The world of acting is one in which there are many stars. Whether they grace the big screen or the small one, there are countless actors who become as familiar to us as our own friends. We feel like we come to know them through the roles that they play, and through the press interviews that they constantly have to give. All of this leads us to favouring some actors over others, picking them out as our favourites and seeking out their latest work whenever possible.
Of course, all things must come to an end, and sooner or later our favourite actors tend to pass away. When this happens, it’s not unusual to feel a grief as if we really did know them ourselves. It’s sad to know that we will never again be able to watch another performance of theirs which is new.
For the actors that keep working right up until their death, there is another layer of emotion that comes along with it. Some of them even died while still working on their latest projects, and many of them have work that comes out after they have already died. Watching their last roles can be especially poignant, and can bring back those stabs of grief for a bright star which has now been lost.
These 15 actors kept working right until their deaths. For some, it was a defiance of old age and illness, a determination to keep going right to the very end. For others, they were unaware that their tragic death was looming around the corner.
15 Bill Paxton (1955-2017) - Training Day (2017)
Bill Paxton is one of those legendary actors who have starred in so many big hit movies, you can hardly believe they managed to fit it all in. His credit list boasts such titles as Titanic, Aliens, Twister, and Apollo 13. His were the kind of movies that you would watch over and over again because they are so enjoyable. Paxton sadly passed away on the 25th of February 2017, aged 61, in Los Angeles. His last work was released in 2017, including a film called The Circle and some episodes of his TV show Training Day. He worked consistently throughout his life, and there was no indication that his life would come to an end when it did. He went in for heart surgery to repair damage which occurred earlier in his life, and ended up having a stroke in the operating room which he unfortunately did not recover from.
14 John Candy (1950-1994) - Canadian Bacon (1995)
Known for his comedy roles in classics such as Uncle Buck, Cool Runnings, Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, and Spaceballs, John Candy was acting right up to his death on March 4, 1994. He suffered a heart attack while he was filming Wagons East!, a Western parody. Both this film and Canadian Bacon, came out after his death and were dedicated to his memory. He was aged 43, and had been struggling with his health for some time because of the fact that he was overweight. There were a number of unfinished projects left behind which ended up being shelved. There were three proposed films – an adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces, The Incomparable Atuk, and a biopic of Fatty Arbuckle which are now thought to be cursed. John Candy, John Belushi, Sam Kinison, and Chris Farley were all attached to the lead roles – and all of them died before they were able to film anything.
13 Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014) - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (2015)
Another beloved actor who could not escape a drug addiction, Philip Seymour Hoffman had been battling to go sober since he was a young adult. He was finally unable to beat the habit and relapsed in 2013 after years of sobriety. He continued to work, notably being cast in films such as The Master and The Hunger Games franchise. In February 2014, he took what was to be his last hit of heroin and died with the syringe still in his arm. He was only 46. His part in the Hunger Games finale film had to be recut so that the scenes he had already filmed could be used, without the further addition of the scenes he had not yet gotten down on film. He had received many accolades for his work, including a Best Actor Oscar for Capote and many nominations. He was seen as one of the strongest character actors in Hollywood, able to tackle misfits, bullies, and outcasts of society with a sombreness and nuance that made them more likeable.
12 Bruce Lee (1940-1973) - Enter The Dragon (1973)
A legend in the world of martial arts, Bruce Lee was the inspiration for many a kid to beg for karate or kung fu lessons. He was very prolific before his death despite having only just broken into the film industry. Most of his earlier work was less well-known, and he only completed a handful of movies at the prime of his career. It could well be that his dedication to his role as an expert martial artist was what got the better of him in the end. While working on The Game of Death he collapsed and was rushed to hospital, where doctors found abnormal swelling in his brain. Though they were able to get it under control at the time, he died in his sleep two months later. That was the 20th July 1973, and he was 32 years old. Tragically, his then 8-year-old son Brandon Lee would go on to die on a movie set himself as an adult.
11 Anton Yelchin (1989-2016) - We Don't Belong Here (2017)
The death of Anton Yelchin was another that shook Hollywood to its core, not least because of the actor’s young age combined with his huge talent. It was a freak accident which claimed the life of the promising actor at the age of just 27 on June 19, 2016. He was killed when his car rolled back and pinned him, with no one around to help or stop the accident from happening. He had taken part in a large number of roles already when he joined the 27 Club, though surely his most favoured was that of Chekov in the Star Trek reboot series. He had completed filming on Star Trek Beyond, which came out in 2016, but a new approach will be needed to explain his character’s absence in subsequent films. After that film, a further four films and several television episodes were released posthumously. He had been at the height of his career.
10 Alan Rickman (1946-2016) - Alice Through The Looking Glass (2016)
Alan Rickman filled so many classic roles over time that it’s hard to define him by just one. For many, he will always be the only true embodiment of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter franchise. For others, he remains Die Hard’s Hans Gruber. For still others, he will be remembered as the Sheriff of Nottingham from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. When he died on January 14, 2016, he had known that pancreatic cancer was coming for him. That didn’t stop him from working up to his death, with his final film, in which he provided a voice for Alice Through the Looking Glass, coming out posthumously. Reports say that he was not aware just how serious his cancer was until a few weeks before his death, but became seriously ill before Christmas and then fought a battle that was to be short-lived. Beautifully, he had been with his wife since the age of 19, leaving her behind at the age of 69 on his death.
9 Carrie Fisher (1956-2016) - Wonderwell (2017)
Carrie Fisher was mourned by fans the world over when she died at the age of 60. She had just finished filming her part as Princess Leia in Star Wars Episode VIII, which is of course still unreleased. She was set to appear in the ninth instalment of the series as well, with the script needing a rework to make it happen without her. Still, if they wanted to include her original part, they very easily could: she had already been recreated as her younger self via CGI in Rogue One. Carrie suffered a heart attack on a flight between LA and London while filming scenes for television show Catastrophe. Tragically, she was followed to the grave not long after by her actress mother, Debbie Reynolds. Tributes poured in for the actress, who had also made a name for herself as a script doctor, bringing plenty of films to a more polished final version.
8 River Phoenix (1970-1993) - The Thing Called Love (1993)
Joaquin Phoenix may now be the most prominent of the Phoenix clan, but it certainly wasn’t always that way. River Phoenix was in his prime and the heartthrob of girls and women around the world when he overdosed on drugs on October 31, 1993. He was just 23 years old at the time, and had racked up only 23 movie and television appearances. Some of those still stand as classics, from Stand By Me to My Own Private Idaho. He was right in the middle of filming Dark Blood when he collapsed and died on the sidewalk outside of The Viper Room in Hollywood. He also left several roles vacant, such as the one that went instead to Christian Slater in Interview with the Vampire, Sean Astin’s part in Safe Passage, and Emile Hirsch’s in Milk. There were also further projects he had been in discussion on which ended up falling flat once he had passed away, due to the fact they had been banking on his appearance.
7 Robin Williams (1951-2014) - Absolutely Anything (2015)
The sad death of Robin Williams shook fans around the world when it was announced on August 11, 2014. Not only was it awful to see a comic legend disappear at the age of just 63, but it was soon followed by the revelation that he had taken his own life. It has since emerged that he was suffering from a disorder called Lewy Body Dementia which was slowly taking his ability to move and think clearly. Depression, which had haunted him from an early age, was also part of the picture when he decided not to let the disorder take the rest of his life. Some of his most loved works include films like Jumanji, Mrs Doubtfire, Dead Poets Society, and Aladdin. Right before his death, he had completed filming on Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb and has also recorded his voice lines for Absolutely Anything. The comedy actor is still sorely missed for his ability to bring a lightness into anything.
6 Heath Ledger (1979-2008) - The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
One of the most lauded contemporary actors of his time, Heath Ledger tragically died from what many say was a complication of his method acting. The legend goes that he got so deep into the character of The Joker in The Dark Knight that it began to affect his health, and he required prescription drugs to help him sleep and cope with the role. A few months after filming had wrapped, on 22 January 2008, he died of an accidental overdose from the very drugs that were supposed to help him cope. At the time he was only partway through filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and the film had to be finished with a number of stand-in actors. Despite only appearing in 19 films, two of which were released posthumously, he had built up a massive worldwide following. One of his most acclaimed films was cowboy romance Brokeback Mountain. He was just 28 at the time of his death.
5 Christopher Lee (1922-2015) - The Time War (2017)
Christopher Lee was much loved for his many roles, which made him a villain in some of the best-loved franchises of all time. He was Count Dooku in Star Wars, he was Francisco Scaramanga in James Bond’s The Man With the Golden Gun, and he was Saruman in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. He received a knighthood for his work and continued right up until the stage preceding his death. He also did a sideline in heavy metal albums, strangely enough, and served as a spy in WWII. He was claimed by respiratory problems and heart failure at the age of 93 on 7 June 2015. Just three weeks earlier, he had recorded his final words for Angels of Notting Hill. He spoke fluent English, Italian, French, Spanish, and German, as well as speaking well in Swedish, Russian, and Greek. He was a man of very man talents and kept them going right up to his death.
4 Oliver Reed (1938-1999) - Gladiator (2000)
If you wanted a British tough guy in your film, there was a time when the man you went to was Oliver Reed. He had a very long list of credits, including such classics as Oliver!, The Three Musketeers, and Gladiator. Gladiator actually happened to be his final film: he died during filming of a heart attack. That was the 2 May 1999, and he was 61 years old. In 1971, he was voted as the 5th most popular box office star in Britain. Omid Djalili said of his death, "He hadn't had a drink for months before filming started... Everyone said he went the way he wanted, but that's not true. It was very tragic. He was in an Irish bar and was pressured into a drinking competition. He should have just left, but he didn't." The only way that they could finish the film was to use a combination of a mannequin and CGI, but even so, he was posthumously nominated for a Best Supporting Actor BAFTA.
3 Bela Lugosi (1882-1956) - The Black Sleep (1956)
When you think about Dracula, chances are that you picture Bela Lugosi’s face. He was one of the most iconic horror actors of early film, gaining a niche following in the 1930s due to his portrayal of plenty of feature monsters. He was plagued throughout his career by the fact that he could not always get high billing thanks to the limitations of his Hungarian accent, and turned to morphine and methadone to cope. Later in life, however, Ed Wood would cast him in lead roles again and again. He was treated for his drug addiction and was acting again with his final film, The Black Sheep. He died of a heart attack in his sleep aged 73, on August 16, 1956. He was in talks with Ed Wood to start a new film project at the time, and urban legend has it that he was clutching the script for The Final Curtain when he was found dead – but this is not true.
2 Jim Davis (1909-1981) - Dallas (1981)
The role that most people know Jim Davis for is that of Jock Ewing in hit TV show Dallas. He was in 75 episodes of the show and worked as much as he could even though he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. He continued filming even during chemotherapy, with concessions being made so that he could sit down during the episodes and wear a wig. A storyline was worked in so that he could be off-screen at the end of season 3, and it was while the season was still airing that he unfortunately died. His character was written out after another 13 episodes. He died of his cancer on April 26, 1981. He had worked on a large number of films and television shows during his time, and was 71 years old at the time of his death. He cemented his long-term reputation by appearing in one of the most talked-about and watched shows of all time.
1 John Hurt (1940-2017) - Damascus Cover (2017)
John Hurt was hugely loved for the fact that he had roles in number of iconic films. These included Alien, The Elephant Man, V For Vendetta, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and the Harry Potter franchise. He first came to prominence in 1966, and spent the rest of his life acting. He was knighted in 2015, and he even got in a performance as the War Doctor in Doctor Who. He died aged 77 on the 25 January 2017 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He had first been diagnosed in 2015, but had stated that he was determined to carry on working through his treatment and that he was optimistic about his prognosis. He went into remission in 2015, but the illness returned to take his life. Interestingly, of his 129 film appearances plus dozens of TV roles, he “died” on screen around 40 times, which is thought to be the most of any actor.