Though it is fortunately a rare circumstance, several film productions have been thrown into limbo due to the sudden and unforseen death of one of its primary actors. Attempts to deal with such misfortunes have had varying success throughout the history of cinema, but on a few occasions writers and directors have been able to exercise some creative thinking. Though at times there have been queries and debates about continuing on with a production in the face of such tragedy, in many ways these contingencies are the very embodiment of the phrase “the show must go on.”
7. Twilight Zone: The Movie: Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shen-Yi Chen
The production of the 1983 Twilight Zone movie was marked with tragedy when, during the filming of one of its segments, “Time Out,” a helicopter crash resulted in the death of three actors. The story was directed by John Landis (Animal House, An American Werewolf in London) and starred Vic Morrow as a bigot teleported from one historical scenario to another where he is forced to assume the roles of the minorities he has spent most of his life hating. One sequence, set in conflict-era Vietnam, required Morrow to flee from a pursuing helicopter while protecting two children, played by actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shen-Yi Chen. According to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board, nearby pyrotechnic effects resulted in the helicopter spinning out and crash landing on the actors below, killing all three instantly. Landis, as well as the producer, production manager, pilot and explosives expert were tried and acquitted of manslaughter in the aftermath, and Landis took responsibility for the deaths of the two children, who had been paid under the table, had not signed a waiver, and according to California law were not supposed to be filming after dark. The accident halted production on the movie, with producer and co-director Steven Spielberg considering cancelling the entire project, though filming later resumed, with “Time Out” included but with an altered ending.
6 The Crow: Brandon Lee
Brandon Lee, son of legendary martial artist Bruce Lee, was on his way to becoming a Hollywood star when a prop mishap on the set of The Crow in 1993 left him mortally wounded. Lee’s titular character was supposed to be shot at close range with a .44 calibre revolver. Being a prop gun, the revolver was filled with blanks, which contain the powder and primer needed to result in a loud “bang” and a flash when struck with by the hammer but lack the actual projectile. Unfortunately, improper handling of the prop in a previous scene had left the projectile portion of a cartridge in the barrel, and when the revolver was fired the blank’s explosion caused the fragment to be propelled outward and into Lee’s abdomen, a feature in Entertainment Weekly revealed that year. The actor died several hours later in a Wilmington, North Carolina hospital. After deliberating on whether to proceed with the rest of the production or not, director Alex Proyas used body doubles, subtle CG effects and rewrites to complete sequences Lee had been unable to film. It remains a cult classic to this day.
5 Gladiator: Oliver Reed
Esteemed English actor Oliver Reed took a break from filming Gladiator in 1999 by celebrating heartily in a Maltese pub alongside his wife and a band of sailors. Unfortunately, the thespian’s rowdy drinking led to a massive heart attack, and the actor passed away in an ambulance while on route to a hospital. The establishment, simply known as The Pub, cheekily advertises itself as “Ollie’s Last Pub.” Gladiator director Ridley Scott used CG effects to fill in the necessary gaps in Reed’s performance, though according to IMDb there was not enough to allow the late Reed the—now fitting—final line in the movie.
4 Queen of the Damned: Aaliyah
R&B singer Aaliyah was cast in the eponymous role of Queen of the Damned, based on the works of Anne Rice and a semi-sequel to Interview with the Vampire, and had completed principal photography when her plane went down in the Bahamas in August 2001. According to IMDb, when director Michael Rymer needed to record additional lines for Aaliyah’s character, he called in the late singer’s brother, Rashad Haughton.
3 The Dark Knight /The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus: Heath Ledger
Perhaps the most well-known case was the January 2008 death of Heath Ledger. Ledger was 28 when he passed away from an accidental prescription drug overdose in his SoHo apartment, and while he had already finished filming his future Academy Award-winning role of the Joker in The Dark Knight, he had completed only a third of his scenes for Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Rather than recast Ledger’s part and start from scratch, Gilliam contacted actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to play different personas of the same character in the “dream worlds” depicted throughout the film. To boot, Depp, Law and Farrell gave the money they received for their performances to Ledger’s daughter with Michelle Williams, Matilda, as legal issues at the time with the late actor’s will were preventing her from receiving her inheritance. Thankfully for Matilda, the situation was resolved later that year, according to the Associated Press.
2 Fast & Furious 7: Paul Walker
Director James Wan, Vin Diesel et al. are set to resume production on Fast & Furious 7 this month, picking up where they left off following the death of one of the franchise’s stars, Paul Walker, in November of last year. Walker, 40, died in a single-car accident alongside friend and financial advisor Roger Rodas on November 30th and his sudden and tragic departure raised questions as to how the latest Fast & Furious film would proceed without one of its key players. A few answers—some concrete, some not so much—have emerged over the last few months. The Hollywood Reporter suggested in January that Walker’s character, former undercover L.A.P.D. officer Brian O’Conner-turned-street racer, would be “retired” rather than killed off, though writer Chris Morgan later told IGN that nothing had been set in stone. As well, Walker’s brother Cody announced on his Facebook page that he would be effectively taking over the role of O’Conner, with the similar looking sibling presumably acting as a body double for some scenes. It is set to be released on April 10, 2015.
1 The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 2: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Considered one of the greatest and most driven actors of his generation, Philip Seymour Hoffman died suddenly at the age of 46 this February from acute mixed drug intoxication. At the time of his death, he had finished filming most of his scenes for Mockingjay—Part 2, the fourth and final film in The Hunger Games franchise, according to Variety. As his role, that of Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee, is quite significant in the later chapters of the series, distributor Lionsgate said they would “digitally recreate” Hoffman for a scene he had left to shoot through the use of “computer graphics and camera tricks.” The film is expected to be in theatres for its original release date of November 20th, 2015.
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