Actor Neil Hope, who played Derek "Wheels" Wheeler on the long-running Degrassi series, died more than four years ago, it was confirmed publicly for the first time on Thursday.

Degrassi producers Linda Schuyler and Stephen Stohn said he died in 2007. Hope was 35 at the time of his death.

"We have respected the privacy of the family by not saying anything until now, but our entire team is very emotional about his passing," Stohn said on his Twitter feed.

"Neil and his character Wheels in the early Degrassi deeply touched many lives."

It wasn't clear why his death had not been reported previously, but a spokeswoman for Epitome Pictures, which produced the series, says contact with Hope had been lost over the past several years.

Reports said Hope — who appeared on Degrassi: The Next Generation, Degrassi Junior High and The Kids of Degrassi Street — died Nov. 25, 2007 of natural causes.

Wheels struggled with alcoholism during the series and Hope spoke candidly about his parents’ alcoholism and his own struggles with alcohol abuse.

He was involved in a 1992 series called Degrassi Talks, in which Degrassi actors encouraged teens to seek help with problems such as addiction and sexuality. He also made a documentary with co-stars Rebecca Haines and Bill Parrott  called The Darker Side that focused on children with alcoholic parents.   

"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  and Stohn said Thursday in a joint statement.

"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," they added.

Hope was one of five children born to a Toronto family. He began acting at age nine. He lost a brother, Brian, to cancer.

Kevin Smith,  a director who appeared as a guest on Degrassi, was one of many fans expressing sadness at Hope's death. He "will be missed," Smith tweeted.

Degrassi fans also shared the news on Facebook and poured out condolences on Twitter. 

With files from The Canadian Press