As doubts mounted about Jussie Smollett's story about being the victim of a hate crime, Fox and 20th Century Fox — the network and studio behind his show Empire — stood by him.
Hours before he would turn himself in to the Chicago Police Department to be charged with a felony for filing a false report, the companies issued an unprompted statement, calling Smollett "a consummate professional on set," and reiterating that his character, Jamal Lyon, is "not being written out of the show."
Now, with two episodes left to film in Empire's 18-episode season, Smollett has in fact been suspended from the soapy musical drama. The decision was announced on Friday in a statement issued by the show's producers.
“The events of the past few weeks have been incredibly emotional for all of us. 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,” read the statement from Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Brett Mahoney, Brian Grazer, Sanaa Hamri, Francie Calfo, and Dennis Hammer, the executive producers of Empire.
According to a TMZ story Thursday night, Smollett had gone straight from his bail hearing in a Chicago court that afternoon to the Empire set, delaying production. He tearfully addressed the cast and crew, saying, "I’m sorry I’ve put you all through this and not answered any calls. I wanted to say I’m sorry and, you know me, I would never do this to any of you, you are my family. I swear to God, I did not do this."
Through his legal team, Smollett is also sticking with the story that he was attacked. His camp issued a statement Thursday night calling him "a young man of impeccable character and integrity who fiercely and solemnly maintains his innocence."
Smollett told police that he was attacked on Jan. 29 by two men who threw a chemical on him, called him anti-gay and racist slurs, and put a rope around his neck. They also shouted "This is MAGA country" at him, he said.
The story garnered Smollett support from celebrities (Viola Davis, John Legend) and politicians (Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi) alike.
But shortly after Smollett appeared on Good Morning America on Feb. 14 telling the story of the attack and ripping anyone who doubted him, two local Chicago TV affiliates reported that the attack on Smollett might be a hoax.
Over the next week, Smollett's story seemed to unravel completely, with his alleged co-conspirators in the hoax, Olabinjo and Abimbola Osundairo, turning against him and cooperating with police. On Thursday, Smollett turned himself in to the Chicago Police Department, and later in the day he was released on $100,000 bond.
Despite how ill-conceived this alleged hoax appears to have been, the police have so far not provided a credible motive for why Smollett would want to stage a hate crime against him. On Thursday, police said that Smollett was unhappy with his salary, and that was why he did it. According to a source close to the show, Smollett never expressed dissatisfaction with his $100,000 per episode salary.
And according to multiple sources at Fox and on Empire, Smollett was never in danger of being written off the show, which was one of the theories that was leaked to the local Chicago stations. Eleven days before the alleged attack, Fox pitched a story to BuzzFeed News about Jamal's upcoming wedding, saying that Smollett and Toby Onwumere (who plays Jamal's fiancé) "have a great storyline this season, with an upcoming wedding in the second half of the season."
The show returns from its winter hiatus on March 13, and there will be seven episodes that he is still in, unless Empire producers find a way to change his presence in the show.
When Empire — co-created by Lee Daniels and Danny Strong — premiered in winter 2015, it was a massive success, and finished the season as the No. 1 network show among 18- to 49-year-olds. As is often the case, its ratings have fallen off as the seasons have gone on. According to Nielsen, Empire's season-to-date ratings are averaging 5.1 million viewers and a 1.5 in the 18-to-49 demographic — which are still strong for a show in its fifth year.
Now the show is under threat for reasons not even Empire writers could ever dream up.