10 Celebs Who Died and Rudely Left a Movie Hanging
Tragic Hollywood deaths have been the stuff of legend since the day cameras started rolling. But what happens when an actor dies while a film is still in production? Does the studio shut down or carry on? Turns out the answer to that is a nebulous “it depends.”
There are a surprising number of actors with credits that post-date their deaths. For example, Whitney Houston passed away while her movie ‘Sparkle’ was in post-production, and John Candy perished before ‘Canadian Bacon’ was released. In addition, Bruce Lee died while his final film ‘Enter the Dragon’ was still being finished, Peter Sellers appeared in ‘Trail of the Pink Panther’ two years after his death and, when she passed away, Brittany Murphy was filming a role in an independent film that was finally completed this year.
But other celebrities passed on while they still had lines to say and scenes to shoot, leaving studios, producers and — most often — movie insurer Lloyd’s of London to deal with the sticky situation in a variety of ways.
Sadly, Jean Harlow was only 26 years old in 1937 when she collapsed and died from uremic poisoning on the set of the film ‘Saratoga,’ her sixth and final collaboration with fellow screen icon Clark Gable. Despite her untimely death, the movie was completed using a body double and dubbed-over dialogue, and some say it was the tragedy of her passing that helped make the flick such a success.
In an infamous Hollywood ending, James Dean was killed in a car accident in 1955 while filming the movie ‘Giant’ with Elizabeth Taylor. Fortunately for the studio, the accident happened late enough that they were able to finish shooting Dean’s character with a double and voice actor. Regardless, legend has it that Taylor was so upset by Dean’s death that shooting had to be temporarily postponed so she could pull herself together.
Even the famously undead Bela Lugosi, who gave life to the Count Dracula of romantic nightmares, couldn’t escape a tragic fate: His last movie appearance was in the disaster that became ‘Plan 9 From Outer Space.’ The underappreciated Lugosi died of a heart attack while working on the movie with director Ed Wood, who cemented his reputation as “worst director ever” by replacing Lugosi with his wife’s much taller podiatrist and — in a weak attempt at camouflage — using a cape to disguise the stand-in’s face.
Dreamy Hollywood hunk Tyrone Power was midway through his work on ‘Solomon and Sheba’ when he collapsed and died of a heart attack in November of 1958, right in the middle of shooting a fight scene for the film. Power was replaced by Yul Brynner and most of the movie was reshot, but some of the older scenes were kept — so even though he’s uncredited in the film, you can still see Power playing the role of Solomon in some wide shots.
In the months leading up to her (alleged) overdose in 1962, Marilyn Monroe was working on a remake of ‘My Favorite Wife’ called ‘Something’s Got to Give.’ When she was fired from the film for erratic behavior, her costar Dean Martin threatened to leave the production as well, so she was rehired — but died a short time later. The studio finally pulled the plug on the movie, and the script was later rewritten and became ‘Move Over, Darling’ with Doris Day and James Garner. But Monroe’s work wasn’t completely lost — the documentary ‘Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days’ features a 37-minute clip of the original unfinished film.
By the time Natalie Wood drowned under mysterious circumstance while on a Thanksgiving boat outing in 1981, she’d already completed most of her scenes in the movie ‘Brainstorm’ — so rather than paying out the claim to zap the film completely, insurer Lloyd’s of London instead financed the rest of the production. As a result, Wood’s character was written out of a few scenes and body and voice doubles were used to finish her role.
In one of the most notorious and tragic on-set accidents in Hollywood history (and the saddest example of a son following in his father’s footsteps), Brandon Lee suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in 1993 after a mishap with a prop gun while filming ‘The Crow.’ The movie’s remaining scenes were completed using computer graphics and body doubles, and in several scenes, images of Lee from other portions of the shoot are digitally added to the appropriate scenery.
Oliver Reed narrowly escaped death after being stabbed in the throat while filming ‘The Three Musketeers’ in the early ’70s, but it was a heart attack after a night of heavy drinking and arm wrestling in Malta that ended his life while shooting ‘Gladiator’ in 1999. Modern CGI technology allowed producers to finish Reed’s scenes with a digital version of his face on the body of a stand-in.
Heath Ledger’s untimely passing in 2008 didn’t affect ‘The Dark Knight,’ but he was only partially finished with his role in ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.’ In keeping with the whimsy of the film, director Terry Gilliam — who was not at all unfamiliar with disastrous occurrences during shooting — decided to complete the movie using actors like Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, who all portrayed transformations of Ledger’s character .
River Phoenix passed away in 1993 with just 11 days of shooting left on the film ‘Dark Blood.’ The flick remained unfinished until director George Sluizer had a brush with death himself in 2007 and decided to complete it, raising the necessary money himself and adding his own narration to fill in the gaps left by unshot portions. The movie finally made its way to viewers at the Netherlands Film Festival in September of 2012 — and hasn’t been seen since.