We watch it every year at the Oscars – that time during the ceremony when they honor actors who have passed away. Many film and TV projects are cancelled due to key cast members leaving the project. In other instances of an actor who passing away while working on a project, rather than the project being scrapped the actor is recast. Nowadays, in an even rarer last resort, a production company will make complex changes so that the movie may continue and filming does not need to be restarted at a great expense. Sometimes, this even includes adding a computer generated image of the deceased to the movie in order to maintain consistency.
Below, we’ve take a look at ten of the most famous instances of actors who died before their time while in the midst of a project, and were recast or had their characters reworked after their deaths.
10. Aaliyah- The Matrix Trilogy
When 22 year old actress and singer Aaliyah was killed in a plane crash in 2001 while filming the second movie in the Matrix Trilogy everyone was shocked, and it would be difficult to fill her shoes (she was a former winner of a star search talent contest) . Her role as Zee in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions was recast. Nona Gaye, the Daughter of Marvin Gaye, filled the role, and the character was given a larger role in the third instalment.
9. George Reeves and Christopher Reeve – Superman
Although not involving a direct replacement, the Superman Curse saw the untimely end of more than one actor’s stint as Superman. George Reeves was most famous for his TV role in Adventures of Superman – so much so that he was unable to shake this role and found himself typecast and unable to convincingly play serious roles later in life. His death in 1959 was ruled as a suicide, but suspicion surrounds it. Although this TV show was canceled, the Superman role has since been revisited. Christopher Reeve took up the mantle, taking on the role in Superman and five of its sequels. A horse riding accident left him paralyzed from the neck down in 1995, and he underwent rehabilitation, although he was unable to continue in the role. He passed away in 2005. The characters of Superman and his alter ego, Clark Kent, have been played by various actors since.
8. Bela Lugosi- Plan 9 From Outer Space
Perhaps the worst instance of a celebrity recasting is demonstrated in the movie by Ed Wood, Plan 9 From Outer Space. Bela Lugosi of Dracula fame passed away from a cardiac arrest in 1956, in the middle of filming. His role was filled by the director’s wife’s Chiropractor, who did not bear any resemblance to Lugosi. Footage of both actors was used in the final product. Meanwhile, Lugosi was laid to rest in his famous Dracula costume. The film received very poor reviews, although nowadays it’s considered a cult classic.
7. Oliver Reed- Gladiator
Oliver Reed was in the middle of filming his scenes for the movie Gladiator when he passed away in 1999. Allegedly, immediately preceding his death by cardiac arrest he had downed an impressive amount of liquor and bested a few Royal Navy Sailors at arm wrestling. Reed was replaced by a stand in actor and an impersonator recreated his voice for the last few scenes needed to complete the movie. His likeness was transposed onto the stand-in actor using CGI. The estimated cost of this CGI cover-up was $3 Million USD, but the cost of re-shooting Reed’s scenes with a new actor would have been an estimated $25 Million USD, though covered by the actor’s insurance. Ridley Scott‘s reasoning for the expense was that he still wanted to use Reed in the film, which was dedicated to him after his death, and that the other staff were too exhausted to redo the scenes.
6. Bruce Lee – Game of Death
On July 20th 1973, Bruce Lee, pioneer of the Martial Arts film genre, passed away of cerebral edema at the young age of 32. He had complained of not feeling well for a few days prior to his death, and the day he died he had lain down and taken a headache pill. He was later unable to be revived. People were shocked that he passed away just as his career was picking up. Enter the Dragon, a movie with a higher budget than any of Lee’s other movies, was just completed, and Lee was to resume his work on Game of Death.
His passing left the film incomplete, and the film did not carry forward, although it was re-approached in 1978 with a few plot changes, and some stand-ins for Lee. The film did not rate well, and the popular opinion was that it didn’t do justice to Lee’s legacy. Interestingly, actor and martial artist Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, also died during production of a film he appeared in. During the filming of The Crow Brandon Lee was killed by a metal shard that had been accidentally fired out of the prop gun that was being used in a scene. This film underwent editing, and was still released.
5. Chris Farley – Shrek
When the movie Shrek was first conceptualized, it was entirely different than the end product. The movie was originally a different story, and was supposed to be live action/CGI hybrid, and most interestingly, it was supposed to star Chris Farley of Saturday Night Live. When Farley died in 1997 at the age of 33, the role of Shrek needed to be re-cast (although reports say eighty percent of Farley’s lines had already been recorded). When Mike Myers took on the role, he added his own comedy styling, although quoting some material from Farley. The movie was incredibly successful when it was released in 2001, receiving an Oscar among its 30 plus awards, along with many more award nominations. It grossed over $42 million USD in its opening weekend in the United States.
4. Richard Harris- Harry Potter
At the age of 72, Irish-born actor Richard Harris succumbed to Hodgkin’s disease. Unfortunately the year was 2002, and Harris had only completed two of the eight movies of the Harry Potter series, playing the role of 112 year-old Albus Dumbledore. The role of Dumbledore was enthusiastically filled by the slightly younger Michael Gambon, who stated that his success in the later six movies was due to his copying Richard Harris. Movies in the Harry Potter franchise starring both Gambon and Harris were nominated for Oscar awards, and debate still rages among fans as to who was the better Dumbledore.
3. Heath Ledger – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
One of the youngest members of our countdown, Heath Ledger died at the age of 28 from an accidental overdose on prescription medication including sleeping pills, painkillers, and anxiety medication. He received many awards after his death for his role as the Joker in The Dark Night. Heath Ledger was working on The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, at the time of his death. His character, Tony was re-conceptualized as a character that would undergo transformations as he entered different worlds. Friends of Ledger stepped forward to take over the role. Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law each played a version of Tony. Heath Ledger‘s almost identical double, Zander Gladish, was used in some of the earlier scenes when Tony is introduced, although almost all of Ledger’s close-ups had been filmed already. The director Terry Gilliam has joked that Heath Ledger co-directed the movie posthumously due to the changes made.
2. Paul Walker – Fast & Furious 7
In November last year, reports surfaced about the passing of 40 year old actor, Paul Walker. He passed away in a car crash following a charity event, but unlike the crashes in his Fast & Furious movies, this one was not intentional. Although originally Universal said they intended to kill off Walker’s character, Brian O’Connor, now pictures have surfaced of the resumed filming, where Paul Walker’s little brother, Cody, will play Brian. The film will show the retirement of Brian O’Connor, which will be easy for fans since the character’s lifestyle was already said to be calming down in the sixth instalment of the franchise.
1.Philip Seymour Hoffman –The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2
Just this past February we saw the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman. The Oscar winning actor was found dead at the age of 42 from an apparent Heroin overdose. He had been battling addiction for the better part of his life and had attended rehab in the past. At the time of his death The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Parts 1 and 2 were nearing completion, with Hoffman only having around ten days of filming left to complete. The film was close enough to being finished that they did not want to re-cast him, and considered using CGI in his remaining scenes.
The Toronto Sun reported this month that this plan is no longer being enacted. Rather than replacing the actor or using CGI, they will instead replace him in a truly creative way. Other major characters will drive the plot aspects meant to be covered by Hoffman’s character, Plutarch Heavensbee. At the time of his death Hoffman was also working on a TV series, Happyish, which IMDB states as being in post-production. This project is not likely to carry forward as the Hoffman was set to be a central character in the series.