Steven DeKnight, creator and executive producer of the Starz show "Spartacus," is remarkably candid about how he hated the show's very first episode. But while he felt it a soon-corrected misstep, there was one aspect of it that he loved: the show's charismatic lead actor, Andy Whitfield.
"One of the things that made that first season so good was finding Andy, who was this unknown actor, and the way he lit up the screen as Spartacus," says DeKnight. "His interpretation of the character was truly amazing."
While fans flocked to its orgy- and blood-soaked depiction of brutal Roman times, the show soon encountered disaster far greater than a sloppy premiere. Soon after the first season wrapped, Whitfield was diagnosed with the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that, after a half year of treatment and the false promise of recovery, would take his life, at the age of 39, last September."He had hurt his back in the first season, and was having trouble with it," recalls DeKnight. "We were a couple of episodes into breaking the second season, and we found out that he hadn't hurt his back. It was the lymphoma. That was one of the hardest calls I ever got. It immediately sent everybody into a tailspin."
Whitfield endured six months of treatment and received a clean bill of health, only to have the cancer return shortly after. At that point, the actor made the difficult decision to withdraw from the show permanently, giving the producers his blessing to recast the role.
Aside from the personal nightmare of having a friend face down cancer, the show’s producers, having already "turned over every rock" to find Whitfield, once again had to embark on an extensive search for the right man to play Spartacus, and it was decided that the show would continue only if the right actor was found.
"[Going through this process], you understand why there are so few real leading men," says DeKnight. "You need to have so many different qualities to fit that bill. It’s a very small target to hit."