The death of Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker on All in the Family — or, more precisely, its spin-off, Archie Bunker’s Place — remains one of the most profound and moving events involving a television character ever aired (and our subject at hand). It was, of course, only one of numerous TV series to experience such a major cast shake-up, which, over the years, has taken place for a wide variety of reasons. And, naturally, the on-air effectiveness of those departures has varied from show to show, depending on the creativity of those involved and the circumstances surrounding their absence.
From 1974 to 1978, NBC aired the sitcom Chico and the Man, starring comedian Freddie Prinze as Chico Rodriguez and Jack Albertson (Willy Wonka’s Grandpa Joe) as Ed Brown, who work together in a garage in East L.A. Toward the end of the third season, Freddie took his own life and while in response NBC could have canceled the show, they elected to go forward without him. For this reason, year four saw the introduction of Gabriel Melgar as 12-year-old Raul, producers hoping a new dynamic would work. It didn’t.
On MASH, in Season 3, McLean Stevenson, who played Col. Henry Blake, decided he should be the star of his own show. He wanted out and the producers weren’t willing to allow him a way back in. Creative solution? Shortly after taking off from the 4077th via helicopter, the doctors, who were in the midst of surgery on wounded soldiers, received word that Henry’s plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan with no survivors. They paused for barely a second in acknowledgment before going back to work. As Dale Sherman, author of MASH FAQ, recently commented to us, “Stevenson hated seeing the character be killed off, but he would later admit that it was the right way to show the audience that war kills indiscriminately. It is still remembered as one of the biggest shocks in television series history.” They may say that war is hell, but given McLean’s sitcom follow-up, Hello, Larry, he was better off in South Korea.
More recently, on Kevin Can Wait, when Leah Remini guest starred on the show, it marked a reunion between her and King of Queens co-star Kevin James. Producers decided they wanted to recapture the magic of that show (somehow forgetting that it had run out of creative steam during its run) and in season two made Leah a regular. Not a big deal, until you remember that Kevin’s character was married, so the solution was to bump off the wife. The audience tuned out in droves, which must have been some form of vindication for actress Erinn Hayes, whose character’s death was handled off camera between seasons. It was a completely bungled effort.
More successful was the transition of Roseanne to The Conners. The former came back 11 years after its original run and was a roaring success — until series star Roseanne Barr offered up a racist tweet, which resulted in her immediate firing and the show’s cancellation. Then ABC decided to go with a retooled version called The Conners, which featured all of the cast members with the exception of Roseanne and which is now in its second season. The death of Roseanne Conner had been explained away last season as being due to an opioid overdose, which didn’t exactly thrill other cast members, many of the show’s fans and particularly Roseanne herself. That being said, viewers seem to be sticking around.
But to see how the death of a main character should be done, look no further than dear old Edith Bunker.
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