The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker Claims Merle Was Killed Off Because AMC Was “Very Cheap”

Former Walking Dead star Michael Rooker suspects Merle Dixon was killed off because network AMC is "very cheap." Rooker appeared briefly in the first season of the zombie drama under then-showrunner Frank Darabont as hot-headed hick Merle, older brother to Norman Reedus' Daryl, appearing only once more in the show's second season as a taunting vision hallucinated by a wounded Daryl. It wasn't until Season 3, under two-season showrunner Glen Mazzara, that Rooker was billed as a series regular when he returned as the one-handed right-hand man to Woodbury leader and chief villain the Governor (David Morrissey), who shot and killed Merle in the penultimate episode of that season.

When appearing at Wales Comic Con, where Rooker crashed a panel hosted by his Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 co-star Sean Gunn, Rooker was asked if he preferred the blockbuster Marvel Studios franchise or The Walking Dead:

"I don’t prefer either. I made more money on Guardians," Rooker said of his role as blue-skinned space alien Yondu. "Walking Dead, they were cheap. AMC was very cheap." With a laugh, Rooker added, "That’s probably why they killed me off, because they knew I was gonna get more money the next season."

When the series proved a surprise hit for the network in October 2010 — under The Shawshank Redemption director Darabont, The Walking Dead premiered to five million viewers when launching its six-episode first season — AMC slashed the show's budget by 25 percent for its 13-episode second season.

According to a 2011 report from The Hollywood Reporter detailing Darabont's dismissal from the series, AMC dropped the per episode budget from $3.4 million to $2.75 million, a difference of $650,000. A network source at the time said the cut’s size reported by other sources was "grossly inflated" and that the lower Season 2 budget "represents a more typical and sustainable number for a basic cable show," despite The Walking Dead ratings outdoing the network's two top shows at the time: the acclaimed Mad Men and Breaking Bad. (In 2019, Rooker's former co-star Jon Bernthal said the comic book-inspired Walking Dead was viewed by AMC "like the wart on their ass.")

One source referred to AMC as "ball-busters" and Darabont, in a roundtable interview hosted by THR, predicted budget-cutting would "affect the show creatively … in a negative way. Which just strikes me as odd. If you have an asset, why would you punish it?"

According to the source, AMC's "silly notes" and ideas for a cheaper Walking Dead production involved spending half of each episode's eight-day shoot indoors and having walkers be sometimes heard, but not seen, to save money on makeup needed to create the flesh-eating undead.

Action on Season 2 revolved mostly around the Greene family farm, used as a base by Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and his group of survivors until the farm's destruction later that season.

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Darabont was fired after firing off profanity-laced emails sent to producers and AMC executives, and Mazzara took over as showrunner for Seasons 2 and 3 before he was himself replaced by five-season showrunner Scott Gimple. Rooker next reunites with Reedus in Season 4 of Ride with Norman Reedus, the unscripted motorcycle travelogue series returning to AMC in March.

TWD Season 10 returns with new episodes Feb. 23 on AMC. For more TWD intel, follow the author @CameronBonomolo on Twitter.