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Shows handle actors' deaths in many different ways

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A sampling of other notable prime-time shows that dealt with loss:

"Judging Amy" -- When Richard Crenna died of pancreatic cancer in January, the CBS drama was left without a resolution to his character's planned wedding to Maxine Gray (Tyne Daly). Writers sent Crenna's financier back to China on business and then had him suffer a heart attack before returning to the States. An April episode about his death doubled as a fitting memorial for the veteran actor.

"The Sopranos" -- Nancy Marchand, the black-hearted mother of mobster Tony Soprano, died of cancer in June 2000, but HBO producers needed Livia Soprano to appear in additional scenes. So they used tape editing and computer technology to create a scene with Livia talking to Tony before her subsequent off-camera death.

"Suddenly Susan" -- Producers decided against adding a music critic to the cast to replace Todd, the character played by David Strickland, who hanged himself in a Las Vegas motel in March 1999. A tribute episode, in which Brooke Shields' character and friends reflected on good times with Todd, aired in May of that year.

"NewsRadio" -- In 1998, Phil Hartman was shot and killed inside his Encino, Calif., home by his wife, who later killed herself. His alter ego, Bill McNeal, died of a heart attack while watching TV. In a September '98 episode, "Bill Moves On," the gang returned from his memorial service, cracked jokes and shared Bill's funny farewells to his work family.

"Night Court" -- This show lost two actresses, Selma Diamond and Florence Halop, to lung cancer. The producers purposely looked for someone not in the Diamond-Halop mold to play a bailiff and hired standup comedian Marsha Warfield in August 1986.

"Cheers" -- Nick Colasanto played Coach Ernie Pantusso, the kind-hearted but muddle-brained Boston bartender who works with Sam, Diane, Carla and the gang. After the actor died of a heart attack in 1985, NBC aired one remaining episode with the actor (with an on-screen dedication) and later had Coach die off-screen. Woody Harrelson took his spot behind the bar.

"Hill Street Blues" -- Michael Conrad's Sgt. Phil Esterhaus told the troops, "Let's be careful out there" each week. After Conrad died of cancer in 1983, his character died of a heart attack while making love to the widow of a fellow officer. His ashes were scattered within the precinct, only to be swept up by a street cleaner.

"Dallas" -- Jim Davis, who capped a 40-year Hollywood career with the role of patriarch Jock Ewing, underwent surgery in March 1981 and died the next month. Writers initially explained Jock's absence by sending him to South America and then alerting the fractious family by phone that he had died there. Jock's death -- and his family's unwillingness to accept it -- became a plot point in early 1982.

"Barney Miller" -- After Jack Soo died of cancer in early 1979, Detective Nick Yemana's old pals at the 12th Precinct gave him a fitting send-off, complete with many jokes about his coffee.

"The Waltons" -- Will Geer, who played Grandpa Walton, died in April 1978. The opening episode of the 1978-79 season dealt with the family's adjustment to the patriarch's passing.

"Chico and the Man" -- This show made Freddie Prinze, teamed with Jack Albertson, an overnight celebrity. After he died from a fatal gunshot to the head in January 1977, NBC aired four completed episodes and taped four additional ones. Chico's absence eventually was explained by his sudden decision to leave the garage and take up with his wealthy father. The show then added 12-year-old Gabriel Melgar and Charo to the cast.

"Bonanza" -- The long-running western was dealt a double blow in 1972: Dan Blocker, whose character Hoss was to be married in the fall premiere, died at age 43 of a blood clot in the lung, and the Sunday staple was moved to Tuesdays. The show added Tim Matheson, as a ranch hand who was an ex-con, but it limped along until cancellation.

"Cover-Up" -- In October 1984, Jon-Erik Hexum accidentally shot himself in the head with a prop gun on the set. The show carried a tribute to Hexum at the end of the next televised episode but, according to the guide "Total Television," misspelled his name. The show eventually added Antony Hamilton to the cast.

"Alias Smith and Jones" -- On Dec. 31, 1971, Peter Duel shot and killed himself at home. The actor, who played Smith to Ben Murphy's Jones, was replaced by Roger Davis. Producers of the western never explained the sad switcheroo.

"Bewitched" -- Viewers got double doses of Darrin Stephens and nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz. After Alice Pearce (an Emmy winner in the supporting category) died of cancer in March 1966, producers recast the part with Sandra Gould.


Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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