Why did Fox extend embattled Empire star Jussie Smollett‘s contract through the sixth and final season if producers never intended to bring him back? Fox’s top exec clarified the seemingly counter-intuitive move on Wednesday at the Television Critics Assoc. summer press tour.
“As much as anything in cases like this, and they’re all so unique, you try gather all the information,” Charlie Collier, CEO Fox Entertainment, explained. “You try to make a good decision at the time. [Series creator Lee [Daniels] is right. There’s no plans for Jussie to return to Empire.”
Smollett, who has played Lucious’ musician son Jamal since Empire debuted in 2015, was written out of the final episodes of Season 5 following a headline-grabbing brush with the law. The actor claimed he was beaten up by two men wearing “MAGA” hats who hurled racist and homophobic slurs at him, and then was accused of fabricating the attack and charged with making a false police report.
The charges were later dropped, but the scandal seemed to end Smollett’s run on Empire. When the show was renewed for Season 6 last May, the network extended his contract but said there were “no plans” to bring him back. (Smollett’s final Empire episode saw Jamal get married to Kai, but didn’t definitively write off the character.)
Several weeks later, Daniels — responding to a report that claimed Empire was planning to bring Smollett Jamal back in some capacity — slammed the door shut on a Jamal comeback. “This is not factual. Jussie will NOT be returning to Empire,” Lee tweeted.
So, what changed in the four weeks between Fox extended Smollett’s contract and Daniels issued that tweet? “Just time and information and conversations with all the right people,” Collier said. “A lot of television depends on when the writers’ room is back and all that. We worked with 20th very closely to just make sure we gathered every piece of information we could, did the right thing, and then put the show back together.”
Empire — sans Smollett — returns for its sixth and final season on Tuesday, Sept. 24 at 9/8c.