After Jeffrey Tambor was fired from his starring role on Transparent amid sexual misconduct allegations, it initially seemed like the series — which had wrapped Season 4 on somewhat of a cliffhanger — wouldn’t be able to continue. But with the show dropping its feature-length finale this week, it's not the first series to find a way to continue without its lead. For varying reasons, a good number of hit shows have been forced to explain the absence of one of their main characters Here are nine that we can remember:
When Michael J. Fox announced his Parkinson’s diagnosis in 1998, he was in the middle of a successful run leading a talented ensemble cast. He continued working steadily for two more seasons, finally announcing that he would be leaving the show after Season 4 as his symptoms gradually worsened. Fox retained a close relationship with producers, dropping in for cameos when his health and schedule permitted. Charlie Sheen — more on him shortly — signed on to play Fox’s replacement. Ratings dipped steadily over the next two seasons, but Sheen’s presence kept the ship afloat long enough to give the series a proper conclusion.
Whether the actual star is still around or not, sitcoms tend to deal with character deaths relatively glibly and quickly, saving their grief for one Very Special Episode and then rarely mentioning it again. But the sudden death of John Ritter in 2003 while filming the second season of 8 Simple Rules left such a hole that the writing staff felt obligated to give the characters time to process his loss. Unfortunately the transition from lighthearted family comedy to grief-stricken family dramedy was less than smooth. Nearly half its viewers jumped ship on the one-time hit, but the show managed to survive for one more season with the additions of James Garner and David Spade before it was canceled at the end of Season 3.
By age 22, Freddie Prinze had enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame, first wowing late-night audiences with his stand-up comedy, then landing a starring role on Chico and the Man, which was an immediate hit. Hours after filming the episode Ed Talks to God, Prinze — who had been suffering from depression and substance abuse issues — took his own life. The show continued without him for another season, though the writers were a little cagey about what had happened to Chico, at first noting that he’d moved back to Mexico, but later stating that he had died.
Though John Ritter was acknowledged as Three’s Company’s primary protagonist, a breakout star emerged early on in Suzanne Somers. With Chrissy Snow a fan favorite, Somers argued that she should be receiving a salary on par with Ritter. The network disagreed, and a lengthy legal battle ensued. During Season 5, Somers fulfilled the last of her contractual obligations by literally phoning in her performance, and the show brought in Jenilee Harrison and then Priscilla Barnes to play ditzy with Ritter and costar Joyce DeWitt.
How can a show continue if the title of the show is literally the name of the star who just left? In 1986, Valerie Harper banked on the fact that it couldn’t when she asked for more money after a successful second season of Valerie. NBC disagreed. Harper’s character was killed off and the series was renamed, first as Valerie’s Family, then The Hogan Family. Thanks in large part to standout performances from Jason Bateman and Harper’s replacement Sandy Duncan, it lasted another four seasons.
It’s hard to imagine that the most iconic besties of the 1970s actually hated each other in real life, but Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams rarely got along during the final seasons of Laverne and Shirley. Williams also felt that the show’s writers underestimated her comedic talents, giving most of the best lines to Marshall. Eventually, Williams departed the show acrimoniously in 1982 when the producers refused to make accommodations for her pregnancy, and Shirley was said to have gotten married and moved away. Once she was gone, the only trace of her was in the show’s title.
When Charlie Sheen famously came unglued in 2011, unleashing a stream of Twitter rants against his employers before checking into rehab, series creator Chuck Lorre canceled his contract and salted the proverbial earth. Sheen’s character, Charlie Harper, was killed in a violent accident offscreen, and the show’s remaining cast barely spent half of the Season 9 premiere reacting to his death. Ashton Kutcher was brought on to portray a replacement laid-back womanizer, and the show remained a hit for another four seasons. In the series finale, Lorre couldn’t resist one final middle finger to Sheen, resurrecting his character only to kill him off even more violently a second time.
Fans were excited to learn that Roseanne would be returning to ABC in 2018, with most of the original cast reprising their roles after 20 years. It was a particular relief to learn that the very strange series finale — which infamously killed off John Goodman's beloved Dan Conner, and claimed the entire series was actually a book being written by Roseanne — wasn't going to be the last taste anyone got of the Conners. The rebooted season debuted in March of 2018, pulling in blockbuster numbers and getting picked up for a second season, but when Roseanne Barr — never the most tactful of social media users — published a racist tweet just as the writers were showing up to begin work on Season 2, the reboot was swiftly canceled. The following month, it was announced that the canceled reboot would be rebooted again as The Conners. Currently in its second season, it seems unlikely that the now deceased Roseanne Conner will ever get the same sort of resurrection as Dan Conner.
When sexual assault allegations surfaced against star Kevin Spacey in the fall of 2017, production was immediately halted on Season 6 of House of Cards, and Netflix’s first impulse was to scrap the series entirely. But after co-star Robin Wright expressed concern for the hundreds of crew members working on the show, noting that they’d be out of a job with no warning, a plan emerged to bring the series in for a smoother landing. House of Cards was the kind of show that could easily derive dramatic mileage from a major character death, so the writers dispatched Frank Underwood offscreen and made his murder a focal point. Wright carried the show for a final season, as the series attempted to wrap up loose ends.
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Jessica Liese has been writing and podcasting about TV since 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @HaymakerHattie.