For many, the death of a movie star can feel quite personal because of the way we attach ourselves to films and celebrities. In certain situations, the death of an actor occurs while shooting a film—sometimes actually on set, other times simply before the release of the film. When this happens, the life and death of the actor become entwined with that specific role, forever connected, if only as a trivia question.
You might think that when a movie star dies before the release of a film that it would boost the box office results, but according to research from Bloomberg, that’s actually not the case. The reasons why are completely dependent on the situation. Many of the stars on this list died during low points in their acting career, others may not have had a major following until after their death. The way the films complete production on these roles also changes, depending on how incomplete the actor’s role was at the time of their death, the size of the film and the role, and the impact that the actor had on the public. Here are 15 examples of stars that died before their final movie was released.
15. Steve Irwin
At Batt Reef, Queensland, while filming the documentary film Ocean’s Deadliest, the famous Australian wildlife expert, Steve Irwin, was struck in the heart by a stingray’s barb, killing him on scene. The rest of the film was completed with scenes filmed later on, without Irwin and without mention of his death. Though the footage has since been destroyed, it is thought to be the only footage to ever document a death from a stingray’s barb.
14. Bela Lugosi
After the horror icon, Bela Lugosi, died of a heart attack, Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space was left as an incomplete film. Using old unused footage from other films, narration, and a body double that became one of the first known examples of a “fake Shemp,” Wood completed the film successfully. Though it was billed and marketed as the final film of the great Lugosi, Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space was (and is) considered by many to be the worst film ever made.
13. Chris Farley
After recording about 80-90% of the dialogue for the title character from Shrek, comedian Chris Farley died in his apartment from a drug overdose. There was some consideration by the crew to have an actor come in and impersonate Farley for the remaining lines, but it was decided to rewrite the lines entirely and even most of the script for friend and fellow SNL cast member, Mike Myers. There is a short clip featuring some test artwork and some of the recorded dialog from Farley available to watch online.
12. John Candy
In 1994, while filming Wagons East!, comedy star John Candy, died of a heart attack while sleeping. With only a few more scenes to shoot before completion, the film was finished with a stand-in and some VFX for Candy’s scenes. Despite the star’s death during filming, the film itself was a box office bomb and was roasted by critics, said to be one of his worst roles. That’s cold-blooded reviewing there.
11. James Dean
Unable to race cars during the filming of Giant because of a contractual agreement, James Dean, who had just finished shooting his scenes, decided to drive his racing Porsche to his first race since he started on the film, breaking the car in, so to speak. Early on during the drive, Dean was fined for speeding, seemingly a foreboding moment for what would happen soon after. Later on that day, September 30th 1955, Dean crashed into another driver, flipping his own car and dying in the collision. Though Dean’s scenes were finished for Giant, there was the need to dub over some of his lines because he was so drunk (to appear as convincingly drunk as possible) that he slurred his words beyond comprehension.
10. Phillip Seymour Hoffman
With still a few weeks of shooting left in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, actor and star Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of a drug overdose in his apartment. There were still a couple of major scenes left to shoot with Hoffman, so the director distributed the lines up among the other actors in order to avoid any need for VFX or camera tricks. His inclusion in the sequel the following year was also changed to use some previously shot scenes and dialog, as well as increased spots for other actors.
9. Vic Morrow
During the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie, actor Vic Morrow and two children, 7-year-old Myca Dinh Le, and 6-year-old Renee Shin-Yi Chen, were killed on set when a helicopter came crashing down on them. This scene was meant to be the ending of Morrow’s portion the movie titled “Time Out,” but it was cut out, making the ending somewhat ambiguous. There was also a significant court case afterwards, which had director John Landis and other crew members tried but acquitted on charges of involuntary manslaughter.
8. River Phoenix
In 1993, the young star River Phoenix, bother of Joaquin Phoenix, was set to perform with his band (including Flea and Johnny Depp) at the Viper Room when he collapsed from a drug overdose outside on the sidewalk and began having seizures. Phoenix’s death interrupted the filming of a movie titled Dark Blood, which had completed about 80% of filming but was put on hold indefinitely following the star’s death. Then in 2014, over 20 years after Phoenix’s death, the film was released, left incomplete but with voiceovers to run more smoothly.
7. Clark Gable
Two days after the filming for The Misfits had concluded, the legendary Clark Gable suffered a heart attack, dying in hospital 10 days after that. Rumors about the cause of his death have circled since then, some blaming the physically demanding role itself, some blaming Gable’s diet prior to filming, and others blaming the unorganized shoot altogether. Whatever the reasons, Hollywood suffered a major loss from the death of Gable, and the shockwave was felt across the world.
6. Bruce Lee
During the filming of the martial arts film, The Game of Death, the iconic marital artist and star, Bruce Lee, died of a cerebral edema (or an allergic reaction, depending on who you ask). The movie was later dramatically edited in order to offer fans a completed version. Today, we really have two films: the 1972 unfinished version and the 1978 edited/finished version. The edited/finished version had to change the plot quite dramatically in order to work with the 100 minutes of footage they already had shot with Lee.
5. Robin Williams
When Robin Williams died in 2014, there were four of his films yet to be released. His final on-screen performance was in Boulevard, an emotional movie that sees Williams give a strong but introspective performance, one that viewers will no doubt connect to his own personal issues, rightly or wrongly. He also lends his voice to a dog in Absolutely Anything, a more upbeat role for the legendary comedian. Since his roles had all wrapped up filming, audiences will get to see complete performances from the late great Williams.
4. Brandon Lee
While filming The Crow, Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, was killed by a bullet after a series of unfortunate events. During the filming of a scene where thugs are assaulting his girlfriend in their apartment, a bullet that was unknowingly lodged in the gun barrel, was shot out at Lee, striking him in the abdomen. The accident occurred with eight days remaining on the film shoot, so the director replaced Lee with his stunt double for the remaining scenes, digitally compositing his face onto the stunt double’s to make it appear as if it was Lee.
3. Heath Ledger
Even though Heath Ledger was given the posthumous Academy Award for best supporting actor for his portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight, it was The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus that was most impacted by his death. While still shooting the film, Ledger’s death left a massive hole in the production, but that was remedied when Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law, stepped up to help complete his role. With a mix of camera trickery and plot devices, the three men, plus old footage of Ledger, were able to complete it. Also, as a nice side note, the three actors’ wages were donated to Ledger’s daughter.
2. Martha Mansfield
In 1923, while filming The Warrens of Virginia, Martha Mansfield was sitting in a car after a day of shooting. The story goes that Mansfield, still in costume, had the window of the car open when a lit match was discarded, accidentally entering the car and igniting her costume. Though the fire was put out, it had done its damage, badly burning most of Mansfield’s body and leading to her death later on that day. Mansfield’s role was edited down so that another actress, Rosemary Hill, could become the new star of the film.
1. Paul Walker
While the filming for Furious 7 was still ongoing, actor and star of the franchise, Paul Walker, was killed in an automobile crash leaving his role unfinished. Using a combination of his two brothers, another actor of a similar build and VFX, the film crew were able to stitch together the final scenes that included Walker in order to complete the film. Obviously things were tweaked in the story to give Walker a nice goodbye, including the ending which was changed to make it more final. This is one film which owes much of its box office success to the events surrounding it, as it performed mind-blowingly well at the box office.