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As far as I can tell, the first time a beloved television character was killed in a tragic way was on March 18, 1975. I still remember that awful news: “Lt. Col. Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors.” Radar O’Reilly delivered that message to the crowded operating room of the 4077th M*A*S*H. It was met with stunned silence. Nothing could be done. Like Hawkeye and the others, we were forced to examine Henry’s life in that light. Is that really the end of his story?
Since then, there have been many shocking character deaths that continue to haunt us years later. Edith Bunker. Dr. Mark Greene. Bobby Simone. Joyce Summers. Curtis “Lemonhead” Lemansky. Stringer Bell. Ned Stark. Lane Pryce. Everyone at the Red Wedding.
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Deciding to kill off a character is never easy. Writers rooms endlessly debate the pros and cons of each death. The first question usually is, “Is this going to feel like we’re just doing it to do it?” Each writer weighs in: “We’re losing a great character.” “We’re changing the dynamic of the show.” “What if it doesn’t work?” “We can’t go back.”
Characters like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White have to die because that’s the fitting conclusion to the larger tale. Killing off a character in the middle of a series’ run is a trickier matter. In my experience, it needs to generate story. It must open up more possibilities and gain opportunities that don’t currently exist. It has to be right for the show in the long run. If a show kills off a major character just to add some juice to a particular episode, it’ll feel like a cheap stunt.
I find that the debates over whether to kill off a character take weeks, if not months. Every alternative is explored. When the showrunner expresses his or her vision and gains consensus among the creative team, the writers go off and write the material. Once that’s in the best possible shape, the actor needs to be informed.
Telling someone they are going to be out of work is hard. Telling them it’s because they’ve done a good job getting people to care deeply about their character is hard to rationalize. Telling them it’s best for the show can be insulting. Trust me, those calls suck.
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Most actors are completely surprised at the news they’re being killed off. It’s as if they’re in that M*A*S*H operating room, listening in stunned silence to the news of their own death. Most just ask a few questions then hang up. They usually call back five minutes later with many more questions. I imagine how a patient feels when their doctor delivers bad news. I tell them they need to be involved in the process and that their notes are welcomed. A lot of their work has been stripped away, and they must now begin arcing out a performance that gives their characters a sense of closure and that will hit audiences hard. That’s a tremendous amount of work to just throw at someone. And, oh yeah, we don’t know what’ll happen to your career next, but you’ll be OK.
Actors work so hard to land meaningful roles. They contribute their blood, sweat and tears to help a show succeed. It can seem capricious when they’re killed off. It affects them on a profoundly personal level. It’s frightening. Many TV shows claim to be a family. Killing off a character is asking that actor to leave their family and start over somewhere else.
Many actors immediately try to persuade you to change your mind. If the material’s as good as it can be, you probably won’t. But it’s your job to talk them through it. To listen.
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Nearly all actors I’ve worked with deliver their best work when they film their character’s death. Their dedication and professionalism is inspiring.
A few actors have lashed out angrily. They went out kicking and screaming. They took it personally, as if I was killing them and not their character. They’ll never agree that it was best for the show.
And then it airs. If the episode is successful and people are profoundly moved, it’s a testament to the writers, directors, crew and cast. People crying at home means everyone did their job well. You’ve made a real emotional connection with your audience. You’ve left them with something. You’ve made an impact.
A strong death scene will provoke strong emotions, one of which may be anger. Many viewers in 1975 wrote to CBS — where M*A*S*H aired until its 1983 conclusion — furious that a sitcom episode ended with such a tragic announcement. These days, we writers get blasted with angry, hateful tweets.
I tell stories. Not all of them have happy endings. Not everyone makes it home. Remember Henry Blake.
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