10 Stars Who Died During the Filming of a Movie

philip seymour hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead on Feb. 2, 2014, during filming of "Mockingjay Part 1," but his passing is just too soon for this list.
© Debby Wong/Corbis

When the movie "Salt" premiered in 2010, one of its stars, Angelina Jolie, premiered a new feature, too: a permanent facial scar. Jolie pointed out the scar -- which was the result of a collision with a doorway during a gun-wielding stunt -- to the press during an appearance to promote the film [source: Hough].

Even with a lifelong souvenir of her days on the set, Jolie is one of the lucky ones. Some silver screen professionals don't survive a movie's stunts, or suffer fatal accidents or illnesses off set.


When the 10 stars on this list died, their directors were left in emotional and logistical binds, and their deaths forever attached dark footnotes to their final films' histories. In some cases, the movie had to be canceled, and in others the role was recast or the production moved forward with creative workarounds as a final tribute to the star.

We'll start our list on the next page with tales of Heath Ledger's final performances.

10: Heath Ledger

Heath Ledger attends the Leone d'Oro del 75th closing ceremony in Venice during day 11 of the 64th Venice Film Festival on September 8, 2007 in Venice, Italy.
Here, Ledger attends the Venice Film Festival in September 2007.
Joe Cole/WireImage

Heath Ledger made a name for himself as a quick-witted heartthrob in "10 Things I Hate About You" and "A Knight's Tale" before moving on to more dramatic roles in iconic movies that included "Brokeback Mountain" and the second installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman movie series, "The Dark Knight."

While Ledger was filming "The Dark Knight," he said in interviews that the scary role of the Joker contributed to his prescription drug use -- he often became so immersed in the characters he played that it affected his daily life, making sleep difficult. Shortly after "The Dark Knight" wrapped, Ledger began filming "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" with director Terry Gilliam. In January 2008, with just a third of the movie filmed, Ledger went to bed in his apartment in New York City's tony SoHo district, where his housekeeper later found him dead [source: Altman]. An autopsy revealed that Ledger died after an accidental and gradual overdose on a combination of painkillers, sleeping pills and other prescription drugs, leading some to speculate that playing the Joker led to his death [source: Leonard].


Ledger's grieving Hollywood family came together to save "Imaginarium." With some minor script changes, Gilliam brought on Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell, three of Ledger's closest friends, to portray facets of Ledger's character in his remaining scenes. Combined with a near-identical body double, a few tricks that Gilliam isn't revealing and several happy coincidences, their performances gave the film the chance to live -- and to honor Ledger's memory [source: Morgan]. The end credits proclaimed it "A Film from Heath Ledger and Friends" [source: Paris].

9: John Candy

Actor and comedian John Candy in formal dress at the 60th Academy Awards. He presented the Oscar for best achievement in makeup on April 11, 1988 in Los Angeles.
Candy's father died of heart disease when he was just 35 and John was 4, leaving John with a lifelong struggle between self-discipline and fatalism about his health.
Michael Grecco/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Funnyman John Candy, known for portraying portly, lovable underdogs in such movies as "Stripes," "Uncle Buck" and "Planes, Trains & Automobiles," died of a massive heart attack on March 4, 1994 -- the same night that he filmed his final scene in "Wagons East." Candy left the set, cooked a celebratory spaghetti dinner for his assistants, called his co-stars to congratulate them and went to bed. By the next morning, he was dead.

The film -- a comedy set in the Wild West -- was released later that summer. Candy played the inebriated leader of a wagon train bent on getting a job from two successful businessmen. Although some believed that Candy offered the performance of a lifetime, the movie was widely panned by critics as an unworthy farewell to Candy, who had starred in nearly 40 films and was just 43 years old when he died [source: Schneider].


8: Natalie Wood

Actors Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner attend an event in 1959 in Los Angeles, California.
Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner at a Los Angeles event in 1959, a little more than a year after their first marriage.
Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty Images

In 2011, three decades after actress Natalie Wood drowned while boating with her then-husband Robert Wagner and fellow actor Christopher Walken, the Los Angeles County sheriff's department reopened the case.

Wood, the star of films including "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Splendor in the Grass," was at the time of her death filming the movie "Brainstorm" opposite Walken. On Nov. 29, 1981, he accompanied the married couple on a late night yacht cruise off the coast of Southern California and, in the hours before dawn, Woods and Wagner argued, she went overboard and -- unable to swim -- Woods drowned.


After her death, producers struggled to secure funding for "Brainstorm." When it did hit theaters, the movie didn't attract moviegoers. The movie's director, Douglas Trumbull -- known for his special-effects work on "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" -- immediately retired [source: Leopold]. Throughout the years, speculation continued to swirl around the circumstances of Wood's death. The case was reopened in 2011, when the man who had captained the yacht that night came forward to reveal that Wagner and Walken had attempted to cover up Wood's death.

7: Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe
In 1961, the year before her death, Monroe's divorce from Arthur Miller and Clark Gable's death contributed to her spiraling depression, during which she began using sedatives heavily.
Publications International, Ltd.

Blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe, famous for her film roles, multiple marriages and memorable serenading of President John F. Kennedy, died on Aug. 5, 1962, before she could finish filming "Something's Got to Give."

The comedy, which was being directed by George Cukor and also starred Cyd Charisse and Dean Martin, had been plagued with conflict from the start. At one point, Monroe was even fired. But Martin refused to work with any actress other than Monroe, so the famous beauty was rehired. Before Monroe could resume her role, however, she was found dead in her Brentwood, Calif., home -- the result of an overdose of barbiturates.


After Monroe's death, the filming of "Something's Got to Give" was eventually scrapped, but parts of the unfinished film were included in a 2001 documentary titled "Marilyn: The Final Days" [source: The Internet Movie Database].

6: River Phoenix

Actor River Phoenix, star of 'Stand By Me,' poses during a 1988 Los Angeles, California, photo portrait session.
Phoenix also won acclaim for his work in "My Own Private Idaho" -- and teen hearthrob status for roles in blockbusters like "Sneakers" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."
George Rose/Getty Images

River Phoenix, a young actor who shot to stardom after appearing in Rob Reiner's "Stand by Me," was near the end of filming "Dark Blood" when he died of a drug overdose on Halloween in 1993 at age 23. Phoenix had reportedly exited a Hollywood nightclub called The Viper Room when he began convulsing on the sidewalk, surrounded by onlookers. He was taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy found cocaine, morphine, marijuana, Valium and cold medication in his system [source: Mydans].

"Dark Blood," a dark tale about a widower (Phoenix) living on a nuclear testing site, was subsequently canceled because Phoenix's presence was crucial to several yet-to-be-shot scenes. Phoenix was also slated to film "Interview with the Vampire" with Tom Cruise. His role was taken over by Christian Slater, who donated his entire salary from the film to a charity in Phoenix's honor [source: The Internet Movie Database].


5: Paul Mantz

To Paul Mantz, stunt flying was a natural calling. The legendary aviator even lost his spot at the U.S. Army flight school when he buzzed over a train filled with high-ranking officers to show off his skills.

It seemed only fitting that Mantz would later land a role in the 1932 movie "Air Mail," in which he flew a biplane through a hangar not much bigger than the aircraft itself. He appeared in numerous films through the years, including "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Twelve O'Clock High" and "The Wings of Eagles."


On July 8, 1965, Mantz was killed while performing a stunt for "The Flight of the Phoenix," which he came out of retirement to film. Flying over an Arizona desert site, Mantz's plane struck a hill and broke into pieces, killing the famous aviator immediately. Because the majority of the movie had already been shot, filmmakers were able to substitute another plane for some remaining close-ups, and "The Flight of the Phoenix" was released later that year [source: The Internet Movie Database].

4: Vic Morrow

Vic Morrow, a tough-talking actor known for his role in the TV series "Combat!" as well as a string of B movies, was killed in July 1982 in an accident on the set of "Twilight Zone: The Movie" along with two child actors, My-ca Denh Le and Renee Chen. The script called for the use of both a helicopter and pyrotechnics -- a combination that proved lethal. When the pyrotechnics exploded, the helicopter's tail was severed, causing it to crash and kill the three actors. It was later discovered that the children had been employed illegally, to be paid under the table, because the director allegedly wanted to skirt California's laws against allowing children to work at night and around the potentially dangerous helicopter and explosives.

Although the filmmakers faced legal action from the accident, the project was completed and the movie was released in June 1983. It performed poorly at the box office, based partially on the controversy surrounding the accident [source: Noe].


3: Oliver Reed

British actor Oliver Reed (1938 - 1999) in his ex-monastery home, Broome Hall, near Dorking in Surrey.
This portrait of Reed was taken in his home (Broome Hall, previously a monestary, near Dorking in Surrey, England) around 1980.
Keystone/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Oliver Reed, as famous for drinking and partying as he was for acting, died in a pub on May 2, 1999, before he could finish filming Ridley Scott's battle epic, "Gladiator."

Reed, who was 61, collapsed on the floor of a bar in Malta and died of a heart attack after reportedly besting several Royal Navy sailors at arm wrestling and consuming copious amounts of rum, beer, whiskey and cognac.


Most of his scenes in "Gladiator" had already been shot when he died, but Scott had to recreate Reed's face digitally for a few remaining segments. The Internet Movie Database estimated the cost of the digital touch-ups at $3 million. When "Gladiator" was released in 2000, it grossed more than $187 million in the United States alone and snared five Oscars, including Best Picture. The movie's success became the pinnacle of Reed's career, which included more than 60 films [source: Chan, The Internet Movie Database].

2: Bela Lugosi

Bela Lugosi (1882 - 1956) as Count Mora, a vampire, in 'Mark of the Vampire' (aka 'Vampires of Prague'), directed by Tod Browning for MGM.
Lugosi as Count Mora for the MGM film "Mark of the Vampire" in 1935, after his stage and film success as Dracula.
Clarence Sinclair Bull/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Although Bela Lugosi was a much-lauded actor in Hungary, where he was born in 1882, his emigration to the United States in 1920 did little to enhance his career. Despite auditioning for and playing many roles throughout his years in the U.S., Lugosi was best known for his portrayal of Count Dracula. For three years, he starred in a Broadway stage production of Bram Stoker's famous tome and experienced what would later be considered the most successful run of his theatrical career.

After the play shuttered, Lugosi wasn't discerning about the roles he chose or the salary he was paid to play them. A mounting drug problem was blamed for his acceptance of bit parts and off-color parodies of his iconic Count Dracula portrayal.


Lugosi suffered a heart attack and died on Aug. 16, 1956, while filming "Plan 9 from Outer Space." Instead of reshooting Lugosi's scenes or finding a double, director Edward D. Wood asked his family's chiropractor to take over the scenes -- even though the man didn't look or sound like Lugosi. Although Lugosi's last film was arguably one of his worst performances, his burial outfit included a homage to his best: a Count Dracula cape [source: The International Movie Database].

1: Brandon Lee

Brandon Lee in Los Angeles, California on March 23, 1992.
Lee with his fiance, Eliza Hutton, in March 1992. The end credits of "The Crow" declare the film to be "For Brandon and Eliza."
Barry King/WireImage/Getty Images

Brandon Lee, an aspiring actor and the son of martial arts star Bruce Lee, was killed in a stunt accident on the set of "The Crow" on March 31, 1993. Lee, who was 28 at the time, was playing a character who gets shot by thugs upon entering his apartment. Tragically, the handgun used in the scene contained a fragment of a real bullet that was propelled out by the force of the blank being shot. Lee was hit in the abdomen and died later that day.

The movie was nearly complete at the time of the shooting, but a stunt double was needed to finish a few remaining scenes, and Lee's face was digitally superimposed onto the stunt double's body for a few shots. Despite widespread rumors that asserted Lee's fatal scene remained a part of the movie that was released to theaters, any film of his shooting was actually removed during editing [source: Snopes].

For lots more information about these stars and other Hollywood happenings, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Altman, Alex. "The Clues in Heath Ledger's Death." Time. Jan. 23, 2008. (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1706361,00.html
  • Chan, Kathy. "Famous Drinkers." The Guardian. Nov. 8, 2003. (Jan. 4, 2012) http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2003/nov/09/foodanddrink.features10
  • Hough, Andrew. "Angelina Jolie Left Scarred After Set Accident While Filming Stunts on New Film Salt." The Telegraph. July 23, 2010. (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/7905939/Angelina-Jolie-left-scarred-after-set-accident-while-filming-stunts-on-new-film-Salt.html
  • Leonard, Tom. "Heath Ledger Died of Accidental Drug Overdose." The Telegraph. Feb. 6, 2008. (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1577821/Heath-Ledger-died-of-accidental-drug-overdose.html
  • Leopold, Todd. "Natalie Wood's Star Power Lasted for Decades." CNN. Nov. 19, 2011. (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.cnn.com/2011/11/19/showbiz/celebrity-news-gossip/natalie-wood-life/index.html
  • Morgan, David. "Extended Interview: Terry Gilliam on Parnassus, Heath Ledger, a Producer/Daughter and Film Gods." Wide Angle/Closeup. 2009. (Jan. 5, 2012) http://www.wideanglecloseup.com/parnassus_gilliam.html
  • Mydans, Seth. "Death of River Phoenix is Linked to Use of Cocaine and Morphine." New York Times. Nov. 13, 1993. (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.nytimes.com/1993/11/13/us/death-of-river-phoenix-is-linked-to-use-of-cocaine-and-morphine.html
  • Noe, Denise. "The Twilight Zone Tragedy." TruTV. (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.trutv.com/library/crime/notorious_murders/not_guilty/twilight_zone/1.html
  • Schneider, Karen. "Exit Laughing." People. March 21, 1994. (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.people.com/people/archive/article/0,,20107690,00.html
  • Snopes. "Brandon Lee." (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.snopes.com/movies/actors/brandonlee.asp
  • The Internet Movie Database. "Bela Lugosi." (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000509/bio
  • The Internet Movie Database. "Oliver Reed." (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001657/bio
  • The Internet Movie Database. "River Phoenix." (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000203/bio
  • The Internet Movie Database. "Something's Got to Give." (Jan. 1, 2012) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0217055/