Fans mourn death of 'Degrassi''s Wheels, Neil Hope

"Degrassi" actor Neil Hope, who played Derek (Wheels) Wheeler on the long-running youth series, is shown in a handout photo. "Degrassi” producers are expressing condolences after word that Hope apparently died five years ago without any public announcement. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Epitome Pictures Inc.

TORONTO - Former child star Neil Hope, who played Derek (Wheels) Wheeler on the long-running youth series "Degrassi," died alone in a Hamilton rooming house in 2007, said former fiancee Christina Boulard on Thursday, as details of the troubled actor's final years emerged.

Boulard said family members had spent years trying to track down Hope's whereabouts after hearing rumours of his passing several years ago, but only learned the truth last month from Hamilton police.

She said he died on Nov. 25, 2007 of "natural causes" but refused to explain further, only saying Hope was diabetic.

Boulard expressed frustration over the bizarre case, saying: "We are mourning right along with you guys."

"I have a lot of anger inside me because of the way this was handled by the Hamilton police," said Boulard, who lives in the southern Ontario city.

"Who do I blame? Do I blame the person in the rooming house that didn't tell anybody? ... How does that work? Did they just say, 'Oh, look he's dead. Let's wait a while until somebody claims them and then bury him.' Did they not even bother to look in a phone book, to read on the Internet?"

Hamilton police said a spokesperson was not available to comment.

Boulard said she last saw Hope in 2002 when he lived in Windsor, Ont., and didn't know how he ended up in Hamilton. She said it was not unusual for him to cut ties with friends and family from time to time.

"Neil was a very private person," Boulard said from Hamilton. "He didn't have the best life, there were times when he would go a while without seeing or talking to his family."

Hope, who was 35 when he died, was buried on March 26, 2008 but Boulard would not say where.

The Twitterverse was abuzz with tributes as word of his death spread Thursday. A memorial page from a fan in Israel featured photos of Hope and a guest book for other fans to share condolences.

"Degrassi" 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."

In a tweet, Stohn said Degrassi executives had "respected the privacy of the family by not saying anything until now," and added the "entire team is very emotional about his passing."

Hope was one of "Degrassi"'s earliest stars, appearing as "Griff" on the first instalment of the series, "The Kids of Degrassi Street," in 1979.

In the subsequent incarnation "Degrassi Junior High," which ran from 1987 to 1991, he portrayed the troubled Wheels, who struggled with alcoholism. The actor was candid about his own difficult childhood growing up with alcoholic parents.

Hope was conspicuously absent from a televised cast reunion on the CBC-TV show "Jonovision" in 1999. Cast members chuckled and threw up their hands when an audience member asked where Hope was. Host Jonathan Torrens followed up by asking if anyone was in touch with Hope and all the cast members shook their heads no.

He re-emerged to guest star on "Degrassi: The Next Generation" in 2001 and 2003, but details of his final years were scarce.

Director Kevin Smith, a longtime "Degrassi" fan who appeared on the show as a guest star, tweeted about Thursday's news and said Hope "he will be missed."

Facebook members who said they were relatives of Hope first posted a notice of his death last month.

"It has been confirmed that Neil passed away Nov. 25, 2007. RIP You will always be in our hearts and always remembered. Now we all can be at peace. We miss you soo much!!!! xoxox," read a post dated Jan. 12.