I may be wrong, but I believe the first-ever regular cast member to die during their time as a regular on a TV series was Joseph Kearns of Dennis the Menace. I used to love watching Dennis the Menace as a kid. The show ran from 1959 to 1962, and Kearns, who played Mr. Wilson, died in 1962. He was replaced by a much lesser talent named Gale Gordon and the series took a serious dive quality-wise.
The death of Joseph Kearns was unmentioned by the show's writers and it wasn't until the death of the great Dan Blocker, who played "Hoss" on the classic western Bonanza, in 1972 that the death of a TV character was mentioned in a show by the writers of the series.
Nowadays, a good majority of the classic and lesser TV shows have dealt with the death of one of the show's characters. Let's take a look at four memorable TV "deaths" (interestingly, three of the four are hilariously funny episodes).
1. The Simpsons: Maude Flanders in "No More Footlongs"
Who would have pre-diddely-dicted that the chaste, saintly Maude Flanders would meet her maker because of hot dogs? And right in front of husband Ned, the kids and many of her Springfield friends. Sadly, Maude had the misfortune of returning from the refreshment stand at the Springfield Speedway with her hands full of hot dogs, just at the time Homer Simpson had painted a target on his belly for the cheerleaders with a t-shirt cannon to aim at.
Maude plunged to her death after a volley of high-velocity T-shirts knocked her off the grandstand. "No footlongs" was the last thing Ned ever said to his beloved wife.
The management of Lowe's Speedway in North Carolina found this episode hit a little too close to home, as an incident of flying tires in 1999 actually caused the death of three spectators, so the local Fox affiliate refused to show any commercials promoting that particular Simpsons episode.
2. Seinfeld: Susan in "The Invitations"
Susan Biddle Rossi's on again-off again relationship with ne'er-do-well George Costanza (Jason Alexander) finally resulted in the couple becoming engaged at the end of season seven. But, as might be expected, George got cold feet almost immediately and tried to act "extra obnoxious" to get Susan to call the whole thing off.
Susan (Heidi Sweberg) probably should have realized her fiance's reluctance when he chose the cheapest wedding invitations available. No wonder they'd been discontinued- the glue on the envelopes was toxic. Susan fell ill and died after licking one too many.
"The Invitations" originally aired in 1996 and was temporarily pulled from the Seinfeld syndication package after the 2001 anthrax attacks in the U.S.
3. The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Chuckles the Clown in "Chuckles Bites the Dust"
Many of TV's best "death of character" episodes are, ironically, hilariously funny. And none were ever funnier than this, possibly best-ever, episode of The Mary Tyler More Show.
Chuckles the Clown was often mentioned as a member of the WJM news team in episodes of the show, but the character actually only appeared on-camera twice during The Mary Tyler More Show's entire eight-year run.
In this truly classic episode, Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) is asked to be the grand marshal of a circus parade. But boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner) won't let Ted do it, as he considers the gig would be "unbecoming" when it comes to the news business. Ted was replaced by Chuckles the Clown, who was dressed as a peanut for the occasion. Unfortunately, Chuckles got "shelled" to death by a rogue elephant in the parade.
The circumstances of Chuckles' death led to a slew of bad jokes in the WJM newsroom, much to Mary's disgust. She was appalled that anyone could laugh when someone had died. But, unfortunately, the absurdity of the situation hits her at Chuckles' funeral, in one of the funniest scenes in television history.
"Chuckles Bites the Dust" was, at one time, voted #1 on TV Guide's "100 greatest episodes of all-time." It now is ranked at number three on the list. The episode's writer, David Lloyd, was awarded an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series. [ed. note: The entire episode is available at YouTube.]
4. Archie Bunker's Place: Edith Bunker in "The Death of Edith"
No couple in TV history was more beloved than Archie and Edith Bunker, played by Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton. After several years of incredible, ground-breaking success together in All in the Family, Carroll O'Connor had taken his Archie character on to a new series called Archie Bunker's Place. Jean Stapleton had wanted to move on, as many actors do, after playing Edith for so long, but she had agreed to do an occasional "come back" appearance, as a favor to Carroll.
In 1980, Carroll called producer Norman Lear and told him that he wanted to do an episode about the death of Edith, and since Lear had created All in the Family, he asked for his permission. He wanted, he said, to do an episode that "brought closure." Lear agreed and gave him creative control.
Next, Carroll called Jean Stapleton and made sure the idea was okay with her. As she had only agreed to do a few cameos and appearances as a favor, she gave Carroll her blessing. It was agreed, however, that Edith would not appear in the episode.
And so, the curtain opens on the episode with the family grieving over Edith's passing. A very somber episode, not played for comedy at all, this tear-jerker hits its peak when Archie "talks to Edith," alone in their bedroom, and breaks down sobbing while holding her bedroom slipper.