TV's way of dealing with off-screen deaths

MICHAEL IDATO
Last updated 17:23 16/07/2013

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As the death of Glee star Cory Monteith highlights, the pain for colleagues and friends is very real. But the show has the uncomfortable job of balancing the needs of those deeply affected, with the audience's own need to grieve. Here are 10 series which lost major characters and dealt with it in very different ways.

On January 8, 1982 television's fictional Ewing family gathered in the living room of their Southfork mansion to grieve, finally, for the death of family patriatrch Jock Ewing, played by actor Jim Davis.

It was a powerful moment. The close relationship the cast had in real life was well known, particularly actors Larry Hagman and Patrick Duffy, and their on-screen parents, played by Barbara Bel Geddes and Davis.

Tears were shed and, in that very peculiar way that only television can, the lines were blurred between real life and fiction. The tears were for Jock Ewing, but they were also for Jim Davis. And they were, unmistakably, real.
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How to handle that moment when the real world punctures the bubble of television fiction is one with no easy answers. It is one which the producers and cast of Glee, who lost their colleague and friend, actor Cory Monteith, this week, are grappling with at present.

Their pain is very real, amplified in particular because Monteith and his co-star Lea Michele were in an off-screen relationship.

Nagivating those emotions is challenging, and often becomes an uncomfortable balance of protecting the real individuals - the actors, producers, writers and crew who are deeply affected by the event - and the audience's own need to grieve.

Television is the most intimate of art forms - it steps out of the box and into people's homes. The relationship an audience form with characters, stories and settings is real and meaningful, which means their grief, however distant, is no less tangible.

For now, it is left to the cast of Glee to grieve. In time, and on screen, the audience may be given a chance to grieve too, and to have Monteith's death acknowledged on screen, and his character, high school hunk Finn Hudson, given a fitting resolution to his story.

Historically, producers and TV networks were less willing to break the "fourth wall" and allow real life events and on screen events to become intertwined, perhaps because they felt they owed some obligation to the essential fiction of TV.

But in contemporary life, media is ubiquitous and audiences follow the real lives of actors as closely as they do the characters they play. In that sense, to Glee fans, the bold print of Monteith's life was as well known as that of his on-screen alter ego.

Only two months ago, US actress Jeanne Cooper died and her cast-mates on The Young & The Restless were permitted to give over an entire episode to her memory, in which the actors stepped out of character and, as a cast, sat and reminisced about Cooper's life and their memories of working with her.

In many cases in more recent history the preference has been to write the death of the actor into the series, and to allow the audience a chance to have the moment acknowledged. For the prime time soap Dallas it has happened twice, first with actor Jim Davis, and more recently with Larry Hagman, who played Davis's on-screen son, J.R. Ewing.

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Here are 10 series which lost major characters during their run, and dealt with it in very different ways:

Dallas


Jim Davis, who played Jock Ewing, died April 26, 1981.

Davis became a star late in his career, playing the patriarch of the Ewing dynasty, and the father of the infamous J.R. He battled cancer for several years and eventually became too weak to work. He died during the production of the show's fourth season. A plan to re-cast the character was abandoned but the writers still delayed playing out his death on screen.

Jock Ewing was declared to have died after an off-screen helicopter accident and the Ewing family grieved on screen. A portrait of Jock Ewing remained over the mantle of the living room at Southfork ranch for the remainder of the show's run.

The West Wing

John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry, died December 16, 2005.

Leo McGarry was the much loved White House chief of staff in the critically acclaimed Aaron Sorkin political drama. When the actor died, the producers decided to let his remaining scenes air, but his death was written into the series as an off-screen event.

As an election was underway in the series at the time, there is some debate about whether Spencer's death made the producers alter its outcome, trying to balance the loss of a major character and, for one side of the political landscape, the election as well.

The Sopranos


Nancy Marchand, who played Livia Soprano, died June 18, 2000.

After more than five decades as a working actress, Marchand was catapulted to a new kind of fame as the matriarch of arguably the best mafia drama in history. She had been unwell for some time before she died of lung cancer and emphysema, but her death was nonetheless unexpected. It forced writer David Chase to alter several storylines.

She was returned to the show, using special effects, for an awkward farewell scene which, in hindsight, may not have worked as effectively as everyone had hoped.

Sesame Street


Will Lee, who played Mr Hooper, died December 7, 1982.

On television's most famous street there was a corner store, which was run by TV's most famous storekeeper, Mr Hooper. When he died of a heart attack the producers were left with a particular challenge: explaining his absence to the show's very young audience.

The Children's Television Workshop took the courageous path and tackled it openly, allowing parents and children to discuss death. A special episode, Farewell Mr Hooper, aired in 1983 and was named one of the most influential moments in the history of American daytime TV.

Law & Order


Jerry Orbach, who played Lennie Briscoe, died December 28, 2004.

Known to TV audiences for his work on the Law & Order franchise, Orbach was in fact a Broadway legend, having originated the role of Billy Flynn in Chicago. When he died, the marquee lights on Broadway were dimmed, an honour reserved for Broadway's biggest stars.

On screen, a scene in which his colleagues attended his memorial service was filmed but never included. His death was eventually acknowledged in later episodes of Law & Order and Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

Bewitched


Alice Pearce, who played Gladys Kravitz, died March 3, 1966.

Pearce originated the role of the next door neighbour to Bewitched's Darrin and Samantha Stephens and appeared on the show for two seasons. She died from ovarian cancer in 1966 and was awarded the Emmy for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy posthumously.

She was replaced by actress Sandra Gould who turned the character from a nosy neighbour into a shrieking harridan. The early episodes of Bewitched are rarely included in blocks of reruns, and it is Gould's interpretation which is now better known to TV audiences.

Bonaza

Dan Blocker, who played Eric "Hoss" Cartwright, died May 13, 1972.

Blocker played the middle son of Ponderosa ranch owner Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) - between Adam (Pernell Roberts) and Little Joe (Michael Landon). Blocker died during production of the show's 13th season of a pulmonary embolism following gall bladder surgery.

Rare for the time, his death was written into the series. Bonanza survived one final season without Blocker and was cancelled in 1973.

Eight Is Enough

Diana Hyland, who played Joan Bradford, died March 27, 1977.

Hyland was hired to play the Bradford family matriarch in this series, but died from breast cancer after filming only four episodes. A decision was made at the time to write her death into the series, forcing Bradford dad Tom (Dick Van Patten) to grapple with the loss of his wife and his future as a single father of eight.

A new character, Abby (Betty Buckley), was written into the show as a love interest for Tom Bradford. They eventually married and Abby became the children's new stepmother.

8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter


John Ritter, who played Paul Hennessy, died September 11, 2003.

As the show's second season began production, Ritter suffered an aortic dissection. After his death the US network ABC screened the three episodes he had filmed, with introductions by co-star Katey Sagal and the show went on a break.

When the series returned, with its title contracted to 8 Simple Rules, Ritter's character's death was the subject of a major story arc. Because of the sensitivity of the material, the first four new episodes were filmed without a studio audience.


The Young & The Restless

Jeanne Cooper, who played Katherine Chancellor, died May 8, 2013.

Born in 1928, Jeanne Cooper - the mother of LA Law star Corbin Bernsen - was a film actress who later built a career as a daytime matriarch, Y&R's wealthy, alcoholic socialite Katherine Chancellor. Cooper died this year due to complications following an infection.

When she died the show's cast featured in a special episode that broke the fourth wall, in which they discussed their memories of Cooper; the producers of the show have indicated they will write Cooper's death into the show's narrative in the near future.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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