July 7, 2006
Fans Debate How They Should React to Actor's Death

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the death of As the World Turns star Benjamin Hendrickson and how, in the lack of initial coverage from most mainstream media, the fan community spread news about the particulars of his death virally and posted tributes to him in various places, including YouTube.

Since then, shows such as The Insider and publications like The New York Post have covered Hendrickson's death, but the fans are still providing each other with important details and, as a group, trying to come to terms with the death of someone who they have watched perform consistently for the past two decades. What spurned much of the discussion was a claim made in the Post article and subsequently picked up by FOX News and others that, since the episodes currently airing feature his character Hal Munson at his daughter's bedside as she dies of complications from viral pneumonia, his depression about the death of his mother a few years ago was worsened by the material from the show and that it drove him further into depression.

Fans immediately saw the lack of logic in this claim, since the show is taped a month in advance or more. These fans have rightfully criticized these unsubstantiated claim from the magazine. Further, on the Media Domain board, a popular poster revealed that, during his year sabbatical from the show, Hendrickson had to have all of his teeth replaced by implants and learn to speak properly again. When he returned to the show, many of the fans noticed his slurred speech patterns and often questioned or commented on Hendrickson's health and the reason for his trouble speaking. According to this poster--MaryHatch--a close relative of Hendrickson's had said that his preoccupation with his appearance and speech helped drive his depression, not the content on the show, especially when Hendrickson found that some fans were speculating about his health and appearance online.

While the message boards at Media Domain are usually used to debate the show, over half of the debate has instead been regarding Ben's suicide and its repercussions. Since the show isn't recasting, how will his character leave the show? Will he be killed in the line of duty or perhaps will they depict his death from depression over his daughter's death, closely related to part of the reason the actor's death has been attributed to? And the fans are questioning their own implications in the actor's depression, especially since criticizing performances and even actors' appearances is a regular part of the discussion in online fan communities. Should fans feel guilty?

The rest of the online posts have been dedicated to online tributes to Hendrickson. Fans are organizing petitions to Procter & Gamble Productions to ask that an entire episode be dedicated to the Hal Munson character. Fans on the official PGP Soap Box fan message board are posting on a thread that will be sent directly to the family of Ben Hendrickson. And, off Newsday, fans are posting to a Legacy online guest book for Hendrickson. At this point, almost 600 fans have already posted their condolences from most of the 50 states and the Canadian provinces, as well as the Netherlands and elsewhere.

I've posted before about the power that these online guestbooks have given fans to demonstrate their dedication and concern for an actor. These new outlets give fans a way to organize and discuss their grief. Since this is an actor whose character they have grown close to over the years, how much of a right do they have to grieve? Is it considered obsessive fan behavior to be overly upset about Hendrickson's death? Is it okay to cry? Is it okay to send flowers? These online forums give fans a way to legitimately express their sympathies without seeming to overstep the boundaries of their relationship with the actor. And online fan communities give fans a way to organize, debate, and process their feelings about this tragedy collectively.


On July 9, 2006 at 12:14 AM, lynn said:

a couple of things, sam. i know we discussed the ny post article privately, and i don't feel the tone was quite as bad as you. but, i have to take exception to your contention that the post "claimed" that the jennifer death-bed scenes exacerbated the depression he felt over his mother's death. the actual quote,

"Hendrickson had been filming scenes in which his TV daughter is dying -- and that may have been the final straw as he fought his own real-life depression,"

seems to me more of an attempt to make sense of a senseless tragedy, than a claim that this is what actually happened. it's not as though the post suggested that he taped those scenes, then went home and killed himself.

and even given the lag time between tape and air, it's not at all out of the realm of possibility that taping those scenes, in some way, small or large, exacerbated his depression. we'll likely never know exactly what pushed him over the edge.

also, i meant to mention in our earlier correspondence that the byline on the post piece was share by robert rourke, who had been a staff writer for both soap opera digest and soap opera weekly.

On July 9, 2006 at 1:14 AM, lynn said:

also meant to mention that i found that ap story/obit that appeared in both the new york times and the boston globe (and likely other news outlets, as well) to be very stark and cold (reminded me of joe friday on dragnet, "just the facts, ma'am"), and far more upsetting than the post piece, which at least filled in some of the details of his life and tried to create a little context, however speculative, for what had happened.

On July 10, 2006 at 1:31 PM, Sam Ford said:


Good points here, and I do agree with you that the Post did include more personality and relevant information than other articles, which is why so many other outlets went to them to get further information. On the other hand, the Post does not adhere to traditional journalism rules, but other people have treated their articles like they do.

I guess here's what I'm saying--there may be nothing wrong with speculating that filming the scenes with Jennifer is the "final straw," becuase one can at least see where someone would get that idea, especially considering Ben's history with other peoples' personal illness. The problem is that this was just the reporters' opinions, not quoted or attributed to anyone else, and that it's been picked up and discussed other places now as fact, when it is far from so.

This is because reporters don't traditionally put conjecture in their articles unless it is attributed to a particular person who is not the writer, or else it is an editorial and not a hard news story.

As you mentioned, hard news stories can border on being too cold if not done well, which is what the Times general piece does. I think there could have been a balance in between, where sources could speculate on Ben's death instead of reporters, or else where the piece could clearly have been written as editorial instead of as a factual report.

The problem, in the end, may not be as much the Post piece as the way that news was then transferred to other places. As you saw on the Media-Domain board, the assertion that Ben may have committed suicide based on the scenes he played on ATWT is causing a lot of heated debate over anyone's right to make those claims, etc.

I agree that the claim is not out of the realm of possibility, but my journalism training kicks in as far as whether it is the reporters' job to try to personally "make sense of a senseless tragedy."

I've talked with some other fans and a writer for another soap opera who felt that the report went over the bounds of what a news article should in making a claim like that, but it isn't like even the writers of the Post piece were trying to say that ATWT writers should be to blame.

I just wish that both pieces had been able to include more comments from cast members, etc., who could have shared more about Ben's personality and life. Instead of celebrating his life, the focus of the later pieces have been about a soap star's suicide instead of a retrospect on a respected acting career (probably because many of those involved in covering the story do not necessarily respect soaps). That's what makes the difference with having someone like Robert Rourke in the story...he could fill in some details. Even if I don't like the tone of the Post's coverage, I still appreciate their attention to detail and fact compared to other sites and publications.

On July 10, 2006 at 10:40 PM, lliccardo said:

i did notice that the speculation regarding the death-bed scenes were not attributed to any source. it was sloppy, not way around that. however given the tone of dome media domain posters, i'm not sure that had the death-bed speculation been attributed to "souces on the set" things would have been much different in terms of reaction. reading through the posts, it was clear that many media domain posters hadn't read the ny post speculation carefully and were reading far more into it than was actually there -- understandable given how upset we've all been.

On July 11, 2006 at 6:13 AM, Sam Ford said:

I agree with you regarding the Media-Domain folks. A lot of people's genuine emotions really come to the surface in situations like this. I think it's because soap characters/actors are seen on such a regular basis that it does create a closeness with both actor and Oakdale resident that doesn't exist in other television genres, or at least few of them. I guess you've seen that they are going to have a tribute to Ben on Wednesday. I assume that it will be a couple of weeks out or more before they are able to address the death of Hal Munson, if that's the direction they're going.

On August 7, 2006 at 1:19 PM, rose hampton said:

i just wanted to again say how sorry i was to hear of the tragic passing of benjamin hendrickson, back in july. alot of people will not believe me when i say this, but i know what he wen't through, because i have suffered as well. in 1996 my husband died, i was 26, he was 28. 12 weeks later, my brother-in-law died of cancer in 1996. when my hubby died, he passed on feb,11, same date as my grandmother's death in 1964. i buried him on feb 22, 1996, i believe she was also buried on that same date. my brother-in-law died on may 4,1996. 3 yrs earlier my aunt kathleen also died on may 4,1993. same date. then on nov 16, 2002, my aunt jean passed away, 8 months and 4 days later, my mother 69, died un-expectedly without warning. then on may 17, 2004 my father died at age 90, only to be brought back from death after 20 minutes, he was dead and the paramedics tried everything to revive him, but at the exact 20th minute, when they were getting ready to give up, he began breathing again, he had a pulse, a heartbeat, was good, but he was in for the fight of his life, god wasn't ready for him yet, he was brought back from death. he suffered from dementia, prostate cancer, copd, and other ailments. he was a fighter, the doctors said he would not make it thru the night, guess what they lied. god had other plans for dad. we as his family decided to remove him from life support and let him come home to die with dignity, the doctor's said he wouldn't make it, they lied again, dad not only was taken off life support, he was breathing on his own, and came home for 2 weeks, then he finally died on may 17, 2004. the same day my grandparents were married on may 17, 1911. 6 weeks after my father died, my cousin dennis died in his house,not sure what killed him, then 2 months later, my uncle died, dennis' father. everything seemed like a never ending story, but we got thru it, then on feb25,2005 my sister's dog tiny died at age 15, then 5 days later my beloved pup goobydoo died at age 19. i just wished that if i had known ben, maybe he would of still been alive today, i could have been his rock to lean on, or shoulder to cry on. if he had known what i wen't thru, you see i feel for ben because the same year his mother died, my mom also died. july 19, 2003. 4 days prior to what would of been her 70th birthday. so i know what he felt. same year as his brother stephen died, is the same year my hubby died and brother-in-law also died. so i know what his pain was. i am still today a widow. at age 36, i don't date anymore, because i'm afraid to love again. i have been raising our daughter ashley since her dad died. she was only 7and a half months old, she remember's nothing about him. but i have to keep his memory alive for her. and i will do the same for benjamin. if i knew i had a chance with this man, i would have jumped at it in a heartbeat, we both shared tragedies, in different states, but we were together in sorrow and pain. i know what he felt, the shame of depression and guilt of being alive while your loved ones arent. i know because i have lived thru it. so i just hope that ben is now at peace, and that no matter how he handled his decision to end his life, i will love this man forever. i never knew this man, but i grieve for him, and on his birthday, i will release a balloon for him in remembrance. rest in peace baby. someone who will never forget you, love forever, rose hampton, pookypops36@wmconnect.com

On August 10, 2006 at 3:19 PM, Sam Ford said:

Rose, I know that there are many fans who are still coming to grips with Benjamin's passing, especially since the situation of his character, Hal Munson, has not yet been handled. From all reports, Benjamin will be greatly missed on the set and by his family...