By Gina Cherelus
(Reuters) – Fox is cutting Jussie Smollett’s character from its popular hip-hop drama “Empire” after the actor was arrested and accused of staging a hoax hate crime attack on himself, show officials said on Friday.
The move came a day after the 36-year-old was charged with lying to Chicago police about the allegedly staged incident, in which he said two masked men beat him and slung a noose around his neck while yelling racist and homophobic abuse.
Smollett’s character, Jamal Lyon, will be removed from the final two episodes of the current season of Empire, according to 20th Century Fox Television, which said it wanted to avoid “further disruption” on the set of the show.
Smollett faces up to three years in prison if convicted in the case, which has become fodder for the culture wars that have roiled the United States since Donald Trump’s 2016 election.
“The events of the past few weeks have been incredibly emotional for all of us,” Empire’s co-creators and producers said in a statement. “While these allegations are very disturbing, we are placing our trust in the legal system as the process plays out.”
Lawyers for Smollett did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. On Wednesday, they said they were conducting a thorough investigation to form an aggressive defense.
According to court documents, the black and openly gay actor wrote a personal check for $3,500 to two brother and gave them $100 to buy the rope, ski masks, gloves and red baseball caps that were used in the supposed attack on Jan. 29.
Police said Smollett hoped the incident would advance his career and secure him a higher salary.
Detectives interviewed more than 100 people, reviewed footage from more than 55 surveillance cameras, and executed more than 50 search warrants during the investigation. Officials did not spell out how Smollett had hoped to boost his salary by staging such a hoax.
ACTOR OUT ON BAIL
A judge set bail at $100,000 on Thursday and ordered Smollett to surrender his passport. He was released after paying 10 percent of the bail amount as stipulated by the judge.
According to an unnamed source cited by CNN, Smollett apologized to the cast and crew on the set of Empire late on Thursday, but maintained that he is innocent.
While Smollett initially received an outpouring of support on social media from fans, celebrities and some politicians, others were skeptical about the attack, which he said took place outside his Chicago apartment at 2 a.m. on a frigid night.
Among those who supported the actor were Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand. On Thursday, Harris said in a statement she was “sad, frustrated and disappointed” by the latest reports. Gillibrand said she will wait to find out the facts before making another statement.
In his account, the actor said his attackers also shouted “This is MAGA country,” referring to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
Trump initially described the alleged attack on Smollett as “horrible.” After the actor was charged on Thursday, Trump tweeted at him: “(W)hat about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?”
The president’s critics have said his rhetoric has fueled racism and violence, while his supporters say the press has unfairly cast Trump and his supporters in a bad light.
The Walt Disney Co secured a $71 billion deal in July to acquire 21st Century Fox Inc’s film and television assets, which means “Empire” will belong to the production company.
Disney still needs the deal to be approved by more than a dozen countries, including China, Russia and regulators from the European Union.
A Disney representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations against Smollett.
(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)