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Special 'Glee' episode to pay tribute to late Canadian actor Cory Monteith

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People have asked: why was Cory Monteith singled out for a special tribute at the recent Emmy Awards? He was never an Emmy-winner or even a nominee. He was really an unknown from Vancouver before being cast into the role of his short life--high school quarterback-turned-glee club leader Finn Hudson.

Monteith, 31, was found dead in a Vancouver hotel room last July, the victim of a drug overdose. Thursday night, his friends and fellow cast members will pay tribute to "The Quarterback" on "Glee" (9 p.m. on Fox and Global).

Executive producer Ryan Murphy has kept a tight lid on details, and turned down requests to speak about the hour. We know that Hudson's character is killed off. We know songs will be sung, including Kevin McHale ("Artie") singing James Taylor's mournful ode to loss, "Fire and Rain." We know Monteith's real-life girlfriend, co-star Lea Michelle (who plays Rachel Berry), will make an appearance before it all ends.

Having met Monteith, I know why I think he deserves this tribute. He always seemed gracious and unaffected, somebody who understood his good fortune and made a point of spreading that good will to others. He also had a terrible addiction, and it killed him, and you can only hope somebody else out there can learn something from that.

You did not need to meet him in person, though, to want to have some closure with this character. Finn Hudson, like Larry Hagman's indelible J.R. Ewing, was somebody you connected with. His passing is almost like a death in the family.

News of Valerie Harper's grim diagnosis probably drove many viewers to catch her these past few weeks on "Dancing With the Stars." Without getting too morbid, some fans probably wanted one last visit with Rhoda, a beloved character they grew up with.

Ensemble shows like "Glee" can survive the death of one of their stars and continue to run for several seasons. As muddled bartender "Coach," Nicholas Colasanto was a big part of the first three seasons on "Cheers." When the actor died of heart disease in February 1985, his character died with him. Woody Harrelson was quickly introduced and for the next eight seasons brought a whole new energy to the series.

On "Barney Miller" (1975-82), Jack Soo used to crack up audiences as sad sack Det. Nick Yemana. When he died of esophageal cancer in January 1979, the producers took the unusual step of ending that season with an episode where the other cast members stepped out of character to pay tribute to their colleague. At the end, they all raised their coffee cups in a toast.

Another officer down occurred on the NBC drama "Hill Street Blues" (1981-87). Midway through Season 4, Michael Conrad — who played the fatherly desk sergeant who urged everyone to "be careful out there" — succumbed to urethral cancer. The character was written out in heroic fashion — he supposedly died of a heart attack while making love to Grace Gardner (Barbara Babcock), the middle-aged widow of another officer. Conrad was replaced by Broadway actor Robert Prosky, an older and edgier sarge who told the cops to "do it to them before they do it to us."

Phil Hartman's senseless 1998 murder affected two shows. His two main characters, Troy McClure and attorney Lionel Hutz, were never seen again on "The Simpsons." His death was a bigger blow to "NewsRadio," where the series stumbled through one last season with Jon Lovitz. Hartman's on-air personality Bill McNeal was said to have died of a heart attack while watching TV.

Sometimes stars are just irreplaceable and their series dies with them. That was certainly the case with original TV Superman George Reeves, who died of a gunshot wound back in the late '50s. When "Little House on the Prairie" star Michael Landon died of pancreatic cancer in 1991, that was the end of his new series "Us." It never went beyond the pilot episode.

One series that never recovered from the death of its star was "Chico and the Man" (1974-78). The NBC sitcom starred veteran character actor Jack Albertson as East-L.A. garage owner Ed (The Man) Brown opposite breakout comedian Freddie Prinze as Chico. The lovely theme, by Jose Feliciano, set a melancholy tone that only grew sadder later.

Prinze was the real star, a comedy heartthrob scoring with catch phrases like "Not my job man." The series was an instant hit, finishing its first full season as the No. 3 show in America.

When Prinze died in January 1977 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, he was just 22. Producers considered shutting down the series, which had already dropped out of the Top 25. Instead, it was explained that Chico had left to form a new business with his real father. A new character was introduced, 12-year-old Raul (played by Gabriel Melgar), who became Ed Brown's new, adopted, Chico.

The sadness over Prinze's death, however, hung over the series. Eventually, Ed Brown had a breakdown and it was revealed that Chico had died — not the happiest scenario for a sitcom.

A promising comedy derailed just as it was about to start a second season was ABC's "8 Simple Rules" (2002-04). It starred John Ritter as a stay-at-home dad trying to cope with two teenage daughters and a son. Katey Sagal ("Sons of Anarchy") played his wife; Kaley Cuoco ("The Big Bang Theory") was the wilder of the teens.

Ritter was still fondly remembered as Jack Tripper from "Three's Company." "8 Simple Rules" looked like his big comeback vehicle but that all ended in September 2003 when he died as the result of an undiagnosed aortic dissection.

The series took a month off the air and came back with a special episode paying tribute to Ritter. The series sputtered on with James Garner (as Sagal's TV dad) and David Spade (as a cousin) added to the show in a failed attempt to recapture the early momentum.

The death that could have derailed a series — when lung cancer ended Nancy Marchand's life during "The Sopranos" — instead forced creator David Chase to craft one final scene made up of outtakes and digitized scenes. Thus Tony's mother Livia had her big finale — after Marchand had already passed away. "The Sopranos" lasted another six years.

___

Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.

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