EW's Editor Jess Cagle says so long to an actor who spoke — no, sang — to the nerd inside all of us

By Jess Cagle
Updated July 19, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

We never really leave high school. Throughout adult life, each of us is surrounded with the familiar archetypes we came to know and love and loathe during our formative teen years: the jocks, the nerds, the cheerleaders, the student-council presidents, and so on. And each of us knows, deep down, that we belong squarely in the nerd category, regardless of the label we wear or aspire to. We all feel like misfits; it’s the price we pay for individuality. The baseline brilliance of Fox’s Glee is how it has tapped into that universal feeling for four seasons. Even the most brutal bully among Glee viewers ultimately identifies with the members of New Directions, those singing, dancing, dreaming dweebs who are unsanctioned and unwanted by the ruling class.

When actor Cory Monteith died at age 31 on July 13, we felt the shock we always feel when a noteworthy person passes away at an alarmingly young age. Given Monteith’s admitted struggles with substance abuse (an autopsy was completed July 15, but results were still pending as of press time), we also felt both sadness and frustration at the possibility that addiction cut short a life with such promise. But fans of Glee felt the loss much more acutely, not just because they invited him into their lives on a weekly basis but because the character he played, Finn Hudson, was such a compelling hybrid — a jock who risks his popularity by joining the glee club. And Monteith was born to play the role. He looked tough enough; it was easy to imagine him running a football down the field, strutting in the end zone. Finn was sort of a meathead, and Monteith served the character well with his solid physique, close-set eyes, and subtle comic timing. But while Monteith blessed Finn with the presence of a quarterback, he also gave the character a soft center and a profound sadness. Finn, in fact, seemed a little too sensitive for his own good; he somehow knew that life after high school wasn’t always kind to guys like him, but he accepted that and planned accordingly with dignity.

Monteith’s turn as Finn was a finer, more complex performance than he usually got credit for, and it’s easy to assume that the actor’s own complicated life informed his work. In a 2011 interview with Parade, Monteith spoke of his misspent youth in British Columbia, dropping out of high school, taking drugs, and landing in rehab at 19 after his mother and friends staged an intervention. Soon after that, he discovered acting. He moved to Vancouver and began auditioning for shows shooting there. His first job was one line on Stargate: Atlantis. He also did a turn on Supernatural and appeared in Final Destination 3. When he sent in his first audition tape for Glee, he strategically did not sing, since ”I didn’t consider myself a particularly strong singer,” he told EW in 2009. But ultimately Monteith recorded an a cappella version of REO Speedwagon’s ”Can’t Fight This Feeling,” singing directly into the camera, and won the role. During the show’s first season he landed on the cover of EW. ”Finn is the quarterback with the hot cheerleader girlfriend,” he told the writer, Tim Stack. ”But what makes the character interesting and new and fresh is that he wants to do something that he loves so much. He wants to sing and dance…. He tries to keep a balance between those two lives.” Surrounded by flashier characters on the show, Finn was often the straight man, in every sense of the word. Monteith himself was known on set as a professional with a strong work ethic. He’d completed two upcoming films — All the Wrong Reasons and McCanick — and seemed eager to show his range. And he romanced Lea Michele both on screen and off. But privately, Monteith was still battling old habits. In late March, his reps made the surprise announcement that he had once again checked into rehab. That’s why Finn did not appear in the final three episodes of Glee last season, but when last we saw him, he had decided on the course of his life. He wanted to be a teacher.

The cast is scheduled to reconvene to begin shooting Glee‘s fifth season at the end of July. The producers are left with the painful task of writing their friend and colleague out of the show while also giving the character the emotional send-off the audience will demand. We’ll never know if Monteith’s gift for deceptively simple performances could have translated into a long career. The fact is, he will probably be remembered for just one role — but it was a winner. By way of Monteith’s capable and compassionate performance, Finn embraced his inner underdog, and by doing so, he embraced all of us.