For most of my twenties, I was well-nigh obsessed with a television show called Highlander: The Series, which was a spin-off from the cult-favorite 1986 film about immortal warriors who live secretly among ordinary humans and can die only if their heads get cut off. If you think that sounds kind of ridiculous, well, I suppose I can’t blame you. I mean, the show is what it is: a relatively low-budget 1990s syndicated fantasy-action series that aired in the wee hours of the night, at least in the Salt Lake market. Looking back now, almost 22 years after the final episode, I have to acknowledge that it would probably be a tough sell to a modern viewer who’s not already a fan. Back in the day, though, I dearly loved it. Yes, I did.
As a young man trying to figure out who I was, I saw the kind of person I wanted to be in many of the show’s characters. Duncan MacLeod, the ancient Scottish Highlander of the title, and his immortal friends were confident, sophisticated, worldly. They traveled and read literature and knew about art and wine and whisky and food. They’d been everywhere and had friends and lovers — and enemies, as well, given the premise of the show — all over the place. They were equally at ease in an elegant chateau or a bare-brick industrial-style loft above a grimy martial-arts dojo. They hung out in a blues bar. They were cool.
And then there was Richie.
The character of Richie Ryan, played by a young actor named Stan Kirsch, was initially a sort of foster child for Duncan, a street kid that the immortal took under his wing and tried to teach how to become a better man. I think Richie was also intended to be a surrogate for the audience, an ordinary person who was naive to the existence of immortals until he chose the wrong home to try to rob, and then was drawn deeper and deeper into their world. Like a lot of young sidekick characters in TV of that era, Richie was occasionally hard to stomach. He was written as a smart aleck and could be something of a dork, and baby-faced Stan was never believably as tough as someone from Richie’s hardscrabble background would likely have been. (Maybe that was the point… a kid who acted like a tough guy and so visibly was not.) My own sense is that the showrunners weren’t quite sure what to do with him beyond a certain point. Richie was eventually revealed to be one of the immortals himself, whereupon he changed from Duncan’s child to an apprentice and then to a friend, if maybe not ever quite a peer. He gradually became less and less of a presence on the show, more a recurring character instead of a regular… and then, in a stunning development that was either audacious or boneheaded depending on your perspective, the character was killed off by Duncan MacLeod himself in the cliffhanger ending of the show’s fifth season.
The death of Richie Ryan divided Highlander fandom as thoroughly as anything that JJ Abrams or Rian Johnson ever did to Star Wars. I had just begun to explore the internet in those days, and I watched in amazement and dismay as the once-inviting Highlander message board I’d been hanging out on deteriorated into a vicious brawl between those who were fine with this latest plot twist and those who simply would not — could not! — accept it. The latter took to calling themselves Clan Denial, and somewhere in some distant corner of the World Wide Web, their cries of anguish and fury are probably still echoing. It was my first taste of the infighting that would eventually infect all fandoms in the internet age.
For my part, I thought killing Richie, at least in the manner in which it was done — i.e., at the hands of his friend, mentor, and father figure — was pretty shitty. I had never been a big partisan for the character so I wasn’t angry enough about it to go Clan Denial, but I didn’t like it, and I do think it was a factor in Highlander‘s rapid decline afterward. The show’s producers had made a mistake, and the abbreviated sixth season felt like it had a cloud hanging over it from the start. Richie — and Stan — returned for the final episode, which was a kind of riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, but, to use the modern parlance, the show had jumped the shark in a major way, and when I think back on the series now, I tend to think of it as ending before that tectonic fracture-point episode in which he was killed.
I realize I’m rambling a bit here… forgive me. I haven’t actually thought about a lot of this stuff in many years, and hearing the news last week that Stan Kirsch had died stirred up a lot of memories. Stan was only 51, just a year older than myself, and even though I was not particularly a fan of Richie — I was always drawn to Duncan, or to the mortal-but-very-cool Joe Dawson — I feel like I’ve lost a major piece of my past. I didn’t identify with Richie, but in some weird way, I find myself identifying with Stan. I just keep coming back to the closeness of our ages. He was the same age I am. And the show was such a huge part of my young adulthood, part of the whole mood and texture of that time in my life. In certain respects, it was more important to me at that time, more influential certainly, than my usual media obsessions, Star Trek and Star Wars. I was already a fan of it before I started dating Anne, but she liked the show as well and watching it together became one of our weekly rituals. I used to record the latest episode on VHS and then take the tape to her house. I remember one night when we ventured online together, possibly for the first time, looking to see if we could find anything related to the show in this new digital frontier we’d been hearing about, and the first thing we ran across was a trove of fanfiction… slash fiction, no less. We were equal parts shocked and amused by that stuff. And we even traveled to Los Angeles together to attend a farewell convention when the show wrapped production… our first convention together. We were pretty naive about the whole con scene at that time, and we utterly failed to meet most of the cast members who were there, including Stan, because we just weren’t sure how it was all supposed to work. We’ve since met Adrian Paul, who played Duncan, a number of times, often enough that I get the impression he actually recognizes our faces. But never Stan. And now we’ll never get that chance, and I feel a true, deep sense of regret about it. I just always assumed there would be time, you know? After all, we were both young enough…
I think what’s really bothering me is the fact that Stan died by suicide. I’ve seen speculation on social media that he may have been ill — some people who saw him at a convention last year say he was very thin — and of course there’s always talk about depression when someone takes their own life. But who really knows? Stan wasn’t in the public eye very much and I honestly don’t know much about him. I know that after Highlander, he guest-starred on several episodes of Friends, as well as NCIS and a couple other TV series. I know that he and his wife started an acting school a few years back and that it was evidently pretty successful. But that’s it, really. I’m sorry I don’t know more, and I’m sorry I never got around to meeting him in person. And when it comes down to it, I’m sorry that something had evidently gone wrong enough in his life or in his head that he ended up in that place.
When Highlander was first on the air, I was young enough that I really did feel immortal. There was plenty of time ahead to figure it all out and to do everything I wanted to do. I imagine Stan Kirsch felt the same way back then. So what the hell happened?
I’m feeling very mortal right now…