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6 Shocking TV Deaths

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I'm hoping that everyone who TiVoed last Monday's episode of House has already watched it, since the next sentence definitely contains a spoiler. The suicide of Dr. Kutner broadsided viewers, although in retrospect it wasn't so surprising. Actor Kal Penn had been fairly underused during the two years he was on the show, and he recently revealed that he'd accepted the position of "liaison connecting the Obama administration with arts and entertainment groups, as well as with the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities." Since he was poised to leave the show anyway, one can postulate that the producers decided that a dramatic, unexpected exit (suicide) could make for a Very Special Episode, and maybe even an Emmy nomination.


Kutner's shocking departure got me to thinking about other surprising TV deaths, particularly those that occurred in the days before the Internet was prevalent and one studio mole could leak sensitive script information to the whole world within minutes.

1. Henry Blake (M*A*S*H)

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The most obvious candidate in this category is M*A*S*H’s Lt. Col. Henry Blake. It was known that McLean Stevenson was leaving the series for (supposedly) greener pastures. But not everyone on the show knew the producers killed his character until right before the scene where Gary Burghoff (Radar) walked into the OR and announced that Blake’s plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan.

2. Dan Conner (Roseanne)

dan-conner.jpgEven the staunchest Roseanne fans hated the series' over-the-top final season "“ the one where the Conners won the lottery and Jackie was courted by a prince while "Roseambo" battled terrorists. There was a moment in the series finale, however, that did manage to evoke some genuine emotion. As the camera honed in on each cast member, Roseanne's voiceover told their "true" story. When the camera focused on Dan, it panned away for a moment and then turned back and his chair was empty. Roseanne then revealed that Dan had actually died after the heart attack he'd suffered at Darlene's wedding. Most of Roseanne's stream-of-consciousness ramblings during this segment strained the imagination, but the vacant seat and the echoing sound of Dan's voice calling "Rosey?" was a sudden, harsh slap of reality "“ that big loveable lug - Roseanne's "rock" - was gone forever.

3. Dennis Gant (ER)

Usually the death of a tertiary character doesn't garner much sympathy from me (how many times has a lead character met, fell in love with, and then lost their intended via some bizarre accident all within the span of a few episodes?) But Omar Epps (who currently plays Dr. Eric Foreman on House) managed to hit us all in the gut with his dramatic exit on ER, even though he'd only been present for 10 episodes. During that time, however, it was made clear that as a surgical intern he was constantly bullied and belittled by Dr. Benton (Eriq LaSalle), whose philosophy was that black doctors had to set the bar higher in order to be taken seriously. In the "Night Shift" episode, Gant was clearly troubled and left the hospital in the middle of his shift. Later in the night, EMS brought in a horribly battered patient who'd been hit by an EL train. Witnesses were divided as to whether he'd jumped or stumbled. As the staff started lifesaving procedures, Benton barked out the order to page Dr. Gant. A nurse dialed the telephone, and suddenly the beeper clipped on the belt of their patient started chirping"¦

4. Maude Flanders (The Simpsons)

280px-Maude_Flanders.JPGWho would've pre-ditilly-dicted that the chaste, saintly Maude Flanders would've met a gruesome death right on the air? In front of kids and everyone? Sadly, Maude had the misfortune of returning from the refreshment stand at the Springfield Speedway with her hands full of hot dogs just at the moment when Homer Simpson had painted a target on his tummy for the cheerleaders who were using a T-shirt cannon. Poor Maude plunged to her death after a volley of high-velocity tees knocked her off the grandstand. Oddly enough, the management of Lowe's Speedway in North Carolina felt that this episode cut too close to the bone, as an incident of flying tires in 1999 actually caused the deaths of three spectators, so the local Fox affiliate refused to show any commercials promoting that particular episode.

5. Rosalind Shays (L.A. Law)

shays.jpgDiana Muldaur joined the cast of L.A. Law in 1989 as the ruthless and ambitious attorney Rosalind Shays. Viewers loved to hate Roz; after all, she bedded the fatherly founding partner Leland McKenzie, took over as senior partner after his retirement, and eventually sued the firm for sexual discrimination. Shays exited the show with a splat, not a bang "“ while casually chatting with Leland in front of the elevator, the bell "dinged" and the doors opened. Roz wasn't looking as she stepped inside, so she didn't realize that the elevator car hadn't arrived, and she plunged to her death down the empty shaft. Of course, modern elevators are designed to make this type of malfunction impossible, but why split hairs? It still made for a memorable exit.

6. Christine Chubbuck (Suncoast Digest)

suncoast.jpg"If it bleeds, it leads" is the rule of thumb in TV news. Christine Chubbuck, a Florida news anchor, often referred to this trend as "blood and guts TV." She complained to her bosses whenever they cut into her public affairs program, Suncoast Digest, in order to show live footage of shoot-outs and gruesome accidents. None of Chubbuck's co-workers knew that she'd struggled with depression for many years, so they simply thought it was a bad joke when, on the morning of July 15, 1974, eight minutes into her broadcast she calmly announced: "In keeping with Channel 40's policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide." Chubbuck then pulled a revolver out from under her desk, pointed it behind her right ear and pulled the trigger.

Did you wince when Alex was literally blown in half on Third Watch? Were you expecting cancer patient Nancy to be the thirtysomething character who wouldn't live to see forty? What TV deaths surprised, shocked and/or brought a tear to your eye?

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before he was called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior, in 1980, to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their original poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and said that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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