It’s always difficult for the public to deal with the death of a celebrity. Regardless of how or why that celebrity died, the fact they are no longer with us causes fans to think about the great gifts they left us in their life. This causes us to forget whatever controversy inevitably came with their fame, and focus on the work they left behind. On rare occasions, there’s no controversy attached to the performer, and that only makes it harder to think back and remember how great they were once they’re gone. In even more seldom instances, the performer left behind that great work only a few months, weeks, or even days before passing on.
Nobody knows exactly when they’re going to die, although sometimes science is able to give people an approximate guess. Some entertainers were able to prepare for their departure from Earth by offering a final statement of artistic glory, and these stand as some of the most poetic musings on life and death the world has been offered. Others were taken away suddenly and far too soon, but in hindsight their death still managed to make the work they completed seem more powerful somehow, knowing that it was the final statement of a great artist. Read on to learn about 15 entertainers who died immediately after finishing a masterpiece.
15. Aaliyah Recorded ‘Aaliyah’
Aaliyah was only 22 when she died in a plane crash in the Bahamas, but she had already left behind a body of work that placed her firmly on top of the R&B universe. Her first album boldly proclaimed that age ain’t nothin’ but a number, and the “Queen of Urban Pop” proved that in her every song and album, making some of the greatest music of her era within that genre. Aaliyah’s self-titled final album was released in July of 2001, and the plane crash that ended her life occurred less than one month later. The album is still considered a landmark of R&B and pop music, with critics now and at the time agreeing it was a sterling example of an artist at the top of her game. The album was only Aaliyah’s third, and considering it was such a leap past her first two, it was truly the world’s loss that we would never learn what the burgeoning pop star could have created next.
14. David Bowie Recorded ‘Blackstar’
David Bowie’s death from cancer came as a huge shock to his widely adoring public, but Bowie himself actually saw it coming with such accuracy he planned his final album as his farewell statement to the world. Blackstar was released on January 8, 2016, Bowie’s 69th birthday. He died two days later. The first single released for the album, “Lazarus,” opened with the line “Look up here—I’m in heaven,” and came with a video that saw Bowie retreating from a hospital bed into a small, dark room. Critical response to the album, song, and video were all overwhelmingly positive, and the appreciation only skyrocketed once it became clear it was a deliberate farewell from one of music’s most enigmatic figures.
13. Heath Ledger Starred in ‘The Dark Knight’
Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker was poised to be something special possibly the moment he was cast. Fans were reticent with the choice, seeing Ledger as a heartthrob Australian, who didn’t exactly scream “Crown Prince of Crime,” but he made a concerted effort to prove haters wrong by delivering perhaps the greatest performance ever in a comic book film. The Joker is such a mysterious and popular character any attempt at pulling the role off sinks or swims on the actor’s dedication, and Ledger dedicated to the role so-well he earned the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his efforts. Unfortunately, Ledger didn’t live to see his success, as he died of a drug overdose in January of 2008, several months before the film was released, and only a few months after he had finished filming his scenes.
12. Bruce Lee Starred in ‘Enter The Dragon’
Bruce Lee is more or less synonymous with martial arts-based action films, and with good reason. Lee was not only a major movie star, but he was also one of the most talented martial artists of all time, and he put both of his skills on display in his final film, Enter the Dragon. The film instantly was considered Lee’s best, but like so many others on this list, he tragically didn’t live to see it earn that reputation. Lee was suffering seizures and headaches during the final production of the film, and took a painkiller to deal with his problems. He suffered a horrible allergic reaction to the drug and was dead later that night. The film was released in his native Hong Kong only six days after his death, and its reputation to this day speaks for itself.
11. Janis Joplin Recorded ‘Pearl’
Rock ‘N Roll’s 27 Club became a part of the public consciousness in the early 1970s with the tragic string of drug deaths related to the era’s top psychedelic performers. First Jimi Hendrix, then Janis Joplin, then Jim Morrison, one by one they all passed away at the young age of 27 while in the prime of their artistic lives. Hendrix left a few years between his final album and his death, and Morrison at least gave it a few months, but Janis died while still finishing her final and many would say greatest album, Pearl. The album was actually released in a clearly unfinished state, with one song missing lyrics and another missing music, but somehow it only added to Joplin’s legacy as an artist living too hard to be anything but a rock star.
10. James Dean Starred in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and ‘Giant’
James Dean is often the poster child for a list like this one, insofar as he both died young and left behind an incredible body of work he’d only just completed before his early demise. Despite the fact he only starred in three mainstream films, Dean is considered one of the greatest actors of all time, and his every second on screen in each film proves why. Rebel Without a Cause finished filming in May of 1955, and Dean died in a car accident late September of 1955. Giant was still in production during his fatal crash, and thus it could be argued he didn’t even complete the masterwork before his death. Regardless, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and his legacy as one of the all time greatest actors persists to this day.
9. Ian Curtis Recorded ‘Closer’
Joy Division weren’t topping the Billboard charts during their brief existence in the late 70s, but their influence was overwhelming. By combining dark and gloomy lyrics with electronic dance beats propelled by punk rock guitars, Joy Division captured the attention of the alternative music scene all around the world and quickly became one of the most respected bands in the world. The group only released two albums, and the second completed production only two months before the lead singer and lyricist Ian Curtis committed suicide. Closer wouldn’t be released until after Curtis ended his life, but fans and critics alike stand in near universal agreement that it cemented his band’s reputation as one of the greatest of all time.
8. Jean Harlow Starred in ‘Saratoga’
Jean Harlow is one of the oddly forgotten stars of the so-called “classic Hollywood” era of film. Harlow was one of the first stars to be declared a “Blonde bombshell,” and fed into her persona as a “laughing vamp” in a series of critically acclaimed film appearances. Harlow died in her 20s while filming the last such film, titled Saratoga. Harlow had health problems her entire life, and died in 1937 of kidney failure. The film was released only one month later to rave reviews, although many audience members noted an unshakeable feeling of sadness given the circumstances of her sudden young death.
7. Hank Williams Recorded “Your Cheatin’ Heart”
Hank Williams is arguably the most important figure in the history of country music, and possibly one of the most important figures in music history in general. His songs blended serious emotions with simple verbiage, and inspired countless cowboys to pick up guitars and sing about their feelings. No one song is more integral to Hank’s legend and reputation than “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” On surface the song may seem like a cliché weepy country and western ballad, but the catch is that it’s also an absolute masterpiece of songwriting. The song was recorded in a session with another masterpiece called “Kaw-Liga” in September of 1952. Less than four months later in January of 1953, Hank died due to heart failure at the age of 29, and didn’t even get to see the legacy he created.
6. Peter Finch Starred in ‘Network’
Network has earned a reputation as more than just a film. It stands as an undying piece of social commentary, an indictment against the mainstream media that rings as true today as it did more than 40 years ago when Paddy Chayefsky wrote the screenplay. While the words and direction of the film were important, it’s possible no one piece was as integral to the film’s legacy as the lead performance by Peter Finch. Screaming at the top of his lungs that he was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it anymore, Finch forced himself into pop culture history with such a bombastic presence many people don’t even realize he died shortly after the film was released. Finch passed in January of 1977, and Network had just hit the theaters in late November of 1976. Finch posthumously won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.
5. Bill Hicks Performed Shows That Became ‘Rant in E-Minor’
It’s hard to name the best stand-up comedian of all time, and even harder to name the best stand-up comedy album of all time, considering stand-up is such a personal form of entertainment, and it’s hard for any performer to achieve universal acclaim in the art form because of that. One comedian who may not have achieved universal acclaim but at least came damned close was Bill Hicks. Hicks was loud and acerbic, and his words entered your mind like bullets in a way most political comedians could only dream of. Hicks truly elevated stand-up from joke telling to true performance art, and his talents are most heavily on display on his posthumous album Rant in E-Minor. Hicks was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1993, but instead of quitting stand-up and dying quietly, Hicks toured relentlessly and after his death allowed his friends and producers to piece together a comedy album worthy of going down in history.
4. John Coltrane Recorded ‘Olatunji’
It’s almost impossible to distill into words just how much John Coltrane means to the jazz community and to his fans on a personal level. There are countless legends in musical history, but no other musician we know of was so good an actual church has canonized them as a Saint. Coltrane earned his saintly status through his overwhelmingly creative records and live performances, which often stretched the idea of what jazz could be or even was to such an extent people have categorized his music as a man attempting to communicate with God. Coltrane’s final artistic output was one of his greatest, a live concert recording from April of 1967 later released as Olatunji. The record is seen as one of the perfect masterpieces of free jazz, and Coltrane succumbed to liver cancer only two months after performing its lead role.
3. Peter Sellers Starred in ‘Being There’
Peter Sellers is most fondly remembered as a master of satire and the particulars of British comedy, starring in the Pink Panther series as well as a number of highly acclaimed dark comedies for hugely respected directors such as Stanley Kubrick. Although he was a comedic master, many would argue his greatest role was in the film Being There, where he played a hapless gardener who lucks his way into some serious social and political power. The film was released in December of 1979, and Sellers died less than six months later aged 54, collapsing after a sudden heart attack. Sellers won the Golden Globe for Best Actor for the role, and he was nominated for the same Academy Award.
2. Warren Zevon Recorded ‘The Wind’
Warren Zevon isn’t a huge name to the mainstream public, but hardcore fans of rock and roll are deeply familiar with him as one of the unspoken masters of the genre. Anyone who listens to the radio around Halloween is probably familiar with his lone hit “Werewolves of London” in the late 70’s, but Zevon continued creating critically acclaimed music throughout his entire life, including releasing a final masterpiece only a few days before his death. Zevon was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2002, and instead of undergoing risky and painful treatments, he decided to stare death in the face and record his final album, The Wind. Containing an ironic cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” the album is considered a masterpiece farewell from a legendary musician, and it was released only two weeks before Zevon’s death.
1. Massimo Troisi Starred in ‘Il Postino’
Il Postino or The Postman was one of the most globally successful Italian films of all time. Starring Massimo Troisi, the film examines the power of Pablo Neruda’s simple poetry when it comes to sharing emotions and creating romance in unexpected places. Although it might sound like a cheesy premise, the film presents it’s subject matter both seriously and delicately, with Troisi’s lead performance creating something truly beautiful as he gleefully learns and creates his poems. Troisi not only starred in the film, but he was also one of the writers, and his commitment to its completion arguably caused his death. He suffered from congenital heart problems since birth, and was desperately in need of surgery, which he was putting off in order to first complete his film. Troisi died from a heart attack the day after Il Postino was completed.