1. ER — Paging Dr. Gant
Usually the death of a tertiary character doesn’t garner much sympathy. But Omar Epps (who went on to play Dr. Foreman on House) managed to hit us all in the gut with his dramatic exit on ER, even though he’d only been around 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…
2. The Bob Newhart Show — Death by Zucchini
Dr. Bob Hartley had several regular patients in his all-encompassing “group” – Mr. Peterson the henpecked milquetoast, Mrs. Bakerman the elderly supermarket cashier who always seemed to be knitting, Michelle the slightly overweight Daddy’s girl, and Mr. Carlin the name-the-neurosis-and-he-has-it man. Even though Mr. Carlin was known to occasionally lash out with a biting comment at other group members, he was not nearly as nasty as Mr. Gianelli, who had definite anger management issues. In the episode entitled “Death of a Fruitman,” Dr. Hartley’s group has arranged for a surprise party for their favorite shrink to celebrate four years together. As the patients begin to recite a special poem in tribute to Bob, Carol the receptionist learns that Mr. Gianelli, a produce wholesaler, was crushed to death earlier that day when a truckload of zucchini fell on him.
Mr. Peterson: You helped us all in every way.
Mr. Carlin: You got inside our head.
Michelle: And that is why we’d like to say…
Carol (bursting into the office): Mr. Gianelli’s dead!
Mrs. Bakerman: Well, that rhymes.
Noam Pitlik, who played Mr. Gianelli, had decided to leave the show in order to concentrate on producing and directing another sitcom, Barney Miller.
3. Seinfeld — The Invitations
Susan Biddle Ross’ on-again, off-again romance with George Costanza finally resulted in the couple getting engaged at the end of season seven. George got cold feet almost immediately after popping the question, and he tried his best to be extra-obnoxious in an effort to get Susan to call the whole thing off.
Susan probably should’ve realized her fiance’s reluctance when he chose the cheapest wedding invitations available. No wonder they’d been discontinued – the glue on the envelopes was toxic, and Susan fell ill and died after licking one too many. “The Invitations” originally aired in 1996 and was temporarily pulled from the syndication package after the 2001 anthrax attacks in the U.S.
4. M*A*S*H — Abyssinia, Henry
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.
5. Cheers — The Zamboni Accident
When Carla Tortelli married Eddie LeBec, he earned a living by playing goalie for the Boston Bruins. But then his game started going downhill, so he retired and joined a touring show called “The Wonderful World of Ice.” Eddie played a penguin in the show and died a noble death when he was run over by a Zamboni while pushing a fellow cast member out of the machine’s path. It was later revealed that Eddie probably wouldn’t have been killed off had actor Jay Thomas not, during a radio interview, responded to a caller’s question about life on the Cheers set by saying: “It’s brutal. I have to kiss Rhea Perlman.”
6. L.A. Law — Shafted
Diana 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.
7. Mary Tyler Moore Show — Chuckles Bites the Dust
The reigning heavyweight champion in the Weird Deaths category is still “Chuckles Bites the Dust.” Chuckles the Clown was an oft-mentioned member of the WJM family, though he was only seen onscreen twice in the context of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. In this classic episode, anchorman Ted Baxter was asked to be the grand marshal of a circus parade but was forced to turn the offer down by Lou Grant – appearing in a parade was conduct unbecoming when it came to the news business. He was replaced by Chuckles the Clown, who dressed as Peter Peanut for the occasion. Sadly, a rogue elephant attacked him and tried to shell him.
The circumstances of Chuckles’ death led to a slew of jokes in the WJM newsroom, much to Mary’s disgust. She was appalled that anyone could laugh when someone had died. But the absurdity of the situation finally struck her during Chuckles’ funeral:
8. Roseanne — What Really Happened to Dan
Many of 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—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.
9. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman — Killer Soup
Fernwood, Ohio, the setting for Norman Lear’s soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, was a veritable death trap. Not only was there a serial killer terrorizing the locals, several Fernwood residents met their demise in bizarre ways. Jimmy Joe Jeeter, an eight-year-old evangelist, was electrocuted when a TV set fell into his bathtub. Garth Gimble, a notorious wife-beater portrayed by Martin Mull, accidentally impaled himself on the pointy end of an aluminum Christmas tree in his closet.
The odd circumstances of Coach Leroy Fedders’ death were conjured up not by the show’s writers but by Norman Lear himself. Leroy, miserably sick with the flu and unable to sleep, is sitting at the kitchen table alternately sipping bourbon and popping Seconals. Ever-helpful Mary Hartman drops by with a huge bowl of her homemade chicken soup. While Mary and Leroy’s wife go off to chat, the coach grows drowsy, falls face-first into the broth and slowly drowns.
10. Will and Grace — Blown Away
Diminutive (4’11”) actor Leslie Jordan received an Emmy Award for his portrayal of perpetual-thorn-in-Karen’s-side Beverley Leslie on Will and Grace. He was wealthy and traveled in the same social circles as Karen and delighted in publicly taking her down a peg or two.
Even though Beverley was ostensibly married, the other characters viewed him as a closeted gay man. And their assumption may well have been true, since in the final episode it was revealed that Karen had encouraged a reluctant Jack to cozy up to Beverley. When the tiny Beverley was blown off of a balcony by a strong gust of wind and fell to his death, Jack was the beneficiary of his estate, which allowed him and Karen to continue their bacchanalian friendship.
Interestingly enough, the writers had originally intended for the Beverley Leslie character to be a female portrayed by Joan Collins. But Ms. Collins pulled out of the project after reading a script that involved a catfight between Beverley and Karen, during which Bev’s wig would be pulled off.
11. The Simpsons — No Footlongs
Who 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 with a T-shirt cannon. Poor Maude plunged to her death after a volley of high-velocity tees knocked her off the grandstand. "No footlongs" was the last thing Ned ever said to his beloved wife.
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.
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Nearly every show has killed off a character, so this list could go on forever. Alex's friend Greg on Family Ties, Dr. Kutner's suicide on House, Scott Scanlon's careless gunplay on Beverly Hills 90210, Carol's boyfriend Sandy (played by Matthew Perry) on Growing Pains, multiple deaths on Downton Abbey, Sesame Street's Mr. Hooper — what other TV deaths left an impression on you?