One day after Jussie Smollett was arrested on multiple felony charges over last month’s alleged racist and homophobic attack in Chicago, the producers of Empire have cut the actor from the rest of the show’s fifth season.
“The events of the past few weeks have been incredibly emotional for all of us,” executive producers Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Brett Mahoney, Brian Grazer, Sanaa Hamri, Francie Calfo and Dennis Hammer in a statement this morning in reference to the supposed assault of January 29 and the subsequent legal fallout.
“Jussie has been an important member of our Empire family for the past five years and we care about him deeply,” the producers added. “While these allegations are very disturbing, we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays out. We are also aware of the effects of this process on the cast and crew members who work on our show and to avoid further disruption on set, we have decided to remove the role of ‘Jamal’ from the final two episodes of the season.”
Reps for the openly gay Smollett, who plays the openly gay middle son of the Lyon clan on Empire, did not respond to request for comment on today’s action by the EPs. Certain to be well watched, Empire returns from its winter hiatus on March 13 with new episodes, that will feature Smollett in some way.
With just a couple of episodes left to be completed in the current Empire season, producers and writers on the Mahoney-showrun series already had cut or trimmed a number of Smollett’s remaining scenes, so today’s move isn’t a seismic shift in that sense. On Thursday, after Smollett turned himself in for arrest, 20th Century Fox TV and Fox Entertainment said they were “evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.”
However, today’s move is big when you consider that just a couple of days beforehand, Fox put out a statement proclaiming that the performer “continues to be a consummate professional” on set as suspension rumors swirled. As the case had intensified a couple of weeks ago, Fox called Smollett “core” to Empire.
Facing a barrage of evidence and criticism from openly “pissed off” law enforcement officials, prosecutors and TV talking heads, Smollett was released on $100,000 bail and had his passport revoked during the downtown Chicago court appearance Thursday.
At that pretty conclusive and damning hearing on claims that Smollett pre-planned the attack that attracted so much outrage from the likes of Empire co-creators Daniels and Strong, the actor’s defense lawyers oddly insisted that the actor needed to get back to work on Empire, which was continuing production at that very time.
In fact, after a more couple of hours in the Cook County detention center on Thursday, Smollett went straight to the nearby set of the series. That reunion of sorts was tense and “very stressful for everyone,” a well-placed source tells me, as the actor met with various creatives and cast members of the series starring Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard.
Similar to a statement that was released by his legal team on Thursday evening, Smollett proclaimed his “innocence” to the Empire team, but the powers-that-be already felt the situation was untenable. Also, there was a betrayal factor too as some like Mahoney and various writers on the show had reiterated support for Smollett last week even when the focus of the Chicago PD investigation had shifted from a “potential hate crime” to examining the actor’s role in the events.
Beyond the felony charges of disorderly conduct and filing a false police report that could land Smollett in jail for up to three years, the larger decision to come for Empire and Fox is whether the actor be a part of upcoming seasons, whether he’s found guilty or acquitted.
Like all original cast members, Smollett signed on for seven seasons of the show when Empire was being put together in 2014. Also like all other original cast members, the actor — who now makes $100,000 an episode — received a significant pay raise after the blockbuster launch of Season 1 was expected to return once the inevitable Season 6 renewal was announced. That might not be such a done deal now.
Up until the past few days, Fox and Empire had stood steadfastly by Smollett since news first surfaced off the attack, in which Smollett said he was accosted by two men in the early-morning hours in front of his Chicago apartment. He claimed the men yelled derogatory epithets, struck him, doused him in bleach and tied a noose around his neck.
Prosecutors in court Thursday read a lengthy series of text messages between Smollett and brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo that painted a picture of a clearly pre-planned attack. The texts included preparing money to buy supplies, buying drugs, setting up meetings and ensuring that MAGA hats and chants were part of the assault.