Two survivors of ‘Walking Dead’ death reflect on AMC’s hit series

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It’s graphic and gory.

One of its signature elements is hordes of wandering, heavy-breathing, decomposing beings who have a habit of getting their heads taken off.

And it’s the most popular show on cable.

If you’re not hooked on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” — which resumes its fifth season at 9 p.m. Feb. 8 — you know somebody who is. You likely know a few people who are.

In November, the midseason finale for “The Walking Dead,” which follows an ever-changing group of humans trying to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse, drew 14.8 million viewers and 9.6 million adults in the coveted 18-49 demographic, according to a news release from AMC. In fact, the release states, “Dead” is the top show in all of TV in that age group, beating even the NFL. (Surprisingly, the show often beat NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”)

When the show — based on the comic book series by Robert Kirkman, who’s also involved with the show — debuted on Halloween night 2010, few could have predicted the massive hit it would become.

“I don’t think you can predict anything like that,” says Scott Wilson, who played Hershel Greene on the series and who will be in Cleveland for the city’s first Wizard World Comic Con, Feb. 20 through 22 at Cleveland Convention Center. “It’s like catching lightning in a jug.”

(This would be a good time to point out that this story will talk about events that have occurred in the series, so anyone still catching up through Netflix or DVDs may want to stop reading now.)

Wilson’s Hershel debuted in the second season of the show — which at 13 episodes was more than twice the size of the first season, AMC clearly seeing they had a hit on their hands — and evolved into the pseudo patriarch of the band of human survivors, two of whom were his adult daughters.

A farmer and veterinarian, Hershel at first resisted getting close to the gang of heroes led by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), but over time he became Rick’s most trusted adviser and came to care about all the folks trying to avoid being bitten by the “walkers.” (Following a code honored by other works of zombie fiction, the show never refers to zombies as such, but uses terms such as “walkers” and “biters.”)

When the third season debuted in October 2012 — after Hershel’s farm had been destroyed and the gang had to flee — the formerly clean-cut Hershel was sporting a beard and a ponytail.

“I did that because I don’t know how much time has transpired,” he says. “And maybe since he lost everything, he’d be less concerned with personal grooming.”

Hershel would soon lose more. After being bitten by a walker, Hershel’s leg was amputated to keep the zombie virus from spreading and turning him into one of the undead. Cast members of the show talk about how they never know when their characters may be killed off, so was Wilson worried when he read the script for that episode?

“When he didn’t die when they took the leg off,” he says, “I figured I’d be around for a while.”
He was, but his run on the show did come to an emotional end on the midseason finale of the fourth season. The villainous Phillip Blake (David Morrissey), aka The Governor, slayed him with the katana belonging to another fan favorite, Michonne (Danai Gurira).

“If you gotta go,” he says, “you might as well go out with a bang, you know, dramatically speaking.”

It was a gut-wrenching death for a fan base generally prepared for tough deaths. Wilson, who early in his decades-long career had supporting roles in films “In the Heat of the Night” and “In Cold Blood,” hears it when he attends other Wizard World events and elsewhere.

Scott Wilson talks about early roles in ‘In the Heat of the Night,’ ‘In Cold Blood’

“Most of the fans say how emotional they got when Hershel died,” Wilson says. “They say they cried or their wife cried.

“A lot of people cried when Hershel died,” he continues. “It’s nice to hear that you kind of created a character than impacts people that much.”

Another character who impacted fans, albeit in a different way, was Merle Dixon, portrayed by another Hollywood veteran, Michael Rooker (“Mississippi Burning,” “JFK”). Merle, the brother of series hero Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), was introduced in the first season as a redneck misogynist and racist who clashed with Rick.

Michael Rooker talks ‘Mississippi Burning,’ ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’

Rooker — who also was to be at Cleveland’s Wizard World but will not be able to attend because of a scheduling conflict — has a knack for playing the guy you love to hate. He gets offered a lot of these roles, proof that he’s quite good at them.

“The problem is you can play these roles two-dimensionally, and they turn out OK,” he says during an interview when he was still scheduled to come to Cleveland. “I like to add more of myself. My sardonic humor sort of comes out. My sarcasm comes out.”

It helps, he says, that today’s villains aren’t always like those from years past.

“You play a good guy or a bad guy — it’s not so cut-and-dry anymore,” Rooker says. “The writing’s gotten better.

“The characters have gotten more complicated.”

That’s true of Merle, who disappeared in the first season in memorable fashion, in a way that suggested he might one day resurface. He did, late in the second season, but only in a hallucination Daryl was having after being accidentally shot by one of his own arrows.

“I show up in that situation and egg him on and push him to get his blood boiling,” he says. “(The writers) wanted people to think I was back, but in reality I was just a delusion.”

Rooker says that appearance didn’t do him any favors, him believing that casting agents also thought he was back on the job, or at least likely to be back on the job soon, and perhaps not offering him certain parts.

“I wasn’t waiting around,” he says. “I had to find other work.”

That said, he was ready to jump at a chance to come back full time.

“Of course,” the Alabama native says in his unmistakable Southern intonation. “I’m in the back of my head, ‘When are they going to call me back?’ They left it kind of obvious they were going to call me back.”

They did, for the third season, Merle coming back into play and generally having a negative influence on Daryl. Late in the season, he was turned into a walker and was put down by his brother.

“The Walking Dead” is not an experience he’ll soon forget.

“Every day was interesting and funny, dude. Every time we’d walk on set something interesting would happen,” he says. “Every single day there was something new.”

When filming the first season, Rooker says he thought the producers might have a hit on their hands, but it was hard to be confident. After all, he says, he was watching zombies’ necks being ripped out, their heads being blown off.

“That first headshot threw me for a loop,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘People aren’t going to go for this.’ But they have … and they keep coming back for more.”

Ultimately, he theorizes, the success of the show has less to do with zombies and more to do with relating to the humans. He notes that lots of folks have viewing parties and love to analyze the morality of characters’ choices after watching a new episode.

“It’s the human condition,” he says. “You find yourself thinking, ‘What would I do?’

“That’s one of the basic questions for all actors,” he adds. “At least that’s my approach when I first get a role.

“Now, there’s a distinction between how you would do it and how the character would do it sometimes. … But you’ve got to personalize it.”

While no longer a cast member, he says he still refers to “The Walking Dead” as “our show.”

“I still feel connected with all my friends on the show, even though I’m not there. Their success is my success, as well.”

Wilson has similar sentiments and appreciates his time in the middle of the show’s run.

“The show is built on the shoulders of those actors who did the first season,” he says. “As characters die off, I think the (actors whose characters) survive are walking on the shoulders of those who preceded them.

Adding with a laugh, “Their time will come.”

Andrew Lincoln, left, and Norman Reedus share a scene in November's mid-season finale of AMC's "The Walking Dead."  AMC PHOTO

Andrew Lincoln, left, and Norman Reedus share a scene in November’s mid-season finale of AMC’s “The Walking Dead.”

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