Death by Creative Differences: Sitcom Character Assassinations

by J. M. Pressley
First published: August 4, 2011

Over the years, creative differences and contract disputes have resulted in several historic sitcom deaths to explain missing characters.

In early 2011, Charlie Sheen of Two and a Half Men undertook a series of what may politely be called career-limiting moves. Sheen's public rants against producer Chuck Lorre ultimately led to his firing. Production on the series shut down for the last part of the season, and Ashton Kutcher was hired as a replacement. The new fall season has everyone wondering how Kutcher will be received—and how to explain Sheen's absence. Reportedly, the season premiere will feature a funeral for Sheen's character, Charlie Harper.

It wouldn't be the first time sitcoms have used a death to write off a disgruntled actor's character. Over the years, creative differences and contract disputes have led to several TV deaths. The one thing they have in common? It always seems to come as a shock (either to the cast, the audience, or both).

Margaret Williams (Make Room for Daddy)

At the end of the third season of Make Room for Daddy in 1956, actress Jean Hagen had tired of playing the role of neglected housewife to Danny Thomas. Spats with Thomas on the set didn't help, and Hagen left the series. Thomas was upset with her for leaving and came up with a novel (at the time) solution. In the next season's premiere, the storyline explained that Hagen's character of Margaret had unexpectedly died and that Thomas's character, Danny Williams, was a widower. Margaret Williams thus became the first sitcom character to be killed off. The show continued on as The Danny Thomas Show on ABC and CBS until 1964. Hagen suffered a number of health problems following her departure from the show and spent the remainder of her career in supporting roles and guest star appearances.

Lt. Col. Henry Blake (M*A*S*H)

In 1974, M*A*S*H was a top-five show that had just won four Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Comedy Series. McClean Stevenson was part of that success with his role of Henry Blake, the unit's commanding officer. Stevenson, however, was finding it hard to stand out in the large ensemble cast and desired a leading role. During the third season, Stevenson asked to be released from his contract. The show's producers obliged, with Henry receiving a discharge in the season finale. That's what everyone knew. But the writers introduced a stunning twist after scripts had been handed out: Henry's plane was shot down en route to Japan. The death caught the entire cast by surprise, including Stevenson. M*A*S*H would continue its successful run for eight more seasons, while Stevenson's career quickly declined in a string of sitcom failures.

James Evans (Good Times)

By the third season of Norman Lear's Good Times, John Amos was proud of his portrayal of James Evans as a strong African-American father figure. But he was less enthused about the growing role of Jimmy Walker as eldest son J.J. Evans. Amos felt that the character was evolving into a buffoon, exactly the sort of negative stereotype the show was trying to combat. Amos was critical of the character and made some public comments about behind-the-scenes infighting on the set. The producers dismissed him when his contract came up. In the 1976 season premiere, James has moved down to Mississippi for a job ahead of the family as they prepare to follow him. Florida gets a telegram telling her that James has been killed in a car crash. Good Times only lasted for two more seasons as its popularity waned. Amos, on the other hand, went on to enjoy a successful career on stage, television, and film.

Edith Bunker (Archie Bunker's Place)

Jean Stapleton had portrayed Edith Bunker since the 1971 debut of All in the Family. When the series ended in 1978, the characters of Archie and Edith Bunker continued on in Archie Bunker's Place. The new sitcom, however, took place more in Archie's bar than at home, and the increasingly diminished role led Stapleton to leave the series after appearing in only the first six episodes. The second season premiere in 1980 was a one-hour special titled "Archie Alone." In it, Archie grieves for Edith, who has recently died from a stroke. The show remained in the Nielsen Top 20 until its fourth and final season in 1983. Stapleton is still best known for her portrayal of Edith, but the actress continued to play guest and supporting roles in a wide variety of television series and films.

Valerie Hogan (Valerie)

Valerie Harper was well known for her Emmy-winning character of Rhoda Morgenstern from Mary Tyler Moore and its spinoff, Rhoda. In 1986, she returned to television in the title role of a new series, Valerie. By the end of season two, however, Harper was at odds with the show's producers over the show's direction. The production company, Lorimar, wanted to shift focus onto young up-and-comer Jason Bateman (eldest son David Hogan) and make the series a little more slapstick. Harper disagreed and was fired. The storyline had Valerie Hogan dying in a car crash and replaced with a perky aunt portrayed by Sandy Duncan (under the new title, Valerie's Family). Harper then sued Lorimar for breach of contract and in 1988 was awarded $1.4 million. The show would straggle on as The Hogan Family until ending in a fizzle in 1991. Meanwhile, Harper returned primarily to the stage with occasional guest star appearances on television.

Sources

Internet Movie Database, Entertainment Weekly, Movieline