The Rise of 'The Walking Dead'

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"Frank would just say that they're greedy bastards," says Melton. "They just wanted to keep the money. They felt they could save this money and the show would still perform at the level they wanted."

Still, most assumed the tension between Darabont and AMC wasn't irreconcilable. In July 2011, Darabont and the cast broke from filming Season Two to make an appearance at San Diego's Comic-Con. Darabont returned to Los Angeles Sunday afternoon. On Monday, AMC fired him.

The cast and crew were stunned, as was Darabont. According to Melton, the cast had to be dissuaded from quitting en masse, partially by Darabont himself. Several people made it clear he wanted the show to go on. No real explanation was offered for Darabont's termination, and many are still unsure why it happened.

"I asked and got some pretty vapid answers," says DeMunn, who has a long relationship with Darabont that runs from The Shawshank Redemption to his upcoming TNT show, Mob City. "I became acerbic but could get very little information. I have a theory that there are no grown-ups, and people got in a pissing contest."

Melton says Darabont could be abrasive, which didn't help. "I heard Frank was being very difficult and there were inappropriate e-mails," he says. "He's good at writing a pretty rough e-mail. I just think certain people at AMC wanted him out of the way."

AMC's Collier didn't discuss the reasons behind Darabont's firing, saying only that "we've made every decision with an eye on keeping the story as relevant as possible."

In a move that mirrored the lonely moral stance his character Dale took on the show, DeMunn declared he wanted off The Walking Dead.

"Frank and I have been friends for over 20 years," he says. "I had no respect for the way the whole thing was handled. I try to conduct my life in a way that if you have disagreements, you work them out. If not, bring in a mediator. I don't regret my decision to tell them to get rid of me."

DeMunn got his wish. Closing out a Season Two episode, DeMunn's character is bitten by a walker and then – in a moment of art imitating life – he leans his head toward Daryl's gun, as if asking to be put out of his misery. Just as in the show, the rest of the cast carried on.

In the wake of the firing, Mazzara, who'd been Darabont's second-in-command, stepped into an almost impossible situation, but Season Two finished strongly, with ratings continuing to climb. By the second half of Season Three, though, more problems were arising.

David Boyd, the show's cinematographer during most of the first season and part of the second, as well as a director of several episodes, including one late in Season Three, says there were problems with the scripts. "During the episode I was doing, production was shut down for a week, I think to get the scripts in order. It was well-known AMC was unhappy with where things were going." There were other reports of production delays and disagreements over how the season should end. One former staffer suggests Kirkman may have been bristling about his scripts being so heavily rewritten.

Nonetheless, after breaking records for viewership, Mazzara seemed on strong footing. But shortly after shooting wrapped, AMC announced Mazzara was out as showrunner, to be replaced by Scott Gimple, a writer since Season Two. Both parties called the split amicable, citing creative differences and declining to elaborate. But within weeks, the rumor was that Kirkman had orchestrated Mazzara's exit, an opinion fanned by Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter, who'd worked with Mazzara on FX's The Shield. In a YouTube video, Sutter contended AMC was letting Kirkman control the creative process because he owns The Walking Dead's rights. "The reins keep going back to him . . . and he doesn't know how to run a show."

Kirkman denies this. "It's unfortunate when someone of his stature starts saying stuff because it seems like they're in the know, but they're really not," he says. "It's definitely awkward because it wasn't like I had someone fired."

When I spoke to Mazzara in March, three months after his departure, he emphasized that there wasn't one specific reason for his exit. "I can't say I wanted to do this, they wanted to do that," he says. "It's just an accumulation of differences in tone, approach, storytelling. There wasn't any common ground. It was better to split amicably."

Collier is vague on the details behind Mazzara's departure, but insists that, as with AMC's other hits, the goal with The Walking Dead has always been to honor the intent of its auteur. "The creator of Mad Men is Matt Weiner, the creator of Breaking Bad is Vince Gilligan and the creator of The Walking Dead is Robert Kirkman, so I do think we've remained true to the core of this show, and that's what's in the DNA of the comic book, which is Robert's vision."

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