Chicago Fire’s Derek Haas explains premiere’s heartbreaking death

CHICAGO FIRE -- Pictured: "Chicago Fire" Key Art -- (Photo by: NBCUniversal)
CHICAGO FIRE -- Pictured: "Chicago Fire" Key Art -- (Photo by: NBCUniversal) /

Chicago Fire season 8 started with a tragic death, and co-creator Derek Haas explained why it happened and how hard it was to go through.

Fans of Chicago Fire are reeling from another tragic loss for Firehouse 51—so why did it have to happen? Why that character? And where does the firehouse go from here?

SPOILER ALERT: The following interview contains spoilers from tonight’s Chicago Fire season premiere, including the identity of the character in question.

Series co-creator and showrunner Derek Haas graciously joined us to explain why Otis (Yuri Sardarov) died in Wednesday’s season premiere, and explained what the death of a character is like from the writers’ perspective.

One Chicago Center: How did you decide on Otis’ death? Were there any other characters that you considered instead of Otis?

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Derek Haas: I talked it over with [head writers] Andrea [Newman] and Michael [Gilvary]. We talked about Ritter and we decided it wouldn’t have the same impact. It’s almost like pulling your punch if it were Ritter because yes, while he’s a great character and we got to know him a little bit over season 7, it wouldn’t have the same ramifications because he was so new to the house.

So when we started thinking about the core characters, we thought of Otis. Otis is beloved, and he lives with Cruz and is best friends with Cruz and Brett, and he works with Herrmann and works under Casey and Boden, and it just felt like man, this would really hit the firehouse hard.

It certainly hit me hard just writing it, because of what the character means personally to me and what Yuri means to me—who I’ve known since before the show. We did a movie together that I wrote and produced in 2011 when he was a junior in college. So it was tough.

But ultimately, again, you’re trying to work some real shock into the show and make it earned. After talking to Michael and Andrea, I called Dick [Wolf] and said this is what we were talking about. I was probably on the phone [with him] for an hour, and he has more story experience than anyone in the history of television. He just said to mem if you come at it from an honest place and you’re writing is honest and authentic then the audience will go with it. They’ll be moved and they’ll be mad and they’ll grieve and do all those things, but they’re not going to riot. Those words were ringing in my ear as I wrote the episode.

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You’ve had to let go of several other characters and actors over the history of Chicago Fire. Can you give fans some perspective on what it’s like to do this from your end? Because it’s not just you doing whatever you want; it’s something that affects you, too.

It’s awful and it never gets better. When you’re the showrunner, it’s not just actors that you have relationships with and watched grow and work and give passionately to you, but it’s also writing staff and it’s departments sometimes and it’s DP’s and crew members. You have to be the boss, and when I went to school to be a writer I never thought about this side of it.

We’re in a weird place with the Writer’s Guild now, where there’s this kind of feeling of rank and file writers and then showrunners, and they want different things. And I just think sometimes people who haven’t been around long don’t realize this whole other side of the business that we’re in, where you’re managing people’s lives and you have effects on their careers, but it’s part of the job.

I remember the call with Yuri; because he’s exceptional and gracious and professional, he made it easy on me, but it wasn’t fun and that’s one side of it. Then I remember the call when I called Kara Killmer [after] she had auditioned and I said you got the job. She said well, I’m going to have to quit where I work now and I asked where, and she said the jewelry counter at the galleria. You change someone’s life one way and then you change someone’s life the other way, and it’s tough being the parent, so to speak.

Chicago Fire fans still miss characters who have left. Is that true for you as well? Do you look back and think, this would be a great storyline for this character but they’re not here anymore?

Oh yeah, for sure. 100 percent. You think this would have been a great scene for Mills, or this would have been fun to do with Shay, and certainly Dawson I think about all the time—how we would have done something with them. That’s the other part I don’t think people understand.

When you’re a writer of a show, you live inside these characters’ heads. The actors do for sure but if you’re putting yourself into the show, then a part of you is in that character. So when that character goes, it can be traumatic.

Where does Firehouse 51 go after Otis’s death? Are we done with the firehouse politics that have been a big part of the last two seasons?

The firehouse is doing good. We’re Chicago Fire so we’re always going to have some sort of external force that’s affecting Firehouse 51, whether it’s the neighborhood or the headquarters or a rival firehouse, those kind of things. We’re always going to have issues going on.

We are going to see a return of Grissom at some point this season, who’s our commissioner played by Gary Cole, and actually you never know if him coming is going to be a good thing or a bad thing.

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For the latest Chicago Fire season 8 spoilers and news, plus more on the entire series, follow the Chicago Fire category at One Chicago Center.