Maybe I've become complacent as medicine has progressed and diseases that used to be terrifying -- cancer, AIDS -- have become survivable. Even though actor Andy Whitfield had, for a second time, bowed out of his lead role in 'Spartacus: Blood and Sand' to fight non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, it never crossed my mind that he would die at 39. Too young, too fit, too strong. I think of a lot of TV fans were shocked.
The first time Whitfield left the show, the series went to a short-run prequel focused on different characters. When it became clear Whitfield couldn't take up the mantle of Spartacus again, the role was recast and the series was set to return for a second season in January 2012.
It's a difficult decision for producers and showrunners when a leading actor on a show falls ill or dies unexpectedly. Recasting the role of Spartacus, even with Whitfield alive, was a tough choice. "It's unheard of to recast your titular character in a television show, and we did a lot of soul searching about whether we even wanted to try," creator Steven S. DeKnight told TV Squad in January.
Some showrunners don't try. When actors have died, the character has died with them. When John Ritter died during the filming of the third season of '8 Simple Rules', there was no chance of replacing him. The question was whether to continue airing the show at all. With three episodes in the can, the show went to hiatus, then returned with a 'Goodbye' episode. Even with the amazing Katey Sagal anchoring the cast, the show faltered without its charismatic lead, and wasn't renewed.
'NewsRadio' dealt with the murder of Phil Hartman similarly. Though much more of an ensemble cast, the loss of Hartman's hilariously self-centered anchorman was deeply felt -- in fact, NBC's original impulse was allegedly to cancel the show right away (the show had always been on the bubble). In the end, a fifth and final season was completed without Hartman.
When a character and actor dies, writers usually try to replace that character with one that's similar but identical. It doesn't always work, but in the case of 'Cheers,' it introduced us to a pretty big star. Woody Harrelson joined the cast when actor Nick Colasanto and his character Coach Ernie Pantusso passed away in the third season of the show. Woody was a hit with viewers, fitting nicely into the ensemble cast, and keeping the spirit of Coach alive. The characters, though many decades apart in age, had the same soul.
It will be interesting to see how the 'Spartacus' series fares when it returns to the airwaves. The show had been building momentum, with critics warming to the first season despite an almost comic amount of sex and gore. The prequel series gave stars Lucy Lawless and John Hannah more room to chew scenery, and Lawless will return despite the nasty stab wound her character took at the end of season one. The show has a bigger budget and higher profile now than it did when it debuted, and seemed poised to grow its audience even before news of Whitfield's death broke this weekend. It may sound callous, but chances are Whitfield's death will bring new eyes to the show. I know this has spurred me to get into the show, which has been on my 'must-watch' list for too long.
Actor Liam McIntyre will have big shoes to fill as the rebel gladiator. Existing fans will be watching to see if he can embody the role the way Whitfield did, and new fans will come to the show knowing he's the new guy. And many of us, I'm sure, will be worried the next time we hear of a cancer diagnosis, even in someone too young, too fit and too strong.