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With all of the dead characters that have piled up over the years, The Walking Dead has run through a longer line of actors than most primetime dramas, and the franchise's open-ended future likely means many more body piles are coming. One of the more well-known cast members in the early days, Michael Rooker signed on to play Merle Dixon, but only appeared in a few episodes before officially becoming a regular in Season 3, during which he was killed off. According to Rooker, that death was probably a money thing.
Michael Rooker appeared at the Wales Comic Con recently, where he actually crashed a Guardians of the Galaxy panel for which Sean Gunn was the guest. It wasn't very long before someone asked Rooker whether he preferred being in The Walking Dead franchise or in Guardians of the Galaxy's world. Here's his amusing answer:
I don’t prefer either. I made more money on Guardians. Walking Dead, they were cheap. AMC was very cheap. That’s probably why they killed me off, because they knew I was gonna get more money the next season. [Laughs.]
To me, that's the kind of comment that Michael Rooker has probably had bouncing around his brain for a long time, but without a whole lot of opportunities to bring such things up, it remained situated inside his brain until that Wales Comic Con panel. It's not always the wisest or classiest move to drop complaints like that about a former series or network, but Rooker is the kind of DGAF actor who does what does and can be done with it.
Looking back at Rooker's sporadic run on The Walking Dead, it always did seem strange that he was only around for three episodes across the first two seasons before being promoted to a series regular for Season 3. (Not entirely strange, since the hunt for Merle mirrors a lot of "hunt for character" plotlines this show has utilized over the years.) The angry redneck wasn't exactly the most irreplaceable character, of course, but his familial connection to Daryl made him seemingly necessary.
Once Merle was revealed to be part of The Governor's ranks, it made even more sense for him to stick around for the duration of that plotline, so that Michael Rooker could relish in the more outlandish antagonism. Unfortunately, Merle's devotion to Daryl outweighed his devotion to the Governor, and he didn't last much longer before getting his fingers bitten off and his chest getting opening up with bullets, leading to Daryl's infamous ugly-cry scene, and Zombie Merle's ultimate death.
Michael Rooker's Walking Dead experience was perhaps indicative of the problems happening behind the scenes during those early years as it became one of the most popular series on TV. Co-creator Frank Darabont's highly contentious (and litigious) exit ahead of Season 2 changed the show's creative path in many ways, with Glen Mazzara stepping in as showrunner until the end of Season 3, when he and AMC parted ways over creative differences. That's when the Scott Gimple era began, which itself would end post-Negan as he took on a larger role within the ever-growing franchise, with Angela Kang taking over as showrunner.
Not that The Walking Dead's later years haven't had their own issues both on screen and behind the scenes, but that was at a point when AMC was in the throes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad props. Though TWD's six-episode first season was popular, the numbers were humble enough that AMC saw nothing wrong with cutting the series' budget down, despite doubling the episode count. It's hard to get a concrete confirmation that financial reasons are what kept Michael Rooker out of the show completely in Season 2, and why he was killed off ahead of Season 3's conclusion, but it wouldn't be the biggest shock.
Since leaving The Walking Dead, Michael Rooker achieved a new level of mass fame as Yondo in James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy films, and he'll be reprising the character in Marvel's What If? Having also taken on bit roles in True Detective and SEAL Team, Rooker has a huge future ahead of him, with roles in flicks such as Fast and Furious 9, Blumhouse's Fantasy Island remake and James Gunn's The Suicide Squad. I'm pretty sure none of those studios are cheap enough to cut him out. (His Dark Tower role will not see the light of day, thanks to Amazon passing on the project.)
You can check out the full Comic Con panel below.
While waiting to see Michael Rooker return to the big screen, be sure and tune into the back half of The Walking Dead Season 10 when it debuts on Sunday, February 23, at 9:00 p.m. ET.