Fictional characters can live forever in our heads. This is why Chewbacca is the safest of all of the Star Wars characters, as they can always just throw another tall guy in the suit. The same cannot be said for real actors, however, who are just as susceptible to age and disease as the rest of us.
There have been sad occasions when an actor has passed away during the production of a TV show and they never had a chance to watch themselves on the screen. This has happened to people both young and old, as the death doesn’t discriminate.
We are here today to look at the lives of actors who passed away during the production of their shows and never lived to see the final product.
From the man whose Watch has ended to the priest who never had a chance to enjoy his retirement, here are the 15 Actors Who Died During The Production Of TV Shows.
15. J. J. Murphy
The election for the position of Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones was far more complex in the books.
It involved numerous participants and several different rounds of voting, as a candidate needed a clear majority to win. The TV show decided to simplify matters by just having a single round of voting between three participants: Jon Snow, Alliser Thorne, and Ser Denys Mallister.
Ser Denys Mallister is the commander of the Shadow Tower and is one of the longest serving members of the Night’s Watch. As such, an older actor was chosen to portray him.
J. J. Murphy was the actor hired for the role of Ser Denys Mallister. He passed away due to natural causes after four days of filming.
14. John Ritter
John Ritter starred in numerous films and TV shows throughout the course of his career. His final role was Paul Hennessey in 8 Simple Rules For Dating My Teenage Daughter, which was based on a book of the same name. He played this role for one season and began work on the second before tragedy struck.
In 2003, John Ritter was rehearsing the new episodes of 8 Simple Rules when he fell ill. He was taken to a hospital across the street, where he was misdiagnosed as suffering from a heart attack. Ritter was actually suffering from an aortic dissection, which ultimately claimed his life.
When John Ritter passed away, he had already filmed three episodes of the second season of 8 Simple Rules. The fate of the show was now uncertain.
The decision was made to continue the show with the family reacting to the death of Ritter’s character and two new actors (David Spade and James Garner) were added to the cast. The three episodes that Ritter filmed were shown as part of the season.
13. Redd Foxx
A lot of comedians have catchphrases and mannerisms that helped propel them to stardom. Redd Foxx’s signature move was to pretend to have a heart attack when he heard distressing information.
This would turn out to be an ironic choice, considering how Foxx passed away. Then again: Foxx spent his life performing comedy, so if anyone could appreciate the humor behind his fate, it would be him.
Redd Foxx was working on a TV show called The Royal Family when he died. This was intended to be Foxx’s big comeback, especially as he had numerous financial problems throughout his career.
The cast of The Royal Family was rehearsing on the set when Foxx suffered a heart attack. All of the other people in the cast thought he was doing his classic routine and were laughing at him. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that this really was the big one and he was rushed to the hospital.
12. Tommy Cooper
Tommy Cooper is unique among the people on this list, as he died on live television.
Tommy Cooper was a famous comedian and stage magician from the UK, who performed to sold out crowds across the country. Cooper starred in numerous one-off comedy shows, which helped propel him to mainstream success.
The last show that Tommy Cooper ever performed happened on the 15th of April, 1984. He was performing a live show on the ITV network, called Live from Her Majesty’s. While performing his act, Cooper suffered a heart attack and collapsed on the stage.
The audience and his assistant thought this was part of the act, so no one realized what was happening. Cooper’s manager managed to drag him back behind the curtain of the stage so that resuscitation could be attempted. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
Footage of Cooper’s death was highly sought out for years, as VHS technology was still in its infancy in the UK. The footage was later shown as part of a documentary and can now be easily found on YouTube.
11. Steve Irwin
There are a lot of beloved celebrities on this list who were mourned by people across the world when they passed. None of them were as loved as Steve Irwin, whose accidental passing still brings a tear to the eyes of his fans.
Steve Irwin was a truly special man. It was obvious that he loved nature and his excitement upon seeing new animals was infectious. You would have to be as heartless as the Grinch to say that you didn’t like Steve Irwin.
It’s a common misconception that Steve Irwin was filming footage for a documentary called Ocean’s Deadliest when he died. It was actually for another unnamed project. Steve Irwin and a cameraman were filming in Queensland when they spotted a huge stingray in the water.
Stingrays are usually quite docile, so Irwin had no problem getting close to it so they could get more footage. The stingray attacked and stabbed Irwin in the heart with a barb. The film crew managed to get him back on the boat, but attempts to save his life were unsuccessful and he was pronounced dead by the time they reached emergency workers.
10. Jon-Erik Hexum
If you learn nothing else from this article, it should be the fact that blank cartridges can still be deadly at close range. This is the lesson that Jon-Erik Hexum never learned.
Blank cartridges are used to simulate gun fire in movies and TV shows. They cause a loud noise and will create a visible effect when fired, yet they aren’t as deadly as regular ammunition. They can still be fatal, however, if not used in a safe environment.
Jon-Erik Hexum was the star of a spy show called Cover Up. He was filming a scene which involved firing blanks from a .44 Magnum. There was a delay in filming, which caused Hexum to start fooling around on the set.
Hexum unloaded all but a single blank round, spun the barrel of the gun, put it to his head, and pulled the trigger. He was trying to impress the cast and crew by playing Russian roulette. The blank cartridge was fired and it led to an injury which caused a brain hemorrhage. He was pronounced dead six days later.
9. Phil Hartman
Phil Hartman earned a name for himself as one of funniest men in Hollywood, due to his roles on Saturday Night Live, NewsRadio, and The Simpsons. He was also known as being one of the nicest guys in the entertainment industry.
On May 28th, 1998, Phil Hartman got into an argument with his wife, who had recently relapsed. He promised that he was going to send her to rehab, which caused her to storm off.
Hartman’s wife returned to their home and shot him twice in the head, before turning the gun on herself. This tragic murder-suicide shook the world and caused an outpouring of tributes for Hartman.
The writers of The Simpsons decided to retire Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure after Hartman’s passing, as those were the main characters he voiced. The final episode of The Simpsons to feature Hartman’s voice was “Bart the Mother”, which had an appearance by Troy McClure. This episode was also dedicated to Phil Hartman.
8. Elisabeth Sladen
The resurgence of popularity for Doctor Who in 2005 (as well its newfound audience around the world) led to the creation of several spin-offs that reused assets and costumes. Torchwood and Class are two of the most well-known Doctor Who spin-offs, but there was another that had to be canceled due to the passing of its lead actress.
Elisabeth Sladen played Sarah Jane Smith in Doctor Who. She was one of the longest-running companions, as she had numerous adventures with the third and fourth incarnations of the Doctor.
Sladen reprised her role when the series returned and met the Tenth Doctor in 2006. The return of Sarah Jane Smith was so well-received that she starred in a spin-off, called The Sarah Jane Adventures.
The Sarah Jane Adventures ran for four seasons on CBBC. A fifth season had already begun production when Elisabeth Sladen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She passed away two months later.
7. Mary Kay Bergman
Mary Kay Bergman was a struggling actress who finally found her niche when she started doing work in voice acting.
She took over Meg Ryan’s role in Captain Planet, before being hired by Disney to voice parts of Snow White when it received a restored edition. This led to her working on numerous Disney cartoons, where she voiced several minor roles.
When South Park debuted, Mary Kay Bergman voiced almost every single female character on the show. This also included the roles in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. She credited these roles for helping her escape from being typecast, as she was best known for voicing cute and innocent characters.
In 1999, Mary Kay Bergman took her own life. She never revealed to anyone that she suffered from bipolar disorder or anxiety, which ultimately resulted in her death. The South Park episodes “Starvin’ Marvin in Space” and “Mr. Hankey’s Christmas Classics” were the final ones to feature her voice and both were dedicated to her.
6. Doris Grau
The first prominent cast member of The Simpsons to pass away was Doris Grau. She mainly acted as a Script Supervisor for the show, but also provided the voice for Lunchlady Doris.
Doris Grau had a long career as a Script Supervisor on many big shows, like Cheers and The Tracey Ullman Show. She had acted on occasion in the shows she worked for (like playing a waitress in Cheers), but The Simpsons role opened her up to voice acting.
The role of Doris Grossman in The Critic was written specifically with her in mind, as was the role of Lunchlady Doris.
The show runners of The Simpsons will often retire a character if their actor dies in real life. This was the case with Lionel Hutz, Troy McClure, and Mrs. Krabappel.
The only exception to this is Lunchlady Doris, who returned after a ten-year absence in the eighteenth season of The Simpsons. Lunchlady Doris is now voiced by Tress MacNeille. Her name has been altered to Lunchlady Dora, though it is still intended to be the same character.
5. Will Lee
Will Lee was a stage and TV actor who became best known for playing Mr. Hooper in Sesame Street. Lee played the role from 1969 to 1982 and became a household name. He passed away after suffering a heart attack.
Kids TV is one of the most disposable forms of media, so no one would have batted an eyelid if Mr. Hooper had just disappeared one day and was never mentioned again.
The creators of Sesame Street decided to acknowledge Will Lee’s passing with an episode that aimed to teach children about death and mourning. They consulted child psychologists about the best way to approach the issue and recorded an episode that was made specifically so as not to upset or confuse kids on the concept of death.
4. Lennard Pierce
Only Fools and Horses is one of the most popular British sitcoms ever made. The episode “Time on Our Hands” still holds the highest viewership for a sitcom in the UK. There have been several attempts at making an American version of Only Fools and Horses, including one made by ABC in 2012 called King of Van Nuys.
One of the three main characters in Only Fools and Horses was Ted Trotter, better known as Grandad by everyone else. He was played by Lennard Pierce, who was in his ’60s when he first took the role.
Pierce played the role for three seasons and began production on the fourth when his health issues became serious and he had a heart attack. It seemed as if Pierce would recover, but he suffered a second heart attack three days later and passed away.
Lennard Pierce had only appeared in one episode of Season 4 (“Hole in One”) before taking ill. The fourth season of the show was re-written, with the opening episode dealing with his character’s funeral and the introduction of his younger brother, Albert (played by Buster Merryfield), who was reworked into Grandad’s scenes.
The original episode that was filmed with Lennard Pierce has never been broadcast.
3. Marcia Wallace
Marcia Wallace is the most recent regular cast member of The Simpsons to have passed away. She voiced Bart Simpson’s teacher, Edna Krabappel, from 1990 to 2013. Mrs. Krabappel first appeared in “Bart the Genius”, which was the second episode of the entire run, and appeared regularly until Season 25.
Marcia Wallace had a long career appearing in TV shows before hitting it big with The Simpsons. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985 and became a staunch cancer activist
. Her condition ultimately led to her death in 2013. Wallace had recorded lines for Mrs. Krabappel that appeared in episodes which were broadcast after her death. The character was retired out of respect, with Nelson and Ned Flanders confirming that she died in “The Man Who Grew Too Much”.
The death of Mrs. Krabappel was also sad due to changes to her character that had happened in later seasons. Edna actually got married to Ned Flanders and became the step mother of Rod and Todd.
2. Margaret John
J. J. Murphy wasn’t the only Game of Thrones cast member to not live to see his episode on the air. Margaret John also passed away before she had a chance to see her role in the first season of Game of Thrones. She never got to see how big the show would become.
Margaret John had been appearing in TV shows and theatre productions since the ’60s. She appeared in two episodes of Doctor Who that were filmed almost forty years apart from each other (“Fury from the Deep”, which starred Patrick Troughton and “The Idiot’s Lantern”, which starred David Tenant).
She played Old Nan in the first season of Game of Thrones and passed away two months before it was first broadcast.
We still don’t know if Old Nan is alive in the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. The last we heard is that Ramsay took her and all of the remaining serving staff from Winterfell to the Dreadfort.
1. Dermot Morgan
Dermot Morgan played the lead role in one of the greatest comedy shows of all time. He was the star of Father Ted, which is often considered to be the best TV show ever produced in Ireland. Morgan played Father Ted Crilly: a disgraced priest who was sent to live on a small backwater island off the west coast of Ireland.
Father Ted ran for three seasons. The final episode finished filming on the 27th of February, 1998. Dermot Morgan was hosting a party in his home the following day to celebrate the end of the show’s run.
He excused himself to another room and suffered a massive heart attack. Morgan’s friends rushed him to the hospital, but attempts to revive him were unsuccessful.
Dermot Morgan’s sudden death was mourned across the British Isles. His funeral was attended by the President of Ireland and her predecessor, as well as numerous important political and religious figures. Father Ted was such a popular and beloved show that the lead actor received a national funeral.
Can you think of any other TV actors who sadly passed away during production? Let us know in the comments.
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