Jussie Smollett scandal: Fox drops him from ‘Empire’ after his felony arrest

February 22, 2019

by John Larson

Jussie Smollett
Jussie Smollett (Photo by Chris Fragapane/Fox)

Actor/singer Jussie Smollett has been dropped from the Season 5 finale of the Fox drama TV series “Empire,” one day after he was arrested in Chicago for felony charges that include filing a false police report about being the victim of a hate crime. His departure from the show is expected to be permanent. “Empire,” which debuted in 2015, is about the fictional Lyon family, a powerful dynasty in the R&B/hip-hop industry. Smollett, 36, played Jamal Lyon, one of the heirs to the dynasty. Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson play the patriarch and matriarch in the dynasty. Just like his character on “Empire,” Smollett is an openly gay entertainer. Although “Empire” is set in New York City, the show is actually filmed in Chicago. “Empire” is produced by Imagine Television in association with 20th Century Fox Television. Season 5 of “Empire” premieres on March 13, 2019.

“Empire” executive producers Lee Daniels, Danny Strong, Brett Mahoney, Brian Grazer, Sanaa Hamri, Francie Calfo and Dennis Hammer released this joint statement on February 22, 2019: “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.”

Smollett’s scandal began when he claimed that in the early-morning hours (approximately 2 a.m.) of January 29, 2019, he was physically assaulted by two men wearing ski masks while he was walking by himself on a Chicago street near his apartment. He said that the alleged assailants yelled racist and homophobic insults during the assault, poured bleach on him, and put a roped noose around his neck, but he was able to fight them off and get away. He also claimed that the alleged assailants shouted, “This is MAGA country,” implying that they were supporters of President Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again (MAGA)” slogan. Smollett, who was briefly treated for minor injuries at a local hospital, said the reason why he was outside so late on the streets of Chicago in freezing temperature was because he was looking for somewhere to eat. He claimed that he had just left a Subway sandwich shop and was on the phone with his manager when the alleged attack occurred. Smollett’s manager was the one who called the police.

Over the next few weeks, Smollett received an outpouring of support from his colleagues and fans, but his story was called into question by many others when he refused to turn over his cell phone to police. In an interview with ABC News’ Robin Roberts that aired on February 15, 2019, Smollett remained defiant in saying that he was telling the truth about everything. He also said that he didn’t want to give his phone to the police because it had too much private and sensitive information.

Smollett’s story began to unravel on February 15, when Chicago police arrested and then released two Nigerian brothers named Olabinjo Osundairo and Abimbola Osundairo, who who were known acquaintances of Smollett. The Osundairo brothers were extras on “Empire” and were known to be involved in gym/fitness activities with Smollett. Video surveillance footage was uncovered of the brothers purchasing the same clothing that Smollett described his alleged attackers as wearing during the assault. On February 20, Chicago police announced that Smollett was being charged for filing a false police report (a felony in the state of Illinois) and his arrest was imminent.

After the Smollett turned himself in to be arrested on February 21, Chicago police revealed in a press conference that the Osundairo brothers confessed that Smollett paid them (reportedly $3,500) to stage the attack, and that Smollett’s entire story was a hoax aimed at getting him sympathy and publicity because he was unhappy with his “Empire” salary and wanted a raise. (Smollett’s “Empire” salary was reportedly $65,000 per episode.) The Chicago police also said that although they believe that the Osundairo brothers might have caused some of Smollett’s injuries under his orders, most of Smollett’s injuries were “self-inflicted.”

The police also said that Smollett was behind a threatening hate-mail letter that was sent to him on the Chicago set of “Empire” about a week before the alleged attack. When the letter failed to get the reaction that Smollett wanted, police say that he then concocted a plan to stage a physical assault made to look like a hate crime. Smollett’s attorneys say that he is still maintaining his innocence. He has been released on $100,000 bail, and had to surrender his passport.

March 8, 2019 UPDATE: Smollett has been charged with 16 counts of filing a false police report.

March 26, 2019 UPDATE: All charges against Smollett have been dropped. He read this statement outside of a Chicago courthouse after it was announced that the charges were dropped:

“I just made a couple of notes. First of all I want to thank my family, my friends, the incredible people of Chicago and all over the country and the world who have prayed for me , who have supported me and who have showed me so much love. No one will ever know how much that has meant to me and I will be forever grateful. I want you to know that not for a moment was it in vain. I would not be my mother’s son if I was capable of one drop of what I’ve been accused of.

“This has been an incredibly difficult time. Honestly one of the worst of my entire life. But I am a man of faith and I am a man that has knowledge of my history and I would not bring my family, our lives or the movement through a fire like this. I just wouldn’t.”

December 9, 2021 UPDATE: A Chicago jury has found Jussie Smollett guilty of fix of six felony charges of disorderly conduct, for lying to police about being the victim of a hate crime in 2019. The felony charges were refiled against him after a new district attorney took over the case.

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