TORONTO — Actor Neil Hope, who starred as Derek “Wheels” Wheeler on the popular 1980s TV series “Degrassi Junior High” and had little contact with relatives and friends in his final years, died alone in an Ontario rooming house in 2007, his former fiancee confirmed Friday.
Ex-fiancee Christina Boulard said Hope’s family spent years trying to track him down after hearing rumors of his passing several years ago, but only learned last month from police in Hamilton, Ontario, that he had died.
Boulard said the former star of Canada’s groundbreaking “Degrassi” series died on Nov. 25, 2007, of “natural causes” at the age of 35 but declined to elaborate, only saying Hope was diabetic.
Boulard, who last saw Hope in 2002, said it was not unusual for him to cut ties with friends and family for sometimes a year at a time.
“Neil was a very private person. He didn’t have the best life, there were times when he would go a while without seeing or talking to his family,” Boulard said.
She said she is angry that police took so long to inform Hope’s relatives of his death. He apparently had not listed a next-of-kin in any official documents, she said, adding she doubted that was true.
“He deserved better and so did his family,” Boulard said.
Hamilton Police Service Sgt. Terri-Lynn Collings said Friday that the force doesn’t comment on “sudden death investigations where there’s no suspicion of any foul play.”
A spokeswoman for Ontario’s Office of the Chief Coroner said that an unclaimed person would be buried by a municipality only after a next-of-kin search was conducted. Cheryl Mahyr said a search could include hospitals, physicians, pharmacies, community organizations and mental health facilities.
Hope was one of “Degrassi’s” earliest stars, appearing as “Griff” on the first installment, “The Kids of Degrassi Street,” in 1979.
On “Degrassi Junior High,” which ran from 1987 to 1991 on PBS in the United States, he portrayed the troubled character Derek Wheeler — known as “Wheels” — who struggled with alcoholism. The actor was candid about his own difficult childhood growing up with alcoholic parents.
“Degrassi Junior High,” was acclaimed for its realistic portrayal of topics such as drug use, child abuse, teen pregnancy, homophobia, racism and divorce. The show followed the lives of teens who eventually graduated to “Degrassi High,” another incarnation of the show.
Hope later guest starred on “Degrassi: The Next Generation” in 2001 and 2003, but details of his final years were scarce. The “Degrassi” series has won two International Emmy Awards and two Teen Choice Awards, along with several other awards.
Facebook members who said they were relatives of Hope first posted a notice of Hope’s death last month, but online reports of his death only began circulating Thursday morning.
Twitter was abuzz with tributes as word of his death spread. A memorial page from a fan in Israel featured photos of Hope and a guest book for other fans to share condolences.
Film director Kevin Smith, a longtime “Degrassi” fan who appeared on the show as a guest star, tweeted that Hope “will be missed.”
“Degrassi Junior High” creator Linda Schuyler said she was “terribly saddened to hear the news.”
“Neil made an important contribution to our lives, to the lives of our television team who are like a family to us and indeed to the lives of the many Canadians and others around the world who were influenced by Neil and the roles he played, starting from the early days of ‘The Kids of Degrassi Street,”’ Schuyler said in a joint statement with executive producer Stephen Stohn.
“His life was not an easy one but the time he spent with us was a shining example of determination, hard work and hopeful optimism and he is sorely missed.”
Boulard is planning a private memorial in June for Hope’s old “Degrassi” colleagues and close friends.