After a tumultuous few weeks, the producers of Empire announced on Friday (Feb. 22) that they have decided to write Jussie Smollett‘s character Jamal Lyon out of the final two episodes of the upcoming season.
“The events of the past few weeks have been incredibly emotional for all of us. Jussie has been an important member of our Empire family for the past five years and we care about him deeply,” read a statement from Empire executive producers Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Brett Mahoney, Brian Grazer, Sanaa Hamri, Francie Calfo and Dennis Hammer.
“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.”
The dramatic gesture comes a day after Smollett was arrested and released on $10,000 bond on suspicion of filing a false report about an alleged Jan. 29 incident in which he claimed two men attacked him using racial and homophobic slurs, threw bleach on him and put a noose-like string around his neck. Chicago police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said during a press conference on Thursday that Smollett orchestrated the attack in order to take “advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.” Smollett could face one to three years of jail time for the charges of falsifying a police report in the incident, a Class 4 felony in Illinois.
A spokesperson would not comment on whether already-shot scenes will be cut, altered or reduced. Prior to Friday’s announcement, the show’s producers had referred to Smollett, 36, as a “consumate professional” on set, then saying they were “evaluating the situation” and “considering [our] options” following his arrest.
Smollett was back on the set of the show on Thursday, but it now appears that his role in the season finale of the upcoming fifth season will be cut entirely, leaving the fate of his character in limbo. The show’s producers had steadfastly stood behind Smollett at the beginning as the story of the alleged crime shifted from a reported attack on the actor by two men shouting racial and homophobic epithets and “this is MAGA country!” — in reference to Pres. Trump’s “Make American Great Again” campaign slogan — to a more complicated tale of a carefully planned stunt meant to gain attention for the singer/actor, reportedly unhappy with his salary on the show.
Investigators now believe that Smollett conspired with two men — brothers Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo — to rehearse and stage the attack; the brothers were arrested and later released without charge and are now believed to be assisting police in the investigation. Officials also believe that Smollett had a hand in crafting a threatening ransom note-style letter that was sent to the Empire production offices a week before the alleged attack. Police said during Thursday’s press conference that they believed Smollett staged the attrack because he was “dissatisfied” with his salary on the show, which is reportedly $125,000 per episode.
Smollett’s lawyers and spokespeople have stood behind their client throughout, proclaiming his innocence and promising to mount an “aggressive” defense. “Like any other citizen, Mr. Smollett enjoys the presumption of innocence, particularly when there has been an investigation like this one where information, both true and false, has been repeatedly leaked,” attorneys Todd Pugh and Victor Henderson said the day before their client’s arrest in a statement. In a previous statement released over the weekend, Pugh and Henderson said Smollett was angered and “victimized” by reports that he might have played a role in staging the attack. “Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying,” they said.
It was unclear at press time if any other scenes Smollett already shot for the upcoming season — which debuts on March 13 — will be altered. The bizarre timeline of the story has left many questioning whether Smollett can bounce back from what some have called a potential “career killer” move.