Jon Bernthal "shed a couple tears" after being killed off The Walking Dead, where the star played Shane Walsh in the zombie drama's first two seasons. Reflecting on the show's humble beginnings under then-showrunner Frank Darabont, Bernthal says he "really loved" his time on The Little Zombie Show That Could. After Shane was killed off in "Better Angels," the penultimate episode of Season 2, Bernthal returned to set during filming on the season finale, "Beside the Dying Fire," at the time his final episode. Bernthal would later briefly reprise his role as a hallucination suffered by ex-best friend Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in a Season 3 episode and once more in Season 9.
"After I got killed off Walking Dead — they killed my ass off Walking Dead, they killed me twice," Bernthal said at Fandemic Tour Houston. "They're like, 'You are definitely not coming back!' They took my scripts, they're like, 'You're done!'"
Bernthal was headed to Shreveport, Louisiana to film Snitch with Dwayne Johnson when he returned to The Walking Dead's Georgia set to "see everybody and say goodbye." Bernthal recounted hanging back to watch his co-stars film "Beside the Dying Fire," where the survivors were forced to flee the Greene family farm after it was invaded by walkers.
"I walked in to set, it was like a two-mile hike — me and Sarah Wayne Callies would always hike in, we'd always go early and walk together — and we walked in, and she said, 'Come onto set, everybody's waiting for you to see you,'" Bernthal said. "And I saw the whole set. Everybody was up at Hershel's farm, and they were gonna burn it down, and all this crazy stuff was going on. And I remember I couldn't walk up there, because it was their thing now."
He continued, "I just sat on this rock and watched everybody, just the whole thing working. I might have shed a couple tears, because I was gonna miss them. But I just appreciated — I saw these dudes who are playing zombies, going 100 miles an hour, all this sh-t on their face, getting shot, all this hell's breaking loose. Scott Wilson, rest in peace, just acting his ass off. I was just like, 'Man, how cool is this?'"
A surprise hit when it premiered in 2010, The Walking Dead blossomed into a blockbuster phenomenon when it doubled its ratings in its third season. For a time, Bernthal says the modestly-budgeted Walking Dead was viewed by network AMC "like the wart on their ass."
"Walking Dead, for me, is probably real different than the folks that are on it now. When we did Walking Dead, there were no trailers, there were no craft services. We would just hike out into the woods, it was very humble," Bernthal recalled. "Nobody thought the show was gonna be what the show was. We got picked up for six episodes, that is not a big vote of confidence. It was a zombie show, and if that thing sucks, it's gonna really suck. At that point AMC was the network of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and they didn't want anybody messing with their prestige television. And we were kind of, I think at first, sort of treated like the wart on their ass."
Bernthal credits the tight-knit cast of those early seasons for going "100% all the time," adding the early starters were "ready to throw down whatever it took for that show."
"Those folks are still some of my best friends in the world. And the bonds that were formed in the beginning of that show, a family was formed. I really loved how humble that show started. We were all in it together," he said. "We didn't know it would be successful, we didn't even think about it. We believed in it, we believed in the script, we believed in each other, and we believed in this world. That's really what the show's about. It's about when you strip off the veneer of all the comfort and all of the sh-t that makes us forget about how lucky we are to be here, and you have to depend on each other to survive."
"That group really took to that, with everything they had," Bernthal continued. "I loved my time on The Walking Dead, I loved being there when I was, and I loved getting out of there when I did."