Soap fans were shocked when news began to break last night and became official this morning that daytime television veteran Benjamin Hendrickson, 55, had passed away over the weekend. Hendrickson, who trained at Julliard and won an Emmy for his portrayal of Hal Munson on As the World Turns, has been in the role since 1985, aside from a few brief hiatuses along the way. The cause of death has not been reported, although Hendrickson was rumored to have had health troubles for some time.
However, because many major entertainment outlets rarely report on or are at least slow to report on events that happen in daytime television, the news spread instead through the soap world, primarily via the fan community. Soap Opera Digest broke the story earlier this afternoon. A few minutes later, fans on the Media Domain message board reacted to the news. Someone had posted a rumor of Hendrickson's death the night before but it had been dismissed on the message boards as "a sick rumor" when no further information was made available.
Around the same time, fans on the official Web site of Procter & Gamble Productions, The Soap Box, posted their response to the news within the hour. Minutes later, a representative of the company issued an official release on the fan board. In the past couple of hours, fan response has filled threads at both message boards, as well as others. At this point, the fan community can do no more than address their disbelief, since he is currently playing a central role in scenes where his on-screen daughter is dying of complications from viral pneumonia. (As an ATWT fan and a Ben Hendrickson fan, I am still in shock myself.) By watching a performer play a character several times a week over decades, an even closer character identification often develops than in primetime shows, especially since soap operas are particularly about character and character relationships.
The show tapes several weeks ahead, and Hendrickson's final air date will be next Wednesday. Hendrickson has had various personal issues and rumored health problems that have taken him from the show in the past, including a year's hiatus in which Randolph Mantooth filled the role. While fans accepted Mantooth in the role as a replacement, Hendrickson was soon welcomed back to the show and received a central supporting role upon his return. The reaction to Mantooth's performance demonstrated how fans often feel about recasts of roles portrayed for such a long time by one portrayer in the soaps world. Recasting is accepted in daytime, but it is less accepted the longer an actor has been in the role. The response to bringing Hendrickson back, even though he was not a young or starring performer by that point, shows the powerful relationships actors develop with fans while portraying a role over decades.
The role of Hal Munson is not planned to be recast this time around, according to a statement from PGP. It's not yet clear how his death will be handled on the show.
In the past two hours, soap Web sites have picked up more information based on PGP press releases and more mainstream news sources are beginning to react as well. However, since mainstream news sources often pay little attention to what happens in the world of daytime television (as I've written about before) daytime fans had to spread the word themselves after it was broke by SOD. As of this posting, neither CBS's main page or even its daytime page had acknowledged the actor's passing.
Hendrickson's performance has an important place in ATWT's 50-year history, as he was among a group of 10 or so performers on that show to have lasted in a role for about 20 years or more and remained an integral part of the show. And, whether the mainstream media take note of his importance or not, the fan community and the soap opera press are mourning the loss of one of the genre's most talented veterans.