Robert Hampton

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11th August 2013

Dying on Stage (Screen)
Posted by at 7.21pm | No responses | Television

Cory Monteith’s death a month ago is not the first time that a television series has had to deal with an unplanned death. There have, sadly, been many occasions where the sudden death of an actor has forced scripts to be hastily rewritten.

Jim Davis – Dallas (1981)

Davis portrayed family patriarch Jock Ewing during the show’s initial years. He became ill during filming of season four and his appearances were restricted – in the few scenes where he did appear, he would usually be sitting down. Although Davis died in 1981, his character was not written out immediately. Instead, Jock was offscreen for several months “in South America”. Eventually, the writers incorporated Jock’s death into the show, and in this scene broadcast in January 1982, JR and Bobby deliver the news to Jock’s widow, Miss Ellie.

Technically, Jock was not killed off, but was only presumed dead, as the writers had toyed with the idea of recasting the role. In a bizarre postscript, a storyline a few years later involved a man claiming to be Jock Ewing showing up at the Ewings’ home, much to JR’s chagrin. This plot was resolved when an entire year’s worth of episodes were revealed to be a fevered dream of Pamela Barnes. American television is weird.

Bernard Youens – Coronation Street (1984)

Soaps, with their ongoing storylines and long-serving characters, perhaps come up against this problem more than most. In 1984, Coronation Street had to deal with the death of Bernard Youens, who portrayed Hilda Ogden’s husband Stan. The character was depicted as dying in hospital from gangrene. In the aftermath of his death came one of the soap’s most memorable moments, as the normally formidable Hilda Ogden looks through Stan’s belongings and breaks down in tears.

John Ritter – 8 Simple Rules (2003)

John Ritter was a highly-regarded comic actor, famous for his role in Three’s Company, the smash-hit US adaptation of Man About The House. After a few years in the doldrums, he was riding high again in the early noughties, thanks to his role as overprotective father Paul in 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. During rehearsals for the fourth episode of the second season, Ritter suffered an aortic dissection on-set and died later the same day in hospital.

The remaining completed episodes of 8 Simple Rules were aired, preceded by a special introduction from Ritter’s co-star Katey Sagal. The following episodes showed the family reacting to the death of their husband and father. Dealing with death in a comedy series is never easy, and “Goodbye” is notably light on jokes.

The show was subsequently retooled, with James Garner and David Spade brought in as Cate’s father and wayward nephew respectively. However, despite a good deal of goodwill towards the show following Ritter’s death, the new setup failed to win viewers. 8 Simple Rules was cancelled at the end of season three.

David Strickland – Suddenly Susan (1999)

Brooke Shields starred in this sitcom, set in the office of a San Francisco magazine. Strickland portrayed the magazine’s likeable music reporter, Todd. Off screen, Strickland had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Despite attempts at rehabilitation, he relapsed back into addiction, culminating in his suicide in a motel room in March 1999.

The third season finale of Suddenly Susan was turned into a tribute to Strickland. The writers took the interesting approach of interspersing the regular sitcom scenes with out-of-character monologues from the actors straight to camera. The final few minutes of the episode are below.

Mark McManus – Taggart (1994)

Taggart didn’t let a minor detail like the death of its lead actor break its stride. The strong ensemble cast continued without missing a beat for another fifteen years or so of gritty Glasgow street scenes and murrrders. The show finally petered out in 2011, seemingly because ITV couldn’t be bothered showing it any more.

There was an on-screen funeral for Jim Taggart, but I can’t find a clip of it anywhere. Instead, sing along with the theme tune. (falsetto) “THIS IS NO MEAN TOWN!”

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