The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Kevin Can Wait’ isn’t the first sitcom to have a character death. Here’s how 8 other shows handled it.

A television show's decision to kill off a main character may seem dark for a lighthearted sitcom, but it's been done many times before. (Video: Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

In a grim twist, Donna Gables, the wife and mom on “Kevin Can Wait,” will no longer be with us when the CBS sitcom returns this fall. Following CBS’s controversial plans to replace actress Erinn Hayes with Leah Remini, the network has announced that Hayes’s character “will have passed away” before the start of the show’s second season.

Killing off a sitcom character is unusual, but it’s not without precedent. Here are some other examples of sitcom characters that were written off shows in less-than-comedic (or in some cases, macabre) ways.

Wondering how ‘Kevin Can Wait’ will get rid of Erinn Hayes? Well, they’re killing her off.

Susan Ross (Heidi Swedberg), “Seinfeld”

Cause of death: George Costanza’s long-suffering fiancee died after licking toxic envelopes intended to mail out the couple’s wedding invitations.

Off-screen reason: In a 2015 interview with Howard Stern, Jason Alexander said Susan was killed off because the show’s main cast found it difficult to work with Swedberg. “I couldn’t figure out how to play off of her,” he told Stern. “Her instincts for doing a scene, where the comedy was, and mine were always misfiring.”

Alexander said the cast was discussing these chemistry issues when Julia Louis-Dreyfus, known for playing Elaine, asked, “Don’t you want to just kill her?” Creator Larry David was on board. After the Stern story went viral, Alexander apologized for his delivery. “[Swedberg] was generous and gracious, and I am so mad at myself for retelling this story in any way that would diminish her,” he wrote online.

Ernie “Coach” Pantusso (Nicholas Colasanto), “Cheers”

Cause of death: Unexplained, but announced in the Season 4 premiere.

Off-screen reason: After struggling with heart disease, Colasanto died of a heart attack during production for the show’s third season. Woody Harrelson was brought in as a friend of Coach’s, who is offered a bartending job after learning of his death. The sitcom honored Colasanto in the series finale when Sam (Ted Danson) lovingly straightened out a portrait of Geronimo, which the late actor had kept in his dressing room.

Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen), “Two and a Half Men”

Cause of death: Crushed by a falling piano.

Off-screen reason: Amid struggles with drug addiction and other self-destructive behavior, Sheen had a very public and drawn-out meltdown, which began during the show’s seventh season and featured recurring verbal attacks lobbed at creator Chuck Lorre. Sheen’s real-life drama led to his getting written off the show, yielding the character’s first “death” from being hit by a train. Lorre got the last laugh in the the sitcom’s series finale, which was filled with thinly veiled insults and the revelation that Charlie Harper was alive after all — until, you know, he wasn’t.

Jon Cryer is brutally blunt describing the worst Charlie Sheen years on ‘Two and a Half Men’

Dan Conner (John Goodman), “Roseanne”

Cause of death: Heart attack.

Off-screen reason: Dan suffered a heart attack at his daughter’s wedding near the end of Season 8, but appeared to be improving his health in the show’s final season, which also found the Conner family celebrating a winning lottery ticket. The show’s last episode cruelly revealed that Dan’s recovery and the family’s newfound wealth were both a product of Roseanne’s imagination — on overdrive thanks to her new writing career. Ultimately, it’s hard to say why Dan died, but we know it made for one of the most manipulative series finales in TV history.

Valerie Hogan (Valerie Harper), “Valerie”/“Valerie’s Family”/“The Hogan Family”

Cause of death: Car accident.

Off-screen reason: Harper was dismissed from the show amid an ugly contract dispute. Actress Sandy Duncan was hired to play Valerie’s sister-in-law, recruited to help take care of Valerie’s three sons. The drama escalated into dueling lawsuits between Harper and production company Lorimar Television, whose executives alleged she was disruptive on set. Harper was later awarded $1.8 million in a wrongful termination lawsuit.

Paul Hennessy (John Ritter), “8 Simple Rules”

Cause of death: Collapsed at the grocery store during a morning milk run.

Off-screen reason: Ritter died suddenly at 54 due to an undetected aortic dissection. He had been on set when he fell ill. The show later paid tribute to him in an emotional two-part episode titled “Goodbye.”

Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), “M.A.S.H.

Cause of death: His plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan.

Off-screen reason: Stevenson asked to be let out of his contract during the third season. In the season finale, Blake learned he could be discharged and return to the United States. The episode’s unexpected ending found a distraught Radar (Gary Burghoff) delivering the news that Blake’s plane had been shot down. “There were no survivors,” he told the unit.

James Evans (John Amos), “Good Times”

Cause of death: Car accident.

Off-screen reason: Creative differences. Amos, who played the beloved Evans family patriarch, felt his character’s eldest son J.J. (Jimmie Walker) was being portrayed in a stereotypical way —  and taking screen time away from the family’s other two children. “I felt too much emphasis was being put on J.J. and his chicken hat and saying ‘dy-no-mite’ every third page,” Amos explained in a 2015 interview with the Archive of American Television.

The character’s sudden death — which prompted his wife, Florida (Esther Rolle) to break down saying “Damn, damn, damn” — remains a sore subject (and frequent meme) for “Good Times” fans.


Wondering how ‘Kevin Can Wait’ will get rid of Erinn Hayes? Well, they’re killing her off.

‘Two and a Half Men’ finally gets revenge on Charlie Sheen with insult-filled series finale