Original image
Getty Images

8 Television Characters Who Were Supposed to Die … But Didn’t

Original image
Getty Images

Killing off a popular TV character is a surefire way to get your show noticed. Of course, there are characters who are killed temporarily, with every intention of returning (Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for example); characters who return later, with some crazy explanation, to improve the ratings (Bobby Ewing in Dallas); and others who return to life to provide exciting dramatic twists (Tony Almeida in 24). Then there are characters who are supposed to die, but are saved, for any number of reasons.

1. Joe Coffey, Hill Street Blues

Officer Coffey (Ed Marinaro) was introduced in the first season of Hill Street Blues in 1981, partnered with Officer (later Sergeant) Lucy Bates (Betty Thomas). In his final scene, Coffey was clearly murdered by a suspect, providing a downbeat ending to the season. The episode was written in a hurry (when NBC asked for some extra episodes), and it was agreed that Coffey’s death was a powerful way to finish. However, the producers later decided that Coffey should stay. Though the shooting scene remained, his obvious death was edited out, and he was instead taken to hospital. He was eventually killed off anyway, but not until season 6.

2. Perpugilliam ‘Peri’ Brown, Doctor Who

Image Courtesy Dr. Who Image Archive
The 1986 death of Doctor’s first American companion (played by English actress Nicola Bryant) actually did make it to screen, but was retconned away only weeks later following protests. Back when Doctor Who was primarily a children’s series, Peri suffered a terrible fate, with her body being used to house the brain of an alien monster, then killed in the ensuing fight. “I loved my violent end,” Bryant said. “I told [producer] John Nathan-Turner I wanted to go out with a bang and I certainly didn’t want a tearful ‘Goodbye, Doctor’ scene or be married off to some hunky Martian. I was disappointed that the ending was negated, but I can see that they wanted to soften it because they were getting complaints from mothers wanting to know what to do with their distressed children, who were all Peri fans.” Though Bryant wasn’t brought back in to film further scenes, it was revealed in dialogue that her death was a hoax, and she had married a warrior-king.

You might think that—as Peri was killed, if only temporary—she doesn’t belong on this list any more than Bobby Ewing. If so, you can replace her with Leela, another of the Doctor’s assistants. When actor Louise Jameson left the series in 1978, she also wanted to be killed off, but the producer refused, hoping that she would change her mind and return at a later date. Again, she was married off—a fate that Jameson despised.

3. Erin Harkins, ER

Getty Images

Medical student Erin (Leslie Bibb) was introduced in ER in 2002 as a romantic interest for Dr. Luka Kovac (Goran Visnjic). However, she was only there to add to Dr. Kovac’s downward spiral, which had included losing his wife and child in a bombing in Croatia. In one episode, he is called to work hung-over after a Christmas party, making a terrible mistake. He then crashes his car, with Erin in the passenger seat. The accident was to have killed her, adding to his trauma (from which he would gradually recover over the next season). However, the powers that be (in the form of writer and producer David Zabel, who created Erin) couldn’t let her die. The reason: Zabel had named her after his wife. “I had to come up with a better storyline to let her live,” he said. She made one last appearance, then exited the series—alive and in one piece.

4. Dr. Julie Parris, V

Image Courtesy IMDb

Normally, cancellation is not good news for a television character, but it worked well for young scientist Julie Parris (Faye Grant), one of the heroes of the alien invasion show V. Following two highly popular mini-series, the imaginatively titled V: The Series premiered in 1984. However, while ratings were okay, it was cancelled after 19 episodes because it was so expensive to make. Julie died heroically in the second season premiere, but this was never aired. When the novel V: The Second Generation (by Kenneth Johnson, the creator of V) was published in 2008, Johnson ignored all the events of the series, so that Julie was still alive and well, and still in charge of the Resistance.

5. Chiana, Farscape

Getty Images

Chiana, a white-skinned young delinquent from the interplanetary Nebari race, was introduced in an episode of the first season of Farscape in 1999, which was supposed to end with her heroically dying to save the hero, Crichton (Ben Browder), from being shot by an alien villain. However, it seemed clear that the character, played by Gigi Edgley, had enough appeal to become a regular character. The episode was quickly rewritten, and she stayed in the series until the final episode, some five years later.

6. Nicole Wallace, Law & Order: Criminal Intent

Image Courtesy Law & Order Wiki

Nicole (Olivia D’Abo), a duplicitous, child-murdering villain who had kept viewers entertained for years, was going to suffer her just deserts in a 2005 episode. However, the producers indeed decided to let viewers become the jury. Two versions of the ending were filmed: one in which she was gunned down, and one in which she escaped justice. Viewers could then watch both endings on the show’s website and vote for the one they preferred. “This is the chance to do something new in a medium that is more than 60 years old,” said Law & Order creator Dick Wolf, “and you don’t get that chance very often.” In an Internet poll of fans, 68 percent voted to kill her. Many of them protested that casual viewers could cast a vote. (“Not to be undemocratic,” posted one fan, “but should those people really be voting?”) Ultimately, casual viewers seemed to make the difference, with 53 percent of viewers deciding that Nicole should live to fight another day.

Intriguing fact: Australia, which doesn’t have the death penalty (and where a majority of people are against it), showed less compassion. When it was shown there, viewers in all states voted to kill her.

7. Cindy Chandler, Lost

Getty Images

Introduced in the 2004 pilot episode of Lost as “Flight Attendant #1”, Cindy (played by Canadian-Australian actor Kimberley Joseph) was briefly seen serving Jack (Matthew Fox) on Oceanic Airlines Flight 815, just before the plane crashed. Like most of the crew, she was assumed dead—and that was the idea. However, Joseph was noticed by a producer, and it was revealed in season two—in one of the countless twists of Lost—that she had survived and lived with the Others. She made several other appearances through the next five seasons.

8. Jesse Pinkman, Breaking Bad

Getty Images

Creator Vince Gilligan planned to kill off Walter White's sidekick early in the series. "I didn’t even know Jesse was supposed to die in the first season," Aaron Paul told The AV Club. "I found that out toward the end of the first season, and then the next couple of years, I was in a constant panic, thinking that this kid is going to meet his demise at any time." Paul went on to win two Emmys.

Original image
Warner Home Video
Man-Eating Space Lizards: When V Was a TV Smash
Original image
Warner Home Video

American broadcast television in the 1980s didn’t leave a lot of room for subtlety. Shows like Hill Street Blues were outliers, crowded off the schedule by head-hammering episodic series featuring mercenaries (The A-Team), car chases (The Dukes of Hazzard), or soapy melodrama (Dynasty).

On its surface, V appeared to be no different. A two-part miniseries airing on consecutive evenings in May 1983, it told the story of the “Visitors,” gregarious aliens who arrive on Earth in three-mile-long spaceships and greet humans with a bargain: Let the Visitors harvest a chemical needed for their continued survival and receive advanced medical knowledge in return.

As the humanoid aliens reveal themselves to be malevolent lizard-like creatures who prefer to dine on humans rather than prolong their lives, V took on the look and feel of a pulpy sci-fi epic—the kind of thing that could be easily summarized in one Amazing Stories cover image from the 1940s. But writer Kenneth Johnson had something far more subversive in mind. The Visitors were stand-ins for fascists, and V was a cautionary tale about the perils of complacency.

Jason Bernard and Robert Englund star in the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

A Carnegie Mellon graduate, Johnson had broken into television with a writing stint on The Six Million Dollar Man, for which he conceived a female counterpart in the form of Jamie Sommers (Lindsay Wagner). Sommers got her own series, The Bionic Woman, which Johnson produced until he was tasked with adapting The Incredible Hulk as a live-action drama.

It was around this time that Johnson became fascinated with a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist group that rises to power in the United States. Johnson reworked the concept into Storm Warnings, a feature-length screenplay; that work landed on the desk of NBC president Brandon Tartikoff, who encouraged Johnson to adapt it into a television miniseries by casting Soviets or the Chinese as the antagonists.

Tartikoff’s request made sense. The miniseries format, which took off in the 1970s with Roots and Rich Man, Poor Man, was drawing record numbers of viewers. The Thorn Birds, about a priest who is tempted to break his vow of celibacy by a younger woman, was a hit; so was Shogun, about a 17th century man who shipwrecks in Japan and becomes a pawn in a war between samurai. (Both starred Richard Chamberlain.) Storm Warnings had an appropriately sprawling narrative with multiple characters, a feat of creative engineering Johnson was encouraged to use after reading War and Peace.

But the writer was less enthused about casting a foreign superpower as a rival. Tartikoff then suggested aliens, the allegorical turf of Rod Serling that had fueled many a socially-conscious episode of The Twilight Zone. Johnson later told Starlog he “ran screaming from the room” at the suggestion, but eventually warmed to it. Storm Warnings became V: NBC committed $13 million to produce the four-hour drama.

A scene from the NBC miniseries 'V' (1983).
Warner Home Video

While a generous budget for television, the scope of Johnson’s idea taxed every available dollar. A 60-foot-long model of one of the Visitor ships was built; a giant hangar intended to depict the inside was made to scale, albeit cut in half; matte effects, with the ships laid over a background painting, depicted their unsettling arrival over Earth’s major cities. A feature with those same ambitions might take months of pre-production planning: Johnson got three weeks.

Whatever was lacking in the special effects and costumes—Johnson opted for a regal, military-inspired garb for his aliens that hasn’t aged well—never diluted the real attraction of V. Following a television cameraman (Marc Singer) and a botanist (Faye Grant) as they grow suspicious of the true intentions of the Visitors, the series quickly turns into an examination of what happens when a population is seduced by the promise of a helping hand. Celebrities and world leaders endorse the Visitors; scientists questioning their motives are corralled and delivered to ships for “re-education.” By the time their foot soldier Diana (Jane Badler) is seen devouring a guinea pig, Singer and his cohorts have decided to form a resistance to push back against being turned into alien kibble. For viewers who didn’t care for the subtext, there was still the birth of a lizard baby to talk about with coworkers and friends the next morning.

In a departure from conventional advertising, NBC decided to take a conservative approach with V. Posters in subway stations and bus stops depicted illustrations of the Visitors in propaganda-style posters; later, a “V” would be spray-painted over the ads. There was never any mention of the series.

The premiere of V drew a 40 share, which meant 40 percent of all households watching television at that hour were watching the lizard people establish their dominance on Earth. Tartikoff even granted Johnson the ability to run 15 minutes past the allotted two-hour time slot, cutting into local newscasts. On night two, V maintained much of that audience.

What might have turned out to be a lucrative franchise for NBC quickly lost its way. Tartikoff wanted Johnson to oversee a weekly drama continuing the story of the resistance while ramping up their licensing efforts; Johnson argued that the premise would be too expensive for the format and suggested a two-hour movie air every month or two instead.

A licensed action figure from the 'V' miniseries

In the end, neither quite got their wish. Another miniseries, V: The Final Battle, aired in 1984, but Johnson disowned it after extensive rewrites. V: The Series followed, but lasted just one season. Johnson lamented that the network had taken his cautionary tale and turned it into a spectacle, with gunfights and lizard people eating small animals taking the place of the allegory.

V was revived by ABC in 2009, but low ratings led to a quick demise after two seasons. Other shows and movies like 1996’s Independence Day had borrowed heavily from Johnson, wearing out the premise. In 2007, Johnson published V: The Second Generation, a novel based on one of his follow-up scripts.

The miniseries format would continue throughout the 1980s and 1990s before serialized dramas with shortened seasons edged them off television schedules. Like The Thorn Birds, V remains one of the most well-remembered entries in the medium, due in no small part to Johnson’s nods to levity. When the aliens arrive, a high school band plays the Star Wars theme.

Original image
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
Original image
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.”


More from mental floss studios