TV fans in the ’90s had an incredible number of sitcoms to choose from. At any point in the week, viewers could turn on their televisions and watch some of the best comedians in the industry at work. While modern sitcoms fill some of the void and we still have syndicated reruns, times have changed. Sure, we can binge watch multiple seasons of these shows decades after they aired, but it’s not quite the same.
The ’90s were undoubtedly the golden age of sitcoms, but the further we get from that decade, the more of the actors who made it so special we lose. Since an actor’s work and legacy can live on indefinitely, it can be difficult to know or even remember who’s still with us and who isn’t. But there are many, many primetime comedy veterans who have died since the glory days of live studio audiences with laugh track augmentation. Readers may be getting bad news for the first time or a horrible reminder, but here are some of the ’90s sitcom stars you didn’t know have died.
Dustin Diamond had an on-and-off relationship with fame throughout his life. An actor best known for playing Samuel "Screech" Powers on "Saved by the Bell," Diamond enjoyed high levels of success in the late ’80s and most of the ’90s. As countless child actors do, he struggled to maintain that momentum into adulthood. As a result, he morphed into a reality star of sorts, taking on film and television roles that tried to capitalize on his once iconic image, including "Celebrity Big Brother," "Celebrity Fit Club, and "Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star."
But Diamond also struggled with personal scandals: chief among them his allegedly faked sex tape, which he told Oprah was "the thing that [he] was most embarrassed about" and caused him the most career trouble. This, in combination with a string of other controversial decisions and events, did irreparable damage to Diamond’s public image. According to CNN, the actor released a tell-all book in 2009 about his time on "Saved by the Bell," called "Behind the Bell," and was jailed for stabbing a man in a bar fight in 2014.
In January 2021, Diamond was diagnosed with stage four cancer after he went to hospital for pain throughout his body. Despite attempting a round of chemotherapy, the actor died just three weeks after his diagnosis. In a statement to People, a representative for Diamond stated, in part, "Dustin did not suffer. He did not have to lie submerged in pain. For that, we are grateful."
Despite appearing in some enormous films, including "All the President’s Men," "The China Syndrome," and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," Richard Herd’s role as Mr. Wilhelm on "Seinfeld" earned him the most fan recognition. According to The New York Times, Herd logged just 11 episodes of the show, playing George Costanza’s mysterious boss and underling of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. For "Seinfeld" fans, Wilhelm remains one of the most mysterious characters. Similar to George, it’s unclear what Wilhelm actually does or how he keeps a job, given his failing memory, ineptitude, and dishonesty.
Speaking with The Patriot Ledger, Herd described how a childhood illness led to an unlikely skill. "I had osteomyelitis, a serious bone infection, and almost didn’t survive," he said, adding, "I was in and out of Boston Children’s Hospital. Lying there, month after month, you become very stoic. It really stimulated my imagination and I think actually helped me later as an actor." After "Seinfeld," Herd landed roles on "The O.C.," "Rizzoli & Isles," and in "Get Out," a particularly sinister part that allowed him to showcase his versatility late in his career. In 2020, Herd’s wife announced that the actor had died from colon cancer complications at the age of 87.
Fans know Naya Rivera best for her work on "Glee," but she was also a well-travelled child actor who starred as Hillary Winston in the ’90s sitcom, "The Royal Family." She was only four when that show was cancelled because the show’s star, Redd Foxx, died of a heart attack on set. According to Deadline, Rivera saw it all and it impacted the rest of her life and career in the industry. She went on to appear in other ’90s sitcoms, including "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Family Matters."
In the summer of 2020, Rivera’s name was in the news for the most tragic of reasons. According to CNN, the actor went missing while boating with her four-year-old son on a Southern California lake. While the boy was found unharmed in the boat that was drifting driverless on the water, his mother was nowhere to be found. Friends and family gathered on the shore and gave whatever help they could in the search. After an extensive six-day search, the actor’s body was found. Investigators determined Rivera had died saving her son’s life.
For younger audiences, Fred Willard might be best known from his time as Phil Dunphy’s father on "Modern Family," but the comedian has been making film and television audiences laugh for many decades. A regular star in Christopher Guest films, including "This is Spinal Tap," "Best in Show," and "Waiting for Guffman," Willard also made his mark on the ’90s sitcoms "Roseanne" and "Everybody Loves Raymond," among others. According to Variety, he was even nominated for four Emmy awards for his sitcom work, three for "Everybody Loves Raymond" and one for "Modern Family."
In the first of half of 2020, Fred Willard died at the age of 86 from cardiac arrest and complications from some other underlying conditions, as per TMZ. His wife, Mary, had died in 2018. Willard’s friends and admirers gave their condolences to his family and shared their feelings of the man and his work. Jamie Lee Curtis, the wife of Willard’s long-time collaborator, Guest, posted hers on Instagram. "A fond farewell to Mr. Fred Willard," she wrote, adding, "How lucky we all are that we got to witness his great gifts. Thanks for the deep belly laughs. You are now with Mary."
Mary Pat Gleason
Mary Pat Gleason died at the age of 70 in 2020. "For those of you that were unaware, Mary Pat had been fighting the most heroic battle with cancer after being in remission for quite some time," Todd Justice, her manager, reported (via CNN). "She continued to work on shows like ‘The Blacklist’ and ‘Mom’ even through the pain." Lead "Mom" actor Alison Janney posted a tribute on Instagram for the recurring guest star. "We said goodbye to Mary Pat Gleason yesterday," she wrote, adding, "She was part of our @mom_cbs family and we loved her so much. She was one of our favorite guest stars. Her kind heart and warm smile will be missed. RIP dear Mary Pat."
Gleason was never the star of a ’90s sitcom, but she put together an impressive resume in that time, appearing in hundreds of roles, many of them memorable, including her stints on "Saved by the Bell," "Friends," "Sister, Sister," "Step by Step," and "Will & Grace." According to The New York Times, however, her most important contribution to the arts might have been "Stopping Traffic," her "one-woman play about her struggles with [bipolar] disorder."
Throughout most of the ’90s, David Schramm played the cranky Roy Biggins to perfection on "Wings." Outside of that role, he was known as a wonderful stage actor who put together an impressive theater resume over the years. According to The New York Times, Schramm was part of the Juilliard School’s first drama class and won rave reviews on Broadway for his work. That stage success led him to television and, specifically, the role that won him so much recognition among ’90s TV fans.
Few details were released about the actor’s death in 2020, other than that he died at his New York home at the age of 73. Many friends spoke about Schramm’s legacy, including his "Wings" co-star Tim Daly. "Most of you will remember David as the irascible Roy Biggins from ‘Wings’ and that’s too bad. I am here to tell you he was so much more," Daly wrote in an email to USA Today, adding, "He was a brilliant actor and a comic genius. More importantly, he was dear-hearted, complicated, mischievous, and beautifully sensitive. He was a human being. And I loved him. And I will miss him."
Playing two of the most memorable fathers in sitcom history, Jerry Stiller brought plenty of life to his biggest characters, Frank Costanza on "Seinfeld" and Arthur Spooner on "King of Queens." According to The New York Times, Stiller first found comedy success alongside his wife, Anne Meara in the ’60s. The comedy team worked together for years before pursuing solo ventures. Decades later, on "King of Queens," they reunited onscreen and their characters married. Meara died in 2015, as per CNN.
Stiller, the real-life father of comedian and actor Ben Stiller, built himself a strong reputation in the industry. When he died in 2020, the loss was felt by many. Jason Alexander, who played Stiller’s son on "Seinfeld," tweeted about his friend. "He was perhaps the kindest man I ever had the honor to work beside. He made me laugh when I was a child and every day I was with him. A great actor, a great man, a lovely friend," Alexander wrote, adding in a separate post, "Yeah. I adored this man." Leah Remini also shared her thoughts. "I was lucky enough to work with Jerry Stiller, playing his daughter for 9 years on ‘The King Of Queens,’ but even luckier to know him, the man, the husband, the father, the grandfather," she wrote on Instagram, adding, "I am only comforted knowing that Anne & Jerry, the great comedy duo of Stiller & Meara are back together. I will be forever grateful for the memories."
Shelley Morrison’s sitcom fame only occupied the final year of the ’90s, but her character made a big impact in a short amount of time. Playing Rosario Salazar, the maid of Megan Mullally’s character Karen on "Will & Grace," Morrison showcased her comedic abilities and gained herself an army of new fans nearly four decades after she started acting. According to Variety, the actor was only meant to appear in one episode, but her chemistry with the cast was too compelling to ignore. She starred in eight seasons and would have appeared in the "Will & Grace" revival if she hadn’t retired from acting.
According to The New York Times, the 83-year old actor died in late 2019 from heart failure. In a biography published to her website, Morrison addressed her popular character: "Rosario is one of my all-time favorite characters. She reminds me a lot of my own mother, who loved animals and children, but she would not suffer fools. It is very significant to me that we were able to show an older, Hispanic woman who is bright and smart and can hold her own."
Working in various films and TV shows throughout the ’80s, including voicing Shredder in the original animated "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" show, James Avery hit the big time in the early ’90s playing Phillip Banks on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." The veteran actor continued in the industry for decades after that show went off the air, but it was his tough love Uncle Phil character that endeared him to a generation of TV fans and helped him build a powerful legacy.
In early 2014, the world was saddened to learn that Avery died as a result of complications from a late 2013 open heart surgery. TMZ also reported that Avery suffered from kidney disease and diabetes at the end of his life. An outpouring of support from friends and co-stars showed how much the actor meant to his peers. "Some of my greatest lessons in Acting, Living and being a respectable human being came through James Avery," Will Smith wrote on his Facebook page, adding, "Every young man needs an Uncle Phil. Rest in Peace."
Lisa Robin Kelly
Coming from "Days of Our Lives" and smaller roles on shows including "Married… with Children," actor Lisa Robin Kelly reached her highest level of fame playing Laurie Forman, Eric’s sister, on "That 70’s Show" beginning in 1998. After three successful seasons, her character was written off the show. She returned briefly, but exited permanently after the sixth season. "I had lost a baby," she said in an interview with ABC News, adding, "As a result of that, I lost everything, and I was abusing alcohol." That led to a fallout with producers and her exit. "I was guilty of the drinking problem, and I ran," she said. "I have paid my dues."
Unfortunately, Kelly still had some problems to face down. According to TMZ, she was arrested for driving under the influence in 2010. In 2012, TMZ reported that the actor had been arrested for abusing her male roommate, though she denied the allegations. The following year, The Wrap reported that Kelly had admitted herself into a rehab facility. Not long after, she died from "multiple drug intoxication." Kelly’s husband filed a wrongful death report against the facility, as per Westside Today, which was reportedly settled with unknown terms.
Actor and stand-up comedian Yvette Wilson was best known for her character Andell Wilkerson from "Moesha" and the spin-off, "The Parkers." According to The Hollywood Reporter, the 48-year old actor died from stage four cervical cancer in 2012. In a BBC report, friend Jeffrey Pittle said that her cancer was in remission for several years before returning and taking her life. She had received a kidney transplant not long before her death as well.
Through social media, many of Wilson’s friends and co-workers sent messages of love and tribute. "Moesha" star Shar Jackson tweeted (via TMZ), "F**k Cancer! … Oh God. My heart is soooo unbelievably broken. I wanna thank all my tweeties for their prayers but God has chosen to take my sister Yvette home." Jamie Foxx, who worked with Wilson on his show briefly, tweeted, "God bless u Yvette Wilson. Tears in my eyes. Keep God laughing." Sadly, Wilson was missed at the "Moesha" reunion in 2017, along with another deceased co-star, Lamont Bentley.
Lamont Bentley didn’t have long enough to build the resume many thought he was capable of, dying tragically in 2005 when he was just 31 years old. According to the Los Angeles Times, the talented actor was returning home from a screening of one of his new films when he was involved in a fatal car accident. "He was a bright candle that just got snuffed out," his manager, Susan Ferris, said, adding, "He was in a great place emotionally, physically. Everything was going right for him."
Appearing in several shows in the early ’90s, Bentley found a lasting home on "Moesha," playing Hakeem Campbell, the titular character’s friend and neighbor. Beginning in 1999, the character also appeared in the "Moesha" spin-off, "The Parkers." According to Brandy Norwood, the star of "Moesha," a possible reboot could appear on Netflix in the future. "I am in talks right now with the right people for that to happen," she told ET, adding, "I don’t see it not happening because of the success on Netflix. It just makes sense." If that does go through, fans will surely be hoping for a touching tribute for Moesha’s old friend.
While some fans may not necessarily recognize him by face, Earl Hindman’s voice and a simple visual gag helped him create one of the more memorable characters in ’90s television. On "Home Improvement," Hindman played Wilson, the Taylors’ next door neighbor who would only show the top half of his face. According to CBS News, the actor first found fame in theater and moved into film and TV, including starring on daytime’s "Ryan’s Hope" for 16 seasons.
In 2003, just a few years after "Home Improvement" went off the air, Hindman died. According to The New York Times, it was lung cancer that caused his death, and he had just completed his final film, "Beautiful Swimmer." Ten years later, when "Home Improvement" star Patricia Richardson was asked if there would be a reunion show, she thought about Hindman. "Never," she said to TMZ reporters. "No. Earl died. We can’t have one without Earl."
While Richardson’s words came true, Hindman did get a tribute on Tim Allen’s show "Last Man Standing." Allen brought back his Tim Taylor character for the show and referenced his old friend and neighbor. In an interview with TV Line, showrunner Kevin Abbott spoke about the episode. "He wanted to make certain that his affection for the Wilson character and Earl was in there and that it was honest," Abbott said, adding, "It was interesting, because the whole episode moved Tim. He was affected by it."
If nothing else, "Family Matters" introduced huge swaths of the population to Rosetta LeNoire, the actor who played Mother Winslow on the show for nine seasons. According to The New York Times, when President Bill Clinton awarded her with the National Medal of the Arts, he said, ”Rosetta did more than dream of a theater with no color bar — she actually built one." Beginning her career on the stage, LeNoire broke into television during its experimental stage in the 1950s. She also starred alongside Sammy Davis Jr. in the 1958 film version of "Anna Lucasta."
The goddaughter of legendary Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, actor in the famous Orson Welles all-Black play, "Macbeth," and founder of Amas, a theater company that promoted nonracial casting, LeNoire was an icon. Inspired by her work in theatre and helping increase diversity in the industry, a theater award was named in her honor. According to Entertainment Weekly, LeNoire died in 2002 at 90 years of age. "Family Matters" co-creator Bill Bickley said she was a rock for the series. "Every series has a set leader; it can be a director, it can be a star," he said, adding, "But it’s an emotional foundation that an actor brings to a set, and Rosetta had that. Who she was made everybody want to be better."
Appearing in several popular shows throughout the ’90s, Merlin Santana had his longest and most successful run on "The Steve Harvey Show" beginning in 1996. The young actor played Romeo on the show through 2002. Tragically, it was in November of that year when Santana was shot and killed in Los Angeles.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Santana was leaving a friend’s house when he was shot in the head while sitting in his friend’s car. Apparently, a then-15-year old girl had lied to two of her male friends, Brandon Bynes and Damien Gates, saying that Santana had been inappropriate with her. This led the two men to wait in ambush for the actor and kill him as he tried to leave. All three of the suspects were arrested and charged, with the primary shooter receiving 70 years to life in prison.
Reportedly, Santana’s friend and the driver of the vehicle he was shot in was Brandon Adams, the actor who played Jesse Hall in "The Mighty Ducks" and Kenny DeNunez in "The Sandlot." In a rare interview with Jet magazine (via The Chicago Defender), Adams called Santana’s murder "devastating," adding, "It took me a long time to recover from that. [Merlin] was my best friend, and [the murder] was a senseless thing."
David Strickland was young and promising when he died, and the media frenzy that followed his death was vulturous. Coming off of a successful third season of "Suddenly Susan" in 1999, as well as a small part in the Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock comedy "Forces of Nature," the actor committed suicide. The subsequent press was not kind, with the tabloids reporting a slew of speculation about Strickland and media outlets inundating his associates with request for comment. The aftermath was so frustrating to co-star Brooke Shields, she eventually issued the following statement (via the Los Angeles Times): "David was my family, and if the press have even a modicum of integrity, I beg them to spare us their insensitive prying."
According to Entertainment Weekly, Strickland was dating fellow actor Tiffani Thiessen and seemed to be enjoying a career "upswing" when he died. The outlet also noted, however, that Strickland was "a recovering alcoholic" and had a court date on the day his body was found for a previous cocaine possession charge. Comedian Andy Dick was later questioned about his involvement, having apparently spent a few days with Strickland prior to his death.
Strickland’s co-workers were expectedly distraught by the news of his death. "There’s rarely a minute in any day that I don’t have [David] in my mind, Shields told the New York Post.
If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Most admirers of Madeline Kahn’s work will likely remember her best for her collaborations with Mel Brooks, including her appearances in "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein." The New York Times reported that Brooks said of Kahn, "She is one of the most talented people that ever lived. I mean, either in stand-up comedy, or acting, or whatever you want, you can’t beat Madeline Kahn."
Her best work in the ’90s came on "Cosby," where she played the neighbor, Pauline Fox. She spent three full seasons on that show. After taping four episodes for the fourth season, Kahn took a leave of absence after being diagnoses with ovarian cancer. A month before her death in 1999, she spoke about her illness. "During the past year, I have been undergoing aggressive treatment for ovarian cancer," she said in a statement (via Independent), adding, "It is my hope that I might raise awareness of this awful disease and hasten the day that an effective test can be discovered to give women a fighting chance to catch this cancer at its earliest stage."
For seven seasons, the Seaver family shared its story with America on "Growing Pains." While the show has become a trivia question for younger generations for featuring young actor who became megastars, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, it was a ratings giant in the late ’80s. Years after the show went off the airways, much of the staff continued thriving in the industry — and Kirk Cameron did his strange thing.
"Growing Pains" patriarch Alan Thicke bounced around for a while between shows and movies. He also had a pretty successful music career making theme songs for TV shows, including "Diff’rent Strokes." His son, Robin, became a super successful musician as well with his hit song "Blurred Lines" and then became super controversial, because of his hit song "Blurred Lines." But, in late 2016, tragedy struck the "Growing Pains" family. According to People, Thicke was playing hockey with one of his sons when he experienced chest pain. Not long after arriving at the hospital, he died of a ruptured aorta at the age of 69.
Thicke’s memorial service was attended by family and friends. Bob Saget and Alex Trebrek attended, as did the cast of "Growing Pains," including DiCaprio and Cameron. In the aftermath, the Thicke family was plagued with in-fighting, legal battles, and what-ifs from an oddly accurate psychic reading that took place prior to Alan’s death.
Playing Mrs. Dubcek on "3rd Rock from the Sun," Elmarie Wendel found her most successful role in a career that spanned several decades on stage and film. Wendel’s character on the show was one of its high-points, the sexually-liberated landlady who helped the aliens navigate their own relationship problems. According to Variety, Wendel died in 2018. Her death was announced in a short social media post by her daughter, "You were a great mom and a badass dame."
Jim Beaver, the actor who played Happy Doug for only a few episodes on "3rd Rock from the Sun," found a few more words. "She was raucous, funny, endearing, and terribly, terribly sweet," he posted on Facebook, adding, "Goodnight, Mrs. Dubcek, wherever you are." After the hit NBC show ended, Wendel continued acting on Broadway and in television shows, including "George Lopez." She also did some voice acting, including voicing Aunt Grizelda in "The Lorax." She was 89 when she died.