Film production can be a dangerous business. As we discussed in our video about 10 Incredibly Hard to Shoot Movie Scenes, getting the perfect action shot can sometimes mean pulling off very risky stunts that have the potential to go disastrously wrong. Fortunately most productions will have plenty of precautions and safeguards in place, which means that on-set deaths are very rare, but there are still some famous cases of actors who died while filming, and others who died before they could finish their current projects.
Here are 10 Actors Who Died During Production.
The Dark Knight actor Heath Ledger sadly didn’t live to enjoy the critical acclaim and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor that the role earned him, as he died of an accidental prescription drug overdose six months before The Dark Knight arrived in theaters. The Joker wasn’t Ledger’s final role, however. At the time of his death, Ledger was a little over a month into filming Terry Gilliam’s fantasy film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, in which he played a central role. Following the actor’s death, Gilliam came up with the idea of having Ledger’s character change his appearance, and enlisted the help of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and and Colin Farrell to take over the role in scenes that Ledger hadn’t yet got around to filming. With their help, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus was completed and became the final piece of Ledger’s legacy.
There’s a dangerous misconception that guns loaded with blanks are harmless, when the truth is that blanks can do a whole lot of damage when fired at very close range. This was the fate that befell Jon-Erik Hexum on the set of CBS action-adventure series Cover Up, in which he played a CIA agent working undercover as a model. During a filming delay, Hexum began jokingly playing Russian roulette with a .44 Magnum loaded with blanks. The gun was pressed right up against his temple when it went off, firing the wadding from the blank into Hexum’s skull and causing a massive brain hemorrhage. After being declared brain dead, Hexum was eventually taken off life support.
Alex Proyas’ vigilante superhero movie The Crow has become a cult classic since its original release in 1994, but the film is notorious for another reason. Brandon Lee, son of Bruce Lee, played the movie’s main character, Eric Draven, a rock star who is brought back from the dead to avenge his own murder and the death of his girlfriend. In a scene where Eric returns home to find his girlfriend being attacked, actor Michael Massee fired a prop gun at Lee, not knowing that the prop crew had accidentally left a fragment of metal from a previous set of rounds inside it. The fragment struck Lee in the abdomen, and despite being rushed to hospital and undergoing six hours of surgery, the wound cost him his life. Lee was just 28 years old.
Paul Walker was a mainstay of the Fast and Furious franchise from the very beginning, and his appearances in the movies spanned over a decade – from his first appearance in The Fast and the Furious to his final portrayal of Brian O’Conner in Furious Seven. Two months into production, Walker was killed when the driver of the Porsche he was travelling in crashed the vehicle into a lamp post and two trees at high speed. Following the accident, Universal put production on hold to give the cast and crew time to grieve, and to give director James Wan time to figure out how to rework the film. Furious Seven was eventually completed using Paul Walker’s brothers, Caleb and Cody, and others as stand-ins for his character, with a combination of camera trickery and CGI used to complete Brian’s story.
Like Brandon Lee and Jon-Erik Hexum, actor Vic Morrow’s death was the result of an accident on set, which is easily one of the most horrifying tales in the film industry. Morrow was filming “Time Out,” a segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie in which a racist gets a taste of his own medicine when he is cast back in time and assumes the ethnicities of those he was prejudiced against. During a scene in which Morrow’s character finds himself in the Vietnam war, a helicopter hovering overhead was damaged by nearby pyrotechnic explosions and crashed, decapitating Morrow and killing two child actors that he was carrying. Several people involved in production – including director John Landis – were put on trial for involuntary manslaughter, but were ultimately acquitted.
Ridley Scott’s historical epic Gladiator won a handful of Oscars in 2001, including the award for Best Visual Effects. Among the visual effects used in the film were early CGI techniques that completed actor Oliver Reed’s scenes as Antonius Proximo, the gladiator trainer who becomes a mentor to Maximus Decimus Meridius. Reed died of a heart attack towards the end of filming, and his character’s fate was rewritten so that instead of surviving, Proximo sacrifices himself in order to buy Maximus time to escape. To complete his remaining scenes, a body double was used and a CGI mask placed over the body double’s face to create the illusion of Reed being present. It was an Oscar-worthy effect, especially for the time, and a powerful final role for Reed.
John Ritter first made a name for himself as one of the leads on ABC sitcom Three’s Company in the 1970s and 80s, and by the early 2000s had gone from TV bachelor to TV dad in another ABC sitcom, 8 Simple Rules, in which he played strict but affectionate father Paul Hennessy. During filming of the show’s second season, Ritter fell ill due to a heart defect called aortic dissection, which was initially misdiagnosed as a heart attack. Despite efforts to save him, Ritter died in a hospital later that day. His death was written into the show, with the Hennessy family finding out that Paul had collapsed while grocery shopping.
Bela Lugosi starred in some of the most famous horror movies ever made, including Dracula, White Zombie and The Black Cat, but he died while filming one of the most infamously terrible movies ever made: Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. Well, actually that’s not completely accurate. Lugosi had been filming various random scenes with Wood for other movie projects, and this footage was eventually cut into Plan 9. In order to complete these scenes, Wood hired his wife’s chiropractor, who had no acting experience and didn’t even look like Lugosi, to stand in for the famous actor by holding a cape over his face. It’s a bit of a far cry from the technical wizardry that made the completion of Furious Seven possible, but it’s also one of the many quirks that makes Plan 9 From Outer Space so memorable.
One of the most iconic movie stars of all time, Marilyn Monroe is known for her roles in classic comedies films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like it Hot and The Seven Year Itch. Monroe’s final film was a romantic comedy called Something’s Got to Give, from which she was fired after one month of production, then later rehired with a change of director. Before filming with Monroe could resume, the actress died of a barbiturate overdose. The movie was never completed, though the footage was later pieced together for a documentary called Marilyn: Something’s Got to Give.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffman was a highly respected actor, who in 2006 won an Oscar for playing the title role in Capote. In more recent years, audiences became familiar with Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, the Head Gamemaker of The Hunger Games. Sadly, after decades of sobriety, Hoffman suffered a relapse into the drug addiction that had plagued him in his younger years, and with just a week of filming left on The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 the actor died after taking a mix of heroin, cocaine, amphetamines and benzodiazepines. Director Francis Lawrence decided not to try and complete Hoffman’s performance using CGI, and Plutarch Heavensbee was instead written out of the scenes that Hoffman had yet to shoot.
These are just a few of the more memorable instances of actors dying midway through production, but there are more examples out there. Let us know in the comments which actors you miss the most, and don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more videos like this one.