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Exit Stage Left – When Actors Leave a TV Show

It's rare for a television show to make it to the end of its run without some member of the cast leaving the show. When a show has to write a character out, they can do a good job or a bad one. These are a list of five of my favorite character exit episodes on television.

  1. Vincent Gray (Dan Futterman) on Judging Amy: In the episode "The Unbearable Lightness of Being Family" Vincent's wife had cancer and they move to California. The episode where he leaves is very touching as the family says goodbye. He and his sister Amy had been fighting in earlier episodes, but made up before he left. The most heartwarming of all is the goodbye between Vincent and his roommate/best friend, Donna. Donna spends the entire episode ignoring him or changing the subject whenever he brings up his imminent departure. Vincent corners Donna when she's preparing to go onstage to recite. He tells her not to feel bad that she can't tell him goodbye, because he knows she cares about him. He stops outside the auditorium where she's reciting and hears her dedicate a Shakespeare sonnet to him as a farewell. The episode ends with the family seeing off at the airport. Tori Amos' haunting song, 1000 Oceans, plays as he disappears. This exit is poignant and touching.
  2. Catherine Duke (Khandi Alexander) on Newsradio: Newsradio was definitely one of the most underrated sitcoms of the 90's. It was creative and the way the show wrote out the first member to exit the cast was also creative. The plot of "Catherine Moves On" was a crazy and goofy one, like most plots on the show. Catherine announces that she's resigning from the news station and a Rashamon style of storytelling happens, as the rest of the staff tries to explain to station owner, Jimmy James why she's gone. But, the other staff members' stories are more about themselves than about Catherine. It's up to her to explain as she comes back to clean out her desk. There are two fun aspects to the episode. First, they redid the opening credits in honor of her. One of the character shticks was her habit of slapping men. Each actor's clip in the credits showed her slapping the male characters and hanging out with the female characters. Also, as a way of saying farewell, her coworkers steal items from her desk. It's a funny episode that's a real tribute to Catherine Duke and her actress Khandi Alexander.
  3. Mike Flaherty (Michael J Fox) on Spin City: In the two part episode "Goodbye" Deputy Mayor of New York Mike Flaherty takes the fall for a scandal that could bring down City Hall. There are a number of touching scenes of farewell in this episode. But, what makes this one stand out are the allusions to Michael J Fox's other famous sitcom, Family Ties. His television father Michael Gross plays a therapist in the episode and there's a reference to a Mallory (his sister on Family Ties). At the end of the episode, the staff receives a letter from Mike who is now in Washington, saying he's met a stuffed shirt congressman named Alex Keaton. Alex is the character Fox played on Family Ties. The Springsteen Song "Glory Days" plays at the end of the episode. Afterwards Michael J Fox comes on stage in front of the audience and the cast hugs him. It was a good way to acknowledge how important the actor was to the show.
  4. Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) on ER: The episode "All in the Family" was one of the best episodes in the series. This is an example of letting a character make an impression when they exit a series. In the previous episode, medical student, Lucy and doctor, John Carter get stabbed by schizophrenic patient, Paul Sobriki, while the rest of the staff celebrates Valentines' Day by having a party in the hospital. All in the Family is an appropriate name for the episode, because almost the entire staff rallies to save the two doctors. Unfortunately, Lucy is in much worse shape than Carter and dies. She was unable to do more than whisper, so Kellie Martin acted mainly with her eyes. Her only audible words were a whispered "thank you." Despite, or maybe because, of this, it's a heart wrenching performance, especially when something goes wrong and it's clear that Lucy has enough knowledge to know exactly what is happening to her. The episode also showed different sides to the other characters. Even after the episode was over, the storyline carried over to later ones including a drug addiction story for John Carter.
  5. Bill McNeal (Phil Hartman) on Newsradio: The other character exits were necessary because the actors decided to leave for various reasons. Unfortunately, the episode "Bill Moves On" had a much more somber reason. Phil Hartman was murdered by his wife before the show's fifth season. The character of Bill was an integral part of the show, so the challenge was to write him out with respect as well as humor. Newsradio carried both off with flying colors. In the episode, the character of Bill died from a heart attack. There's humor as news director Dave Nelson keeps revising the eulogy -after the funeral. Lisa Miller spends the bulk of the episode drunk and denying that she is. Matthew Brock, who has been a victim of Bill's cruel humor before, won't believe Bill is dead. Bill told him that if news ever came of his death that it would actually be a ruse. But, the part of the episode that stands out is when everyone (including Catherine Duke, as Khandi Alexander comes back to guest star) reads aloud letters Bill left to each one. The letters are a mixture of Bill's brand of biting wit and some tenderness. But, what makes this episode a tearjerker is seeing how the cast is struggling to hold back real tears during the scene. It says something to the talent of the cast that you could see their real grief without ever seeing them break out of character. It's a tribute to the show that it can still bring humor without being insulting and sadness without being sappy. However, it takes a strong person to watch without tearing up some.