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The 7 Saddest TV Deaths of the '90s

From dramatic special episodes to soap opera tragedies, these plot twists shocked audiences.

These days, major characters dying on television is old hat, and we can probably thank the rise of prestige TV for that. In earlier decades, character deaths were more rare. But from The Sopranos to Lost to Game of Thrones, one show after another pulled the rug out from under viewers by axing pivotal players left and right, with nary a concern for alienating audiences.

For their former rarity, character deaths used to hit that much harder. These days, we go into a show expecting our favorites might not make it through a season alive, but three decades ago, it still came as a shock whenever a main character was killed off. Read on for seven of the saddest TV deaths of the '90s. (Spoilers ahead, obviously!) If you watched these shows back then, you still probably haven't gotten over them today.

READ THIS NEXT: The Saddest Movie Deaths of All Time.

Gary Shepherd, Thirtysomething

Peter Horton in Thirtysomething
MGM Television

Thirtysomething is a series that lives and breathes late-'80s yuppiedom, but one of its most defining moments came during the 15th episode of the series fourth and final season, which aired in 1991. In "Fighting the Cold," stay-at-home mom Nancy (Patricia Wettig) survives a surgery for ovarian cancer, only for one of her best friends—college professor, environmentalist, and human golden retriever Gary—to die in a bicycling accident. (Word is actor Peter Horton wanted to move into directing, which he did with some success.) It was a wrenching, emotional moment in a show defined by its solipsistic early mid-life crisis navel-gazing—but in a good way. The death of one of the core gang led the surviving, now mid-thirtysomethings to take stock of their lives—and gave beloved TV characters everywhere reason to watch their backs.

Scott Scanlon, Beverly Hills 90210

Douglas Emerson in Beverly Hills, 90210
CBS Television Distribution

It doesn't get much sadder than accidentally shooting yourself in the stomach on your birthday—after finding out that the few folks who came to your lame party were cajoled by your mom and blackmailed by your ex-best friend. Such was the death of Beverly Hills, 90210's Scott Scanlon (Douglas Emerson) after producers decided they could only afford one nerdy sophomore at the beginning of Season 2 of the teen series and chose to keep Brian Austin Green's David. Rather than permanently send Scanlon off to Oklahoma as originally planned, producer Charles Rosin decided to address gun violence in a "very special episode" of the show. The aftermath leads David to lament that no one cared about Scanlon until he died, making viewers' hearts sink over a character they too had failed to care about until that moment. R.I.P. Scott, even if the gang forgot you existed one episode later.

B.J. Jones, General Hospital

Brighton Hertford in General Hospital
Disney Platform Distribution

The 1994 death of seven-year-old B.J. Jones (Brighton Hertford) on the soap opera General Hospital goes down as one of the most impossibly sad TV storylines of all time, landing actors Brad Maule and Jacklyn Zeman each Daytime Emmy nominations for their heartbreaking work as the little girl's parents, Tony Jones and Bobbie Spencer. Young B.J.'s school bus is struck by a drunk driver, landing her hospitalized and on a ventilator. Viewers watched as her parents—a doctor and a nurse—not only struggled to come to terms with the fact that their daughter was clinically brain dead, but also made the decision to take her off life support and donate her heart to her sick younger cousin, Maxie (Robyn Richards). Following B.J.'s death and the transplant that saves Maxie's life, Tony presses his ear to Maxie's chest to listen to her heart continue to beat in her cousin's chest. If that isn't enough, Maxie too later learns that her cousin is dead when she plans a welcome home party for when B.J. leaves the hospital. Her mother Felicia (Kristina Wagner) tells her B.J. already did leave the hospital—to go "straight to heaven," leading the little girl to lament that she didn't say goodbye. But she did, Felicia shares, by giving her her heart. Sob.

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Bobby Simone, NYPD Blue

Jimmy Smits and Dennis Franz in NYPD Blue
20th Television

NYPD Blue was a groundbreaking mid-'90s cop drama for more reasons than just its rule-breaking (for network TV) foul language and (mostly male, mostly rear end) nudity. The show also cut its main character—twice, though only once fatally. Breakout first season star David Caruso left the role of leading man Detective John Kelly a few episodes into the second season, amid gossip about the actor's diva-like behavior; though the character never returned, he remained alive offscreen and was occasionally mentioned thereafter. Not so for the exit of Caruso's replacement, Jimmy Smits as Detective Bobby Simone. After four years of grisly murder investigations, the character was felled by a post-transplant heart infection in the early fifth season episode "Hearts and Souls." His death was a sweeps-week sensation, delivering the series' best ratings in three years.

Dan Conner, Roseanne

John Goodman on Roseanne
Carsey-Werner Distribution

The death so sad the producers had to undo it, because the prospect of launching a Roseanne revival without the sitcom's patriarch and leading man was unthinkable. Across nine seasons of the smash hit blue collar comedy, John Goodman's Dan was an able foil to the acerbic Roseanne (Roseanne Barr) and a loving, if perpetually exasperated, father to his three children. In many ways, he was the soft, beating heart of an often darkly funny, acid-tongued show. Which is why it was so sad when, in the final episode of the series, Roseanne's voiceover narration revealed Dan had actually died of the heart attack he was shown to survive in the eighth season finale, and that everything that the controversial ninth season depicted—including the Conners winning the lottery—was invented by Roseanne (the character), writing and changing her life story as a means of coping with the death of her husband. When the show came back for a 10th season in 2018, history was rewritten again: The lottery win remained a fiction, but Dan came back to life (and went on to head the spinoff The Conners after Roseanne was fired from her own show in the wake of racist tweets).

Jadzia Dax, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Terry Farrell in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
Paramount Domestic Distribution

Star Trek: The Next Generation tortured viewers in 1988 with the sudden death of Security Chief Tasha Yar, engineered when actor Denise Crosby left the show after growing bored with her thankless role. The spin-off Star Trek: Deep Space Nine followed that up with its own death-by-contract negotiations in 1998 when, at the tail end of the penultimate season, it offed original crew member Jadzia Dax. Terry Farrell declined to return as a full-time cast member, citing exhaustion and a poor working relationship with producer Rick Berman. Given that Dax was a quasi-immortal symbiotic being, the show explained things by quickly transplanting the character into a new host, Ezri Dax (played by Nicole de Boer), but fans never fully recovered. (Farrell's post-Trek career fared better and included a multi-year run on the sitcom Becker.)

Doyle, Angel

Glenn Quinn in Angel
20th Television

Some TV deaths echo tragically in real life. When the affable Doyle left the employ of crime-fighting vampire detective Angel (David Boreanaz) in the first season of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff by dying in a final act of selfless heroism, there was more involved than a mere plot twist. Actor Glenn Quinn, a veteran of Roseanne, was struggling with substance abuse at the time, and his erratic behavior led producers to write the character out of the show. Angel is a fantasy, so of course there was always a chance Doyle could return. The writers even hatched a plan to make it happen, but sadly, Quinn died of a drug overdose in 2002. The series paid touching tribute to the character (and actor) in its monumental 100th episode, "You're Welcome," which aired in 2004.

Joel Cunningham
Joel Cunningham is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. Read more
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