Over the years we’ve lost some iconic actors who have lit up the silver screen, and the TV screen, not only with their acting prowess but also for their pure presence and influence on pop culture. Some have passed “before their time” by their own hands, while others gave way to tragic accidents.
Their untimely passing made them even more iconic, and of course, made their bodies of work precious.
Some had films in progress when they left us, and some of those projects were buried for years, while others had their projects completed without them, with the storyline changed to reflect their character’s untimely passing.
We often think that actors have it easy, that fame and fortune is a good thing. But careers in the limelight can come with pressures, too. How do I stay in the limelight after this? How do I stay clear of the paparazzi? With all this money, how do I protect myself from those who want to be around me for just that?
For some reason, substance abuse is a major killer of movie stars. They can be accidental, but they also can be consciously undertaken. Yes, taking your own life is often the case with people, ironically, who make us laugh or feel real emotions by their actions on TV or in a film. Sad but true, and now all we have left is their image on film to remind us just how gifted they were at making us still tune in when their bodies of work air on TV and are streamed.
The Fast & Furious franchise is probably the longest running set in movie history, and Paul Walker was one of its key players. But a tragic accident, ironically involving a sports car, ended the actor’s life in November 2013. The car was driven by someone else and wrapped around a tree and burst into flames. Walker died reportedly because of a faulty seatbelt when he couldn’t get out after the crash. His untimely death struck his Fast & Furious co-stars hard, and there was talk that the sequel in production at the time would not be finished. But it was and hit theaters last year with the usual bang. His daughter actually just settled a lawsuit she had against Porsche on Oct. 24 for wrongful death. Meadow Walker went after the iconic sports car manufacturer for alleged defects that ended her dad’s life. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed. Vin Diesel, who starred in the movies series with Walker, just announced Oct. 26 that versions 9 and 10 will star Diesel and also bring back Justin Lin as director, and Jordana Brewster will return as Mia, who was Walker’s partner in the seventh installment of the series. Somehow, the series creators are keeping Walker’s memory alive.
At 28, actor Heath Ledger had already won one Oscar and was rumored to be well on his way to become one of Hollywood’s biggest names. But on Jan. 22, 2008, Ledger was found naked and face down in his bedroom in his apartment in Manhattan. Sleeping pills bottles, both prescribed and non-prescribed, were found close at hand. It’s never been determined if the overdose was accidental or at his own hand. However, just the other day on Oct. 25, there were news reports declaring that Ledger’s apartment is now haunted by his ghost. According to RadarOnline, people who live in the same building and near it report hearing eerie sounds, including a laugh like the one Ledger used in his role as the Joker in The Dark Knight coming from the swanky apartment he once occupied and where he died. The Dark Knight came out just months after his death. He also received critical acclaim for his co-starring role in Brokeback Mountain.
Brittany Murphy was just 32 when she died from what investigators said was a lethal combination of pneumonia, anemia, and illegal substances. It was December 2009 when the Clueless actress was found unresponsive in her home. Murphy had developed a problem with photographers, and had reportedly turned into a social recluse. There were also rumors that she had a substance habit and that she also had an eating disorder, reported the Daily Mail in 2014, as the mystery surrounding her untimely death still was a subject of the media five years later. Even as late as last year, rumors continued to swirl that it wasn’t an accident, according to a story in US magazine. In addition to co-starring in Sin City and 8 Mile, Murphy was a favorite for voiceover work, as she had worked numerous times on King of the Hill and on the film Happy Feet. Ironically, Murphy’s husband died just five months later in their Los Angeles home. And it wasn’t until March 2014 that Brittany’s final film, Something Wicked, was released in theaters.
At the top of the TV ratings on the show Glee, it would seem actor Corey Monteith had it all. But at 31, the actor who could also sing died on July 13, 2013, in a hotel room in Canada from an overdose of a bunch of substances. People magazine reported that right before his death, he had checked himself into a rehab facility for substance abuse in April 2013. He played Finn Hudson on the popular show and had just started his acting career in the U.S. After being noticed on Glee, he had landed roles in films such as Sisters & Brothers and Monte Carlo. Although his character was a bit of an All American boy, in real life, he was somewhat of a rebel. He had dropped out of high school at age 16 after attending multiple high schools. At the time of his death, he was said to be dating Lea Michelle, also of Glee. She told Elle magazine that his last words to her were “If you say so,” which she had tattooed on to her ribcage.
River Phoenix was just 23 when he died out of a Hollywood club from a lethal overdose of a mix of some illegal substances. Insiders were all abuzz about the actor, predicting him to be the next James Dean with his boyish charm and smoldering good looks. In fact, he had already been nominated for an Academy Award for his role in Running On Empty. He also shined in Stand By Me, My Own Private Idaho and Little Nikita, just to name a few of the flicks in which he had already starred. The Oregon native came from a large family that included brother Joaquin. River was an animal rights activist and also worked to save the environment. In addition to being a vegetarian, he was also a member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). River was truly an extraordinary talent, who in addition to acting, played guitar, sang, and wrote songs. He was filming Dark Blood when he died, but the film was not released until 20 years after his death in 2012.
Natasha Richardson was a classic beauty with a warm smile. She was part of the British acting dynasty, the Redgraves. She was the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave and director Tony Richardson, and her sister is Joely of Nip/Tuck. She was also married to actor Liam Neeson. She died on March 2009 after a skiing accident in Canada. Richardson was quite versatile, working on Broadway at times (where she won a Tony for a part in “Cabaret”) and stretching out on roles for Disney (The Parent Trap) as well as other major motion picture companies in films such as Gothic and Nell. Indeed, there was something special about the beautiful blond, expressed by the many people who worked with her over the years, including Lindsay Lohan, Ralph Fiennes, Jody Foster and Jane Fonda.
Robin Williams was a comic genius, something that became very apparent when he co-starred with Pam Dawber in the TV series Mork & Mindy. Insiders say often Williams would ad lib the part of Mork. And that’s what he often did in the many films he starred in as well. Recently – mid-October – comic actor Billy Crystal described Williams this way: “Like trying to lasso a comet.” But unknown to many, and especially his legions of fans, behind the comic façade was a man who battled depression. And so in August 2014, after spending time in rehab just a month earlier, Williams allegedly took his own life by hanging. In Hollywood blockbusters such as Mrs. Doubtfire, he excelled, and at the same time, he could turn off the funnyman and take on dramatic roles, as he did in Good Will Hunting, for which he won an Academy Award. Sadly, at the time of his death, a sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire was in the works.
Patrick Swayze excelled where he played the kind of man women long for. That included the dudes he played in the iconic Dirty Dancing, Ghost, and even Red Dawn. He had that swagger that oozed from him, at the same time it wasn’t obnoxious. Swayze died in 2009 after battling pancreatic cancer. He was 57. As cavalier as he could be, there was also a comic side to him, as evidenced in the flick Too Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, where he played a transvestite along with Wesley Snipes and John Leguizamo. Swayze worked constantly, from the early ‘80s right up to his passing in 2009. He made more than 40 films, but somehow, we think he could have made a few more if the big C hadn’t caught up with him.
John Belushi’s comic genius became apparent on Saturday Night Live with his many memorable characters. He quickly befriended another SNL cast member… Dan Aykroyd… and the two got together for what is still a movie classic today – The Blues Brothers. Belushi had that penchant for lifting one eyebrow while exercising his bevy of characters. And people soon learned he was also a musician. But he also had a taste for illicit drugs, and a lethal combo of the two drugs brought him down on March 5, 1982, at the age of 33. His films are mainstays of classic comedy, including National Lampoon’s Animal House and 1941. Insiders say Belushi was a generous man, who bought his daughter a ranch in California and set up several of his friends from Chicago in their own businesses. Aykroyd went on with his career after the passing of his friend, but every time you see him, you can’t help wonder what could have been if Belushi had not gone too soon.
Aaliyah came onto the scene in the late 1990s as a protégé of R&B singer/songwriter R. Kelly. Her first hit, “One in a Million,” blew up the charts with a bullet and launched her into a career that included hit songs and acting. Her life was cut short when she was just 22 when the plane she was on, returning from a video shoot in the Bahamas, crashed. Aaliyah had already made a name for herself in Hollywood with Romeo Must Die with martial arts star Jet Li. She also starred in cult classic Queen of the Damned. And sadly, she was scheduled to be a part of the sequel to The Matrix before she passed. Before social media took hold of pop culture, Aaliyah already had a mass following that included millions of adoring fans from around the world. When Disney actress Zendaya was scheduled to play her in a Lifetime biopic, fans went crazy on social media, declaring that Zendaya wasn’t “dark enough.” Zendaya withdrew.
Corey Haim had that face that drew millions of female fans. By the mid-‘80s, he was a Hollywood heartthrob with films such as License to Drive, Silver Bullet, and The Lost Boys, just to name a few. On March 10, 2010, Haim was declared dead at a hospital in Los Angeles. Initially, reports came out that he had overdosed, but the coroner later declared pneumonia as the cause of death. Now as the Harvey Weinstein cases of harassment come to light, Haim’s best friend, Corey Feldman, is saying that a Hollywood creep, who allegedly harmed him and Haim when they were younger, is to blame for Haim’s drug problems over the years, and the ultimate reason Haim died from a bad mixture of medications. Feldman says his life is in danger because the guy is afraid he will reveal his name. Haim was still making movies in 2010 before he died at age 38.
Whitney Houston was considered one of the greatest female singers of all time, and she also had gained notoriety as an amazing actress. Her foray into film with Waiting to Exhale and The Bodyguard earned her critical acclaim, adding to her mystique as a one of a kind entertainer. But a reported addiction to drugs also tainted her brilliant career, right up until the moment she accidentally died in a posh hotel room in Hollywood, apparently under the influence from a combo of drugs and alcohol. Initial reports said she drowned in the bathtub, but the Los Angeles County Coroner later said it was from an overdose, not drowning. After her tragic passing, the remake of Sparkle with former American Idol winner Jordan Sparks was released, and despite Houston’s appearance in the film – about a young woman trying to maneuver the pitfalls of trying to be a star in the music industry – the film did a dismal $17 million at the box office. Houston lives on with the many hit songs she released during her 30+ years career, but the way she lit up the silver screen will always be remembered as well.
Elvis Presley wasn’t only an iconic singer, he was also a popular actor. In most of his roles, he would sing as well as act, usually as the romantic interest of a lucky lady (or two). Elvis was so popular as a draw, he would often practically sing his lines, and no one would complain. Funny story: in the ‘80s when Eddie Murphy was becoming a rising star, part of his stand up routine was making fun of Elvis. He would point out how Elvis would sing his lines, and then Murphy would imitate Presley singing his part in a film. Some of Elvis’ most popular films include Blue Hawaii, Frankie And Johnny, and Easy Come, Easy Go, just a few of the 31 he made. He died on Aug. 16, 1977, with his death ruled by the coroner as the result of a heart attack. Presley’s legend lives on, and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) often has an Elvis movie marathon, but somehow, there’s just not enough of that classic American face and his penchant for singing his lines.
She lit up the silver screen like a Christmas tree on a snowy night. Marilyn Monroe and her classic and beautiful look is still imitated today, 55 years after her untimely passing. She allegedly took her own life, but to this day, many believe her life was taken by those interested in keeping her silent, perhaps because of her reported involvement with U.S. President John F. Kennedy. She was featured opposite many of Hollywood’s leading men at the time, including Clark Gable, Tony Curtis, Cary Grant, and Laurence Olivier. Her films grossed $200 million by 1962, and her career was still on the upswing when news came across the wires that she had been found dead in her home. Later, a coroner said her cause of death was from an overdose of barbiturates. Her list of films includes Some Like It Hot, All About Eve, and The Misfits. Today, stars such as Gwen Stefani, Nicki Minaj, Janet Jackson, Lady Gaga, and Madonna still imitate her stunning look. Imagine if Marilyn had made a movie with the likes of George Clooney…
It’s difficult to believe it’s been more than eight years already since Michael Jackson died on the floor of his home in southern California, reportedly from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. Jackson was more than a musical genius… he was a master at creating videos to match his music that still stand as trailblazers today. During I want my MTV days, Jackson ruled. His fans and fans of good cinema would wait with anticipation for each video, with the premiere of the mini-movies on MTV as national events. And his genius was recognized and endorsed by others, including Steven Spielberg, who actually directed some of them. Celebrities would also vie to be in them, including international model Iman, comic Eddie Murphy, actor McCauley Caulin and former NBA star Magic Johnson. He knew how to turn it on on screen in clips such as “Dirty Diana,” “Smooth Criminal” and “Remember the Time.” Social media was just becoming a powerful force when he tragically passed, but you have to wonder what the genius would have done with it to somehow still advance an incredible career.