Fox announced on Friday Jussie Smollett was suspended from the hit show “Empire” after the actor was accused of paying two men to attack him last month in what police say was a ploy to raise his profile because he was unhappy with his salary.
“The events of the past few weeks have been incredibly emotional for all of us,” said a statement from 20th Century Fox Television attributed to the show’s executive producers. “Jussie has been an important member of our ‘Empire’ family for the past five years and we care about him deeply. 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,” they said, referring to his character, Jamal Lyon, the scion of a recording-industry family.
The show is currently in production on the 17th of the fifth season’s 18 episodes, and is expected to complete filming by mid-March. The suspension suggests that scenes in which he’s already appeared will be removed from the finished episode. The show, still popular among young-adult viewers, is expected to be renewed. But whether Smollett remains part of the cast next season is uncertain.
The move came after a damaging day for the 36-year-old star on Thursday, which began when he turned himself in on charges he filed a fake police report and ended with prosecutors stating he plotted the Jan. 29 attack to make himself look like the victim of a brutal anti-black, homophobic crime.
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Smollett has played Jamal Lyon on “Empire” since the show’s debut in 2015. Fox indicated on Thursday that the charges against Smollett could impact his status on the show.
“We understand the seriousness of this matter and we respect the legal process,” 20th Century Fox Studio and Fox Entertainment said in a statement. “We are evaluating the situation and we are considering our options.”
Smollett, who is gay and black, told investigators he was beaten by two masked men in the early hours of Jan. 29 who shouted racial and homophobic slurs, wrapped a rope around his neck in the fashion of a noose and poured bleach on him. He also told investigators that the men who attacked yelled, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan.
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After the attack, Fox rallied behind its star and continued to do so as rumors swirled about his possible involvement in the attack.
“Jussie Smollett continues to be a consummate professional on set and as we have previously stated, he is not being written out of the show,” Fox stated on Wednesday in response to reports Smollett’s role had been trimmed.
But Smollett’s initial status as a crime victim began to shift last weekend after police arrested and interviewed two brothers, who were originally identified as suspects after turning up in surveillance footage.
Assistant State’s Attorney Risa Lanier said Thursday Smollett plotted the attack with the brothers, paying them $3,500 to stage the crime. He also gave them $100 to buy a ski mask, red hat and other supplies to be used in the attack, Lanier said.
Smollett’s defense team – which recently added Los Angeles-based celebrity defense lawyer Mark Geragos to assist with the case – later said in a statement: “Today we witnessed an organized law enforcement spectacle that has no place in the American legal system. The presumption of innocence, a bedrock in the search for justice, was trampled upon at the expense of Mr. Smollett and notably, on the eve of a Mayoral election. Mr. Smollett is a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence and feels betrayed by a system that apparently wants to skip due process and proceed directly to sentencing.”
Contributing: Aamer Madhani, Gary Levin