Is there such thing as a universally beloved celebrity? Only a few names come to mind. Betty White. Tom Hanks. Dolly Parton. If anything ever happened to them, the world would lose its dang mind.
That’s exactly what went on yesterday when the news that comedian and actor Bob Odenkirk–best known for his role on Breaking Bad and the spinoff Better Call Saul–collapsed on set.
The Waiting Is the Hardest Part
No other news was forthcoming. Fans had no idea whether Odenkirk, 58, had simply fainted due to the heat while filming in New Mexico or if something far worse had happened. Message boards on gossip sites, as well as breathless Twitter threads, speculated that he might have suffered a stroke, like Luke Perry, or a massive heart attack like Carrie Fisher. Flashbacks of John Ritter played in everyone’s mind.
No news felt like bad news.
Surely, if he was okay, someone would tell us. Or if he wasn’t okay, then at least we’d know for sure.
Although folks tweeted about forming prayer circles or offering to fight the Grim Reaper with their bare hands, they weren’t entirely joking. There was a sense of holding our collective breath, of waiting to find out whether 2021 would be as cruel and capricious as the hard few years that came before it.
The Power of Parasocial Relationships
Fans of the Mr. Show comedian refreshed Twitter and Google News obsessively throughout the day, hoping to hear an update on his condition. We worried for this man, whom the vast majority of us will never meet as if he were a family member. That’s the incredible power of celebrity–especially when that celebrity is as talented and well-liked as Bob Odenkirk.
Why do celebrities mean so much to us? According to psychologists, we form genuine–if one-sided–bonds with the celebrities we admire. Our brains can’t really tell the difference between a person we know in real life and one whom we’ve only seen on the screen. When they’re hurting, whether it’s a public breakup or a life-threatening illness, we’re emotionally invested.
Called parasocial relationships, it’s the reason we get really invested in celebrity gossip. It’s why the #FreeBritney movement is so passionate, for example. It’s also why, when our favorite actor or musician makes a misstep or turns out to have a checkered past, it feels almost like a personal betrayal.
Psychologists are quick to point out that parasocial relationships aren’t the same thing as stalking. In fact, they can be beneficial, “especially in the case of young people figuring out their identities and those with low self-esteem,” according to Brittany Wong of Huffington Post.
So it’s not weird at all that the internet freaked out over the idea of losing a beloved celebrity. When Odenkirk’s costars, such as Bryan Cranston and David Cross, tweeted out their support and reassurances, it only reinforced the feeling that, somehow, we were all in this moment together.
All’s Well That Ends Well
Thankfully, Odenkirk’s son had good news to share later that evening, simply tweeting out the message “He’s going to be okay.”
Shortly afterward, the actor’s rep released an official statement:
“We can confirm Bob is in stable condition after experiencing a heart-related incident. He and his family would like to express gratitude for the incredible doctors and nurses looking after him, as well as his cast, crew and producers who have stayed by his side. The Odenkirks would also like to thank everyone for the outpouring of well wishes and ask for their privacy at this time as Bob works on his recovery.”
We still don’t know if Odenkirk will be able to go back to work soon, if at all. But it seems that he’s out of the woods, and the internet can breathe a collective sigh of relief.