Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Death On TV

I'm thinking Larry Hagman would have loved how the sudden death of  his character J.R. Ewing on Dallas was all set up.
Hagman's anticipated death from cancer forced the producers to review every foot of film both used and unused starring Hagman. And enough was cobbled together from lines of dialogue and key face movements to set up a second "Who shot J.R. Ewing".
And viewers are being told that we'll all know the culprit before the end of the season.
But Hagman's death isn't the first time the lead actor on a big series died.
I remember going right back to 1972 when I was the kid TV critic for The Spectator and veteran star Dan Blocker died when Bonanza was still riding high.
Co-star Pernell Roberts had already departed the series in 1965 (Bonanza debuted on NBC in September 1959).
But Blocker as another son Hoss constituted the heart and soul of the show,
Star Lorne Greene who played Pa (and was only six years Blocker's senior) told me "That knocked the stuffing out of us."
The series only lasted one more season although in 1988 there was an attempt to reboot the series with Gillian Greene (Lorne's daughter), Michael Landon Jr. and Dirk Blocker (Dan's son) in a TV movie pilot that did not sell.
I remember venturing on the set of ABC's Eight Is Enough in L.A. in June 1977 as cast prepared for the first full season (it had debuted as a mini-series in March).
But trouble was co-star Diana Hyland who co-starred as wife Joan Bradford  succumbed to cancer after five episodes and newcomer Betty Buckley was understandably nervous about replacing the much liked Hyland.
She need not have been --the show was not yet well established and viewers instantly accepted her and the series ran two more seasons until expiring in 1981..
There were numerous TV movie reunions and when Buckley was unavailable for the 1987 edition she was replaced in turn by Mary Frann from The Bob Newhart Show.
The death of a peripheral cast member is easier to handle. Like the sad case of The Jeffersons in 1978 when long time co-star Zara Cully (Mother Jefferson) died at an advanced age,
The show continued on for another seven seasons but there's no doubt she was always missed.
And I was on the set of Hill Street Blues multiple times but in 1983 I had to cover the death of a beloved cast member: Michael Conrad who handled the roll call as Sergeant Phil Esterhaus.
This one was such a heavily populated ensemble series that HSB merely forged onward not expiring until 1987.
Of course the death may only be onscreen. I covered M*A*S*H even before it debuted on CBS (and CBC). In July 1972 I had lunch with the show's ingenue Loretta Swit  in a Belgian restaurant on L.A.'s Sunset Strip.-- in September she who would instantly hit screen stardom as Hot Lips Houlihan.
At the end of the third season McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers both left the show.
Stevenson's character, Colonel Blake, was promptly killed off in a plan crash. Stevenson was replaced by Harry Morgan Colonel Sherman Potter and Rogers was replaced by Mike Farrell as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt.
But I happened to think Larry Hagman's death was the best covered of all.
Of course it brought back memories of the original "Who Shot J.R.?" episode which climaxed the 1979-80 TV season.
At a CBS gala years later I told Hagman I had cracked the case and knew it was all because Hagman wanted a new contract. Had he refused to re-sign CBS had decided that when the bandages were taken off his face --Robert Culp would then appear! as the new J.R.
Hagman blanched and whispered :"You got that right."


1 comment:

parking_infraction said...

Correction: It was actress Zara Cully who died in 1978 and who departed "The Jeffersons", not star Isabel Sanford.