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When a TV show loses an actor

ABC can look to other shows that have dealt with loss. By Brian Bellmont for
/ Source: contributor

John Ritter’s unexpected death last week, of course, was most deeply felt by his family and loved ones. Now, in addition to the loss of their colleague and friend, executives at ABC, home of Ritter’s sitcom “8 Simple Rules … for Dating My Teenage Daughter,” are struggling with a difficult business decision.

In the high-stakes world of network television, the sudden loss of an actor can mean the end of a show. To salvage the millions of dollars of income on the line, producers have tried to move forward just about every way imaginable: casting a new actor to fill a role, creating a new character, or simply writing a character out of the show.

Rarely has a network had to cross this bridge with as well known and beloved an actor as Ritter. ABC executives say they haven’t yet decided about the future of “8 Simple Rules,” one of their most popular shows. It makes sense that they’re devoting plenty of thought to what happens next.

It’s no secret that viewers invite television personalities into their homes, build connections with them. And when they die, it can be a tremendous loss. Viewers grieve for not only the actor, but for the character as well.

Audiences can be terrifically loyal to the memory of a departed star; a replacement actor or character faces an uphill battle. Many times, the void an actor leaves behind can tear a hole so large that a show can never fully recover.

One of the highest-profile losses in recent TV history was the shocking death of “NewsRadio’s” Phil Hartman, murdered by his own wife Brynn in 1998. Although part of a strong ensemble cast, Hartman’s pompous anchorman Bill McNeal was the program’s comedic heart. NBC’s initial reaction was to cancel the show. But after producers laid out a case to move forward, the network reversed its decision.

(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)

The episode where the cast discovered that McNeal had died of a heart attack was poignant and emotional. Matthew (Andy Dick) at first refused to believe that his friend was really gone. The fact that “NewsRadio” dealt with Hartman’s death so prominently on the air made it easier for viewers to say goodbye, too.

A framed magazine cover of Hartman was displayed prominently on the set, reminding the audience of the impact he’d made on the co-workers — and audience — he left behind.

In 1998, Hartman’s longtime pal Jon Lovitz joined the cast as a clueless newsman, bringing a new sensibility and fresh perspective to the show. But Hartman eventually proved irreplaceable; “NewsRadio” stopped production in 1999, a year after Lovitz came aboard.

Introducing new characters
Other shows have suffered similar, seemingly insurmountable losses. On “Cheers,” Nicholas Colasanto, who played the much-beloved bartender Coach, died in 1985 after three seasons on the show. His replacement behind the bar, Woody Boyd (Woody Harrelson), succeeded because he was familiar (read: not that bright), yet different enough from Coach to be allowed to make his own way.

Woody and Coach shared a good-natured, dim-witted outlook, but Woody was far more of a huckleberry, ripe for barmaid Carla’s barbs. By endearing himself to viewers without trying to copy Colasanto, Harrelson skyrocketed to fame, and “Cheers” continued to serve up drinks — and laughs — for another eight years.

In 1977, after shooting only four episodes of “Eight is Enough,” actress Diana Hyland, who played Joan Bradford, mother to Nicholas, Tommy, and the rest, died of breast cancer at age 41.

The next season, episodes dealt with the character’s death, and producers introduced actress Betty Buckley as Abby, a new love interest for Bradford patriarch Dick Van Patten.

Likely mindful of the age of some of the Bradford children (Adam Rich’s Nicholas was only nine when his on-screen mother died), writers introduced the new character relatively slowly, addressing, at least cursorily, the challenges that arise when children are faced with the loss of a parent and the arrival of a stepparent. While Buckley was working to gradually win over viewers, her character Abby was working to win over the Bradford children. She succeeded on both counts, and she and Van Patten’s character tied the knot midway through the second season. The show ran through 1981.

Some replacement characters don’t catch on at all. Comedian Redd Foxx died after finishing just seven episodes of the sitcom “The Royal Family,” his 1991 small-screen comeback. The show returned later that year with sassy Jackée taking over the family, but fizzled after six more episodes.

When “Chico and the Man’s” Freddie Prinze committed suicide in 1977, producers paired Jack Albertson’s “the Man” with a 12-year-old boy. Prinze was written off the show, and Albertson’s character nicknamed the new kid “Chico,” then adopted him. Despite trying to plug in a new Hispanic character, the ripe topics of generational and cultural gaps explored in the earlier seasons soured without Prinze. The show lasted just one more season.

For viewers, sometimes the loss of a supporting character can sting as painfully as if it were the lead. Smart shows treat their characters’ deaths with an appropriate amount of grief and respect. Jack Soo, Detective Nick Yemana on “Barney Miller,” died in 1979, and the show responded with a dramatic memorial episode featuring clips and cast interviews.

When David Strickland died in the second-to-last season of “Suddenly Susan,” characters reminisced onscreen about their friend and co-worker Todd, but the audience knew they were really talking about Strickland. Both shows moved forward.

“Night Court” lost not one but two supporting actors. The gravelly-voiced bailiff played by Selma Diamond died of lung cancer in 1985. Her replacement, Florence Halop, died just a year later.

Life and death
Compared to sitcoms, ensemble dramas seem to have less difficulty bouncing back when an actor dies. Audiences expect emotional storylines, they expect characters to come and go. Their plots are already about life and death.

Actor Jim Davis lost his battle with brain cancer in 1981, and his character, “Dallas” patriarch Jock Ewing, also died — in a South American helicopter crash. The family’s grief over Jock’s death was an ongoing storyline throughout the fifth season of the show.

But unlike on “8 Simple Rules” or “Eight is Enough,” the Ewing children were all grown and arguably better prepared to deal with the death of a parent. Likewise for viewers: While still heartbreaking, the trauma of Jock’s death was lessened somewhat by the character’s — and actor’s — age (Davis was 71). It’s a different situation with Ritter, who was just about to turn 55.

An ailing Nancy Marchand, who played manipulative mother Livia on “The Sopranos,” succumbed to lung cancer after the second season of the hit HBO mob drama.

Thanks to her character’s constant health-related complaints, viewers had already been introduced to the possibility that Marchand’s character might not be around for the series’ entire run. Still, producers took flak for the creepy, abrupt way they wrapped up Livia’s storyline in a third-season appearance, bringing her back with unused footage, computer-generated effects and a stand-in.

When Michael Conrad died midway through the fourth season of “Hill Street Blues,” much speculation arose over how the show would continue without the tough but lovable roll call sergeant Phil Esterhaus and his memorable, show-capturing catchphrase, “Let’s be careful out there.” “Hill Street”‘s writers wrote out the character in a way befitting the dark humor that was the show’s hallmark: Esterhaus died while making love to his girlfriend.

Robert Prosky joined the cast as a new roll call sergeant who acknowledged his predecessor’s death and impact on the squad, and the show marched on. Producers wisely retired Conrad’s catchphrase.

No Rules, not simple

“8 Simple Rules” has a tough road ahead. The show is about a father’s attempts to understand his teenage kids, and half of that equation is now abruptly, shockingly gone.

To trivialize Ritter’s death — send his character on a long overseas trip, for instance — or to put the entire show on Katey Sagal’s shoulders as a now-single mom struggling to squeeze comic situations out of a depressing reality, would strike many as too painful to watch. Even if the show slogged on, that’s some heavy baggage to carry.

At their core, all television shows, even sitcoms, are about drama. But rarely does that drama hit home as it does when an actor passes away. There may be plenty of prior examples, but there are no rules for the territory in which ’8 Simple Rules’ finds itself now.

Brian Bellmont is a writer in St. Paul, Minn.