Sudden Goodbye: How TV Shows Like Riverdale Have Responded to the Shocking Deaths of Their Irreplaceable Stars


By Billy Nilles Oct 09, 2019 6:00 PMTags
TV Actor Sudden DeathsThe CW; FOX; Warner Bros./E! Illustration

It's almost time to say goodbye to Fred Andrews.

Months after the world lost a TV icon with the sudden and tragic passing of Luke Perry on March 4 due to complications from a massive stroke he'd suffered in his home days prior, the time has come for the season four premiere of Riverdale, which will serve as both a tribute to the beloved actor and his character.

"This week's Riverdale is the last episode Luke filmed," creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa  tweeted back in April, ahead of Perry's last episode, breaking the news to fans everywhere. "As always, Fred's imparting words of wisdom to Archie. A beautiful, true moment between a father and his son," Aguirre-Sacasa said. "Wish these scenes could go on forever..."

Aguirre-Sacasa had previously taken to Twitter in the weeks following Perry's passing to pay tribute to the beloved actor, writing on April 14, "Truly an honor attending a tribute to Luke at WB yesterday. Amazing stories told by his brave family and lifelong friends. This still is from this week's . These next few episodes are bittersweet. He's gone and with us at the same time. Miss you and love you, Luke."

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Describing the October 9 premiere, which will feature Perry's friend and former Beverly Hills, 90210 costar Shannen Doherty in a pivotal role, the creator has said the episode will be "really, really emotional."

"I think it's a real tribute to Luke. I think it's a real tribute to Fred. I think it's very cathartic to watch it and I think everyone really came together, specifically to tell this kind of story, the honor Luke and honor Fred…It's a really simple—it's one of our…just beautiful," Aguirre-Sacasa previously said at the 2019 Television Critics Association summer press tour while promoting spinoff Katy Keene.

He also said that Doherty "plays a really important part and she plays it beautifully." 

While it remains to be seen how Riverdale will send off Perry and his character, the unique and emotional situation is not without its precedent. Sadly, there have been a handful of TV shows to find themselves forced with an impossible decision to make after the tragic and sudden passing of one of their own, losing not just a character, but a cherished member of the family, as well. 

To see how those shows handled their tragedy, while also getting a sense for how Riverdale might move forward without Perry, read on.

Phil Hartman, NewsRadio

NewsRadio had already aired its fourth season finale when star and former SNL funnyman Phil Hartman was tragically killed in his sleep by his wife Brynn Hartman, who shot him three times in the early hours of May 28, 1998 after an argument in which he'd threatened to leave her if she began using drugs again. She was intoxicated and had recently ingested cocaine prior to the murder. She later locked herself in the bedroom and shot herself in the mouth, killing herself as well. When the show returned for season five in September, his character Bill McNeal was revealed to have died of a heart attack, while the other characters reminisced about his life. Hartman's friend and former SNL colleague Jon Lovitz joined the cast the following episode and remained on the series throughout the season, which would prove to be the NBC critical darling's last.

Nicholas Colasanto, Cheers

By the time Nicholas Colasanto was cast as Coach Ernie Pantusso on the seminal NBC sitcom Cheers, he'd already been diagnosed with heart disease, which had been exacerbated by his alcoholism. By season three, his health had worsened and he'd noticeably lost weight, though he kept the severity of the matter a secret. Shortly after Christmas 1984, he was admitted to a hospital due to water in his lungs. After a two week stay, he was released in the week of January 28, 1985 and his doctor recommended that he not return to work. He would die of a heart attack in his home on February 12. Though he appeared in the season finale's cold open, through the use of discarded footage, his last full episode was filmed in late November 1984. (It aired on April 11, 1985). His character's absence throughout the rest of the season was either explained away through jokes or not acknowledged. When the show returned for season four, Coach's pen-pal Woody (played by Woody Harrelson) arrived for a visit only to learn Coach had died. As result, Ted Danson's Sam Malone offers Woody a job tending bar. When the show signed off after 11 seasons in 1993, Sam is seen straightening a portrait of Geronimo that once belonged to Colasanto, hanging in his dressing room.

John Spencer, The West Wing

When journeyman actor John Spencer died of a heart attack on December 16, 2005, four days before his 59th birthday, he'd filmed two of the five West Wing episodes there were in post-production at that point in the show's seventh season. His character, Leo McGarry, had kicked off a bid for Vice President alongside Jimmy Smits' Congressman Santos after years of serving as chief of staff and, later, counselor to President Bartlett (Martin Sheen). With the character coincidentally surviving a near-fatal heart attack during season six, Spencer's death was written into the show, with McGarry said to have died of a heart attack on election night. His name was kept in the opening credits for the remainder of the season, which would prove to be the show's last.

Miguel Ferrer, NCIS: Los Angeles

When Miguel Ferrer passed away in his home on January 19, 2017 after a battle with throat cancer, his illness had allowed the writers on NCIS: Los Angeles, which he'd recurred on for two seasons before becoming a series regular in season five, to make a plan for his character, Owen Granger. Much like the man who portrayed him, it was revealed in season eight that Granger was dying of throat cancer, too, potentially as a result of exposure to Agent Orange. He was initially written out by saying he'd left the country to deal with unfinished business. His last appearance was in the February 19 episode. The show wouldn't confirm the character's death until the 15th episode of season nine, having died peacefully under a tree overlooking a valley.

Lynne Thigpen, The District

After she endeared herself to millennial gumshoes everywhere as The Chief on the classic '90s game show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego, Lynne Thigpen took a starring role on this CBS procedural starring Craig T. Nelson that debuted in 2000. Playing crime analyst Ella Mae Farmer, she appeared on the show for three seasons until she died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage in her home after complaining of a headache for days. She was only 54. In the show's season finale, Ella was killed off in similar sudden fashion. "We decided to let the audience experience what we experienced, which was the shock," executive producer Pam Veasay told the Los Angeles Times in May 2003, "finding out something as simple as she has a neck ache. Then that person's died." Already renewed for a fourth season, Veasay wasn't sure what the show would do next. "That's the challenge," she added, "trying to continue without Lynne Thigpen. We haven't taken her name down [from the character board] because she's still very much with us as a writing staff. I assume next year we'll take her name down and get used to that. But for now, there's a great comfort in seeing it up there, still seeing Lynne as a part of our cast." The District ended with season four.

Larry Hagman, Dallas

When TNT revived Dallas in 2012, it was a thrill to see Larry Hagman don J.R. Ewing's old cowboy hat and chew the scenery once more. Around the time the show was given the greenlight, however, he'd been diagnosed with stage 2 throat cancer. After having an acorn-sized tumor removed from his tongue in 2011, his cancer was said to have gone into remission. But a month after the premiere, in July 2012, he was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndromes (formerly known as preleukemia). He died four months later, while production on season two was underway. As a result, J.R. finally met his maker too, though the producers kept his presence on screen in season three by making use of unused footage of the actor. The show was canceled once the third season wrapped.

Carol Ann Susi, The Big Bang Theory

Though she was never seen on screen, Carol Ann Susi was an indelible part of the fabric of The Big Bang Theory, as she voiced Debbie, the oft-heard mother of Simon Helberg's Howard Wolowitz, for eight seasons until she passed away from cancer on November 11, 2014 at the age of 62. To pay tribute to both Susi and the character, the show killed Debbie off as well, with Howard receiving a phone call in a February 2015 episode informing him that his mother had died while visiting family in Florida. The remainder of the season saw Howard dealing with the aftermath of losing his mother, ensuring that Susi wasn't forgotten.

Bill Paxton, Training Day

Training Day, CBS' 2017 adaptation of the iconic Denzel Washington film, had only been on the air for four weeks when its star Bill Paxton passed away suddenly at the age of 61 after complications from a surgery to replace a heart valve and repair damage to his aorta caused a stroke. Because the midseason debut had already completed production on its entire 13-episode order prior to its debut, it meant that Paxton fans would get to spend nine more weeks watching the actor in action. It also meant that the show, which debuted to soft ratings, would not live to see a second season.

Anton Yelchin, Trollhunters

When Anton Yelchin died tragically on June 19, 2016 at the age of 27, after being found pinned between his Jeep Grand Cherokee and a brick pillar outside his home in what was described as a freak accident, he left behind a lot of projects, including voice work in Netflix's then-upcoming animated series from Guillermo del Toro, Trollhunters, which dropped that December. Having recorded enough dialogue to be used for the show's first two seasons and some of its third, Yelchin was only replaced for portions of that final season, with Emile Hirsch taking over the role of Jim, the first human Trollhunter. Upon its completion in 2018, the entire season was dedicated to Yelchin.

Nancy Marchand, The Sopranos

By the time creator David Chase has cast Nancy Marchand in his HBO magnum opus as Livia Soprano, the tough-as-nails mother to James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano, he knew that their days together would be limited. "She had cancer the whole time we worked with her, but it was not spoken of," co-star Edie Falco told Vanity Fair in 2012. "Nancy said to David, 'Please keep me working. That's keeping me alive.'" When Marchand eventually did succumb to her lung cancer and emphysema in 2002, Chase and his writers were already at work on scripts for the third season. With Tony's relationship with his mother so central to his story, he felt compelled to write her death into the show. And rather than have it happen entirely off-camera, the show got creative when it came time to put Livia's final scenes on screen, using outtakes of old scenes while also CGI'ing Marchand's head onto another actress' body. The technological gamble, which wasn't entirely well-received by critics, was one of the first instances of using CGI to solve the problem of an absent actor.

John Ritter, 8 Simple Rules

When the legendary John Ritter died during surgery to repair a sudden aortic dissection, he had just begun the second season of his ABC sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. In fact, he began experiencing the chest pains, vomiting, and profuse sweating that prompted a trip to the same hospital he'd been born in 55 years earlier while rehearsing on set for the season's fourth episode. Considering he played the patriarch on the family sitcom, not to mention the fact that all involved were grieving the loss, the show went into a month-long hiatus to figure out what, exactly, they'd do. The first three episodes aired, each with an introduction from his co-star Katey Sagal, and when the show returned two months later, it incorporated Ritter's death into the story, having his character die a similar death. The first four episodes, which featured the family reacting to the death, were filmed without a live audience. James Garner and David Spade, as Sagal's father and nephew, respectively, were added in starring roles to fill the void left by Ritter. Changing its name to simply 8 Simple Rules, the show was canceled after a subsequent third season.

Cory Monteith, Glee

When Cory Monteith sadly passed away from an accidental overdose in July 2013 after years of struggles with substance abuse, he was just weeks away from beginning work on the fifth season of Glee. As a result, Ryan Murphy was left with an impossible decision to make. "When you're faced with something so sad and so shocking, what do you do? Do we cancel the show? Do we start shooting in January? What do we do?" he told The Hollywood Reporter. "Ultimately, we decided the best thing for everyone is to get back to work and be around people who knew him and loved him so that everyone can grieve together." So after consulting with leading lady Lea Michele, who was dating Monteith at the time, he and the network decided to push the season premiere back a week, allowing production to begin in August. With the first two episodes already written, the third served as a tribute to Monteith, with "The Quarterback" focusing on the death of his character Finn Hudson. The show went on hiatus afterwards, allowing Murphy and his writers time to decided how to proceed. When the show resumed airing in November, life went on for the students of McKinley High, but Finn (and Monteith) were not forgotten. "I just made a decision that we keep mentioning Finn. We don't just say this is done and we're never going to go back to it, so that resonates throughout the year," Murphy told E! News at the time. "We're trying to be sensitive and also have some fun and go back to some optimistic stories. I think he would have wanted that, he always loved that about the show."

Lee Thompson Young, Rizzoli & Isles

Lee Thompson Young, who rose to fame on the Disney Channel series The Famous Jett Jackson, was in the middle of production on the fourth season of TNT procedural Rizzoli & Isles in August 2013 when he failed to show up to work. After the landlord at his Los Angeles apartment was called to perform a well-being check on him, he was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Authorities would later reveal that Young had a history of bipolar disorder and was taking medication for the condition when he shot himself. Production on the drama was suspended in the aftermath of his death and ultimately, they opted to have his character, Det. Barry Frost, die as the victim of a tragic car accident, with the episode featuring a funeral service for Frost, allowing his co-stars to grieve on camera. A new character, played by Idara Victor, was introduced, but she wasn't a direct replacement. "Obviously you can't replace Lee and the Barry Frost role on the show, and in making the decision to really live in the dramatic impact of the loss, we ended up creating some new dynamics within the existing characters," executive producer Jan Nash told TV Guide.

Luke Perry, Riverdale

After suffering a massive stroke at his home in Los Angeles on February 27, 2019, Luke Perry passed away from complications on March 4 at the age of 52. His final episode of Riverdale, upon which he'd starred as proud papa Fred Andrews for three seasons, aired on Wednesday, April 24. With only two episodes left in the season after that, the show opted to wait and send off Perry and his character in the season four premiere, airing on Wednesday, Oct. 9. The episode, which will feature Perry's pal Shannen Doherty in a pivotal role, has been described by creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa as "really, really emotional."

Riverdale returns Wednesday, Oct. 9 at 8 p.m. on the CW.

(This story was originally published on April 24, 2019 at 3 a.m. PT.)