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« "Soul Train's" 40th Anniversary, Chicago Style Call for Artists: Joffrey Ballet's 'Choreographers of Color' »

Television Tue Sep 06 2011

Sitcom Cast Change Countdown #8: A Death in the Family

In TV and movies, sometimes cast changes leave the realm of fussy babies and moody stars and enter the territory of the tragic. When an actor dies unexpectedly, a sitcom's producers have some big decisions to make: do they go on with him, or do they fill his spot with a replacement character (and a replacement actor)? Is it more respectful to the actor's memory if the character he plays dies as well, or does it make more sense to have him be on some kind of permanent vacation?

The sitcom world has had two "sudden death" cast changes in the past few decades. Both situations were handled relatively well, but neither resulted in a long second-life for their respective shows. In 1998, the tragic and bizarre murder of Phil Hartmann caused national shock. It also left his sitcom, NewsRadio, with a barely-won fifth season to totally retool. The show elegantly chose Hartman's fellow SNL (and Groundlings) alum Jon Lovitz, as Max Louis. Hartman's character, Bill, was said to have died of a heart attack. Lovitz, like Hartman, was just one of an ensemble cast on NewsRadio, but it's the loss of Hartman's Bill may have been the final death knell for the show, which lasted only one more season.

A similar scene played out in 2003, when John Ritter died suddenly of a heart complication. One big difference: RItter had been the star of his show, 8 Simple Rules. Ritter's character, Paul Hennessy, was the patriarch of both his program and his TV family. Upon Ritter's death, the producers decided his character had died in a similar manner. Katey Sagal, who played Mrs. Hennessey, became the show's star. In a star-for-star move similar to NewsRadio's, James Garner and David Spade were brought in as relatives (grandpa and an adult nephew, respectively). Needless to say, this changed the nature of the show quite a bit. It lasted two more seasons, for a total of three.

All things considered, the loss of two actors, particularly those as precious as Hartman and Ritter, goes far beyond the downfall of a hundred NewsRadios. But a change had to be made, and that's what we're documenting here.

Check in Thursday for #7. It will be a little more upbeat, I promise.

Check out #9: The One with the Magical Morphing Baby and #10: Saved by the Bell (Jessie + Kelly = Tori?)

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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