Awhile back I did an article on “very special episodes”, when sitcoms get serious and deal with a real world subject or issue. A follow up article “when sitcoms get real” talked specifically about actual news events so traumatic that they make their way into a sitcom episode. In that article I mentioned how deaths of cast members affect shows, but sometimes it doesn’t have to be a death. An illness, accident, or some other kind of dispute can affect programs including as I mentioned in my last article pregnancy which can drastically affect shows. Today I wanted to look at when personal situations with actors, rather than situations in the news or social problems, change the course of sitcoms.

 

Not every accident dramatically affects a show; sometimes all it results in is a line in the script to excuse the injury.

 

Ever see the episode of The Brady Bunch where Greg sports a swollen lip which he says was a shaving accident? Well, not quite. It turns out Barry Williams had a little accident when his car smashed into a station wagon. He was lucky all he did was cut his lip. There’s another episode when Barry Williams was stoned, and if you watch the scene it isn’t a big shock.

 

Joey was seen sporting an arm sling for two episodes of Friends due to an accident on stage. It was written into the script that he had fallen off the bed and dislocated his shoulder. Much later Jennifer Aniston hurt her leg and spent a few episodes of Friends hardly walking.

 

Will & Grace had a live episode which featured Karen on a motorized wheelchair. The in episode reason was surgery for her web feet. In reality, Megan Mullally injured her foot and needed to use crutches to walk.

 

Kaley Cuoco who plays Penny on The Big Bang Theory suffered an accident while riding a horse which caused a broken leg. She missed an episode of the show and spent another sitting behind a bar.

 

By the way, this isn’t specific to people. The Brady Bunch had their family dog vanish shortly after the dog had real life encounter with a truck.

 

 

 

Then you have the more serious issues, one’s that affect more than just a line of dialogue.

Ever wonder why there were two Darrin’s on Bewitched? Dick York was the first Darrin but dealt with a serious back injury which he had received years earlier. It was around the sixth season when the pain and addiction to pain killers caused him to quit. Dick Sargent took over as Darrin and Dick York never fully recovered.

 

Kelsey Grammar had problems with addiction which affected Cheers and Frasier. In 1988 he was arrested for drunk driving and drug possession and spent 30 days in jail. He was arrested again in 1990. Finally in 1996 he crashed his car while intoxicated and entered Betty Ford for 30 days. While his problems were fodder for the tabloids, the effect on his programs was minimal. It was easy enough to dismiss the character in Cheers and film around him on Frasier. Some shows are not so lucky.

 

I already touched on the problems Mackenzie Phillips had on One Day at a Time. Her issues with drug abuse got so serious she was fired from the show and her character up and disappeared.

 

 

Anorexia is a serious problem, especially with teenage girls. What happens when a cast member suffers from this? That is exactly what Growing Pains had to deal with when Tracy Gold had to leave in the middle of the final season due to issues with anorexia. She did manage to make it back for the series finale however.

 

Peter Boyle was an example of an actor who wasn’t going to let a little something like a heart attack keep him down. He suffered one at the end of the third season, and missed the final episode. This was easy to explain away since it was a flashback; they said Frank was at work. He did put in an appearance on the next (which was the last filmed but not the last aired).

 

Michael J.Fox abruptly left Spin City at the end of its fourth season when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The show replaced him with Charlie Sheen but wasn’t quite the same. By the way, the final episode with Michael J. Fox is one of the best hours of television, very sad and emotional send off which included his Family Ties dad.

 

Probably the worst case scenario happened to NewsRadio, when Phil Hartman was killed shortly after its fourth season wrapped. I still remember where I was the day I hear that particular news. The first episode without him was very emotional, and the series was all downhill from there.

 

Occasionally stars will vanish for a while due to disputes with the producers. Redd Foxx missed several episode of Sanford and Son, his character was said to be in St.Louis. Brad Garrett missed the season premiere of Everybody Loves Raymond one year due to a similar dispute. Fortunately that was easy to explain, Robert was on his honeymoon. All in the Family lost Caroll O’Connor for a few episodes due to a salary dispute. Of course Robert Reed is mysteriously missing from the final episode of The Brady Bunch due to an argument with the producers regarding the idiocy of the episode (he was right).

 

However sometimes the stars will just never return, in fact they flat out get fired from shows. Hard to believe it’s been a year since the Charlie Sheen melt down caused him to get fired from Two and a Half Men. Years earlier it was Suzanne Somers who was fired from Three’s Company for being uncooperative. They tried to bring in replacement characters but it wasn’t the same. Delta Burke’s departure from Designing Women was tabloid heaven. Just like with Three’s Company, the replacements did not work. During the sixth season of Diff’rent Strokes Dana Plato became pregnant. That combined with her history of drug abuse caused her to be fired from the show. She was never again a regular but did make guest appearances later on. On The Cosby Show Lisa Bonet had issues with Bill Cosby regarding an explicit movie she appeared in, and then had to be written out and then back in after she had become pregnant. She came back but was fired again before the last season. Denise vanished but her step daughter Olivia remained which made you wonder why Denise and Martin would leave her behind (she did rejoin them in the series finale). Howard Hesseman was fired from Head of the Class after arguing with producers and was replaced by Billy Connolly. When Valerie Harper was fired from her show “Valerie” the show killed off her character was renamed “The Hogan Family”. Janet Hubert Whitten was fired from Fresh Prince and replaced with Daphne Maxwell Reid, but I don’t think that hurt the show to bad.

 

For the record I wanted to point out that very often these situations work out, like when Meredith Baxter Birney wanted to walk off Family Ties because she felt Michael J.Fox was stealing the spotlight. It was Michael Fox himself who went to the actress and asked her to stay. Michael J. Fox is a class act. How about when the producers of Full House wanted to fire one of the Olsen twins because they were old enough so they didn’t need both of them. It was John Stamos who said that they couldn’t do that, and Michelle was played by them both for the run of the series.

 

Other times an actor will miss an episode or two due to other obligations, like Judd Hirsh in Taxi who only did one quick scene in a couple episodes because he was filming a movie, or Vicki Lewis disappearing from NewsRadio for similar reasons. Woody Harrelson appeared less in Cheers final years due to his movie career. Tracy Morgan missed a few episodes of 30 Rock due to a kidney transplant. Alyssa Milano had a reduced role on Who’s The Boss so she could go to college, on Roseanne Sara Gilbert also had a reduced role for that reason and Lecy Goranson was written out entirely because she wanted to go to school. Her character was recast. 3rd Rock From The Sun lost Joseph Gordon Levitt for the majority of the final season also for college.

 

The most common reason for this kind of absence is pregnancy. As I mentioned before pregnancy can affect sitcoms more than almost anything else. Sometimes they will just incorporate the pregnancy into the story line, like Family Ties did for example. Some shows try to hide it, which means the actress appears less and sometimes not at all, and spends her time hiding behind things. Here are some examples:

 

Cindy Willliams disappeared from the final season of Laverne & Shirley, which really must have killed that show, her character being married and pregnant (like the actress). Phylicia Rashad on The Cosby Show hid behind grocery bags, counters, teddy bears, and was bedridden for one episode. Then she disappeared for several episodes. Patricia Heaton missed several episodes of Everybody Loves Raymond. Shelly Long spent many episodes of Cheers hiding behind the bar. I already discussed how Debra Messing’s pregnancy affected Will & Grace. Lauren Lane missed several episode of The Nanny, her character suffering a breakdown. Likewise Daphne was sent to a fat farm when Jane Leeves left for a few episodes of Frasier to have her baby. Julia Louise Dreyfuss missed a couple episodes of Seinfeld. And even Roseanne herself had to be written out of a couple episodes of her own show when she was pregnant later in its run.

 

 

Then there are those things we just don’t see coming. An accident is one thing, and we can forgive illness or even a behind the scenes dispute. But something’s just come out of left field, and that is when the sitcom is more than just inconvenienced for a few episodes.

Let’s talk about John Ritter. He was one my favorite actors, and I loved his show 8 Simple Rules. What happened on September 11, 2012 was tragic and very unexpected. He was rehearsing like any other day when he felt ill, and was rushed to the hospital. He died there a few hours later when doctors misdiagnosed a heart attack. I wish I could explain how I felt that day, it was as if a loved one had suddenly died. John Ritter was one of a kind, I loved everything I saw him in and to this day he is sorely missed. When Nickelodeon aired a marathon of John Ritter shows I watched every one. The show 8 Simple Rules tried to soldier on, but was quietly cancelled two years later.

By richb

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