How ‘Young Sheldon’ Handled George Sr.’s Death In Season 7

How ‘Young Sheldon’ Handled George Sr.’s Death In Season 7
How ‘Young Sheldon’ Handled George Sr.’s Death In Season 7

SPOILER ALERT: The following interview discusses events from the “Young Sheldon” episode “A New Home and a Traditional Texas Torture,” streaming on Paramount+ as of May 10.

We knew it was going to happen — since it was old on “The Big Bang Theory” — but that didn’t make it any easier to say goodbye to one of “Young Sheldon’s” original cast members. In the final moments in the second of two episodes airing back-to-back on May 9, the Cooper family received word that curmudgeon patriarch George Cooper (Lance Barber) had died of a heart attack.

The fate of George dying at this point in Sheldon Cooper’s journey does goes back to the “The Big Bang Theory,” on which we learned that adult Sheldon (played by Jim Parsons, who narrates “Young Sheldon” and is set to appear in next week’s finale episode alongside Mayim Bialik) lost his father at the age of 14. That’s the current age of prodigy Sheldon (Iain Armitage) in the prequel series, and while producers had said this major death would be addressed in the show’s final season, they had not said exactly when it would happen.

Lance Barber on “Young Sheldon.”
Courtesy of Bill Inoshita / Warner Bros.

Now that this heartbreaking loss has happened, “Young Sheldon” will next say goodbye itself in back-to-back episodes airing on May 16, as well as facing the tasks of saying goodbye to the rest of the cast (although its spin-off “Georgie and Mandy’s First Marriage” is set to air this fall on CBS) — and send Sheldon off to his future at Caltech. “The way we brought this show to an end here, it’s emotional,” says executive producer Steve Holland. “I was emotional doing it. It’s emotional for the characters. It’s emotional watching it back.”

Here, Holland also shares how the writers figured out how (and when) to portray George’s death, how Barber took the news about his character dying and what other information from “The Big Bang Theory” needed to be honored.

You guys have done this before, when you wrapped up “The Big Bang Theory.” But how challenging was it to land all the points you wanted before the end of the series?

It’s always challenging, and I think endings are always really difficult. There’s a lot of expectation on the endings, and at some point, you have to put aside what you think the audience wants to see and just focus on the ending you think is good, and then hope that they’re also going to appreciate it . Going into this season was a little extra challenging because we had a strike-shortened season, so instead of 22, we had to get everything we wanted to hit and get it in 14 episodes. But I don’t think there’s anything we wanted to get to that we didn’t get to at the end of the day.

Since you’ve been asked about it for the last seven years, planning George’s death, did you guys know this is how you wanted to play it? Or was it something you kept going back and forth on?

We always knew we were going to address it this season. We always knew we were going to get to the funeral this season. And we always knew that George’s death would happen off screen, that we didn’t want to witness it. It was just a question of when. There was a version of this, as we talked about it earlier on, where it would have been: The finale would have been the death and the funeral. I thought it was Chuck [Lorre, executive producer] who said, “This is mostly a positive, uplifting show. Let’s not leave the audience deep in their grievance. Let’s watch the family start to piece itself back together, and let’s end with a little hope.” So then that re-shifted when we were going to do it.

And then also, just because we know some people are expecting it, I know there’s a lot of talk of whether it’s going to happen or not going to happen, but people who know “Big Bang” are expecting it. We wanted to do it in a way that was hopefully a little surprising. So that’s why it happens at the end of [Episode 12] — we thought maybe we can catch people off guard. Even though they know it’s going to come, maybe they won’t see it coming then.

Touching on “Big Bang,” we’ve known that George died when Sheldon is 14, but were there other details from the show that you had to live up to?

It was pretty much just his age. And to be honest, even “Big Bang” canon isn’t entirely consistent. It got more consistent. We know it was 14 and we know that Sheldon goes to Caltech right afterwards and Georgie and the rest of the family behind grieving. Those were the two pieces that we knew.

Was it a tough conversation to have with Lance Barber, since he knew this could be coming?

He’s known since the beginning of the show that George Sr. had an expiration date. We slowed down time down a little bit. Like, we extended it because the kids, our actual cast members Raegan and Iain, are 16 in real life. We stretched one year out into a couple seasons to keep Lance alive as far as long as we could. But he always knew this was coming.

And I also think it being the last season made it a little easier on him that there wasn’t going to be seasons going forward that he wasn’t going to get to be a part of, but he was great because he really wanted to be there.

In Episode 12, George gets a college coaching job offer that would take him and the family to Houston. What did that story say for the character and the family?

I think it was a little bit to give George a win. There’d been an episode in maybe Season 2 where he had a similar offer, and he turned it down because the family wasn’t ready. So, it was to point out, like, “Thank you.” All the sacrifices he had made for the family, and maybe now things were starting to go his way. It felt like a good sort of bait and switch, knowing the way the episode was going to end, that there was an episode that was about something else and maybe mainly it makes it hurt a little bit more — like, things are finally working out for them. But we really wanted to see him get a win and acknowledge what he had sacrificed for his family and them sort of rally behind him, except for Sheldon, who can tend to be a little self-centered, of course.

Talk to me about the last time we and the family sees George alive. He’s just going to work like an ordinary morning without any big moment. Why?

We really talked a lot about that. It interesting was how much work we put into a scene where nothing exciting happened, and we kept making sure that was the case. We thought a lot about the reality of the situation is that you don’t recognize that these are big moments going into them. You only recognize that these are big moments in retrospect. And dad leaving for work is a thing that happens every day. There was no reason for anyone to stop and think, you know, this moment is special. We also thought that moving forward it left them with a little bit more regret that they didn’t appreciate those moments, but it just really felt like that was very real.

We even pulled out where no one says goodbye to him. We kept pulling things away [from the scene] so no one had a moment. For Missy, he offers her a ride to school and she says she’ll take the bus. Sheldon doesn’t even look up. Mary’s on him about making sure he’s not going to be late later on. No one even says goodbye to him.

We see a few people come back in episode 712, like Sheldon’s childhood friend, Tam (Ryan Phuong) and we see a couple of the teachers at the school. Was there a lot of talk about who you would bring back?

Yeah, definitely. There were certainly some characters that we wanted to acknowledge because they’ve been such an important part of the show. It would have been great to bring back Jason Alexander [who played Sheldon’s teacher Gene Lundy in five episodes], who we love. Some things just didn’t work out logistically, and it didn’t make sense in the story. But Tam had been such a big part of the story, and with Sheldon’s friend — and also trying to keep alive “Big Bang” canon when Sheldon goes off to Caltech, and Tam stays behind with his girlfriend. So trying to make a nod that to Sheldon, they’re still best friends. And then Mr. Givens, and we love Brian Stepanek who plays him.

In the last scene of the episode when the family gets the news that George has died, of course, Missy, Mary and Connie just break down immediately. But was there a lot of discussion about how Sheldon would react? Or was that an easy choice given the character, and how he deals with emotion?

We knew that Sheldon would process things internally, that Sheldon is not an outward emotional person. So it was really just about the details like, is he standing and does he sit or is he already sitting? It was really fine tuning those small details to get the exact right moment for him. But no, the thought that he would not outwardly express his grievance was always baked into the character.

Was it a challenge for Iain Armitage not to just unload his emotions because this big moment’s happening that they’ve all known was coming?

It was interesting, because everyone was processing the moment differently. And also, with the end of the show, we were getting to that point in shooting the show where we were getting into the series of lasts. Everyone had had their last scene with Lance, and there was a lot of real-life grievance and emotions about the show that was coming out in different ways. Like, when we went to shoot that scene [when they find out George has died], even just for rehearsal, Raegan broke down in tears. And I think Ian was trying to keep his mood light, which is, interestingly, a little bit Sheldon. He wasn’t letting himself get into the grievance the way some of the other characters did. It was interesting to watch them all process that moment. It was almost harder for them not to cry in the early parts of the scene than it was for them to cry at the hard part.

What should we expect in those final two episodes airing next Thursday?

You know, the Coopers have to deal with their grievance over the death of George Sr. And Sheldon has to prepare to start his life journey onto Caltech in California.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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