Appearing on Fridays, This Was TV 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.
The question we’re exploring this week is: What’s the earliest television demise (be it a character or an actor) that you recall?
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD for Full House, Sesame Street (it’s worth noting the absurdity of issuing a spoiler alert for Sesame Street), Rosanne, House, Boy Meets World, NewsRadio, Robotech/Macross, E.R., Battlestar Galactica (the reimagined series), and M*A*S*H.
Simran: “The Last Dance,” which aired on February 8, 1994, marked the 161st installment of Full House, or the 17th episode within its seventh season.
By this stage, Full House had established its signature format: a lighthearted cold open, the iconic theme song, one of the kids getting into a predicament, occasional “how rude” and “have mercy” catchphrases, some good-natured ribbing directed at Kimmy Gibbler, followed by a heartfelt moment as Danny imparts a life lesson to one of his daughters, culminating in a hug.
The closing credits roll and it’s time for Family Matters. Therefore, for those accustomed to this well-worn pattern across 160 previous episodes, “The Last Dance” likely came as a surprise.
In this episode, Uncle Jesse’s grandfather, Iorgos Katsopolis, visits Greece, also serving as D.J., Stephanie, and Michelle’s great-grandfather.
Online sources indicate that this character, known as Papouli and portrayed by the seasoned character actor and 1961 Oscar nominee Jack Kruschen, had made a prior appearance in the fourth season episode titled “Greek Week.”
However, there was no deep emotional connection or significant history between the character and the audience at that point.
So, it was quite unexpected and somewhat dramatic when, approximately one-third of the way into the episode, the family finds themselves grieving the passing of Papouli. There are a couple of noteworthy aspects to consider, though.
Jack Kruschen, who portrayed Papouli, didn’t actually pass away until 2002. Hence, this death wasn’t driven by real-life necessity, as in the cases of shows like 8 Simple Rules or Cheers.
Furthermore, despite Full House being a family-oriented program, it doesn’t overtly attempt to educate children about death, unlike Sesame Street. Take, for instance, the scene where Danny informs Michelle about Papouli’s passing.
Michelle is the youngest character in this particular episode (Nicky and Alex are credited but do not appear), yet there’s no explanation provided about the concept of death.
It’s worth noting that Full House is a series primarily centered around the death of Danny’s wife and the girl’s mother, a fact that is curiously never mentioned or even vaguely alluded to by the various characters trying to guide Michelle through coping with death.
Therefore, her familiarity with the concept of death isn’t surprising. Given Full House‘s lack of strong serialization, this choice doesn’t serve any significant plot development.
In the subsequent episode, there is some acknowledgment of Papouli’s death as Jesse returns from the funeral in Greece, accompanied by his identical cousin Stavros in what can only be described as one of Full House‘s more far-fetched storylines (and that’s saying something). However, this event has no lasting impact on the characters.
A website called Full House Reviewed, which humorously critiques every episode of Full House (if only we all had that kind of free time, and incidentally, I now have a pitch ready for the next time This Was TV is seeking contributions), accuses the show of resorting to emotional manipulation, a sentiment I tend to agree with.
Nonetheless, Full House holds the distinction of being the first primetime series I can recall watching on a regular basis. Alongside the series finale and the Disney World episodes, “The Last Dance” remains one of the most unforgettable episodes of the show.
Papouli’s passing is the first television death I recollect, and it has stayed with me ever since.
Kriti: When we were quite young, my cousins and I each acquired goldfish around the same period. I decided to name mine Amelia Bedelia, while my brother predictably chose the name Joe, a preference for naming things after himself.
My cousins, however, opted to name their fish Mr. Hooper, inspired by the character who was the storeowner on Sesame Street.
Coincidentally, right around the time that Mr. Hooper’s character met his end on Sesame Street, my aunt happened to be cleaning out the bowl of their fish, also named Mr. Hooper.
For some inexplicable reason, she placed the fish in the toilet temporarily while she prepared to clean its habitat. Why she made this choice, I cannot fathom.
Regrettably, she forgot that the fish was in the toilet, and when she flushed it, she inadvertently bid farewell to our second Mr. Hooper in a very short time frame.
I recently revisited the episode addressing Mr. Hooper’s passing on the Sesame Street 40th Anniversary DVD (an excellent recommendation if you want to take a nostalgic journey back to your childhood).
The show handled the topic with remarkable sensitivity, casting Big Bird in the role of a curious child seeking answers. The adults responded with honesty and patience.
This particular episode serves as just one example of why Sesame Street remains a standout in the realm of children’s programming.
Astha: As I contemplated this question, my thoughts wandered to several character deaths that left a profound impact on me, ones that were masterfully executed or exceptionally shocking, or in some cases, both.
However, the very first thought that sprang to mind was the demise of Dan Conner on Roseanne. During my upbringing, I had mixed feelings about Roseanne, but since my parents were avid viewers, I found myself watching it as well.
I distinctly recall the final episode being a significant event, even though the concluding season had been somewhat disappointing.
So, while I can certainly recall deaths that were superior in various ways—more significant, better executed, or even more essential to the storyline—this particular one continues to occupy a peculiar and frustrating place in my thoughts.
Sidant: This might not be the very first death that I can recall because it wasn’t too long ago, but it stands out as the first one that had a notable impact on me (or, at the very least, the one that dominates my memories).
It was the demise of Amber Volakis, also known as “Cutthroat Bitch,” in the fourth season of House. At the time, I was 15 and just starting to become seriously invested in TV shows.
Initially, I had reservations about the changes made to the team in season four, but I found myself unexpectedly drawn to the dynamic between Wilson and Cutthroat Bitch.
When she tragically passed away, an event that was partly revealed to be House’s fault, it unfolded in two of the most emotionally intense episodes the show had ever produced.
This turn of events led me to reflect on what I truly desired from the series. I believe I concluded that I loved those particular episodes but wasn’t particularly inclined to continue watching the show.
Looking back on it now, that decision doesn’t seem like a bad one at all.
Janavi: The first time a TV death had a profound impact on me was when Phil Hartman passed away. It wasn’t just a matter of a “Very Special Episode,” but rather the heart-wrenching and astonishing television that followed.
Witnessing the show NewsRadio attempting to come to terms with the loss of an actor who played a pivotal character was both heartbreakingly sad and incredibly remarkable.
One of my absolute favorite TV episodes is Bill’s funeral episode from the series because it doesn’t shy away from the immense shadow cast by Hartman’s death over the show.
It’s a poignant experience watching the actors struggle to keep their composure; it’s evident that they were not only mourning the loss of a colleague but also a dear friend.
The episode manages to strike a delicate balance between being deeply sorrowful and undeniably funny. This is how I prefer to remember Phil and Bill.
Krisnaa: As I pondered this question, an unexpected memory of watching Boy Meets World surfaced in my mind, mainly because it features the very first television death that I vividly recall: the passing of Shawn’s father, Chet, during the show’s sixth season.
It’s an event that has remained etched in my memory; Chet had grown into a significant character throughout the years, embodying the role of Shawn’s unreliable father in stark contrast to the loving Matthews family.
The circumstances surrounding his death are rather dramatic as well. Shawn, who has evolved and matured over six seasons, finally releases his pent-up emotions and confronts Chet for his subpar parenting.
This confrontation is amplified by Shawn’s sudden discovery of Jack, his half-brother, portrayed by Matthew Lawrence, the middle Lawrence brother.
In the midst of their heated argument, Chet suffers a heart attack, a condition that ultimately leads to his demise in the hospital after he and Shawn manage to reconcile.
The lasting impression from this episode wasn’t so much the death itself — if I’m being completely honest, it had been looming for a while.
Instead, what stands out is how the show made a concerted effort to craft an emotional storyline centered around Shawn, a character who typically found himself in Very Special Episode scenarios.
Creating a VSE around a parent’s death (at least not in the manner of, say, cults or alcoholism) isn’t feasible because death is a universal experience, and it’s considered part of the natural order for parents to pass away once their children have grown and begun forging their own paths in the world.
For once, it was possible to witness Shawn take the spotlight and receive significant screen time without cringing at the show’s heavy-handed attempts to impart life lessons.
It was a departure from the norm, and it felt like a refreshing change from the usual pattern, where characters like Jeff Winger never seem to grasp the lessons they’re supposed to learn.
Furthermore, eliminating parental figures on screen is a straightforward method to evoke emotional reactions from the audience. While the episode might not have reached the level of emotional impact seen in an episode like “The Body,” it undeniably stemmed from a place of emotional authenticity.
In my younger years, I found myself more responsive to this authenticity than to the numerous cheap marketing gimmicks employed by toy companies in their attempts to appeal to me.
Navin: 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.
Nikita: I’ve previously discussed Robotech here at TWTV, and it feels fitting that I revisit it in the context of our conversation about character deaths. Anime series are often unreserved when it comes to killing off characters, but I wasn’t quite aware of that fact during my younger years.
So, the death of Roy Fokker came as a significant shock. I mean, characters from TV cartoons don’t typically meet their demise!
Roy’s sudden collapse due to internal bleeding after a particularly grueling battle, while his girlfriend Claudia (who, incidentally, formed my first experience of an interracial couple on TV) was preparing a pineapple salad in the next room, was truly unexpected.
One moment, he was strumming his guitar, and the next, he was gone. While this event does provide added motivation for Rick, the show’s protagonist, to continue the fight against the Zentradi, it still left a deep impression on my young mind due to its startling nature.
Nirajan: Once again, my answer leads me back to Battlestar Galactica, which has essentially become my go-to response for any question about TV firsts.
The specific death I’m referring to takes place during the opening miniseries. While it may not involve a major character, its impact on me rivals that of any television death.
I’m talking about the chilling moment when Number Six commits the murder of a baby. The scene would be sickening and horrifying on its own, but the calm and matter-of-fact manner in which she carries it out amplifies the shock factor exponentially.
This harrowing moment is then followed by the Cylons launching an attack that results in the deaths of billions during the destruction of the Twelve Colonies.
As someone who had grown up believing that TV was primarily reserved for sitcoms and low-stakes procedurals featuring lawyers and police officers, witnessing such brutally and powerfully portrayed destruction served as a monumental eye-opener.
Even to this day, no other series has begun with such a grim sequence of events, and it’s quite likely that none ever will.
Muskan: Although it might not be the very first TV death I recall, it is the one that has left the most lasting impression on me, particularly in terms of how it was portrayed.
In the third season finale of M*A*S*H, titled “Abyssinia, Henry,” Colonel Henry Blake was honorably discharged and set to return home from Korea.
However, during his journey home, a devastating revelation unfolded—his plane had been shot down over Japan, and there were no survivors.
The collective look of shock and grief on the faces of the entire cast when his death was revealed has become one of the most iconic moments from the series.
Blake’s death marked a significant milestone in television history, as it was the first time a major character was killed off in a tragic manner on a series.
While the episode’s title, “Abyssinia,” cleverly echoed Blake’s familiar phrase, “Ah-Be-Seein’-Ya,” serving as a hint for the audience, the impact was still a powerful gut punch to the millions of viewers as well as the cast.
In fact, the cast had only been informed about Colonel Blake’s impending departure shortly before shooting the scene where Radar (Gary Burghoff) enters the operating room to deliver the devastating news.
With the exception of Alan Alda (who had been informed prior to the episode’s production), the rest of the cast was still in a state of shock off-camera. This raw and genuine reaction on-screen added a sense of heightened reality to the scene.
I appreciate this moment immensely because witnessing people respond to a line with real tears, genuine emotion, and authentic grief is a rare occurrence on television.
When it does happen, it’s typically due to the actual loss of an actor in real life.
Another significant aspect of that final scene is that despite the shock and personal loss experienced by each person in the room, they all continue to carry out their duties, tending to the patients at hand.
This episode marked the shift from M*A*S*H, the sitcom, to M*A*S*H, the serious exploration of the realities of war, and I view this moment as one of the most authentic depictions of war within the series.
In war, you lose friends in horrific and abrupt ways, yet you must soldier on with your responsibilities. There’s no opportunity for the members of the 4077 to say their goodbyes or sit by Blake’s bedside as he passes away due to injury or illness—no sentimental handholding involved whatsoever.
This remains one of the most renowned episodes of the show, and, for me, it doesn’t become any easier to watch upon repeated viewings.
For three seasons, Henry Blake was one of the standout characters on the show, and his abrupt and unceremonious death left many fans, and even McLean Stevenson himself (despite his departure from the show being his own choice), feeling outraged.
However, for me, it was the first time a character’s death on television was genuinely difficult for me to accept as I watched, and it left me truly saddened.