After nine scandal-filled, scheme-riddled, redemption-seeking seasons, beloved One Tree Hill baddie Dan Scott on Wednesday night bid an emotional — and final — farewell to the shrub-deficient town.
While his death wasn’t entirely unexpected, the rather exceptional hour of the long-running CW series pulled off a feat rarely seen in TV today: the unspoiled return of a fan fave character.
Craig Sheffer — who portrayed Keith Scott until the noble character was murdered by Dan in Season 3 — reprised his role for the final moments of the series’ pen-penultimate episode, helping usher his brother into the afterlife — and a heavenly one at that. What’s more, Keith even offered Dan his forgiveness for that fateful day nearly a decade ago (in Tree Hill time).
TVLine spoke with Paul Johansson about the fitting death of his Tree Hill alter-ego, his final moments on set and what he thinks about Keith’s surprise return.
TVLINE | I have to say, I didn’t think it was possible, but I do believe that, in death, Dan Scott finally redeemed himself. How do you feel about the way his journey wrapped up?
The caveat for me to come back this final season was that the storyline would have some meat to it, that it wouldn’t just be Dan up to his deep dark ways, manipulating people — though that is always fun to watch. There would be some sort of need for the show to end in a way that would give Dan a really magnificent out. I couldn’t imagine what [creator] Mark [Schwahn] would do. I knew he had to kill Dan, but I didn’t know how he would do it. Would Dan’s heart finally give out? Or something more crazy? But the way that Mark wrote this gave Dan so many different ways to affect people’s lives before he goes out, the lessons that he imparts on Chris, or Julian… or even Haley, which I think is one of the most fascinating relationships in the piece for nine years. But the father/son, Great Santini relationship came full circle, and I’m so honored that Mark gave Dan such a wonderful and powerful storyline this season. I’m flattered. It’s an actor’s dream come true to be able to finish a series the way that Mark allowed me to finish it.
TVLINE | It really was so important for Dan to address and atone for Keith’s murder — something he hadn’t done for some six seasons — and he finally did. In the end, do you think it was enough?
Not to go Biblical on you, but St. Paul’s name was Saul and he was a murderer. He saw the light, turned his life around and he is now one of the greatest saints. It’s the classic story of forgiveness. In my mind, Dan was so conflicted and so torn up inside…. Everything that he did was designed towards making his son’s life better or giving him the tools to survive in a harsh world — tough love lessons that he was also taught in life. That’s all he ever wanted, especially for Nathan. But I think Dan made a lot of really horrible mistakes. I’m a father and believe me, playing this role was so informative to me and it reflected my life as a little boy. My father was an NHL hockey player and was tough as nails. I think that at the end of the day, Mark’s nimbleness in handling the character, making him horrible, making him wonderful, making him redemptive, making him unforgivable, making him laughable…. Did Mark accomplish redeeming Dan? I think murder is one of the worst things you can possible do, especially to a wonderful soul like Keith, but it did two things: One, I think it saved the TV series, Mark doing that. In a way, we were on our way out. Had Mark not made that episode and pushed it though, the show would not have gone nine years. And two, It created within the audience [the question], ‘What is Dan going to do now?’ Without that, a show can be bland and Mark wouldn’t allow that. He’s an edgy, interesting, kindhearted writer who made an evil character someone you cheer for to win in the end. Again, it’s been the greatest pleasure of my career to play this role, and to play it with a writing staff that kept it interesting.
TVLINE | Talk a little about shooting that final scene between Nathan and Dan on the River Court. I have to imagine those emotions were very real.
It was heart-wrenching. James [Lafferty] is a very, very dear friend of mine, of whom I’m not only a big fan, but I think he’s going to be a hugely successful man in his personal and professional life. I also was shooting that as my very last scene on the show, and it was hard to keep it together. [Executive producers] Joe Davola and Greg Prange were there, and Mark was directing us, and some of the actors who weren’t in the scene had driven out to just be there with me; it was just beautiful. It was the exact way that you’d write it in real life after nine years on a show. I was very focused on that scene, but I’ve got to tell you, it was moving. It felt like my performance, with my personal feelings about leaving the show and the character’s personal feelings about being able to move on and ask forgiveness — and then his son accepting that — in some ways were knitted together. It really wasn’t hard to act that scene at all. It was incredibly rewarding.
TVLINE | Was it similar working again with Craig? And to that point, how far in advance did you know that he’d be returning and that that was how Dan would be ushered out?
I only read that in the script, and when I read it I was tearing up and thinking it was the most perfect thing that I could imagine. I called Craig immediately and talked to him because I’ve missed him for so many years and loved working with him. Mark keeps things really close to the vest because we have a really excited fan base, so we really don’t want to let those things get out — Mark didn’t even tell any of us until a week before shooting. As a matter of fact, nobody on the cast knew who was going to die except for me. So, it was fun to have that in my head to play, to know that every scene was going to be the last in that specific situation — the last with this person, the last with that one. It really helped the work.
TVLINE | Perhaps one of the most poignant scenes came from the goodbyes between Dan and Deb, if only for how much nostalgia was present there.
Oh, yeah. Mark really gave homage to the fans that have been there with the last few episodes, and he really wanted to reward their loyalty in sticking around for the whole series. For the ones who have seen this show from the pilot to the final episode, Mark threw a lot of stuff in there, and I think that was really magnanimous of him. And working with Barb[ara Alyn Woods] is always amazing because she can really go there. But she’s also a master comedian. We have a hard time keeping it together when we work with each other because she’s very talented in comedy.
TVLINE | Were you actually able to stick around to watch the series wrap? Or were you done when Dan was done?
My mother actually died while we were shooting my final episode, so I came home for her funeral. It just wasn’t possible for me to stick around, but as you can imagine that whole time was an amazing, sad, beautiful, full-circle of life thing for me. I had to have a fast goodbye [with the cast], and sometimes those are better. It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid; it hurts a little less. Joe Davola actually came up to me and said that they wanted to give my mom a tribute, so that’s what you see at the end of the episode with her name on it. I thought that was just beautiful.
TVLINE | What’s next for Paul Johansson? I know the One Tree Hill fans are looking forward to following your career.
I’ve been hired to direct a movie and I’m writing the script with Nick Cassavetes, who did The Notebook and Alpha Dog and John Q and Blow — one of the best writers in Hollywood. We’ve collaborated on a lot of things together, and now we’ve been hired to make a movie together. We’re having a lot of fun in the research phase of it, and we’re sending off pages everyday to the producers — hopefully we’ll get into production in the next few months. You know, I’d love to get in on pilot season and do another show, but I feel like after nine years and directing a lot of One Tree episodes, this is the artistic evolution of someone. I love acting, but I also really want to tell stories and captain those ships and see how they turn out.
Tree Hill fans, what did you think of Dan Scott’s sad send-off?