Almost one year since his untimely death, Rizzoli & Isles addressed the passing of Lee Thompson Young in the show’s season 5 premiere on Tuesday, June 17. The former Disney star committed suicide at the age of 29 in August 2013 with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“When I realized that they had not actively dealt with it in the Season 4 finale, my own personal instinct was that it needed to be marked in some way,” new showrunner Jan Nash explained in a new interview with Slate. “They had said he’d gone on vacation, and in a situation where an actor had died, that seemed less satisfying.” (Nash joined the TNT series in November 2013, succeeding producer Janet Tamaro.)
“When I met with [stars Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander], it became very clear that what they wanted was to make sure that we dealt with Lee’s death in a way that was not just respectful to the actor and the role that he had filled in this company, but also to his character,” she continued. “The character needs to be memorialized some way, and if the character is going to die, then on a TV show that deals with crimes, you have two choices. One is to have it be a crime that you investigate. The other is that it is something tragic, that isn’t related to the procedural element of the show.”
With that notion, Nash and the cast decided to have Young’s character Detective Barry Frost die in a car accident on last week’s episode. Further, Detective Jane Rizzoli (Harmon) gave an emotional eulogy during his memorial on the June 24 episode.
“We had one simple principle, which was to make sure that we were honoring Lee and the character of Barry Frost,” Nash added. “If the people who loved Lee chose to see it, they would feel that we were honoring his memory.”
An on-screen death mimicking Thompson’s tragic struggle with depression and bipolar disorder was never seriously considered, Nash revealed.
“Mostly because we wanted to be very careful that it didn’t feel exploitive,” she explained to Slate. “That might have been a case where real life would have been too close and would have made us uncomfortable, because it would have felt like we were exploiting this tragedy for dramatic purposes.”