How TV series handle the death of an actor

How, or whether, a series chooses to forge ahead following the death of an actor involves a complex and sensitive array of considerations, including the nature of the series, the character’s place in the story, and the circumstances of the actor’s death. Perhaps above all is a desire among television creators to respect the legacy of the late actor, and the devotion that person inspired from colleagues, loved ones and fans.

“You’re dealing with the tragic loss of somebody you loved deeply,” says Dante Di Loreto, an executive producer of the teen-driven musical dramedy Glee, which aired on Fox from 2009 to 2015 and is currently streaming on Hulu. Cory Monteith, who played Finn on the popular series, died from an overdose in 2013. “You’re also managing the feelings and needs of the hundreds of people who are dependent upon and executing the show,” Di Loreto says.

Moving on without a late actor presents a variety of creative challenges, depending on the emotional tenor of the show and its relationship to audiences. How an actor’s death is handled within the world of a series “depends on the pace and the framing of the genre,” says Tim Teeman, senior culture editor and writer at The Daily Beast. “It might be easier for a crime or action show to go fairly big and dramatic with a character’s death, but if you’re working on a gentler canvas, you might choose a gentler outcome,” Teeman says.

Riverdale, the teen soap based on the Archie Comics characters, for example, is rife with twists and turns; following the death of Luke Perry from a stroke in 2019, his character Fred Andrews was killed in an offscreen hit-and-run accident. A romantic comedy like And Just Like That…, on the other hand, addressed the sudden death of Willie Garson during production on season 1 by writing his character, Carrie’s best friend Stanford, off the series and into a Tokyo monastery – a quizzical twist, but hardly out of step with the oddness of the Sex and the City reboot.

In a social media tribute to Garson, Sarah Jessica Parker referred to their friendship in both deeply personal terms and as “a shared professional family,” indicating how close-knit behind-the-scenes connections can be. For creative decision-makers and fans alike, emotional stakes run high when an actor dies but the show carries on without them.

Tending to a television family

“It’s an immense business operation,” Di Loreto says of managing a television production. “But because it’s an art form, and you’re dealing with artists, there’s a great emotional commitment to what you’re doing.” On top of processing his personal shock over Monteith’s death, which happened while Di Loreto was in production on the HBO film The Normal Heart, the producer was tasked with helping to shepherd the entire Glee team through a traumatic loss.

“The first thought was, how do we take care of the existing cast?” Di Loreto says, “Lea Michele, specifically? How do we make sure she’s safe?” Michele’s relationship with Monteith at the time of his death added a layer of complexity to the loss and drew particular attention from the press.

“When you have two characters and two performers who are romantically involved, it compounds the grief and the need for us to take more of a parent’s position, to take care of your family members at the same time you’re trying to take care of your own emotional needs,” Di Loreto says.

“We had been making the show together as a family, however dysfunctional,” Di Loreto recalls. “There was a need among the cast to care for each other. We needed to allow the space for that and for people to grieve and express their shock and anger.”

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