Some performers’ lives are so profoundly interwoven with their craft that they never take a rest – they don’t even think about eventually retiring. Instead, they spend every year of their life performing, be it on stage or screen, right through to the (sometimes bitter) end.
Some celebrities have taken this commitment so far that they even died on stage, imbuing the phrase “he died doing what he loved” with some very literal meaning. Some simply collapsed on stage, while others left this world in much more catastrophic and violent ways but, however they went, all the celebrities on this list faced their demise in front of an audience.
Of course, a performer dying whilst working is not a particularly uncommon occurrence. This is especially true when it comes to stunt work for Hollywood movies; being a stuntman is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, and the statistics related to on-set deaths shows that. Certain sources cite an average of five deaths for every 2,000 injuries in this line of work. But cases of high-profile leading men or women dying in front of an audience are much less common; here, we’re taking a look at 15 such instances.
15. Les Harvey
The death of Les Harvey was a shock (pardon the pun…). In 1972, the Scottish guitarist for the band Stone the Crows was performing on stage at a concert in Wales when he was electrocuted by a microphone that wasn’t earth grounded.
Stone the Crows could potentially have had a meteoric rise to fame as the band was just coming off a successful album called Teenage Licks and were under the management of Peter Grant, who also had managed Led Zeppelin – in fact, Harvey had also toured with Led Zeppelin. However, the band broke up shortly after Harvey’s death in front of thousands of fans.
14. Eric Morecambe
Eric Morecambe was a talented English comedian, singer and actor. In 2002, the BBC named him as one of the 100 Greatest Britons of all time. He was perhaps best known for the Morecambe and Wise Show, in which he starred with his comedy partner Ernie Wise.
In 1984, during a charity event in Gloucestershire, England, Morecambe suffered his third heart attack in 16 years. After a sixth encore, he immediately collapsed after stepping off the stage. He was rushed to hospital and pronounced dead five and a half hours later.
13. Edith Webster
The death of Edith Webster is so bizarre that it sounds just like the plot of a play in which she may have appeared. Not only did she die on stage, but she died while acting out her character’s death.
In 1986, the 60-year-old Webster played the role of a grandmother in a play called The Drunkard; she had played the same role for eight years. As with any other performance, she would sing a song and then slump over dead. However, during her final performance she wasn’t acting…
The audience was convinced that it was all a part of the show, as her performances had always been so believable. She received a round of applause, but she wasn’t alive to hear it.
12. Johnny Ace
In 1954, R&B singer Johnny Ace was performing at the City Auditorium in Houston, Texas on Christmas Day when he shot himself in the head during a break between sets. He was drinking and playing with a gun backstage, as he often did, but it is uncertain whether he was playing Russian roulette or just fooling around with the gun.
After pointing the gun at several others, he put the gun to the side of his head and it went off, making his death perhaps one of the most senseless ways a celebrity has ever died. His song “Pledging My Love” became a number one hit for ten weeks following his death.
11. Jon-Erik Hexum
The on-set death of model and actor Jon-Erik Hexum is another example of a celebrity fooling around with a gun and accidentally killing himself. During a break from filming on the set of the CBS TV show Cover Up, Hexum was shooting off blank rounds from a .44 magnum handgun. He pointed the gun to his head and shot a blank round into his temple, which caused a piece of his skull to be lodged in his brain. He underwent surgery, but was pronounced brain dead six days after the accident. He was taken off life support under the direction of his mother.
10. Redd Foxx
Redd Foxx was not only a comedy legend in his own right, but he also influenced a plethora of stand ups such as Chris Rock and Eddie Murphy. On October 11, 1991, Foxx was rehearsing on the set of his sitcom the Royal Family when he suffered a fatal heart attack. Many believed he was faking it because that was a common gag for his character on Sanford and Son. However, this time the heart attack was no laughing matter. Foxx was rushed to hospital, but he died later that evening. In 1992, the legendary comedian posthumously received a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
9. Steve Irwin
Australian celebrity wildlife expert Steve Irwin, who earned the nickname the Crocodile Hunter, had a reputation for getting up close and personal with dangerous animals, so perhaps it was inevitable that this risk-taking would be what finally killed him in action.
However, few would have suspected it would be a stingray that ended his life, rather than a crocodile. Irwin and his television crew were at the Great Barrier Reef filming a nature documentary called Ocean’s Deadliest when Irwin was stabbed in the heart by a stingray. It is believed the stingray thought Irwin was a predator and became frightened when it was boxed in. The stingray’s barb pierced Irwin’s heart and killed him.
8. Country Dick Montana
Daniel Monte McLain, who went by the name Country Dick Montana while on stage, was the lead singer of the cowpunk band the Beat Farmers. He was the epitome of a hard-living country musician, and soon his alcohol-fueled lifestyle caught up with him. While performing for a crowd in Whistler, British Columbia, Montana suffered a fatal heart attack and collapsed on stage.
The Beat Farmers broke up soon after Montana’s death, and friend and fellow outlaw country singer Mojo Nixon wrote a song entitled “The Ballad of Country Dick” to honor his fallen comrade. Country Dick Montana’s solo album entitled “The Devil Lied To Me” was released after his death.
7. J.I. Rodale
The death of playwright and organic gardening pioneer J.I. Rodale is a sad example of hubris getting the best of someone. Rodale was a guest on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971 when he died of a heart attack at 72 years old. Rodale had just finished an interview with Cavett where he said: “I’m in such good health that I fell down a long flight of stairs yesterday and I laughed all the way.”
Rodale also joked that he would live to 100 unless a sugar-crazed taxi driver ran him down. Two doctors in the audience of the talk show tried to resuscitate Rodale, but they were unsuccessful.
6. Brandon Lee
The death of Brandon Lee was as sudden and shocking as the death of his father. Just like his father Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee died incredibly young and in a very tragic way. Brandon Lee was accidentally shot while filming the cult classic film the Crow.
Lee was supposed to be shot at with a blank round from a .44 magnum revolver, but unfortunately the gun had a bullet from a dummy round lodged in the barrel. The force of the gunshot was equivalent to that of a live round, and the bullet was lodged in his abdomen. Lee was rushed to hospital, but died after six hours of surgery.
5. Dimebag Darrell
Heavy metal guitarist Darrell Lance Abbott, who was better known under his stage name Dimebag Darrell, died in one of the most horrific and violent ways imaginable. The legendary guitarist was known for being a part of two heavy metal bands: Pantera and Damageplan.
His illustrious career was cut short, however, when he was shot and killed by an audience member while performing on stage in Columbus, Ohio during a Damageplan concert. Dimebag Darrell was shot in the head three times; three more people were killed in the melee including a fan who attempted to resuscitate Darrell, the band’s head of security and an employee of Alrosa Villa where the concert was being held. Many have speculated about the killer’s motive, but it remains a rock history mystery.
4. Owen Hart
The death of Owen Hart is one of the most tragic incidents in all of sports history. Wrestling may typically be staged and choreographed, but there’s still very real danger of injury associated with the sport: By the late ’90s, there had been countless injuries and 16 deaths in the ring since pro wrestling began.
One of those was the horrific death of Owen Hart, performing under his wrestling persona the Blue Blazer, fell 78 feet into the ring at Kansas City’s Kemper Arena during the Over the Edge pay-per-view event in 1999. The quick release mechanism on the harness he used to lower himself to the ring was released too early. Hart’s fall was part of his act, but he fell far sooner and from much higher up than was intended. He was rushed to hospital and died from internal bleeding caused by the fall.
3. Karl Wallenda
Karl Wallenda was a German high wire artist, performing in many incredibly dangerous circus acts and stunts throughout his lifetime. He founded a circus troupe called the Flying Wallendas, and he gained a reputation for performing tricks without the use of a safety net.
At the age of 73, his daredevil life came to an end when he fell ten storeys while attempting to cross a high wire strung between two towers at the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The strong winds caused him to lose his balance and fall to his death. A news crew caught the entire fall on video.
2. John Ritter
Sitcom legend John Ritter suffered an aortic dissection while filming 8 Simple Rules for Dating my Teenage Daughter. He began complaining of pain in his chest and was rushed to hospital. First he was misdiagnosed and treated for a heart attack, and then he died during surgery to repair the aortic dissection. Ritter’s death was a shock to his family and fans, but surprisingly network executives decided to work his death into the plot of the sitcom.
The first new episode filmed after his death opened with a scene where the family gets a phone call telling them the patriarch of the family had a heart attack while buying groceries. The next few episodes were somber, but eventually the laughs returned. After Ritter’s departure, James Garner and David Spade were added to the cast of 8 Simple Rules.
1. Tommy Cooper
British comedian tommy Cooper had a long and illustrious career making people laugh, and even when he collapsed and died from a heart attack on stage his fans were still laughing.
Copper passed out halfway through his set while performing on the variety show Live from Her Majesty’s in 1984. His beautiful blonde assistant draped a robe over Cooper, and when he passed out it seemed as though it was a comedic improvisation of a man being awestruck by the sight of a beautiful woman. The audience that was attending the taping of the show all thought that Copper’s collapse was part of his act. The crowd continued to guffaw for a solid 30 seconds before anybody realized that his collapse was real and that he had died right before their eyes.