18 Actors Who Died During the Production of Live-Action American TV Shows

It’s more than a day later, and it still doesn’t quite feel real that Cory Monteith is dead. Such things are certainly tragedies. However, there is also a practical implication as well: what becomes of the shows the actors leave behind? Do they write the death into the storyline? Do they simply hastily write the character off the show? Can the show even survive without that actor/character?  Let’s look to history for answers.

The following is a list of 18 actors (well, technically 19) who died during the production of live-action American television shows. This list is limited to actors meaning reality TV show star Shain Gandee (Buckwild), who died this year, is not listed. Moreover, this is limited to live-action television meaning voice actors like Harry Goz (Sealab 2021) and Mary Kay Bergman (South Park) are not listed either. Those are all people who died during the production of TV shows; they just don’t qualify for this list. Those who do qualify are arranged from the most recent to the oldest:

1)      Larry Hagman, Dallas (2012)


Role: J.R. Ewing; practically psychopathic Texas oil baron.

Cause of Death: Complications from acute myeloid leukemia on November 23, 2012, at the age of 81.

What Happened to the Show: Hagman’s death was written into the show’s second season, with Ewing shot twice by an unseen gunman and dying in the middle of a phone conversation. This death became a huge storyline, and it was eventually revealed Ewing was dying of terminal cancer and had arranged his own death in a grand plot to frame one of his rivals for his murder. Oh, J.R. – a conniving bastard to the bitter end. Thank the Lord for Dallas.

2)      Christopher Allport, Mad Men (2008)


Role: Andrew Campbell; the cold, prickish father of the somewhat equally prickish Peter Campbell. Andrew was only a recurring character during the show’s first season.

Cause of Death: Allport was one of three men killed by snow avalanches in the Mountain High ski resort in Wrightwood, California.  He died on January 25, 2008, at the age of 60.

What Happened to the Show: The real-life 1962 crash of American Airlines Flight 1 was incorporated in the storyline at the beginning of the second season. The advertising agency is attempting to woo American Airlines as a potential client, but then the Flight 1 crash occurs, killing 87 passengers and 8 crew members. The agency argues the airline should run a series of solemn ads in which they claim to feel their customers pain in the wake of such a tragedy. However, what puts the sales pitch over the top is the moment in meeting with American Airline executives when Peter Campbell memorably proclaims that he feels their pain as well because his father was a passenger on Flight 1 meaning he too had suffered a loss (news to both them and the audience). This personal touch helps the agency land the account and is a level of coldness that would have likely made Andrew proud.

3)      John Spencer, The West Wing (2005)


Role: White House Chief of Staff Leo McGary

Cause of Death: Heart attack on December 16, 2005, at the age of 58

What Happened to the Show: At the time of his death, there were two remaining episodes of the 7th season containing footage of Spencer. Once those were concluded, the character, McGary, was said to have suffered a fatal heart attack on election night. The show continued on for the rest of its 7th season, which was its last.

4)      Jerry Orbach, Law & Order: Trial By Jury (2004)


Role: Detective Lennie Briscoe, a role had played since 1992 on the original Law & Order and was transferring over to one of its spin-offs, Trial By Jury.

Cause of Death: Complications from prostate cancer on December 28, 2004, at the age of 69.

What Happened to the Show: Orbach had been in a state of declining health before his death and was only able to record two episodes of then-new Law & Order spin-off Trial By Jury. After his death, the show filmed a funeral scene for the character of Detective Briscoe, who was said to have simply died from an illness.  However, this scene was cut from the episode leaving any on-screen explanation for Briscoe’s sudden disappearance from the show non-existent. Trial By Jury premiered as a mid-season replacement several months after his death in 2005 but was not renewed for anything beyond its initial 13 episodes, making it the first Law & Order show to be canceled at that point.

5)      John Ritter, 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter (2003)

And, yes, if you didn’t already know that is Kaley Cuoco locking arms with John Ritter in the photo. Before Cuoco became the great love interest across the hall in Big Bang Theory, she was the titular Teenage Daughter of John Ritter.

Role: Paul Hennessy, a former writer who works from home as a columnist and has rather strict rules for any boys attempting to date either of his daughters.

Cause of Death: Aortic dissection on September 11, 2003. He was 54. On the day of his death, Ritter complained of chest pains during rehearsals of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter before he collapsed into a coma, dying later that day at a hospital across the street from the set. The dissection was caused by an undiagnosed congenital heart defect. Ritter’s widow, actress Amy Yasbeck, sued both the hospital and a radiologist who had failed to detect the heart defect two years prior for medical negligence. The jury ruled in the favor of the hospital and individual doctors, although the Ritter family ultimately received millions of dollars in settlement.

What Happened to the Show: Ritter had completed the first 3 episodes of the show’s second season at the time of his death. These episodes aired before the show took a one-month hiatus and returned with an hour-long episode set in the aftermath of the death of Ritter’s character. The subsequent season revolved largely around the family’s efforts to move on, with his now-widow receiving aid from her parents (James Garner, Suzanne Pleshette) and nephew (David Spade). Garner and Spade joined the show’s cast full-time during its third season, which was its last due to plummeting ratings.

6)      Nancy Marchand, The Sopranos (2000)


Role: Livia Soprano, Tony’s emotionally manipulative mother who would routinely say things like, “Why don’t I just die right now!” forcing her son to say things like, “Come on, ma, don’t say things like that.”

Cause of Death: Lung cancer and emphysema on June 18, 2000, the day before what would have been her 72nd birthday.

What Happened to the Show: Existing footage and computer-generated imagery were used to create one final scene between Livia and Tony in the third season before her character passed away. Livia would reappear after that on multiple occasions, but only in dreams or flashbacks meaning she was played by a younger actress. The show went on for 3 more seasons after her death.

7)      Phil Hartman, Newsradio (1998)


Role: Bill McNeal, the rather pompous lead DJ of New York radio station WNYX.

Cause of Death: Gunshot wound to the head on May 28, 1998. His wife shot him in his sleep before ultimately committing suicide herself later in the day. They had been arguing over her relapse into drug addiction, and she was intoxicated and had cocaine in her system at the time she murdered him. He was 49.

What Happened to the Show: Hartman’s death occurred after most shows had concluded airing their current seasons and were on hiatus from filming. There was no unseen footage left to air. This allowed Newsradio to begin its following season, the show’s fifth, with an episode in which all of the characters were returning from Bill McNeal’s funeral. Jon Lovitz was added to the cast as an old friend of McNeal’s, mirroring real life since Lovitz and Hartman were friends from their days on Saturday Night Live together. The first post-Phil Hartman season would be the show’s last, as NBC canceled it due to low ratings.

In addition to Newsradio, Hartman had also filmed a guest spot in the season cliffhanger for 3rd Rock from the Sun. His absence in the ensuing season premiere was barely explained and the character never again referenced.

8)       Redd Foxx, The Royal Family (1991)


Role: Al Royal, an Atlanta mailman who had hoped to enjoy retirement with his wife until his daughter and her three children moved in. The show was created by Eddie Murphy and was supposed to be Foxx’s big comeback, as he had not had a hit since the later 70s with Sanford & Son.

Cause of Death: Heart attack on October 11, 1991, at the age of 68. He suffered the heart attack on the set of The Royal Family, with on-lookers reportedly initially believing Foxx was doing a bit since his character on Sanford & Son used to dramatically feign heart attacks and proclaim to the sky that he was about to join his dead wife. Also joining the “it’s funny, but not funny” category is The Royal Family‘s working title at one point had actually been Chest Pains.

What Happened to the Show: Seven episodes had been completed at the time of Foxx’s death. His character’s death was written into the show, and Jackee Harris added to the cast. However, the show’s 8 episodes post-Foxx struggled in the ratings, and CBS canceled it after 1 season.

9)       Florence Halop (1986)/Selma Diamond (1985), Night Court


Role(s): Both played police bailiffs, with their diminutive stature in comparison to the dang near 7 ft tall Richard Moll as the other police bailiff in the court serving as an obvious sight gag. Diamond played Selma Hacker for the show’s first two seasons, tough as nails, raspy-voiced and usually depicted with a cigarette in her mouth (try getting away with that on TV nowadays), and Halop was Florence Kleiner, a somewhat more matronly and sweet-hearted presence whose voice also revealed an obvious past with tobacco.

Cause of Death: Both, unfortunately, died of lung cancer. Diamond died on May 13, 1985, at the age of 64 while Halop died on July 15, 1986, at the age of 63.

What Happened to the Show: Diamond played her character for the show’s first two seasons. In the third season premiere, the cast reacts to the death of her character, with Harry saddled with the unpleasant task of interviewing her replacements. Flo Kleiner gets the job partially because of how much she reminds everyone of Selma, particularly with her voice and her motherly presence around Richard Moll’s character.

After Halop died, there were those genuinely spooked by an apparent Night Court curse, as after only 3 seasons on the air two cast members had died and three others had been written out of the show and replaced. So, in replacing Halop they went a completely different direction, casting a 32-year-old African American actress named Marsha Winfield, whose character Roz stayed on the show for its remaining 6 seasons. In the fourth season premiere, the first since Halop’s death, Flo is revealed to have died, and Richard Moll’s character is assured by her replacement, Roz, that she doesn’t plan on dying anytime soon.

10)      Nicholas Colasanto, Cheers (1985)


Role: Coach Ernie Pantusso. Just called “Coach” by most, he was a former coach of Sam Malone’s from his baseball playing days who joined his former pupil as a bartender at Cheers. He was very much so the predecessor to his equally dim-witted replacement, Woody Boyd, played by Woody Harrelson.

Cause of Death: Heart attack on February 12, 1985, at the age of 61. He had been suffering from a heart disease since the mid-1970s and was in declining health during the entire production of the show’s third season.

What Happened to the Show: His last full episode on the show, “Cheerio, Cheers,” aired in April of 1985, and he also appeared in the cold open of the third season finale a month later in May. However, there were multiple episodes filmed for the third season without him, and his absence from those episodes was not explained as being due to death. That did not happen until the fourth season premiere when a naive young wannabe bartender named Woody Boyd comes to Cheers in search of his penpal Coach, only to be informed by Sam that Coach passed away. No further explanation was ever given across the show’s remaining 8 seasons.

11)      Jon Erik-Hexum, Cover Up (1984)


Role: Mac Harper, an undercover CIA agent posing as a male model.

Cause of Death: Accidental, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on October 12, 1984, at the age of 21. He basically played Russian Roulette with a prop gun on the set filled with blanks to amuse himself and the crew during a break from filming. However, he was unaware that blanks, though safer than bullets, still create what equates to a small explosion, an explosion which can be seriously damaging when exposed directly to human skin or sensitive parts of the body. Surgeons were able to save his life after hours of surgery, but on October 18 he was declared brain dead and kept alive only long enough thereafter to donate his organs.

What Happened to the Show: The show took a three-week hiatus after Hexum’s last episode aired, and in its first episode back Anthony Hamilton was added to the cast as a new undercover agent. The episode cliffhangs with the reveal that the mission Hexum was apparently away doing had resulted in his death. The show then finished out the remainder of its first season but was canceled by CBS due to poor ratings and various controversies.

12)      Michael Conrad, Hill Street Blues (1983)


Role: Phil “Let’s be careful out there” Esterhaus

Cause of Death: Urethral cancer on November 22, 1983, at the age of 58.

What Happened to the Show: Conrad had appeared on the show less and less during its third season due to his illness, and in the fourth season his character was killed off by suffering a fatal heart attack whilst having sex with a recurring character played by Barbara Babcock. That….is certainly a memorable way for a character to die. His last episode aired three months after his death.

13)      Jim Davis, Dallas (1981)


Role: Jock Ewing, the patriarch of the Ewing family. Wait, what? Wasn’t J.R. the patriarch? Nope. Dallas has been around for so dang long that for its first three full seasons Jim Davis was on board as the father of J.R., Gary, and Bobby.

Cause of Death: Multiple myeloma on April 26, 1981, at the age of  71. His condition had worsened whilst filming, thus forcing the show to work around his health during its fourth season, often depicting Jock as being seated. He would also have to wear a wig on occasion to due chemotherapy-related hair loss.

What Happened to the Show: Davis died while the fourth season was in production and still on the air. Rather than write it into the storyline immediately, his character was described as being engaged in an off-screen activity for 13 more episodes until his death by plane accident was revealed in the show’s fifth season. Of course, Dallas ran for a total of 14 seasons and was revived last year, with history repeating itself when Larry Hagman died while the show was still in production.

14)      Will Geer, The Waltons (1978)


Role: Grandpa Zeb Walton, the grandfather of a West Virginia family just trying to get by during The Great Depression.

Cause of Death: Respiratory failure on April 22, 1978, at the age of 76.

What Happened to the Show: Geer died after having completed work on the show’s sixth season. The show’s seventh season began with the characters mourning his death.

15)      Freddie Prinze, Chico & The Man (1977)


Role: Chico, an optimistic, young Chicano man who works in a run-down garage in East Los Angeles for a mean, old boss.

Cause of Death: Self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on January 28, 1977, with him dying the next day in a hospital at the age of 22. Depending on who you believe it was either a suicide, with a suicide note and everything, or an accident on the part of a young actor who used to play Russian Roulette to amuse his friends. Mere hours before his death, Prinze had filmed his final episode, which fell in the middle of the show’s third season.

What Happened to the Show: The remaining third season episodes focused on the other characters in the show, with Chico having left to visit his father in Mexico.  Several new characters were introduced in the show’s fourth season, and Chico’s belongings were used by these new characters on occasion. Eventually, “The Man” reveals Chico died, offering no real explanation though. This first completely Chico-less season was the show’s last. It’s simply difficult to maintain strong ratings when your show is titled Chico and the Man and the guy playing Chico dies.

16)      Diana Hyland, Eight is Enough (1977)


Role: Joan Bradford, the mother of the titular eight children comprising the show’s cast. Joan was wife to Tom Bradford, played by Dick Van Patten.

Cause of Death: Breast cancer on March 27, 1977, at the age of 41. Her boyfriend of the time, John Travolta, reportedly held her in his arms as she died. Eight is Enough premiered its first episode 12 days after her death.

What Happened to the Show: Hyland had completed work on only 4 episodes of the show’s first season at the time of her death. Her character was written out of the remainder of the first season, and the second season premiered with the revelation that her character had died thus making Tom Bradford a widower. Eight is Enough aired for an additional 4 seasons, as Bradford sought out suitable replacements to help him raise his flock of kids.

17)      Pete Duel, Alias Smith and Jones (1971)


Role: Hannibal Hayes, an American Old West outlaw who attempts to reform alongside his similarly repentant cousin

Cause of Death: Self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head on December 31, 1971, at the age of 31. He was reportedly depressed due to his struggles with alcoholism, and the death was ruled a suicide. He had been on the show for 33 episodes at that point, comprising one full season and nearly two-thirds of a second season.

What Happened to the Show: ABC threatened to sue the producers for breach of contract when they asked if they could simply cancel the show. Spooked by ABC’s threat, the producers went right back into production on the show less than 12 hours after Duel’s death. The show’s narrator, Roger Davis, was quickly cast as Duel’s replacement, taking over the role of Hannibal Hayes with no reference to the sudden change in appearance. This new Roger Davis-era of the show lasted 17 more episodes before the network canceled the show.

18)      Bea Benaderet, Petticoat Junction (1968)

Want your mind blown? In addition to her TV acting, Benaderet was also the original voice of Betty Rubble on The Flintstones and Granny in the Tweety Bird/Sylvester Looney Tunes.

Role: Kate Bradley, the matronly owner/operator of the Shady Rest Hotel. Petticoat Junction was set in the same fictional universe as The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres, meaning the shows would sometimes cross over. As a result of this, Kate Bradley was explained as being a cousin to Pearl Bodine, the role Benaderet had played during the first season of Beverly Hillbillies before the show’s producers decided to center Petticoat Junction around her in a new role.

Cause of Death: Lung cancer on October 13, 1968, at the age of 62. She had played Kate Bradley for 164 episodes across 6 seasons, with her warm presence regarded as being crucial to the show’s initial success and her absence a cause for the show’s subsequent failure.

What Happened to the Show: Benaderet was diagnosed with cancer in 1967, during the show’s fifth season. She took time away from the show, missing nearly half of the season. Her character was said to simply be away on a trip, and Rosemarie Dewitt joined as Aunt Helen for the episodes Benaderet missed. Benaderet returned for the first 3 episodes of the sixth season before becoming too ill to continue. Her character was said to have passed away, and a new mother figure was introduced in Dr. Janet Craig, played by June Lockhart. The show survived despite poor ratings for the remainder of its sixth season and a seventh season which was only commissioned to assure 5 full seasons of color episodes for syndication (the shows’ first two seasons had been in black and white).

Notable omissions from this list include Richard Biggs from Strong Medicine (2004), Rebecca Schaeffer from My Sister Sam (1989), and Alice Pearce from Bewitched (1968). Also, there are obviously 19 actors listed above, but I counted Selma Diamond and Florence Halop as 1 since they came from the same show playing what amounted to the same role.

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    1. I know – at a certain point I had to just stop because this kind of list can go on for a while. I purposefully skipped Dan Blocker on Bonanza, but I have to admit I hadn’t even thought about Joseph Kearns. It’s one of those things where now that you pointed it out my reaction is of the “Oh, yeah, I remember that now” variety.

      The TVLine article I linked to included several actors I didn’t mention in my list (!21/yr_cooper_bb_conley/):

      The District
      Lynne Thigpen’s run as Washington D.C. police chief aide Ella Farmer ended in spring 2003, when the actress (bottom left) suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Ella, in turn, died suddenly in a late Season 3 episode.

      General Hospital
      Anna Lee’s run as the venerable Lila Quartermaine came to an end when the veteran actress succumbed to pneumonia on May 2004; Lila herself then passed away that July. John Ingle, who had taken over as Lila’s husband Edward when original portrayer David Lewis’ health sidelined him, died of cancer in September 2012; Edward’s own passing was written in that November.

      When Stanley Kamel died of a heart attack in April 2008, Monk’s shrink, Dr. Charles Kroger, himself suffered the same fate during Season 7, in an episode dedicated to the late actor.

      All My Children
      After a battle with lung cancer, Frances Heflin died in June 1994; Erica Kane’s mother Mona died peacefully in her sleep that August.
      David Bailey was just a few months into the role of evil Alistair Crane when the actor drowned in November 2004. Daytime vet John Reilly took over the role.

      Suddenly Susan
      After David Strickland, who played music reporter Todd, killed himself in March 1999, the sitcom paid special tribute to the actor in an episode that deftly established that Todd had died, too.

      The Bold and the Beautiful
      Though Darlene Conley passed away in January 2007 amid reports of a battle with stomach cancer, the larger-than-life Sally Spectra lives on, off-screen, as she has since her portrayer’s death.
      The Young and the Restless
      Jeanne Cooper’s May 2013 passing was addressed in a special tribute special that aired on May 28 and featured many cast members remembering the daytime icon. UPdate: Katherine Chancellor herself will be memorialized in two episodes airing in early September.

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  2. Marion Lorne, who played Aunt Clara on Bewitched, died shortly after filming ended for the fourth season of the series, in May of 1968. The show was never the same after that. Also Larry Keating, who played Roger Addison on Mr. Ed, died in 1963 during the show’s third season. Leon Ames and Florence MacMichael were brought in to fill the role of best friends/neighbors the Kirkwoods but again it wasn’t the same. Keating was just too witty and expressive of an actor to be replaced. (Coincidentally he played one of the many Harry Mortons (husband to Bea Benaderet’s character Blanche) on the Burns and Allen Show.) So sad to think that within a few years of each other, Keating, Gracie Allen and Benaderet would all be gone.

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