Last Sunday, news filtered through that Andy Whitfield, who plays the fetchingly sculpted gladiator at the heart of Spartacus: Blood and Sand, had stood down from the hit show.

His non-Hodgkin's lymphoma had returned. When I interviewed the Auckland-based actor just 10 days before the announcement, he was upbeat, speaking of getting the all-clear from the cancer and getting on with the show and his life.

Reading the news online, I felt shock and sadness. "It's with a deep sense of disappointment that I must step aside from such an exceptional project as Spartacus and all the wonderful people involved," said his statement. "It seems that it is time for myself and my family to embark on another extraordinary journey. Thank you sincerely for the support so far."

When we talked, Whitfield came across as a down-to-earth, lovely guy utterly unaffected by the trappings of fame. The 36-year-old with the hybrid Welsh-Aussie accent spoke candidly of what a shock that initial diagnosis was. In February, he thought he was in the best shape of his life, with a smoking-hot career, young family and everything to look forward to.

But just as Spartacus was breaking ratings records in America, and as the second season was about to start filming in Auckland, its star was diagnosed with cancer after a routine checkup. Whitfield and life-coach wife Vashti decided to stay in Auckland, where Spartacus is shot and their 5-year-old son was starting school (their daughter is 2).

"I went straight into chemotherapy and was in remission a couple of months later." A gruelling experience, but this guy has a knack for seeing the positive in everything. "You've probably heard this before, but it [cancer] is such a perspective-giver that I don't regret it. I got so much out of it, I learned so much. You realise what's important." And that's soaking up every moment. "I got to spend months and months with my children, getting my son into school and my daughter talking, and how many dads get to do that?"

Whitfield spoke of his gratitude to executives of show producer Starz network for delaying filming and sticking with him through his ordeal. "They were left with a dilemma: we're about to start season two and what the hell do we do?" With cast, crew and giant Mt Wellington warehouses booked in, they hit on a bloody good idea. "To make a six-ep prequel which will keep the brand alive," Whitfield explained. Spartacus: Gods of The Arena is the back story of gladiator owner-operators Batiatus (John Hannah) and the lusty Lucretia (Lucy Lawless) before they buy Spartacus.

The plan was for Whitfield to be back at work shooting season two in October. Unfortunately that is not to be. The question is, will the show go on without him? As Whitfield said of the decision to postpone season two, Starz could have recast. "It's hard to ask an audience to accept a different person, but if they had no alternative ..." Starz isn't commenting yet on what form, if any, the second season will take.

Said Starz President/CEO Chris Albrecht: "Our hearts and prayers are with Andy and his family during this difficult time. He is an amazing human being whose courage, strength and grace in the face of adversity have inspired all of us." A little like the real Spartacus inspired his fellow men.

Spartacus is loosely based on the true story of a Thracian gladiator who from 73-71 BC led an uprising of 120,000 slaves against the Roman Republic. Spartacus the soldier is captured and condemned to fight as a gladiator, thanks to nasty old Legatus Glaber (Craig Parker).

For Whitfield, a former photographer and model who'd been juggling engineer work with TV acting gigs, Spartacus was his big break. He landed the role after a global search for a gifted actor who'd so far flown under Hollywood's radar. Five auditions later, they said yes. "It was my introduction to America and that's never going to be a bad thing for your career." Not when there are nine million Spartacus viewers in the States alone.

It wasn't just a dream role because it led to decent pay, international fame and numerous work offers.

"It's also because it's such a cinematic show, with such emotional complexity. You get to play characters who have enormous stakes: life and death."

High stakes accentuated by an almost-operatic aesthetic with its slow-mo battle scenes, surreal spurting blood, and moments frozen in time.

"They really pushed the graphic-novel look so you're slightly protected from the gratuity [of the violence]," said Whitfield. He had to sign up for a punishing training regime. Gladiator boot camp. Four hours a day of training with weights and stuntmen was emotionally and physically draining.

"A month wasn't very long to get into Spartacus shape. We're naked pretty much, apart from that tiny Speedo." Yes, the steamy sex scenes took some getting used to. "There's all these people staring at you, so the best you can do is try to forget about that and submit to whatever is required."

He also had to get used to stares offset, though the attention in Auckland is nothing compared to America. "I was in LA recently and I couldn't walk anywhere without someone harassing me. That was kinda freaky." But he said: "It's not a real world. People get attached to my character, not me."

But fans are attached to the actor who is facing his own life-and-death struggle. Since the first diagnosis, Whitfield was blown away by the support from fans. And after last week's news, hundreds more messages were posted on fansites, such as this from Angel in Washington D.C:

"Andy has a strength that I know will overcome. You have captured our hearts Andy Whitfield, and I know you will be back."

Spartacus: Blood And Sand screens Sundays on Sky's The Box (digital 5) at 9.30pm and repeats on Fridays at 10.30pm.

-Herald On Sunday / View