Sunday, February 5, 2006


There has been a lot of rumination in blogs and newspaper columns of late regarding the mortality of TV characters. This topic came about because of the untimely passing of John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry on 'The West Wing'. This caused some consternation among the fans and the creative team alike because McGarry was the Democratic candidate for Vice President and as such an integral part of the storyline leading up to the series' finale.

But of course, it was mostly because John Spencer was such an accomplished actor and seemed like a great guy, and his character of Leo was so well-loved by the fans.

It looks like the character will also die, just a day before the election, which will air in April.

I've often stated that just because an actor has passed away, that doesn't mean their TV characters have to die as well. But of course, the creators of the show have the right to dictate the characters' fates if the show is still in progress. Nowadays, to make sure the character and the actor are both given their proper tributes within the series, the character is usually killed off as well. Some of the actors in this group have been Lynne Thigpen on 'The District', John Ritter of '8 Simple Rules', Phil Hartman on 'NewsRadio', Redd Foxx on 'The Royal Family', and Jerry Orbach on 'Law & Order: Trial By Jury', the show he joined after leaving the original in the franchise.

When Nicholas Colasanto of 'Cheers', Michael Conrad of 'Hill Street Blues', and John Hancock on 'Love And War' all passed away during the runs of their shows, the deaths of their characters were acknowledged, but their replacements on the jobs were quickly brought in to fill the void.

I would prefer that the character just simply relocate to a different part of the country, for whatever reason. This is how 'Phyllis' said good-bye to Judith Lowry as Mother Dexter, and it was the splainin for Mr. Wilson on 'Dennis The Menace'.

Of course, with the characters played by Ritter and Foxx, this would not be viable, as their shows revolved around them as the heads of their families.

But most often, especially in soap operas, the role is simply recast. Hannibal Heyes of 'Alias Smith And Jones' and Julie Erskine of 'Phyllis', - these are a couple of such recastaways.

However, when you're dealing with a legendary character, that's just not a viable option. After the death of Raymond Burr, there were a couple of TV movies about Perry Mason's law practice being handled friends of Mason. But replace Mason himself? Not after CBS learned the hard way back in the early 70s that Raymond Burr WAS Perry Mason.

All that's fine for TV shows that are still being broadcast, but what about those shows that are already off the air? It's basic Toobworld belief that they continue to exist off-screen, with the fates of their characters in Limbo. But we don't have to think of them as being dead, even if the actors who played them have passed away.

Take Bobby Buntrock, for instance, who played Harold Baxter on 'Hazel'. Buntrock was 22 years old when he died in a car accident (on the same bridge that killed his mother just the year before).

But that doesn't mean Harold Baxter died as well. He could still be alive today, about 55 years of age, with a family and even grandchildren of his own.

Think of all the great TV actors we lost last year, such as Bob Denver, Howard Morris, and Frank Gorshin. Wouldn't it be nice to think of Gilligan, Ernest T. Bass, and the Riddler as still being alive? The Riddler plotting once more in Gotham City; Ernest T. Bass skulking about in Mayberry; and Gilligan gumming up the works no matter where he was.

Yesterday we lost another actor who gave us a legendary TV character - Al Lewis, who played Grandpa Munster (aka Count Dracula) on 'The Munsters'. (He also played Leo Schnauzer on 'Car 54, Where Are You?', but I think we can safely assume that Leo passed away already. Faced with another generation of Toody and Muldoon in the theatrical adaptation, he was almost certainly killed by the stress caused by their very presence.)

With Grandpa Munster, it could be said that Al Lewis didn't start playing the role until after Grandpa was long dead. In fact, as a vampire, he was un-dead.

Al Lewis is dead. Grandpa Munster will be un-dead forever.

Unless of course, he runs into one of the Slayers.....


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