Of all the wonderful eras of television, the 1980s might have been the golden age of the situation comedy, or at least a certain kind of sitcom. The TV landscape was still by and large dominated by three broadcast networks, who presented programming that appealed to as broad an audience as possible. Most comedies of the era could be safely consumed by adults and little kids alike, because they were generally clean, understandable, and offered jokes that were easily digested. They also all kind of looked the same, shot on a set with multiple cameras and a laugh track-sweetened studio audience telling viewers at home when to laugh.
A steady diet of ’80s sitcoms, consumed in their first run and over and over again in the years to follow thanks to reruns, left many familiar faces embedded in the minds and hearts of millions. But the 1980s are several decades gone now, and many of the stars of that time’s comedies have left this mortal plane, and sometimes without much media attention. Here are some of the biggest stars of ’80s sitcoms who have died.
Alan Thicke of Growing Pains
Alan Thicke had a long and memorable career in American television — particularly sitcoms — but it wasn’t the one he initially set out to have. In the 1970s, Thicke hosted The Alan Thicke Show in his native Canada, a show so popular that Aa television syndicate hired him to host a late-night talk show in the United States called Thicke of the Night. It didn’t last past the 1983-84 season — it couldn’t come anywhere close to the ratings of Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. But Thicke bounced back quickly, landing first regular series acting gig in 1985, with the ABC sitcom Growing Pains. He played Dr. Jason Seaver, a caring and conscientious dad who ran his psychiatry practice out of his Long Island home, so he could be closer to his three (later four) rambunctious kids. In addition to his work as an actor on Growing Pains, Thicke was a songwriter. As E! News recounted, he was behind “some of TV’s most beloved theme songs,” such as the intro tunes for other ’80s-era sitcoms including The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes (which he sang, too).
He was the father of three sons, including Brennan Thicke (who voiced the title character on the ’80s animated version of Dennis the Menace) and pop star Robin Thicke. He was playing hockey with his youngest son, Carter Thicke, in 2016, when he suffered a heart attack, according to the Los Angeles Times. He later died at the age of 69.
Harry Anderson of Night Court
In the very early 1980s, Harry Anderson was a frequent guest on talk and variety shows, such as Saturday Night Live and The Mike Douglas Show, performing his signature, engaging mix of stand-up comedy and sleight-of-hand magic. He proved that his persona translated to scripted comedy with a series of appearances on Cheers as a bar-haunting con-man named Harry the Hat, bridging his starring role on Night Court. From 1984 to 1992, Anderson Harry Stone, one of the youngest and friendliest judges in the New York City judicial system, a magic-and-Mel Tormé lover who presides over a late-night courtroom processing sex workers, drug dealers, and others who are almost as wacky as the judge’s colleagues. Anderson earned three straight Emmy Award nominations in the mid-’80s for Night Court and then went on to play humor columnist Dave Barry on the ’90s comedy Dave’s World.
In 2018, according to the New York Times, Anderson was hospitalized with influenza and had remained sick for several months afterward. He was discovered dead at his home in North Carolina. The magician and actor was 65.
Leslie Nielsen of Police Squad!
After decades as a serious actor in serious stuff, Leslie Nielsen sent up his image as a stone-faced man of action by playing Dr. Rumack in Airplane!, 1980’s ultra-silly, rapid-fire joke-fest and parody of 1970s disaster movies. (He’s responsible for an iconic movie quote: When asked “surely, you can’t be serious,” Nielsen deadpans, “I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.”) The film was a smash hit, and Nielsen spent the rest of his career making films and TV shows in the style of Airplane!, some of them springing from the minds of that film’s writers and directors, David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. He played woefully bad police detective Frank Drebin in all three The Naked Gun movies, for example, a franchise spun off of the little-watched cop show spoof Police Squad!, cancelled after just six episodes in 1982.
Nielsen died in a hospital near his Florida home in November 2010. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he suffered complications of pneumonia. He was 84.
Garry Shandling of It's Garry Shandling's Show
With his frequent club gigs and numerous appearances on daytime and late-night talk shows in the 1970s and 1980s, Garry Shandling was a big part of the stand-up comedy boom of that era. He also pioneered the observational comedy style that contemporaries like Jay Leno and Jerry Seinfeld would popularize. Like Leno, he’d be a frequent guest host for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, and like Seinfeld, Shandling would go on to co-create and star in a very progressive, game-changing TV sitcom. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, which debuted on Showtime in 1986 and was rebroadcast on Fox in the network’s earliest months, was a fourth-wall-busting, self-conscious sitcom filmed on a fake-looking set about a comedian and sitcom star named Garry Shandling. In 1992, two years after It’s Garry Shandling’s Show ended its four-season run, Shandling returned to TV with The Larry Sanders Show, another innovative comedy that took place behind the scenes of a Tonight Show-esque talk show.
According to Variety, “[Shandling] called 911 on March 24, 2016 because he couldn’t breathe and collapsed while on the phone.” He was declared dead at the age of 66 due to a blood clot in the heart.
Charlotte Rae of The Facts of Life
Edna Garrett, the proper, protective, and warble-voiced housemother and dietitian at the Eastland School for Girls, lorded over her charges Tootie, Jo, Natalie, and Blair on The Facts of Life for seven years. But the character originated on another sitcom, Diff’rent Strokes. Edna was the maid for Philip Drummond and his brood of kids, but Charlotte Rae did such a great job with the character in her one season on Strokes that she got to move her character from a Manhattan luxury apartment to a Peekskill boarding school. It’s no surprise, because Rae was a versatile pro, a two-time Tony Award nominee in the 1960s, co-star of the classic police sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?, Molly the Mail Lady on Sesame Street and the mother of Woody Allen’s character in Bananas.
In 2010, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Rae was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which by 2017 had spread to her bones. She died in 2018 at age 92.
Dixie Carter of Designing Women
Dixie Carter starred in two ’80s sitcom classics. In 1984, she joined Diff’rent Strokes in its final years as Maggie McKinney, the new wife of lonely widower and orphan adopter Mr. Drummond. Having established herself as a viable primetime star after a decade working on daytime soaps, Carter jumped to Designing Women in 1986, portraying Julia Sugarbaker, an exceedingly bright, confident, and acerbic Atlanta-based interior designer. Designing Women was an ensemble comedy, but Carter tended to get the showiest moments. Julia often delivered dramatic, politically progressive and humanistic monologues, which were met by the studio audience with thunderous applause.
Following a main role on the CBS legal procedural Family Law, Carter landed a recurring role as Gloria Hodge on Desperate Housewives, earning Carter her first Emmy Award nomination. In 2010, according to The New York Times, Carter died at age 70 following endometrial cancer complications.
Meshach Taylor of Designing Women
At the top of Designing Women in 1986, Anthony Bouvier had just been released from prison for a robbery he didn’t commit, and he fell into a what would prove a taxing job as an assistant to the women of Atlanta’s Sugarbaker Designs, chiefly seeing to the wild personal whims of Suzanne Sugarbaker (Delta Burke). By the end of the Monday night CBS staple in 1993, the tentative and unsure Anthony had achieved a law degree and become a partner in the company. Portraying Anthony for the run of the show, and receiving an Emmy Award nomination along the way: Meshach Taylor, previously best known for his role as window dresser Hollywood Montrose in the popular 1987 fantasy comedy Mannequin. Taylor remained a presence in TV comedy into the ’90s and beyond, co-starring on the CBS sitcom Dave’s World for four seasons and playing Mr. Wright on the Nickelodeon kiddie comedy Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide.
In June 2014, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Taylor died in his sleep at his home in California of a long illness, which his representative confirmed was cancer. He was 67.
Christopher Hewett of Mr. Belvedere
Why would a middle-class family of five living in a modestly sized home in suburban Pittsburgh need a butler? That was the question posed by the 1985 to 1990 ABC sitcom Mr. Belvedere. The answer: to make snarky, cutting quips at those he considers not as erudite or refined as himself, such as Owens family dad George, and to counsel and spar with youngest child Wesley.
Before he was well-cast as the cultured and well-traveled Lyn Aloysius Belvedere (a character that originated in a 1947 novel and a couple of movies in the 1940s), Christopher Hewett hadn’t done much screen work, appearing in only about 20 projects dating back to the early fifties, but most notably and recently in the final season of Fantasy Island as Lawrence, a Mr. Belvedere-like butler. Hewett was primarily a man of the stage, directing revues and starring in plays and musicals, notably as Captain Hook in a 1979 Broadway revival of Peter Pan. In August 2001, the 80-year-old Hewett died at home after a hospital stay, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Max Wright of ALF
The star of ALF, the bizarre but heavily-viewed NBC sci-fi-sitcom about a cool, cat-eating, couch potato alien from the planet Melmac who crashes in suburbia and crashes with a suburban family, was undoubtedly ALF, the extraterrestrial represented by a puppet, a man in a suit, and the voice of co-creator Paul Fusco. (“ALF” was a nickname, short for “alien life form”; his “real” name was Gordon Shumway.) Every over-the-top, larger-than-life character needs a foil, their opposite to play against for comic effect, and for ALF on ALF that was Willie Tanner, a sputtering, sad sack civil servant who never approved of any of ALF’s hilarious antics. Max Wright, a veteran of the dark and acclaimed early ’80s sitcom Buffalo Bill and multiple Broadway productions of high-brow fare by the likes of William Shakespeare and Anton Chekhov, played Willie to the hilt.
After his time on ALF, Wright did a lot of TV, usually playing a variation of his speciality: exasperated and unlikeable nerds. He popped up on Friends as Terry, the manager of the Central Perk coffeehouse, and as loathsome boss Max Denby on Norm Macdonald’s Norm. Wright died from complications of cancer at the Lillian Booth Actors Home in 2019, according to the New York Times. He was 75.
Richard Mulligan of Empty Nest
Two Richard Mulligan performances bookended the 1980s, and the veteran film actor won an Emmy Award for both. Three years into the run of ABC’s racy soap opera parody Soap in 1981, he earned a statuette for his role as bumbling and overwhelmed patriarch Burt Campbell. And then in 1989, Mulligan took home another Emmy for his big TV comeback role on the sitcom Empty Nest as Dr. Harry Weston, an elderly pediatrician coping with the death of his wife and his needy adult children who move back in.
Following The Golden Girls (with which it existed in the same fictional Miami universe) on NBC’s popular Saturday night lineup, Empty Nest ran from 1988 to 1995, and it frequently ranked among the top 10 most-watched shows on TV. According to the Washington Post, Mulligan, diagnosed with colon cancer, died in September 2000. He was 67 years old.
Ted Knight of Too Close for Comfort
It may have been called The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but the breakout character of the 1970s TV classic was boorish, impossibly stupid and arrogant news anchor Ted Baxter, played with sliminess and smarminess by Ted Knight, previously best known for his voice work as a narrator on DC Comics cartoons. After Mary Tyler Moore’s series ended, Knight took his two Emmy Awards and starred in the movie Caddyshack and then the ’80s sitcom Too Close for Comfort. He played Henry Rush, a San Francisco-based cartoonist of the comic strip Cosmic Cow who can never get any work done because of his live-in daughters and their annoying friend Monroe.
In 1983, ABC cancelled the once-popular but tanking Too Close for Comfort, but as Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: When TV Sitcoms Sometimes Got Serious Volume 1: 1957-1985 recalls, it was picked up for syndication. Two years later, the show’s setting changed from San Francisco in Marin County, a new theme song was added, and the whole thing was renamed The Ted Knight Show. Also in 1985, Knight was diagnosed with colon cancer. By the summer of 1986, according to the Los Angeles Times, the sitcom was the #1 syndicated comedy on TV. Production ended after Knight died in August 1986 at age 62.
Katherine Helmond of Who's the Boss?
Sure, Katherine Helmond co-starred in fondly remembered films like Brazil, Overboard, and Time Bandits. She voiced Lizzie the Model T in all three of Pixar’s Cars movies. She played a demanding pro football team owner in the latter seasons of the ’90s comedy Coach and had a recurring role on the popular Everybody Loves Raymond. But most people will always recognize the actor for her work as Mona Robinson, the elderly but openly and frankly lascivious live-in mother of advertising executive Angela Bower on the 1984-1992 ABC mega-hit Who’s the Boss? Critics didn’t love Who’s the Boss?, and Katherine Helmond is the only member of the show’s cast to ever receive an Emmy nomination — she got two, in fact.
Helmond performed well into her eighties, including appearances on True Blood, and according to the BBC, she died in February 2019 at age 89 due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Valerie Harper of Valerie
Valerie Harper was nothing short of a sitcom superstar in the 1970s, thanks to her role as Mary Richards’ best friend, fashionable bohemian Rhoda Morgenstern, on The Mary Tyler Moore, and on the popular spinoff, Rhoda. Over the course of two shows, Harper picked up eight Emmy Award nominations for portraying Rhoda, winning four times. After giving films and TV movies a try, Harper was ready to return to regular series television in the mid-1980s, and in 1986 she headlined the NBC family comedy Valerie, tailored just for her. Harper played Valerie Hogan, a busy working mother to three energetic teenage boys. It was a sweet and mildly funny sitcom in that ’80s mold, until it turned tragic. In the Season 3 premiere of Valerie, viewers learned that Valerie Hogan died in a car accident. The series was renamed Valerie’s Family and later The Hogan Family. Sandy Duncan joined the cast as Aunt Sandy, who moved in with the Hogans to help out.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Valerie Hogan’s death was the end result of a financial dispute. Harper wanted more money, but production company Lorimar refused. Harper didn’t show up for work in protest, and ultimately, Lorimar fired Harper then publicly announced plans to kill off her character.
Harper weathered the professional storm and appeared in dozens more projects, mostly TV shows, even after she was diagnosed with a form of brain cancer in 2013, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The disease would eventually lead to Harper’s death in 2019 at age 80.
Mary Frann of Newhart
According to her TCM bio, after Mary Frann found success in the world of pageants, she hosted a Chicago morning show and then moved to Hollywood to make it as an actor. She starred on Days of Our Lives for five years in the 1970s before landing her most famous role in 1982: Joanna Louden, co-owner of an inn in a wacky Vermont town, on Newhart. She played the bubbly, easygoing foil to Bob Newhart’s quietly exasperated Dick Louden on the quirky CBS hit that was twice nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series at the Emmy Awards. Frann worked only sporadically after Newhart ended in 1989, guest-starring on the likes of Diagnosis Murder and Lois and Clark and starring in the tawdry miniseries Jackie Collins’ Lucky / Chances.
In September 1998, according to the Los Angeles Times, Frann died in her sleep at the age of 55, reportedly of heart failure.
Robert Guillaume of Benson
It seemed like the only sane, sensible, and decent person with any sense of self-preservation on Soap, the 1977 to 1981 ABC sitcom send-up of salacious daytime soap operas, was Benson DuBois, the highly intelligent and sarcastic cook and butler for the well-off Tate family. Benson was the classic sitcom smart aleck and breakout character, and after just over two seasons, the character departed Soap for the spinoff Benson, just days after Robert Guillaume won an Emmy for his efforts. He’d take home another statuette for Benson in 1985, by which point the character had worked his way up from head of household for the governor of a never-named state to a potential governor himself.
Benson concluded in 1986, and Guillaume soon got his own series again in 1989, the short-lived The Robert Guillaume Show. He’d appear on dozens of TV shows in recurring or guest roles, along with voicing Rafiki in The Lion King and being part of the regular cast of Aaron Sorkin’s Sports Night. A few years after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, according to CNN, Guillaume died in October 2017 at age 89.
George Gaynes of Punky Brewster
Nearly 70 years old and a working actor in television for well over three decades, George Gaynes finally scored the two biggest and most beloved roles of his life in 1984. That year, he debuted as Commandant Eric Lxrd in the first of seven Police Academy movies, and he also began playing Henry Warnimont, a curmudgeonly photographer who opens his life, apartment, and cold heart to become the guardian of Penelope “Punky” Brewster (Soleil Moon Frye), an abandoned child squatting in his apartment building, on Punky Brewster.
Gaynes stayed on with Punky Brewster for nearly 100 episodes, through its time on NBC and in first-run syndication and voicing Henry in the animated Saturday morning adaptation, too. After Punky shut down in 1988, he went to play recurring roles on the dramedy The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and the political comedy Hearts Afire. In 2016, according to The New York Times, George Gaynes died at the age of 98.
Alex Karras of Webster
Webster was a silly and sweet family comedy, but one with a very sad setup. After his parents are killed in a car accident, precocious and plucky five-year-old Webster Long (Emmanuel Lewis) goes to live with his godfather, George Papadopolis — he’d played pro football with the kid’s father in the ’70s — and George’s wife, Katherine. The childless, yuppie George and Ma’am (as Webster called them) had to adjust to unexpected parenthood while Webster filled their lives with joy, wonder, and sappy storylines.
Big and imposing Alex Karras was believable as a former football player because he really was a former football player, and one of the best to ever play the game. Karras played defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions from 1958 to 1970, was named to four Pro Bowls, and was enshrined in Pro Football Hall of Fame. After playing himself in the football movie Paper Lion, Karras fully moved into acting in the 1970s, mostly playing bullies, bruisers, and tough guys in projects like Blazing Saddles
According to the Associated Press, in the 2010s Karras experienced kidney failure, heart disease, stomach cancer, and dementia, and in October 2012, he died at age 77.
Nell Carter of Gimme a Break!
Broadway didn’t generate widely-known stars the way that it had in the 1950s and 1960s, but Nell Carter was just that undeniable in Ain’t Misbehavin. For the revue, a tribute to the music of early 20th century legend Fats Waller, Carter won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, as well as a Special Class Emmy for a 1982 broadcast of the show. Carter was also nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy that year for the first season of her NBC starring vehicle, Gimme a Break! Bringing her big voice (she sang the theme song) and infectious personality to TV, Carter played Nell Harper, the nosy housekeeper for grumpy police chief Carl Kanisky and his three teenage daughters.
After Gimme a Break! was cancelled in 1987, Carter appeared on lots of comedies, including a significant run on Hangin’ Mr. Cooper, and returned to Broadway for revivals of Annie and Ain’t Misbehavin. According to the Associated Press, Carter collapsed at home in Beverly Hills in January 2003. An autopsy suggested that complications of diabetes and heart disease likely contributed to the actor and singer’s death at age 54.
Ken Berry of Mama's Family
The Carol Burnett Show ended its 11-season run on CBS as primetime’s premiere comedy variety show in 1978, and about five years later, NBC premiered Mama’s Family, a half-hour standalone sitcom expansion of the series’ sketches about a tight-knight Southern family headed up by Mama, who was usually angry and yelling at her shiftless and dopey relatives. Carol Burnett Show cast member Vicki Lawrence reprised her role as the titular matriarch (a.k.a. Thelma Harper), as did Burnett and Harvey Norman as Eunice and Alistair Quince, initially and respectively, while actors new to the world of Mama filled out the cast. Ken Berry signed on to play Mama’s youngest son, the clumsy and oafish Vinton Harper, a role he kept throughout Mama’s Family‘s run, both on NBC and in first-run syndication. Broad, wacky, populist, ensemble sitcoms were familiar territory for Berry. Prior to Mama’s Family, he was best known for his work as farmer Sam Jones on The Andy Griffith Show and its continuation Mayberry R.F.D., and as Capt. Wilton Parmenter on the 1800s-set army comedy F Troop.
Berry essentially retired from acting in 1999, and according to the New York Times, he died at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, in December 2018. Berry was 85.
Jay Thomas of Cheers
A familiar voice in Charlotte and New York City radio in the 1970s (according to WFAE), Jay Thomas started appearing on screen as an actor at the end of the decade, joining the cast of Mork and Mindy in 1979 as Remo DaVinci, sister of Mindy’s best friend Jeanie and co-owner of the New York Delicatessen. After that show ended its lengthy run in 1981, Thomas appeared on several other ’80s sitcoms, including Family Ties and The Golden Girls, before landing a recurring role on Cheers as Eddie LeBec, an odious French Canadian hockey star turned ice show performer who becomes the second husband of bar server Carla Tortelli.
Thomas left Cheers in 1989 when Eddie was killed by a rogue Zamboni during an ice show, and he went on to star on the CBS sitcom Love & War and land another recurring love interest role, this time as Jerry Gold on Murphy Brown. According to CNN, Thomas died of cancer in 2017 at age 69.
Franklyn Seales of Silver Spoons
From 1982 to 1987, Silver Spoons was on NBC. The sitcom for kids starred Ricky Schroder as Ricky Stratton, a tween who goes to live with the biological father, the immature and fun-loving but fabulously wealthy director of a toy company who lives in a gigantic mansion that’s both stocked with arcade cabinet video games and has a kid-size train running through it. Countering the antics of the child and his child-like father, from season two onward, was Dexter Stuffins, the elder Stratton’s stuffy, conservative, and unflappable business manager. Franklyn Seales played the character for four seasons, and apart from a recurring role on the late ’80s church sitcom Amen, notable appearances on Growing Pains and Hill Street Blues, and a main role in 1979’s The Onion Field, he was primarily a stage actor.
Seales trained at Juilliard under the esteemed John Houseman (who had a recurring role on Silver Spoons as Grandpa Stratton), and performed in small and experimental plays in and around Los Angeles, according to the Los Angeles Times. In May 1990, at this family’s home in Brooklyn, New York, Seales died from complications of AIDS at age 37.
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