Actor and internet sensation Leslie Jordan, who died Oct. 24 in a car crash on the way to the set of the Fox sitcom Call Me Kat, appeared in his final episode last month, but it's only this Thursday, as the show returns from a holiday break, that Kat will reveal what happened to Jordan's character, Phil.
And the cast, which also includes Mayim Bialik, Cheyenne Jackson, Kyla Pratt, Swoosie Kurtz and Julian Gant, found making it "a hard week, a very hard episode to film without him," Bialik, who's also an executive producer on the show, explained to Entertainment Weekly in an interview published Tuesday.
"We're still grieving," she said.
The entire show took a break after the heartbreaking development.
"It was obviously a tragic and devastating personal loss for all of us, and he and Cheyenne [Jackson] had a much longer relationship than this show, so it was especially devastating for Cheyenne. But the fact is, we were midseason, we have a lot more to go," Bialik said. "We were also right in the middle of filming an episode that needed to be rewritten and restructured and emotionally rebuilt so that we could figure out how to handle it. We did have to work quickly, and I really do credit Kelly-Anne Lee, our online producer. She and her team, our whole production team — it was a group effort. There were so many moving parts. Our main interest as a cast — and I really was thinking more as a cast member rather than an executive producer — was how do we honor our friend while also honoring a grieving process that doesn't end with two weeks off production?"
The show had been working on the holiday installment when Jordan died, and his character was supposed to be in some of the scenes.
"We had started filming that episode. We were on a Monday of two days of taping that episode when he passed," Bialik said. "We had to restructure some scenes, just some of the blocking and stuff so that it felt a little bit different — so we weren't literally walking the same steps and expecting Leslie to come out when we knew his entrances were. Muscle memory is a strong thing, so it helped a lot to be able to do that."
In Thursday's episode, Phil's absence will be explained, and not with a funeral. In fact, Maria Ferrari, one of the showrunners, told Deadline last month that everyone involved wanted the character to have his "happy ending."
Bialik said the alternative would've been a real struggle.
"When it came to the episode that is essentially his tribute, the cast felt very strongly and completely unanimously that the thought of doing a funeral episode while we are actively grieving our friend — it felt like a hurdle we weren't sure we all wanted to jump together," Bialik said. "I think Leslie Jordan was known so much for being Leslie, and while we also love him and know him as Phil, he's such a beloved personality, truly larger than life. To try to encapsulate that felt challenging in ways that I don't know would've been healthy for us as a cast or a production. So, we found a way for him to live forever. His character will live forever, and he can have whatever adventures we all imagine. And because we break the fourth wall anyway, we were able to use that convention to say simply, we gave this character a happy ending, but there's a lot more going on here."
But it was still tough. In one scene, Bialik's Kat and the others discuss how much they'll miss their friend.
"Our hope was to get it done in one take so that we wouldn't emotionally go through it several times," Bialik said. "But it took a couple takes. We didn't over rehearse those scenes just because we didn't want it to feel rehearsed. And I think that's why we also chose to keep it so brief."
Two other things that are different about the tribute episode: Vicki Lawrence, who co-starred with Jordan on TV's The Cool Kids in 2018, will guest star as Phil's mother, and another, surprise celebrity appears at the end with love for Jordan.
"It's someone that Leslie has already both a professional and personal relationship with," Bialik teased. "It's someone who he admired and considered a mentor of his, and it's someone who has the personality that Leslie always said he would like to be remembered as having."
Call Me Kat airs Thursday, Jan. 5 at 9:30 p.m. on Fox.