Four hundred extras in police dress blues lined the street in front of Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles a couple of weeks ago, saluting Ella Farmer’s rose-laced casket carried by actors Sean Patrick Thomas and Jonathan LaPaglia. Elizabeth Marvel, Roger Aaron Brown and Craig T. Nelson looked on with tears. It was a stirring made-for-television spectacle shot for tonight’s closing scene of “The District.” But the tears were real.
It had been just about three weeks since the cast and crew of CBS’ D.C. police drama played out a similar scene in real life at the funeral of actress Lynne Thigpen, who died March 12 at age 54. She portrayed the show’s imperious crime analyst Farmer.
“Lynne had gone for an MRI the day before,” says series executive producer Pam Veasay. “She came back, she was fine. Then we got a telephone call.”
In tonight’s episode, “Ella Mae,” it’s Nelson’s beleaguered chief Jack Mannion who makes that fateful early-morning call to his officers that Farmer, his best friend and confidante, is gone.
“We decided to let the audience experience what we experienced, which was the shock,” says Veasay, “finding out something as simple as she has a neck ache. Then that person’s died.” (Thigpen’s cause of death remains unknown.)
Mimicking the emotional watershed on set, writers Jasmine Love, Jason Wilborn and Michael Ostrowski penned a sentimental tribute celebrating the life of a wife and mother, and the actress who played her. “When push comes to shove, it’s hard to separate the character from the person,” says Veasay, adding, “There’s little acting in this episode.”
Which was especially true for Nelson. “I’m just going to miss her terribly,” he says. “I don’t know yet how that translates [on the show], but that’s the gift. When you take the steps to go on and try to go on with your life, oftentimes there’s a reward of some kind that you never expected.”
In life, the death of a loved one is difficult for survivors. On a TV show, the death of a beloved character presents its own complications. When Hattie McDaniel died of cancer in 1952, ABC quickly hired Louise Beaver for the title role of “Beulah.” The sitcom never missed a beat. But after Dan Blocker died during surgery in 1972, “Bonanza” wouldn’t ride again without its beloved “gentle giant,” Hoss.
“Chico & the Man” had an unsuccessful year after the suicide of its star Freddie Prinze, attempting to replace the comic star with an unknown child actor. “Dallas” never missed a beat following the death of Ewing patriarch Jim Davis during the show’s fourth season.
During that show’s long run, producers were also forced to replace an ailing Barbara Bel Geddes, bringing in Donna Reed in the role of Miss Ellie before Bel Geddes returned during the show’s final years. And “Night Court” suffered two deaths, with aging bailiffs played by Selma Diamond and Florence Halop in 1985 and 1986, respectively. A younger actress, Marsha Warfield, took over for the series’ remaining run.
These days, despite the varied degrees of success, producers have chosen to acknowledge the deaths of stars within the context of the series, from Redd Foxx (“The Royal Family”) and Nicholas Colasanto (“Cheers”) to Phil Hartman (“NewsRadio”), David Strickland (“Suddenly Susan”) and Nancy Marchand (“The Sopranos”).
“That’s because there’s more celebrity news than there used to be,” says television historian Alex McNeil. “A generation ago, audiences wouldn’t know that someone was ill. If you read the trade papers you might know they’d died. You didn’t have shows like ‘Extra’ or ‘Access Hollywood’ or ‘Entertainment Tonight’ that keep people current on stuff like that. So it really [forces] producers to acknowledge the loss in some way.”
While a series can survive the death of a primary star, “NewsRadio” executive producer Bernie Brillstein says, “sometimes, and this might sound very maudlin, someone’s death brings attention to the show and it sometimes helps [a series].”
The opposite, of course, is also true, says David Stapf, CBS’ senior vice president of programming. “We’re not afraid of losing audiences because Lynne’s not there, but we suspect that will happen,” Stapf says. “Ella brought a soulfulness and a heartfelt element to that show that made it more than just a cop show. We would love to find that element again.”
But when a show loses its heart, can it survive? “We tried to do just that,” says “Bonanza” creator David Dortort of Blocker’s death, “but my heart wasn’t in it. Dan Blocker filled such a big place in our hearts and in this show that his absence created such a great hole. So the 14th season, we went through about half a season and told [NBC], ‘That’s enough.’ ”
A fourth season of “The District” is imminent. What happens next is uncertain. “That’s the challenge,” says Veasay, “trying to continue without Lynne Thigpen. We haven’t taken her name down [from the character board] because she’s still very much with us as a writing staff. I assume next year we’ll take her name down and get used to that. But for now, there’s a great comfort in seeing it up there, still seeing Lynne as a part of our cast.”