seven Angry Men," and while most of his television appearances were one-offs, he made a big splash as Elly May's persistent suitor Dash Riprock in "The Beverly Hillbillies" and later played Keith Holden on "Lassie." The same year he appeared on "Firefly," Pennell played Kemosabe — a retirement home resident dressed up as the Lone Ranger — in the indie comedy horror "Bubba Ho-Tep." He died in August 2013 at the age of 85.

Al Pugliese delivered some bad news

One of the most emotionally potent episodes of "Firefly" is "The Message," which, fittingly, was produced after the creators found out the series was cancelled. At a space station, Mal receives a large package containing what appears to be the corpse of his and Zoë's old war buddy Tracey (Jonathan M. Woodward), mailed in a vacuum sealed casket. While things eventually turn out to be much more complicated, in the moment, station postmaster Amnon Duul is horrified that he's delivered a dead body — something for which he could supposedly be harshly punished. And indeed, after the Serenity crew leave the station, someone else comes looking for the body, and they're not nearly as polite as Mal.

Duul was played by the late Al Pugliese, who made his first batch of on-screen appearances in 1985, landing small roles in popular shows of the time like "Hill Street Blues" and "The A-Team." He appeared in numerous one-off and recurring roles over the years, with some of his longer term work including CBS' "The Trials of Rosie O'Neill" and the same network's legal drama "Judging Amy."

Pugliese died in 2021 at the age of 74. Like far too many, the actor passed away from complications due to COVID-19.