After Tragedy Struck One Will & Grace Star, Debra Messing Shared A Candid Confession With Her Fans

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The sitcom Will and Grace – which starred Eric McCormack and Debra Messing – worked its way into the public consciousness as one of the first American shows to represent gay people positively. It aired during an era where homophobia was still rampant, but became a massive success anyway. However, one of its main stars passed away in 2019, and Messing decided to write out a tribute to her.

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Will & Grace was originally created by Max Mutchnick – who is himself a homosexual – and his pal David Kohan. They based the show on Mutchnick’s actual relationship with Janet Eisenberg, the woman who brought Mutchnick and Kohan together in the first place. In essence, Mutchnick and Eisenberg were the real-life Will Truman and Grace Adler.

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NBC agreed to go ahead with the show and cast Messing and McCormack. But it was a very different time for putting gay characters on TV. Just a year before, in 1997, Ellen DeGeneres had come out on her sitcom in an episode titled “The Puppy Episode.” After that, the ratings for her show slid down and it was cancelled.

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Despite that, the first episode of Will & Grace aired on September 21, 1998. That same day, The Palm Beach Post published an interview with Kohan. Here, he said, “Will & Grace had a better shot at succeeding where Ellen failed, however, because Will has known about his homosexuality for 20 years. He’s not exploring that awkward territory for the first time, as Ellen did. The process of self-discovery and the pain most gay men go through is fascinating, but the average American is put off by it.”

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Things were far from easy for the cast members at first. Sean Hayes – who played Jack – didn’t dare reveal that he himself was gay until after the show was done. In 2018 he told The Guardian, “We would get death threats to the show and I was scared. I didn’t have the tools at such a young age to deal with the ramifications of coming out as gay in a huge public way.”

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Yet the talents of the cast and the vividness of the characters made the show a hit. McCormack as Will, Messing as Grace, Hayes as Jack and Megan Mullally as Karen undoubtedly made for a winning quartet. And in season three, Shelley Morrison as Rosario Salazar was promoted to become a regular, having been a sparsely recurring presence before that.

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By the time the show ended in May 2006, it had more than made its mark. In 2012 Vice President Joe Biden told David Gregory, “I think Will & Grace did more to educate the American public than almost anything anybody has ever done. People fear that which is different. Now they’re beginning to understand.”

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And many of the cast members remained friends long after the last episode aired. In October 2013 Messing and McCormack appeared on NBC’s Today Show and revealed that after years of playing best friends on the show, they were still pretty close. Messing said, “We go out to dinner and freak people out.”

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However, rumor had it that Messing wasn’t remotely as close with another member of the cast. Reportedly, she and Mullally didn’t get along at all. In 2017 Will & Grace was revived by NBC, which was very good news for fans. But at the time, the celebrity gossip website RadarOnline reported that the two actresses were feuding over the spotlight.

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To make things worse for the revival, not everyone wanted to come back to the show, either. Though the original four main actors all signed up, Shelley Morrison had given up acting at that point. Her last on-camera role had been in an episode of My Name is Earl in 2006, though she did voice work for a few productions after that.

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During a 2017 Television Critics Association’s press tour, Mutchnick told the media, “Shelley has decided to retire. It was with a heavy heart that she gave us that information and that we received it, but it is the way that it goes. It is a choice that she has made. We really wanted Shelley to be a part of this series, so we find ourselves having to figure that out moving forward.”

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Mutchnick was asked if the character of Rosario had any future on the show at all – perhaps as a character who was mentioned but never seen. He answered, “We’re not going to be doing that. The audience has come to know and love her – as we do – and we’re dealing with her as a character and we’re writing to it very specifically.”

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As it turned out, the writers simply killed Rosario off – but in an appropriate and touching way. After a few episodes of the show in which the character was referred to but not seen, in the episode Rosario’s Quinceañera Karen suddenly got the news that her old friend had died of a heart attack.

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The episode was genuinely touching, and a sad sendoff for a character which so many people had loved. Mullally’s Karen was so devastated over the loss that she skipped the funeral and went to the bar instead. Eventually, she was convinced by Will to sit by the coffin, where she whispered “Te amo, mommy” to Rosario.

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Fans of the show might have been fooled, though, into thinking that Rosario was actually returning to the show that episode. After all, just before it aired, Mullally posted a picture of herself and Morrison on to her Twitter. But as it turned out, Rosario’s return just wasn’t to be.

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That Will & Grace episode suddenly took on a much stronger relevance in December 2019, because it was then Morrison herself passed away. According to the actress’ publicist Lori DeWaal, she had succumbed to heart failure at a hospital in Los Angeles. She had been 83 years of age at the time.

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It was also in 2019 that Will & Grace was cancelled again, this time seemingly for good. Rumors flew that the Mullally-Messing feud had gotten out of hand to the point of causing NBC to end the show. Whether that was true or not, Mullally’s social media activity did seemingly indicate she and Messing were no longer friends.

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Publicist DeWaal’s statement referenced Will & Grace. It went, “Shelley’s greatest pride as an actress was in playing the indomitable Rosario, in a comedy series that furthered the cause of social equity and fairness for LGBTQ people. She also took pride in portraying a strong, loving yet feisty Latina character. She believed that the best way to change hearts and minds was through comedy.”

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Morrison herself spoke about her time on Will & Grace back in 2008, after she had finished playing Rosario for good. That year she told the website FindingDulcinea, “Here was a role of a Hispanic woman who was smart, who could give as good as she got. And she would take a bullet for Karen.”

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Morrison was asked what she considered to be the most notable thing about portraying Rosario. She answered, “Once, when I was in the checkout line at the market, one dear, elderly African-American gentleman stopped me and he said, ‘Thank you for bringing dignity to a woman of color.’ That had such an impact on me.”

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She also said, “The only time that I would fight for anything on the show… was if I felt they had Rosario doing something that was demeaning. It only happened twice, in all the years that I did the show. One of the times it looked like they really weren’t going to budge. And I came home and I said to my husband, ‘Well it was a good gig, but I can’t back down.’”

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Yet, of course, Morrison stayed with the show, and she ended up making friendships on the set. In 2018 she revealed to the magazine Closer Weekly that Mullally had helped her fight breast cancer back in 1998. So, just as Rosario and Karen were friends onscreen, it seems that it extended to real life, as well.

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Morrison told Closer Weekly that at one point, Mullally had even gotten her into a car and driven her to a doctor when she needed medical attention. The older actress said, “She really helped, and I’ll never forget how she was there for me. Megan’s my heart. She’s been a good friend.”

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In the same interview, Morrison also spoke about her husband Walter Dominguez. She said, “He’s so affectionate, which is a biggie when you’re going through something like cancer.” She also mentioned her attitude to life, saying, “Every day is a new opportunity. This is a tough journey to go through. You need to smile as much as possible to make it a bit easier.”

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As soon as the Will & Grace cast heard about Morrison’s death, they paid tribute to her on social media. Debra Messing wrote a sad Instagram post. It read, “Oh, Shelley… what a loss. Our dear Rosario has passed on. Shelley had a career that spanned decades, but she will always be our dear Rosie.”

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Messing went on, “She was a kind soul with a huge heart and always had a smile on her face. All my love to Walter and the entire family.” She finished the post with a hashtag of Morrison’s name and a crying emoji. In the comments beneath the post, many other people left small tributes to Messing’s late friend.

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One person wrote, in reference to an earlier TV show Morrison had starred in, “Big fan of hers since she was in The Flying Nun. She will be missed.” Another wrote, “[Will & Grace] has brought us so much joy over the years… Ms. Morrison was icing on the cake. I’m so sorry you lost your friend.”

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But that wasn’t the only touching tribute. Megan Mullally wrote on Twitter, “Just got a bulletin on my phone that Shelley Morrison has passed. My heart is heavy. Putting Shelley, her beloved husband Walter and their children in the light. Thank you for your friendship and partnership, Shell. You accomplished wonderful things in this world. You will be missed.”

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Sean Hayes wrote on his Facebook page, along with a heart emoji, “Such sad news. Our beloved Shelley Morrison passed away today. She was absolutely hilarious and had the biggest heart. She was a part of our Will and Grace family and will be greatly missed. My heart goes out to her entire family.”

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And Eric McCormack wrote on Twitter, “Shelley was a beautiful soul and a wonderful actor. Her work as Rosario, season after season, was as nuanced and real as it was hysterical. She will be missed by everyone at #WillandGrace, she’s a huge part of it. Sending so much love to Walter and Shelley’s whole family.”

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Some people who weren’t involved with Will & Grace posted tributes, as well. Actress Elizabeth Perkins tweeted out, “Saddened to hear of the passing of Shelley Morrison. A brilliant performer with a lifelong career. A caring activist. She was one of the greats.” And George Takei wrote simply, “Thank you for the laughs.”

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The interview Morrison gave to FindingDulcinea was a good indication of what kind of person she had been in life. She told the website that, although she had dreamed of being an actress since she was young, “There were a lot of hills and valleys. One has to be aware of this when one gets into this business.”

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The actress went on, “That’s what I tell young people. At that point [while her career was on hold] I didn’t have that much recognition, but the upside was I could really observe people. I could really observe the way they talked, the way they walked.” Needless to say, that skill is invaluable for a performer.

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The website also asked Morrison, “What do you look for when deciding on a script?” She answered, “I won’t do anything that could pollute, or that could be degrading. I won’t do thrasher films or violent films. I have to look at myself in the mirror every morning and know that, if I am going to go to work on something it has to be good.”

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FindingDulcinea then asked Morrison the question, “How did you reconcile fame and Hollywood with your lifestyle?” She replied, “Ultimately, it’s about how you live your life every day. No matter what your job is, or how much money you have. Life is about how you relate to other human beings.”

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It seemed that Morrison used the character of Rosario to relate to other human beings. In the biography on her official website, she stated, “Rosario is one of my all-time favorite characters. She reminds me a lot of my own mother, who loved animals and children, but she would not suffer fools.”

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Morrison, too, had a love for animals, and she dedicated a large portion of her life to helping them. In 2005 she told magazine The Pet Press, “I was always bringing home strays, mainly cats. I was a cat person until my husband and I got married. Then we began rescuing dogs… on the freeway, starving to death in Hollywood, even in our alley.”

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In addition to that, Morrison also volunteered for the group known as A.N.G.E.L.’s Day. This helped older people get inexpensive veterinary care for their animals, and cared for their pets if they needed to go to hospital. Morrison told the magazine, “I played in a Celebrity Blackjack TV tournament, and designated my winnings to go to A.N.G.E.L’s Day.”

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Morrison summed up her ethos with, “I think from a very, very early age, if children are aware of how animals are teachers… how much they give to us… how to take care of them… that spills over into relationships with people. There should really be a concerted effort in grammar schools to teach children how to care for animals.”

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Many people will miss Morrison now she’s passed, but she has a particular place in the hearts of the Will & Grace cast. At one point, according to her website, she even knitted a hat or scarf for all 91 people who worked on the program. She said herself in her website bio, “I enjoy what I do because I respect what everyone else does.”

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