10 Actors Who Died Before Seeing Their Final Movie

What makes celebrity deaths particularly eerie and poignant is that often their final work only comes to light after they have gone. In the case of movie stars, it’s their last film that’s released months after they are buried/cremated/blasted into space. Cinema provides a form of immortality, and watching these farewell movies really is like seeing a ghost on screen.

Heath Ledger and Bernie Mac were not the first. Here are Movie-Moron’s top ten actors who didn’t live to see their final movie, based on a scale of plain old bad luck.

10. Clark Gable: 1901 - 1960

Nicknamed ‘The King of Hollywood’, Clark Gable is synonymous with the word ‘iconic’. He starred in 67 films including Mutiny on the Bounty, and Gone With The Wind, and the Oscar statue for It Happened One Night probably used to sit next to his toilet. Gable was set to be showered with praise and rave reviews for a memorable performance in The Misfits, co-starring Marilyn Monroe. But it was prayers he was to receive instead. On November 16th, 1960, Clarke Gable died from a heart attack soon after shooting was completed. He was 59.

9. Spencer Tracy: 1900 - 1967

74 films + 9 Oscar nominations for Best Actor + 2 Oscars won in that category x a 9th ranking in the American Film Institute’s Greatest Male Stars of All Time = Spencer Tracy. With a name resembling that of a 1920’s police detective, Tracy’s name and acting legacy will never die. At the age of 67, Tracy succumed to a heart attack, seventeen days after completing filming on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but it seems he was on the way out already; insurance companies would not cover him because he was about to drop, and the filming schedule was adjusted to accommodate him as his heath deteriorated. Spencer Tracy’s death may have come as a tragedy, but not a surprise.

8. John Candy: 1950 - 1994

A brilliant comedic actor with a sensitivity about his weight, John Candy was apparently taking steps to improve his health in his later years. But it was too little too late. At the age of 43, Candy fell asleep and never woke up again; he suffered a heart attack whilst on location filming Wagon’s East! on March 4th, 1994. A body double was used to finish the movie and it was released that summer. John Candy’s last completed film was Michael Moore’s Canadian Bacon, which came out the following year.

7. Natalie Wood: 1938 - 1981

Despite her acting being the subject of much criticism, Natalie Wood still managed to star in many high profile movies – West Side Story and Rebel Without A Cause to name a couple. Wood also received Oscar, Bafta, and Golden Globe nominations during her movie career. But alas, it was to be cut short when she died of accidental drowning at the age of 43 in 1981 whilst doing location work for Brainstorm. The film was released two years after Wood’s death, with a missing scene as it was incomplete. Critics liked it, but the film failed at the box office.

6. Aaliyah: 1979 - 2001

The RnB songstress was just starting to find acceptance in the movie world when she was killed in a plane crash on her way back from a music video shoot. The cause - carrying too much heavy equipment. She was 22. Easily preventable, a great shame. She had begun filming a supporting role in the second Matrix instalment, but the directors decided there wasn’t enough material to be able to incorporate it. Queen Of The Damned, co-starring Stuart ‘Charlize arm candy’ Townsend was originally scheduled to suffer the ‘straight to video’ fate, but Aaliyah’s passing ensured it was granted a cinema release nearly six months after her death. That did not prevent the damning it received from the critics.

5. Jean Harlow: 1911 - 1937

The Blonde Bombshell largely took roles that played on her sex symbol image (what do you mean you wouldn’t look at her twice?). Sadly, rapidly failing health during the filming of Saratoga – which turned out to be her final movie - prevented her from having the rich career she deserved. Kidney failure robbed Jean Harlow of her life on June 6th, 1937, at the age of 26. Saratoga, co-starring Clarke Gable was released a month later.

4. River Phoenix: 1970 - 1993

The beautiful and mysterious River Phoenix was one of Hollywood’s biggest rising stars. The older brother of Joaquin Phoenix was only 23 when he died on Halloween 1993 of drug related heart failure – taking a combination of heroin and cocaine is never a good idea, right kids? It has been speculated that Phoenix’s growing depression and dependence on drugs was rooted in the years he spent with the Children of God cult as a child. Whatever the reasons behind it, drugs robbed this young actor of a long and promising career. His final completed movie, Silent Tongue, was released the following year. Phoenix was working on another film, Dark Blood, which was ninety per cent done before his death, but it never saw the light of day as several key scenes couldn’t be shot without him.

3. Bruce Lee: 1940 - 1973

A perfect example of how you can have the fittest, healthiest and strongest body possible, but there will always be one part of it which screws you over. What’s particularly sad about Lee’s death is that seemingly the dedicated martial arts action star was given painkillers by a friend to relieve a headache, and it was the ingredients in those pills that lead a fatal reaction in Lee’s brain. Imagine how bad that friend feels. In fact, details of Lee’s exact cause of death are shrouded in controversy, and some even believe it was a result of a curse placed on him and his family. We can confirm here for the first time that it WAS a curse. Not really. Lee’s last completed move, Enter the Dragon, was released just six days after he died. He was 32.

2. Brandon Lee: 1965 - 1993

The son of Bruce Lee was only eight years old when his father passed away, and twenty years later, Brandon Lee went to join him. Whilst filming a scene for The Crow – the movie that would have made him a star – he was shot and killed by a make-shift bullet from a faulty prop gun. He died on March 31st 1993. The coincidence of his death twenty years after Bruce’s passing, and, once again, just before the release of a career defining movie, ensured the ‘Lee family curse’ theory continued to surround Brandon’s death for many years. The Crow had to be completed with two stunt doubles and computer trickery, and was released in May 1994.

1. James Dean: 1931 - 1955

James Dean’s career only spanned four years, and he made just three films - but what an impact. Rumoured to have played the field on both sides of the fence, Dean was, and still is, a sexual icon for both women and men. He died in a car collision in 1955. His death at the young age of 24 guaranteed his name would never be forgotten, and cemented his role in Rebel Without A Cause, released one month after he was killed, as one of the most celebrated in film history. His final movie, Giant, was released the following year and won Dean the first posthumous acting nomination in Academy Awards history.

Honourable Mentions

Chris Farley (Almost Heroes), Oliver Reed (Gladiator), Richard Harris (Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets), Orson Wells (Transformers: The Movie), Vic Morrow (Twilight Zone: The Movie).


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