The Walking Dead co-stars Sarah Wayne Callies and Jon Bernthal reflected on the sudden firing of original showrunner Frank Darabont as the AMC zombie drama approaches the end of its eleventh and final season. Darabont, who developed the series for television from creator Robert Kirkman's comic book, was summarily dismissed from his position as showrunner and executive producer weeks into production of the hit show's second season in July 2011. Adding to the shock: Darabont was removed just days after the three-time Oscar-nominated Shawshank Redemption and Green Mile filmmaker promoted Walking Dead's sophomore season at AMC's 2011 San Diego Comic-Con panel.
"Steven Yeun called me the night before. We'd just gotten back from Comic-Con and he was like, 'I heard that Frank Darabont's getting fired.' I was like, 'No way. He just delivered AMC the biggest hit they've ever had,'" Callies, who played Lori Grimes on the first three seasons of The Walking Dead, recalled on the August 11 episode of Real Ones with Jon Bernthal. "There's so much I wasn't privy to, but to me, it just felt like an assassination."
The original Deadline Hollywood report in 2011 attributed Darabont's firing to his inexperience running a television series. After Darabont filed a profit participation lawsuit against the cable network in 2013, AMC said in response that Darabont "made the set and writers' room a threatening and toxic work environment."
"We released him because it soon became clear that his film talents did not translate to running a television show — one of the most difficult jobs in entertainment — and because he was repeatedly abusive and threatening to those working around him and under his direction," a spokesperson said.
After the Darabont-helmed Walking Dead became the biggest show on cable, premiering in October 2010 to more than five million viewers, the showrunner — angered by budget-cutting on the show's second season, set mostly on the Greene family farm — accused executives of pocketing a tax credit to the detriment of the cast and crew.
"The cast and crew were earning, busting their butts, leaving it all out on the field, to earn," Darabont said in a 2015 deposition. "The fact that we couldn't then take that tax credit and put it on the screen or alleviate shooting conditions to any degree, I thought that was adding insult to injury."
"This is probably a controversial thing to say: you cannot beat his writing. There are some really good people who have been writing on that show since, and I've got a lot of love and respect for them, but nobody writes like Frank Darabont," Callies told Bernthal. "It's a whole different level. He has a level of humanity and a fearlessness with sentimentality that is just astonishing."
She added: "To have somebody say he's not ready to be a showrunner, he's unprepared... There may have been legitimate grounds for firing him — if there were, I never heard them — but that was a line of bullshit. And it pissed me off."
Callies recounted an exchange with Walking Dead writer and executive producer Kirkman, telling the comic creator, "'If you think we don't know the difference between a script written by Frank Darabont and anybody else, you're out of your mind.'"
"I looked in his eyes, and I thought, 'I'm gonna get written off the show,'" she said. "I shouldn't have said that. I was too pissed. But it was also that mama bear moment. I was like, 'We created this beautiful thing — Frank was the one who brought us in. I'm gonna go to war for this guy.'"
Darabont is credited with casting Bernthal as Shane Walsh and Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon, an original character who has appeared on all eleven seasons and will next lead his own spinoff series. Darabont regulars Melissa McBride, Laurie Holden, and Jeffrey DeMunn, who had roles in his films adapted from the works of Stephen King, also starred as part of an early cast that included Yeun as Glenn and Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes.
"You went to war for this guy. Jeff DeMunn went to war for this guy. And we lost that war," Callies said. Added Bernthal, "We got pulverized."
Bernthal expressed gratitude to Darabont for his life-changing Walking Dead role and condemned what he called "rotten" treatment of the ousted showrunner.
"I was like, 'Y'all are rotten. That's f—ed up,'" Bernthal said. "He did not deserve this. An unbelievable group of people working on that show, it was such a huge success. ... that one was unique and special and hit the zeitgeist. For me, I give him credit. Every single person that was there was there because he put them there, he picked them. The culture of that show, it's him. And getting rid of him — when they got rid of him, and how they got rid of them — was some dirty shit."
"That was a lesson in loyalty. I really, truly thought, 'We can all rise up and stop this,'" Callies said. Bernthal recalled the split cast falling into two camps: "One camp was, 'We've got to keep working.' Then we're like, 'No, we're walking off.'"
While a cast revolt didn't materialize, Callies said, "The thought was, if we all refused to come back to work until they bring him back, it will at least bring enough attention to the fact that this cast is furious."
Callies continued: "My heart was a little bit broken when there was almost no stomach for that. You, me, and Jeff [DeMunn], it was kind of funny. You're like, 'Charge!' You turn around and you're like, 'There's no army. It's me and a paper sword.' ... It kind of broke my heart."