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In Memoriam: How To Respectfully Handle Losing An Actor In An Active Show

By Jodi Smith | Lists | July 15, 2013 |

By Jodi Smith | Lists | July 15, 2013 |

I’ve seen it mentioned in other places: What will “Glee” do to say goodbye to Finn, the character played by Cory Monteith? Will it be handled with the same idiocy and lack of good sense as the Gun Violence episode? Or will it be handled in a way that is both respectful of the character and of the actor? Will the cast and the audience be allowed to grieve for the man under pretense of saying goodbye to the character? If “Glee” wants to handle this terrible situation correctly, they have a few examples to look to for inspiration.

Phil Hartman: “NewsRadio”

Phil Hartman played Bill McNeal, the abrasive, loudmouthed, and beloved radio anchor of the show. When Hartman was murdered by his wife, who then committed suicide, the show had to make a decision. Do they give Bill McNeal, and Hartman, a proper goodbye or do they pretend that he moved? The fifth season premiere chose to give a proper goodbye. We join the characters as they return from Bill’s funeral and listen to Catherine (Khandi Alexander) read personal messages from his will. Matthew (Andy Dick) refuses to believe Bill is dead and insists that he is just in hiding.

As I am unable to find a clip for you, I would point you to Amazon where you can watch the full episode, “Bill Moves On”. Hartman is mourned with laughter, tears, and a keen understanding of the hole left behind, both in the show and in our lives.

John Ritter: “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter”

When Ritter passed suddenly from an aortic dissection, his television family lost their father. His character Paul Hennessy died after collapsing in a grocery store while buying milk. The episode dealing with the death of the family’s patriarch began with bickering of siblings and normalcy before punching the audience in the gut with loss. The show may not have been for everyone, but Ritter was a gifted actor and physical comedian who deserved more than a Cousin Oliver.

John Spencer: The West Wing

John Spencer played Leo McGarry, White House Chief of Staff. When Spencer died from a heart attack, his character did the same on election night. Since Spencer had completed two shows that had not yet aired, co-star Martin Sheen appeared before one of the finished episodes to pay tribute to his castmate and friend:

“Good evening. On December 16 we lost our good friend and colleague John Spencer. Through our shock and grief, we can think of no more fitting memorial to this wonderful man, this extraordinary actor, than to share with you, beginning tonight, the last few months of his work here on The West Wing. Johnny, it seems we hardly knew you, we love you and we miss you.”

Larry Hagman: Dallas

The resurrected prime time soap opera lost Larry Hagman, who played family patriarch J.R. Ewing, to complications from myelodysplastic syndrome due to throat cancer treatments. The show changed their opening credits in tribute to Hagman and then paid respect to the man and the character with a touching eulogy from Sue Ellen (Linda Grey), J.R.’s longtime love and Hagman’s longtime castmate.

Will Lee: “Sesame Street”

Will Lee played Mr. Hooper on the beloved PBS show. When Lee passed away, the show decided it was an opportunity to present death to children in a way that didn’t talk down to them or feed them lies. Big Bird, with his questions and his grief, stood in for a generation of children learning what it really means when someone dies.