Degrassi actor Neil Hope, aka Wheels, died in 2007, but news of his death was not not widely known until Thursday, because it had not previously been announced publicly.

Stephanie Cohen, spokeswoman for Epitome Pictures, which produced the Degrassi series, told The Canadian Press that the fact that he had died Nov. 25, 2007, from natural causes in Ontario had not been known earlier because there has been little contact with the actor over the past several years.

Degrassi creator Linda Schuyler offered her condolences on Thursday, saying that she was terribly saddened by the news, according to the news outlet:

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 issued with the show's 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.

Neil Hope played the character Wheels on the popular show Degrassi. He was in the following iterations of the series: Degrassi: The Next Generation, Degrassi Junior High and The Kids of Degrassi Street. On The Kids of Degrassi Street, he played the character Griff beginning in 1979.

Neil Hope had not been heard from in years, and did not appear in a 1999 cast reunion on CBC-TV, when the cast's other members all indicated that they had not been in touch with the actor. Derek Wheels Wheeler was an alcoholic character, and Hope had spoken about his own parents' struggles with alcoholism.

Neil Hope's death became a rumor on Twitter earlier this week, but it was not confirmed until Thursday, and it has since become a major entertainment news story.

The Canadian Press and other outlets were not able to confirm exactly how he died, but Stohn said on Twitter that Degrassi producers respected the privacy of the family by not saying anything until now, adding that the entire team is very emotional about his passing.