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Neil Hope, played 'Wheels' on PBS' 'Degrassi Junior High'; Sept. 24, 1974 -- Nov. 25, 2007

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 death several years ago, but they only learned last month from police in Hamilton, Ont., that he had died.

Boulard said the former star of Canada's groundbreaking "Degrassi" series died Nov. 25, 2007, of "natural causes" at age 35. She 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 up to 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 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, but 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."

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 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.

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."

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