"Downton Abbey" Creator Was a "Marked Man" When He Killed Off Matthew Crawley
The story behind the biggest blow in the show's history.
Downton Abbey ended its six-year run in the U.S. in 2016 with producers hinting that it might not be the last time viewers would see their favorite characters from the beloved British period series. And now, three years later, the long-awaited film version of Downton Abbey is opening in the United States on September 20th. Fans are rejoicing, but according to series creator Julian Fellowes, some are still mad at him for killing off Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) in a car crash in the final episode of the third season. In that same episode, just minutes prior, Matthew met his newborn son and professed his undying love to his wife, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), so to say it was a blow to viewers is an understatement.
"I was a marked man," said Fellowes when I asked him about the uproar that ensued after he killed off Matthew, who'd previously survived life threatening injuries sustained in World War I. "I had letters—I can't even begin to tell you."
Viewers in the U.K. were the first to learn of Matthew's unexpected death when the episode aired on Christmas Day across the pond in 2012. ("That certainly didn't help," Fellowes said.) Fans tuned in expecting the usual warm and fuzzy traditional Christmas special, only to nearly choke on their fruitcake. Fellowes told me the reaction was so strong, that the producers decided to try to soften the blow for stateside viewers by leaking hints about the actor's departure ahead of the airing the episode in the United States in 2013.
"It was such a shock here that we did leak it on social media just a little bit in America because we didn't want that same kind of suicidal shock," he said.
Stevens alerted producers that he wanted to leave the show after production on the third season had already begun, which put Fellowes in a creative quandary. The highly emotional season had already included the heartbreaking death of another main character, Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), who died after giving birth to her baby daughter. Findlay had told producers well in advance that she only planned on staying with the show for three years, the standard length for actors contracted to appear on television series in the U.K.
"I wasn't unsympathetic. My problem was that if I'd known earlier, I probably would have killed him and Jessica together in a car crash or something," said Fellowes. "I'd already written episode five and cast it. I couldn't have a whole other death where we'd have funerals and memorials and the only way to avoid that was to kill him in the last shot of the last episode."
Fellowes told me he proposed killing Matthew off in the first episode of the fourth season, but Stevens had other plans. "It was hard for him. He was offered a movie, a play on Broadway, and all these things. Of course he's very handsome and he was young and full of vigor," Fellowes said. "When you're an actor, you can only follow your gut. There's no rule book that means anything."
All of this resulted in what remains one of the most talked about events in the history of the hit series. "I didn't want him to go at all. I loved Dan and I thought he was marvelous," said Fellowes. "It doesn't occur to [fans] that you've written a character out because the actor wanted to do [other things]. With certain characters, they don't have to die. But with the family, if you're not going to see them again, they have to die. There's just no way 'round that."
Last August, Stevens shared a photo of himself alongside Dockery and Allen Leech on Instagram, asking, "Should Matthew have a mustache for the #DowntonAbbeyMovie…? Vote below…" He appeared to be teasing fans of the character's potential return in Downton's big screen adaptation, but sadly, the actor does not appear in the movie. And for more about the upcoming film, check out these 11 Secrets About the Downton Abbey Movie.
Diane Clehane is a New York-based journalist and author of Imagining Diana and Diana: The Secrets of Her Style.
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