How TV Shows Cope With An Actor's Death

Jul 15, 2013
Originally published on July 15, 2013 5:02 pm

Cory Monteith, the 31-year-old actor most famous for playing the high school jock turned glee club singer on the Fox show “Glee,” was found dead on Saturday night in his Vancouver hotel room.

The cause of death has not yet been made public. Monteith had struggled in the past with substance abuse.

It’s unclear how Glee producers will address Monteith’s death as the show ramps up for its new season.

The death of an actor or actress mid-season is not unprecedented in the television world. A number of other shows have had to work around the real-life deaths of their actors.

“The best thing and the truest thing that they could do would be to do what many shows have done lately, and reflect it in the plot somehow — actually have the character of Finn Hudson die suddenly, and have everyone react to it,” television critic David Bianculli told Here & Now. “That’s asking an awful lot of  Lea Michele, but you know, the musical tribute show seems almost like a natural way for Glee to go. To replace the character I think is unthinkable.”

Glee co-star Lea Michele was also Monteith’s real-life girlfriend.


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But we now we want to spend at least a couple of minutes on a voice that brought so many songs to many and is now gone. Fans of "Glee" - oh, let's just say it, Jeremy. We...



YOUNG: ...are reacting today to the death of just 31-year-old actor Cory Monteith. His body found in a Vancouver hotel Saturday. An autopsy being performed. It was known he struggled in the past with substance abuse.

HOBSON: And on the show he played Finn Hudson, a popular high school football star confident enough to join the glee club.


COREY MONTEITH: (as Finn Hudson) (Singing) When I see your face, there's not a thing that I would change because you're amazing just the way you are.

HOBSON: A great talent, but what happens now? Fox executives and show writers have to decide what becomes of Finn Hudson. David Bianculli is, of course, with NPR's FRESH AIR, but also founder of the website TV Worth Watching.

And, David, you know, as the show writers, as his co-star Lea Michele, who is also his real-life girlfriend, try to put aside some of their grief in the weeks and months ahead, and figure out how to move forward with the upcoming season, how do they do it?

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: It's anybody's guess. The best thing and the truest thing that they could do would be to do what many shows have done lately and reflect it in the plot somehow, actually have the character of Finn Hudson die suddenly and have everyone react to it. That's asking an awful lot of Lea Michele. But you know, the sort of musical tribute show seems almost like a natural way for "Glee" to go. To replace the character, I think, is unthinkable.

YOUNG: Yeah. David, it's Robin. And, you know, I'm thinking that they have to do that as well, and no show could do it better. Let's remind people who haven't heard it and don't know why some of us are such fans. Here is the late Cory Monteith as Finn Hudson on season two. His girlfriend in the show, and again, his real-life girlfriend, Lea Michele, Rachel, has just betrayed him. She wants him back. He's not ready.


MONTEITH: (as Finn Hudson) I think you're right. I wanted to be alone for a while. Because let's face it, Rachel. You're better than anyone in this school. You don't need me or any other guy to anchor you to Lima. You're a real star. And you need to shine. Just because I can't be with you doesn't mean I don't believe in you.

YOUNG: And David Bianculli, many of us are hearing today more about his life. You know, he wasn't somebody who studied acting and music. He was a bit of a - it was sort of a bit an accident that he fell into this show, and he brought so much of that to this role that he did seems so human in it. As you said, I don't see how they can replace him.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. It's true. And even the role was one where he was pulled into it reluctantly as a character. You know, he had this great singing voice in the shower of the football team, you know, that people heard, but he had never thought of pursuing it.

And there'd been enough growth with that character in particular that he had decided that what he really wanted to do was become a teacher and had accomplished this and come back to the high school and was teaching there and moving on. So I think it's very natural for "Glee" to honor him by bringing it close, to hit the actor in real life.

YOUNG: Yeah.

HOBSON: And you could say he really held this group together on the show.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm. Yeah - no. There are so many different connect lines in terms of different plots and different characters, and he did touch many of the different characters. He was definitely one of the core characters on "Glee."

HOBSON: Now, David, this is not the first time something like this has happened. I'm thinking of Phil Hartman on "NewsRadio." There was also John Ritter, was on another show when he passed away.

YOUNG: "8 Simple Rules."

BIANCULLI: "8 Simple Rules."

HOBSON: Yeah. "8 Simple Rules." How did those shows deal with this?

BIANCULLI: Well, both of those that you mentioned didn't do it very well. "8 Simple Rules" just tried to bring in new casts members and get around without John Ritter, who was the center of "8 Simple Rules." With "NewsRadio," there was enough of an ensemble they could get around Phil Hartman a little bit, but he was sort of the heart of that show as well.

The best way that it works is with a larger dramatic ensemble or comedic one. "Hill Street Blues" and "Cheers" are probably two of the best examples of replacing someone who died suddenly very well.

YOUNG: This is - "Hill Street Blues" is when Michael Conrad, who played Sergeant Esterhaus, died...

BIANCULLI: That's right, that's right. Yeah. Let's be careful out there.

YOUNG: Yeah. And he was sick with cancer in real life.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. And he was replaced by Robert Prosky, who did a good job in a different role. And then "Cheers," Nicholas Colasanto, who played Coach behind the bar, was replaced with Woody Harrelson, a completely different type.

YOUNG: Yeah. But David, just Cory Monteith, in the minute or so we have, he seemed to be a role model in that role. Here you had a jock who didn't mind the joining the geeks and the gays and the guy in the wheelchair, you know, the outsiders to sing in the glee club. And in his own life story he was something of an outsider. He moved several times, child of divorce, dropped out of school at 13, unfortunately had some drug issues. But just in the minute we have, where would you place him?

BIANCULLI: I would place him in a great part of what "Glee" is important to in terms of pop culture, in teaching tolerance. And here his role was central on that show because, you know, traditionally a jock kind of character is not going to gravitate or accept to all of these other fringe-type of groups that were shown in "Glee." But he ended up defending many of them, liking them all and being a really good model.

HOBSON: David Bianculli of NPR's FRESH AIR, founder of the website TV Worth Watching, talking with us about the late Cory Monteith. David, thank you so much.

BIANCULLI: All right. Pleasure to be here, you guys. Thanks.

YOUNG: I hate to hear you even say the late Cory Monteith.


YOUNG: Yeah.

HOBSON: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.