After Jeff Garlin exited ABC's The Goldbergs last December following allegations of inappropriate workplace behavior, producers faced a dilemma: how to complete the rest of the season (which had already been written) without the show's family patriarch? As it turned out, they employed a bit of a masking tape approach, utilizing body doubles and CGI to intregrate Garlin into essential scenes, and otherwise sending him out of town for work. But with the show's season finale airing tonight, the juggling act is set to come to an end as The Goldbergs is expected to finally address Murray's fate when it returns for its tenth season this fall.
While the circumstances of Garlin's departure are unusual, this isn't the first time a show has been forced to write out a major character. Over the years various shows have had to write their way around a star's exit. How do you keep a TV show going — and keep the on screen storylines making sense — while excising a major part of that show? The methods tend to fall under one of the following creative umbrellas. Which will The Goldbergs choose?
While it wouldn't make much sense in Murray Goldberg's case, the most common and least traumatic way to write a character off a TV show is to have them leave town for a job. Often it's their dream job: Brandon Walsh (Jason Priestley) left his friends on Beverly Hills, 90210 to fulfill his ambitions as a journalist. Diane Chambers (Shelly Long) left Cheers to become a writer. Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) left The West Wing to run for Congress. Jill Munroe (Farrah Fawcett) left Charlie's Angels to become a racecar driver. You could even chalk up Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) leaving That '70s Show to become a bouncer at a Playboy Club in Chicago as a dream-job scenario.
One of the benefits of characters leaving town for a job is that it leaves the door open for the actors to come back, either in time for the finale — as both Long and Lowe did — or for the characters to be out there in order to one day be paired up (offscreen) with their great loves, as was the case with writing off Doug Ross (George Clooney) on ER and Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) on Grey's Anatomy.
A kissing cousin to leaving town for a job, this method tends to feel a bit more permanent, either as a way for the actor to really close the door to the idea of a return or for the show to dead-bolt the door behind them. The former seemed to be the case when Sandra Oh left Grey's Anatomy, with her character, Dr. Cristina Yang, taking a prestigious fellowship in Switzerland. The latter seemed to be the case when Beverly Hills, 90210 sent Brenda Walsh away to London so as to sever its relationship with problematic star Shannen Doherty. We're not exactly sure how to characterize Topher Grace's exit from That '70s Show, but his character, Eric Forman, left Wisconsin to teach in Africa, which is also, basically, how Noah Wyle's Dr. John Carter left ER.
It seems sometimes writers don't want to go through the trouble to actually say how or where a character will end up, so they just head off... To find themselves? Have adventures? Who knows. Troy from Community (Donald Glover) sailed around the world with LeVar Burton. Fiona from Shameless (Emmy Rossum) got some money and peaced out of Chicago, never to be heard from again.
Now we move into the deaths. Killing off a character definitely has a ring of finality to it, but it can also be a way for the show to give a beloved character one last chance to be a hero. Shannen Doherty's exit from Charmed was somewhat (although not entirely) less acrimonious than when she left 90210, so her character, Prue Halliwell, got to die in a battle with a demon. TR Knight also didn't leave Grey's Anatomy under the best of circumstances, but his George O'Malley died after being hit by a bus trying to save people. Charlie on Lost (Dominic Monaghan) had probably the most memorable death of anyone on the series, not only dying to help save Desmond but also letting him know before he drowned that it was "Not Penny's Boat."
Most on-screen deaths are sad, but sometimes they seem designed to rip fans' hearts out. Sometimes they're surprising, like when The O.C.'s Marissa Cooper (Mischa Barton) was written off via a tragic highway death, leaving her devastated true love to carry her body away. Another victim of America's murderous highways was Derek "McDreamy" Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey), who perished in the hospital after he was struck by a car while trying to be a good Samaritan.
Other beloved character deaths have been subject to longer and more agonizing deaths, like Bobby Simone (Jimmy Smits) on NYPD Blue and Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) on Nashville.
Also sad — and in many cases heroic — the defining characteristic of these deaths is how brutal they are. Case in point: Kellie Martin's ER character Lucy Knight's ugly demise at the hands of a psychotic patient, a death that was recalled pretty explicitly when The Good Wife killed off Will Gardner (Josh Charles) at the hands of a psychotic client.
Both The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones killed off countless characters, and are largely not even worth talking about in this context since killing off characters was kind of the point of both shows BUT… Ned Stark (Sean Bean) getting beheaded at the end of season one of Game of Thrones still stands out, as do the deaths of Glenn (Steven Yeun) and Abraham (Michael Cudlitz) at the hands of Negan on The Walking Dead,
And never to be outdone, South Park wrote out Chef (Isaac Hayes) in a gratuitously violent, petty, and disrespectful way, after Hayes refused to work on the show because Trey Parker and Matt Stone slandered Scientology.
Sometimes circumstances dictate that a character make their exit offscreen. This is usually when a cast member themselves dies or has to otherwise leave the show abruptly. After John Ritter died in 2003, 8 Simple Rules incorporated the death of his character into the show. The West Wing did the same with Leo McGarry after John Spencer died, as did Glee when Cory Monteith passed. After Valerie Harper parted ways with her eponymous sitcom Valerie due to a salary dispute, her character was killed off between seasons two and three. Sandy Duncan then joined the show as Valerie's sister-in-law, to help the grieving family move on as The Hogan Family. Decades later, after Roseanne Barr got fired from the revival of her eponymous sitcom, her character was also killed offscreen between seasons. That show already had a sister character (Laurie Metcalf) to step in and guide the famuly through their grief when it returned as The Conners.
One of the more famous and emotional offscreen sitcom deaths came when John Amos's character was killed in an offscreen accident on Good Times, leaving his wife Florida (Esther Rolle) to wail "Damn, damn, damn!" in anguish. Similarly devastating was the offscreen death of ER's Dr. Mark Greene, who left his job at the hospital to live out his final days in peace, the news of his death arriving at University Hospital in a letter.
Sometimes relations between a show and its star end with so much acrimony that the show can't resist getting its last licks in. After Charlie Sheen's on-setclashes with creator Chuck Lorre and his infamous scorched-Earth press tour, his character Charlie Harper, dies incredibly disrespectfully — TWICE — off camera, once pushed in front of a train by Melanie Lynskey in Paris, and once when a piano falls on him.
McLean Stevenson left M*A*S*H in its third season, having reportedly become dissatisfied with playing second fiddle to Alan Alda. The show, in turn, wrote his character, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake, off the show by having him discharged from the Korean War, only to have his transport plane shot down offscreen, in a script change made at the last minute to capture the cast's reactions.
Kevin Spacey's career disgrace made it easy for House of Cards to do away with the dastardly Frank Underwood between seasons, while Community's Dan Harmon couldn't have shed too many tears when Chevy Chase's Pierce Hawthorne died between seasons, a death which is eventually revealed to have been caused by over-exertion due to leaving too many sperm samples to carry on his legacy.
And while he wasn't a main character, the hall of fame of petty offscreen deaths has to include Cheers writing off recurring character Eddie LeBec — Carla's husband — after Jay Thomas was quoted disparaging Rhea Perlman's looks.
David Caruso famously quit NYPD Blue after one season so he could become a movie star, so at the beginning of season two, his character, Detective John Kelly, was fired from the police force after an internal affairs investigation. Sticking with the crime drama theme, Law & Order wrote off Elisabeth Rohm's character, Serena Southerlyn, by having her get fired from the District Attorney's office, saddling her with the instantly iconic "Is this because I'm a lesbian?" outro line.
In less harsh exits, when Michael J. Fox left Spin City, his character, Mike Flaherty, takes the fall for a potentially damning story about the mayor having mob connections, and so he was fired and left the show for good.
Can't fire someone if they quit! Lisa Edelstein's character on House was written off when her character, Dr. Lisa Cuddy, just had her limit of Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) and left her job between seasons. For her part, Chelsea Perretti left Brooklyn Nine-Nine at the end of the sixth season, with her character, Gina, leaving her administrative job at the police station to become an internet celebrity.
This one seems to be reserved for the most beloved of characters. When Steve Carell left The Office, it was to be with his longtime prospective love, Holly (Amy Ryan). When Julianna Margulies left ER at the end of season six, her character, Carol Hathaway, left Chicago for Seattle, where she reunited with Doug Ross (George Clooney) and had some adorable offscreen babies. Speaking of offscreen babies, they — plus Izzie Stevens (Katherine Heigl) were what ultimately lured Dr. Alex Karev offscreen and off of Grey's Anatomy for good when Justin Chambers hastily left the show a few years ago.
It's not all that often that younger actors get written out of shows, but when they do, they often get shipped off to college. Home Improvement's Jonathan Taylor Thomas became a huge breakout star and eventually left the show, so his character, Randy Taylor, left his home to go study in Costa Rica. And despite some misrememberings, Steve from the original iteration of Blue's Clues left that show to go to college, NOT because he died.
Sometimes the easiest way to write a character out of a show forever is to just… not talk about them ever again. Family Members disappeared a whole daughter when Judy Winslow (Jaimee Foxworth) was written out of the series entirely after the fourth season, with no explanation, never to be spoken of ever again. The only other time this tactic was deployed so notoriously was on The West Wing, after Moira Kelly's character, media director Mandy Hampton, was so unpopular that she was cut from the show after one season. That first season ended with a cliffhanger assassination attempt that left several characters' lives in the balance. Was Mandy killed? No. Was Mandy injured? Not that we heard. She was just there when the shootout began in the season one finale and then gone forever in the season two premiere.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: The Goldbergs, Beverly Hills, 90210, Charlie's Angels, Charmed (1998 series), Grey's Anatomy, Lost, M*A*S*H, NYPD Blue, The O.C., Roseanne, The Simpsons, Spin City, That '70s Show, Valerie/The Hogan Family, The West Wing