Appearing on Fridays, This Was Television Asked & Answered is a chance for the writers of TWTV to answer questions about TV history. Questions can range from the personal to the critical about historical television. Asked & Answered has been on hiatus for a while, but we thought we’d bring it back for the warm summer Fridays.
While we came up the question for this installment, we’d love for you, our readers, to submit questions for us to answer in the future. Feel free to leave them in the comments, tweet them to us, ask on Facebook, or email them to us.
This week’s question is: What is the first television death (either of a character or an actor) that you remember?
SPOILERS for Full House, Sesame Street (we’d like the record to reflect the ridiculousness of us feeling compelled to do a spoiler warning for Sesame Street), Rosanne, House, Boy Meets World, NewsRadio, Robotech/Macross, E.R., Battlestar Galactica (the reboot), and M*A*S*H.
Andrew: “The Last Dance,” which aired on February 8, 1994, was the 161st episode of Full House, or the 17th episode of the seventh season, so by this point it was well developed what Full House was. A silly cold open, an awesome theme song, one of the kids gets into some trouble, a “how rude” here, a “have mercy” there, someone makes fun of Kimmy Gibbler, then some slow music as Danny sits down with one of the girls and teaches them a lesson and they hug, the closing credits role, and it’s time for Family Matters. So for those used to this familiar pattern through 160 episodes, “The Last Dance” must have come as a surprise. The episode has Uncle Jesse’s grandfather (and in turn D.J., Stephanie, and Michelle’s great-grandfather), Iorgos Katsopolis, visit from Greece. The internet tells me this character, known as Papouli and played by veteran character actor and 1961 Oscar nominee Jack Kruschen, appeared once before in the fourth season episode “Greek Week,” but there is no strong emotional connection or substantial history between the character and the audience.
So it was out of nowhere, and a bit over the top when, about a third into the episode, the family is mourning Papouli’s death. There are a few interesting things to note about this, however. Kruschen did not pass away until 2002, so this was not a death out of necessity like 8 Simple Rules or Cheers. Additionally, despite Full House being a family show, this does not attempt to be a lesson to children about death, like Sesame Street. Watch that scene where Danny tells Michelle about Papouli’s death again. Michelle is, for this episode, the youngest character (Nicky and Alex are credited but do not appear), but at no point is there an explanation of what death means. Full House is a series ostensibly built around the death of Danny’s wife and the girls’ mother (who, oddly, is never mentioned or even vaguely referenced by the various characters who try to explain to Michelle how to handle death), so her knowledge of death is not surprising. And, as Full House is not a very serialized, it certainly was not for plot development. The next episode did actually address Papouli’s death with Jesse returning from the funeral in Greece (with his identical cousin Stavros in what is one of Full House’s dumber plots and that is saying something), but there was no lasting effect on the characters. Full House Reviewed, a website that mockingly reviews every episode of Full House (if only we all had this sort of time, and also I now have a pitch the next time This Was TV is looking) charges the show with pure emotional manipulation, and I tend to agree with that. Still, Full House is the first primetime series I remember regularly watching, and along with the finale and the Disney episodes, “The Last Dance” is one of the most memorable episodes of the series. Papouli is the first television death I remember, and one which has stuck with me ever since.
Julie: When we were very small, my cousins and I got goldfish around the same time. I named mine Amelia Bedelia. My brother named his Joe, because he always named things after himself. My cousins named their fish Mr. Hooper, after the storeowner on Sesame Street. Right around the time that Mr. Hooper died on Sesame Street, my aunt was cleaning out fish Mr. Hooper’s bowl. For some reason, she put the fish in the toilet while he waited for his home to be cleaned. Why someone would do this, I can’t speak to. Well, she forgot he was in there, and she flushed the toilet. So, in the span of a very short period of time, my cousins and I had to say goodbye to two Mr. Hoopers.
I recently watched the episode dealing with Mr. Hooper’s death on the Sesame Street 40th Anniversary DVD (which I highly recommend if you want to take a mind trip back to your youth). The show dealt with the death in such a sensitive manner, letting Big Bird play the role of a questioning child. The adults answered honestly and patiently. This episode is just one of the many reasons why Sesame Street rules all.
Myc: When I started thinking about this, I started remembering some character deaths that had a pretty profound impact on me and that were brilliantly orchestrated or shocking (or both!). However, the first thing that popped into my head when I read the question was the death Dan Conner on Roseanne. Growing up, I kind of hated Roseanne, but my parents watched it, so I did too. I remember the final episode being a big deal even if the final season was a big letdown. So, while I can think of better deaths, or more meaningful deaths, or better implemented deaths, or more necessary deaths, this one is at the forefront of my mind in some weird way. Which is sort of frustrating and disappointing.
Eric: This can’t have been the first death that I actually remember at all because it wasn’t that long ago, but the first one I remember having an effect on me (or at least the one that comes to mind with the most insistence) was Amber Volakis aka “Cutthroat Bitch” dying on the fourth season of House. That was one of the very first shows I was really invested in at all (I was 15), and after being skeptical of the shakeups to the team in season four, I’d come to like Wilson’s relationship with Cutthroat Bitch in spite of myself. When she died (an event revealed to have partially been House’s fault) in two of the most intense episodes the show ever did, it prompted some soul-searching with regards to what I wanted out of the show. I’m pretty sure I decided I loved the episodes but didn’t really want to watch the show anymore. In hindsight, not such a bad call.
Jessica: I think the first time a death on TV had a profound effect on me when Phil Hartman died. It wasn’t just the business of a Very Special Episode, it was the heartbreaking, amazing television. Watching the show, NewsRadio, trying to regroup around losing an actor who played a central character. Bill’s funeral episode is one of my favorite episodes of TV because it doesn’t flinch away from the how big a shadow Hartman’s death cast over the show. It’s achingly sad watching the actors trying to keep from breaking down too much, they’re obviously mourning a friend, and very funny. And it’s how I like to remember Phil and Bill.
Cameron: When I read this question, I had an unexpected flashback to watching Boy Meets World, mostly because it contains the first real death of television that I remember so vividly: the death of Shawn’s father, Chet, in the sixth season. It’s not a death I’m likely to forget; Chet had become an important part of the show over the years, playing the role of Shawn’s deadbeat dad as a contrast to the warm glow of the Matthews family household. And the circumstances of his death are somewhat dramatic, too. Shawn, having grown and matured over six seasons, finally unleashes an emotional pressure valve and comes down hard on Chet for being a terrible father. (Some of this is exacerbated by Shawn’s suddenly finding out about Jack, his half-brother, played by the middle Lawrence brother Matthew.) During the argument, Chet suffers a heart attack, which will ultimately kill him later on in the hospital, after he and Shawn finally make amends.
It’s not really the death itself that stuck with me — to be perfectly honest, it was a long time coming. Rather, I remember it because I felt like the show was really trying to hang an emotional story on Shawn, who was usually Very Special Episode fodder. You can’t really make a VSE around a parent dying (not in the way of, say, cults or alcoholism) because dying is universal and the so-called natural order of things is for the parents to die once their kids have grown up and are making their way in the world. So for once, it was possible to watch Shawn get prime screen-time and not wince every few seconds at the show’s blunt attempts to try and teach me something. (“JEFF WINGER NEVER LEARNS.”)
Plus, killing off parents on-screen is a quick way to draw tears from the audience. The episode wasn’t “The Body” or anything but it was clearly coming from an emotionally truthful place. I responded to that more in my youth than any of the multiple attempts toy companies made to market to me with their cheap ploys.
Emma: Having watched quite a bit of Casualty and E.R. this isn’t the first onscreen death I remember but it is the first one that made me realize that E.R. wasn’t going to opt for the typical Hollywood ending or turn the main characters into heroes every week. The episode in question is called “Love’s Labor Lost” and is from the first season. It sounds stupid to say this now but at 13 I didn’t really think that anyone died in childbirth anymore; this seemed something reserved for pre-medical advancements but this episode made it clear that this still happens. Up until this point Dr. Mark Greene was the doctor you could rely on, but this showed that all doctors no matter their temperament or skill set can make mistakes. It also did that thing that E.R. is so good at and that’s instantly making a connection between the audience and the characters that we have only just met; Bradley Whitford plays the soon-to-be dad and it’s a performance that is so devastating in his fear, sorrow and joy at his child that it has stayed with me this long after. This was the first time that E.R. turned me into a sobbing wreck, but it definitely wasn’t the last.
Noel: I’ve talked about Robotech a bit before here at TWTV, and it seems fitting that I get to return to it here as we discuss character deaths. Anime shows rarely have qualms about killing characters, but when I was younger, I certainly didn’t know that, and so the death of Roy Fokker came as quite a shock. I mean, TV cartoon characters don’t die! Roy collapses due to internal bleeding after a particularly rough battle while his girlfriend, Claudia (making them, by the way, my first interracial couple on TV), is making him a pineapple salad in the very next room. He was just strumming his guitar and then, boom, gone. It does provide a last bit of motivation for Rick, the show’s protagonist, to keep up the fight against the Zentradi, but it was still a startling development to my young mind.
Greg: I’m going to have to go with Battlestar Galactica again, as it’s pretty much my default response to any question about TV firsts. The death in question occurs in the opening miniseries. It’s not of a major character, but it had as much of an impact on me as any television death has had. I’m speaking of the moment in which Number Six murders a baby. The scene would be sickening and horrifying by itself, but the calm, matter-of-fact way she does it makes it about twenty times worse. It would then be followed by the Cylons killing billions in the destruction of the Twelve Colonies. As someone who’d grown up thinking TV was for sitcoms and low-stakes procedurals featuring lawyers and police officers, such brutally and powerfully portrayed destruction was an enormous eye-opener. To this day, no other series has started out with such a grim series of events. It’s likely that none ever will.
Whitney: It wasn’t specifically the first TV death I remember but it’s the one that has stuck with me the most in regards to the way it was executed (pardon the pun). In the third season finale of M*A*S*H, “Abyssinia, Henry”, Colonel Henry Blake was honorably discharged and therefore was heading home from Korea. During his ride home however it is revealed that his plane was shot down over Japan, resulting in no survivors. The look on the entire cast’s faces when his death was revealed is one of the most famous scenes from the series.
Blake’s death was the first time on a series that a major character was killed off in a tragic way and although it was possible for the audience to see the foreshadowing in the episode’s title (Abyssinia matching the pronunciation of “Ah-Be-Seein’-Ya”, Blake’s familiar refrain to all of the 4077), it was still a gut punch to the millions watching as well as to the cast. The cast had only been prepped for the loss of Colonel Blake a short time before they shot the scene when Radar (Gary Burghoff) walks into the operating room to deliver the news. All except for Alan Alda (who had been notified before the episode began shooting) were still in shock off camera, lending to a sort of heightened reality on camera. I love the moment so much just because watching people react to a line with real tears, real emotion, and real loss is something that doesn’t happen often and when it does is usually because of an actual loss of an actor in real life.
Another major part of that final scene is that despite the shock and loss for each person in the room, they all continue to operate on the patients at hand. This episode marked the demarcation of M*A*S*H the sitcom and M*A*S*H the serious war-pondering series, and I see this moment as one of the most realistic representations of war by the show; you lose friends in awful and sudden ways yet have to keep doing your job regardless. There is no chance for the members of the 4077 to say goodbye or sit by Blake’s bedside as he drifted away due to an injury or sickness. No handholding involved whatsoever. This is one of the most famous episodes of the show and doesn’t get any easier for me to watch upon repeat viewing. For three seasons Henry Blake was one of the best characters on the show and his unceremonious death angered many fans (and famously, McLean Stevenson himself even though he left the show on his own accord) but for me it was the first time a death was hard for me to accept as I was watching and truly saddened me.