There’s a first-season episode of The West Wing called “Take Out the Trash Day,” which explains a notion somewhat common in the news biz: information that is either non-essential or potentially sensitive tends to be all that comes out on Friday, because, as Josh Lyman puts it, “no one reads the paper on Saturday.” As a result, media types tend to check out early on Friday nights, so it’s probably safe to assume that BlackBerries and iPhones all over New York and DC started blowing up just before 9pm last Friday, when MSNBC host Keith Olbermann unexpectedly announced that the current episode of his news and opinion program Countdown was its last.
Television departures tend to be lengthy, protracted affairs, announced months in advance so as to take advantage of the considerable hype and fanfare (and, thus, big ratings) of an extended farewell. Oprah Winfrey’s exit from her eponymous talk show made news nearly a year in advance; Larry King announced his retirement from CNN more than six months before he signed off. Jay Leno tops them all, though; he announced his departure from The Tonight Show a full five years before his 2009 exit. (How’d that go, by the way?) To commemorate Olbermann’s sudden resignation, we’ve rounded up the fascinating stories behind five more of TV’s most unexpected exits.
Jack Paar (The Tonight Show)
Witty, erudite Paar was the second host of NBC’s late-night talk juggernaut, manning the desk from 1957 to 1962. (Johnny Carson was his successor and held the post for 30 years.) The program was wildly successful, but not immune to controversy — though the piece of censorship that led Paar to walk was not his Fidel Castro interview, but a line about a toilet. On February 10, 1960, one of Paar’s monologue jokes was a gag about a “W.C.,” a slang term for “water closet.” NBC cut the entire joke from the broadcast without informing Paar, who announced on the following evening’s program that he was leaving the gig.
‘I’ve been up 30 hours without an ounce of sleep wrestling with my conscience all day,” he told the audience. “I’ve made a decision about what I’m going to do. I’m leaving The Tonight Show. There must be a better way to make a living than this, a way of entertaining people without being constantly involved in some form of controversy. I love NBC, and they’ve been wonderful to me. But they let me down.” And with that, Paar got up and walked off the set — in the middle of the live broadcast. Announcer Hugh Downs thought the host was joking; when he realized it was real, Downs took over and finished out the show.
Paar returned to the program less than a month later (he mused “As I was saying before I was interrupted…”) and apologized to his audience: “Leaving the show was a childish and perhaps emotional thing.”
McLean Stevenson (M*A*S*H)
As the Korean war comedy M*A*S*H entered its third season, comic actor McLean Stevenson was tired of his Col. Henry Blake playing second banana to the hijinks of Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and “Trapper John” McIntyre (Wayne Rogers). When he told executive producers Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds that he wanted out, the duo seized the opportunity to skew the show in a more serious direction, at least momentarily; they decided to kill off Colonel Blake in the third-season finale, which aired on March 18, 1975. To maximize the emotion of the scene, the cast were distributed scripts with an alternate ending, in which the discharged Blake made it home safely. Instead, Gary Burghoff’s “Radar” entered the operating room to report that Blake’s plane had been shot down over the Sea of Japan, killing all on board.
Home viewers were as shocked as the characters onscreen, and wrote angry letters to the network. Stevenson fronted four flop sitcoms in a row after his departure from M*A*S*H; the fourth, Condo, debuted and disappeared in 1983, the same year that M*A*S*H aired its ratings-breaking final episode.
Andy Kaufman (Saturday Night Live)
Surrealist comic Kaufman made a total of 16 appearances on Saturday Night Live; he made his first on the show’s debut episode, with his now-famous lip-synced performance of the “Mighty Mouse” theme. By 1982, most of those involved with the original incarnation of SNL were gone. Kaufman had made a name for himself as a supporting player on Taxi and in a series of increasingly bizarre television appearances, including a staged fistfight during a 1981 live broadcast of ABC’s SNL knock-off, Fridays, and his 1982 fight (also staged) with wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler on Late Night with David Letterman.
Stories vary as to what led to the November 20, 1982 show, during which viewers were allowed decide if Kaufman should continue to appear on SNL; some say it was the result of a nasty confrontation with then-producer Dick Ebersol following a cancelled appearance on the show, while others say it was part of Kaufman’s evolution of his “bad guy wrestler” persona (who, it should be noted, took on women in the ring during previous SNL appearances). Whatever the reason, the phone banks went wild, with the 195,000 “Dump Andy” votes besting the 169,000 “Keep Andy” votes. Kaufman never appeared live on the show again, though he did make a videotaped appearance the following January to thank those who voted in his favor.
Heidi Swedberg (Seinfeld)
George Costanza’s on-again, off-again, painfully awkward relationship with NBC executive Susan Ross led to some of Seinfeld’s funniest moments, especially when George proposed to her on a whim at the beginning of the show’s seventh season. His panic ran throughout the season, as he made several attempts to get out of the engagement; by the season finale, “The Invitations,” he had pretty much resigned himself to the union. But that episode had a darker turn in store: in the Larry David-penned show (his last until the series finale two years later), penny-pinching George selects the cheapest wedding invitations available for the nuptials, and Susan ends up dying from licking the toxic envelopes. Fans were shocked by the episode — not just by Susan’s sudden demise, but the shrugging reaction of George and his friends, who consider her death for a few awkward seconds before heading out for coffee.
Leslie Hope (24)
When 24 debuted in the fall of 2001, the concept was irresistible: a television show in real time, with each hour of the 24-episode season representing an hour of one long day in the life of CTU (Counter Terrorist Unit) director Jack Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland at his intense, growly best). The first season’s “day” concerned the attempted assassination of presidential candidate Sen. David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert), which is enacted via a convoluted plot that includes the kidnapping of Bauer’s daughter Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) and his until-recently-estranged wife, Teri (Leslie Hope).
Considering all that the family makes it through over the course of the season, viewers were shocked when the finale culminated with Teri’s murder at the hand of Nina Myers (Sarah Clarke), Jack’s second-in-command who ultimately betrays him. It was a surprising turn, but it confirmed the show’s anything-goes narrative sense — if Jack’s wife could die, viewers of later seasons would realize, anyone could — and provided a strong emotional springboard for the second season.
What do you think? What TV departures caught you off-guard?