16 Actors Who Died Of Rare Diseases

When an actor dies, throngs of fans mourn. With scores of admirers, the death of a famous Hollywood actor rarely goes unnoticed, especially when the circumstances are a little strange. Not strange in a “suspicious death” kind of way, but when an actor passes on rather suddenly and without much explanation.

Actors, at the end of the day, are ordinary people, subject to the whims of life and death just like the rest of us. This means that an actor can go just about any time and in any way. Again, though, when an actor dies in a rather rare manner, their passing only becomes more noteworthy.

Such is the case with the following collection of actors, all of whom died of rare diseases and conditions.

Taken from us far too soon, these actors went up against diseases most of us don't even know exist and we will forever remember them for their bravery. However, while these actors have left the mortal coil, their work will keep their memory alive.

Here are the 16 Actors Who Died Of Rare Diseases.

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Leonard Nimoy as Spock showing the Vulcan salute in Star Trek.
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16 Leonard Nimoy

Leonard Nimoy as Spock showing the Vulcan salute in Star Trek.

Known best to the world as Spock, the first officer of the starship Enterprise, Leonard Nimoy is a legend in the geek world.

Nimoy portrayed the Vulcan science officer from 1964 in the original Star Trek series to 2013 in the first entry to the new film franchise, which was, unfortunately, Nimoy's last performance.

In February 2014, Nimoy told the world he had been diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), something the actor said was a result of his smoking addiction-- a habit he had kicked thirty years prior. By February 25th, Nimoy fell into a coma, and only a two days later the actor died at the age of 83.

An artist to the end, Nimoy shared a piece of his own poetry on Twitter before passing on, writing: “A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.”

15 Brittany Murphy

Brittany Murphy and Matthew Rhys in Love and Other Disasters

Taken from us far too soon, Brittany Murphy’s death came as a shock when it happened in December of 2009. The Clueless actor (who was also the voice of Luanne on King of the Hill) had a bright career ahead of her, and wasn’t known to be heavily into drugs.

Murphy, however, was suffering from pneumonia around the time of her death. So, like most people would, Murphy took a slew of over-the-counter drugs to treat the condition.

The drugs only served to add to Murphy’s condition, though, as her cause of death is officially listed pneumonia, with secondary factors of iron-deficiency anemia and multiple drug intoxication.

Pneumonia is definitely a rare disease for someone so young, without any other conditions, to die from. Even stranger, Murphy’s widow would die of the same condition only six months later.

14 Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee in The Way of the Dragon

Better known as a martial artist and founder of the Jeet Kune Do style, Bruce Lee has more than a few acting credits under his black-belt.

Fist of Fury, Way of the Dragon, and Enter the Dragon are some of Lee's big-name Hollywood films, all of which are now seen as kung-fu movie classics.

It was during the post-production of Enter the Dragon, specifically during the dubbing phase that Lee suddenly collapsed, suffering from a seizure. Rushed to the hospital, Lee was diagnosed with Cerebral edema, an excess of fluid in the brain.

When having dinner in July 1973, Lee complained of having a headache and went to lie down and rest. Lee never woke up and was declared dead at the young age of 32. It is thought that Lee's death was complicated by painkillers he had taken for his headache.

13 Andy Kaufman

Andy Kaufman Taxi Latka

Actor, performance artist, and even wrestler, Andy Kaufman was a mainstay of the North American comedy scene in the 1970s and '80s.

Even though Kaufman never saw himself as a “comedian” in the strict sense, he definitely made tons of people laugh, appearing on comedic programs like Saturday Night Live and Late Night With David Letterman.

In 1983, Kaufman received some sobering news: he was diagnosed with Large-cell carcinoma, an incredibly rare type of lung cancer. Never a smoker, Kaufman's diagnosis came as a surprise to him and his fans, as many were shocked to see the withered state of the actor during his final public appearance in March 1984.

Two months later, on May 16, 1984, Kaufman succumbed to his condition. Interestingly, Kaufman was such a funny-man, people believed his death to be a hoax at first. Unfortunately, this certainly wasn't the case.

12 Rock Hudson

Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in Giant

By today's standards, AIDS is not a “rare” disease. However, in the early 1980s, when the disease was first identified by public health officials, AIDS was as mysterious as it was deadly.

People were dying, but know one really knew why and, since most of the individuals affected were gay men, not many people even cared. At least not until Rock Hudson died of AIDS-related complications.

Known as a “hearthrob” of the Hollywood Golden Age, Rock Hudson was diagnosed with HIV in 1984, only three years after the condition was identified. Keeping his HIV status a secret, the Oscar-nominated actor's health quickly declined.

At first saying he suffered from an inoperable liver cancer, Hudson eventually revealed that he suffered from AIDS and died on October 2, 1959 at the age of 59. Hudson is now seen as the first major celebrity to ever die from AIDS-related complications.

11 Dudley Moore

Dudley Moore in Santa Claus The Movie

First gaining fame in the United Kingdom for his part in the comedy group Beyond The Fringe, Dudley Moore became an internationally recognized name for his role in films like Foul Play and Arthur. Moore was even nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for the latter film.

Into the late 1990s, however, Moore's health quickly deteriorated. In 1997, Moore was told that he had calcium deposits in the basal ganglia of his brain along with sever frontal lobe damage. Two years later, in 1999, Moore revealed that he was suffering from a terminal brain disorder called progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP).

Moore would die in March of 2002, primarily as a result of pneumonia but also due to the immobility he suffered as a result of his brain disorder.

10 Paul Gleason

Paul Gleason in The Breakfast Club

Perhaps best known for his role as the “evil” Assistant Principle Richard Vernon in The Breakfast Club, Paul Gleason had a long acting career that extended before and beyond the iconic '80s film. Some of Gleason's acting credits include Seinfeld,, The A-Team, and even Boy Meets World.

Rather interestingly, Gleason's acting career came about because of sports. When going to Florida State University, Gleason played football, but shortly after graduating moved on to baseball.

During a season in the minor league (Gleason only played two seasons) he ended up meeting sitcom actor Ozzie Nelson, which landed him a role on the show Ozzie and Harriet.

Gleason's career was cut tragically short when he died in May 2006 of pleural mesothelioma. A rather rare form of lung cancer, the disease is often associated with asbestos exposure. It's believed that Gleason came into contact with asbestos as a teenager, working construction with his father.

9 Suzanne Crough

Unless you’re a fan of the oldies, you probably won’t be too familiar with Suzanne Crough, a child actor who portrayed Tracy Partridge on The Partridge Family television show.

She played the youngest sibling on the musical-sitcom, which was all about a single mom who turns her family into a band. The show ran for four seasons.

Long after Crough’s time on The Partridge Family, the one-time child actor was pronounced dead in April of 2015 at the age of 52. Reported to be unsuspicious, a coroner’s report later revealed that Crough had died of arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia, a rare form of cardiomyopathy.

Crough's old co-stars paid tribute to her death, lamenting the fact that it was the youngest Partridge family member who passed on first.

8 Bernie Mac

When comedian Bernie Mac passed away in 2008, pneumonia was cited as the cause of death. However, that’s only part of the story.

The well-known actor and comedian (most famous for his television program The Bernie Mac Show among many other Hollywood films) suffered from Sarcoidosis, a disease that causes inflammation in tissue, particularly in the lungs, though other areas can be affected.

Large chunks of inflammatory cells gather in the lungs due to the disease, with these clusters called "granulomas."

As is often the case with Sarcoidosis, the disease targeted Mac’s lungs. Thus, in 2008, after being admitted into a Chicago hospital while suffering from pneumonia and after a week of unsuccessful medical treatments, Mac went into cardiac arrest and died in the early morning of August 9.

7 Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando Desiree

From A Streetcar Named Desire to The Godfather, Marlon Brando is an acting legend. In fact, Brando is often seen as the actor who brought realism to the medium of film and has been credited as the 4th greatest movie star (who debuted before 1950) by the American Film Institute.

That's why Brando's death was such a huge blow to Hollywood when the actor passed on in 2004.

Already having gained a lot of weight and generally not doing well health-wise (Brando contracted Type-2 diabetes in the 90s), Brando took a turn for the worse when was diagnosed with Pulmonary fibrosis.

A disease that causes scars in a sufferers lung tissue, Brando died of respiratory failure due to the condition with congestive heart failure.

6 Michelle Thomas

Michelle Thomas as Myra Monkhouse in Family Matters

As Justine Phillips on The Cosby Show, Myra Monkhouse, Steve Erkel’s girlfriend on Family Matters, and Callie Rogers Stark on The Young and the Restless, Michelle Thomas was a very recognizable face in the late 1980s and 1990s. That’s why it came as such a shock to see Phillips die before getting passed the age of 30.

Phillips was diagnosed with intra-abdominal desmoplastic small-round-cell tumor in 1997, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Thomas got surgery to remove the tumor, which was the size of a lemon, before starting her gig on The Young and the Restless.

A few months later, however, a new tumor emerged, and Thomas went under the knife once again.

Thomas went home to spend the holiday with her family after the second surgery, but it wasn't long until the actress died due to her condition. Weeks after her second surgery, Phillips died in December of 1998.

5 Harold Ramis

Harold Ramis as Spengler in Ghostbusters

Few films franchises are quite as iconic as the original Ghostbusters movies, and Harold Ramis didn’t just star in the movies, he helped write them too.

Ramis, of course, portrayed Egon, the uber-scientist of the ghoul-fighting-force alongside Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray. However, that wasn't Ramis's only notable role. The actor also starred in such films as Groundhog Day and even Year One in 2009, which he also directed.

Only a year later, however, Ramis lost the ability to walk, the result of an infection caused by autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis.

In 2011, Ramis regained enough strength to walk, only to suffer another relapse of the disease. A few years later, in February of 2014, Ramis died due to complications from the disease at the age of 69.

4 Steve McQueen

Otherwise known as “The King of Cool,” Terence Steven "Steve" McQueen gained immense popularity in the 1960s for his rugged anti-hero identity.

Starring in blockbusters like The Magnificent Seven and The Thomas Crown Affair, McQueen balanced his cool-guy persona with true acting talent.

After developing a chronic cough in 1978, McQueen gave up smoking, only to find that this didn’t really help.

Once his breathing got worse, McQueen got a biopsy which showed that he had pleural mesothelioma, a disease related to asbestos exposure to which there was no known cure.

Paying excessive amounts for all sorts of treatments, nothing really worked. A whole 12 hours after getting surgery to cut out tumors along his neck and abdomen caused by the cancer, McQueen died of cardiac arrest in in November 1980.

3 River Phoenix

Elder brother to Joaquin Phoenix (and the other three Phoenix brothers), River Phoenix was a star at an early age, becoming a child actor at the age of ten.

By the 1980s, Pheonix had become a household name and teen heartthrob, and later made the transition into adult roles quite seamlessly. Phoenix earned multiple award nominations for his work in films like My Own Private Idaho, even getting an Oscar nomination.

Phoenix was something of a partier, however, and when performing with Flea of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at a club owned by Johnny Depp, the actor suffered a drug overdose. Convulsing on the sidewalk outside, unknown to his bandmates, Phoenix couldn’t be resuscitated.

Dying at the age of 23 in November of 1993, Phoenix’s drug overdose isn’t exactly a strange way to go given his Hollywood status. However, technically, Phoenix died of congestive heart failure (brought on by substances) which is rare in someone so young.

2 John Ritter

Fans of Buffy The Vampire Slayer will remember Jon Ritter for his role in the episode “Ted”, where Ritter played a homicidal robot hell-bent on kidnapping Buffy's mom. Ritter, of course, had many other roles on both TV and film, such as Three's Company and Problem Child.

Many millennials will remember Ritter for his role in 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, which starred Kaley Cuoco before her The Big Band Theory fame.

It was during this show's filming that Ritter was diagnosed with an aortic dissection. Essentially a tear in the aorta's wall, Ritter began vomiting while filming, much to the dismay of himself and his fellow actors.

Originally misdiagnosed with a heart attack, Ritter would eventually undergo surgery for the condition truly causing him pain. He died during the operation in September of 2003.

Ritter's final film role was in Bad Santa, which the film dedicated in his memory.

1 Bill Paxton

You may not immediately know Bill Paxton by his name or face, but you definitely know his movies-- the actor has played roles large and small in numerous Hollywood hits. Some of Paxton’s most notable films include The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic, Twister, and, most recently, Nightcrawler.

Paxton also died quite recently, passing on in February of 2017. In truth, Paxton’s cause of death wasn’t all too strange or rare, but no one saw it coming. When getting heat and aorta surgery (on Valentine’s Day, no less), Paxton later suffered a stroke due to complications that occurred.

To commemorate the actor's passing, a large group of storm chasers spelled out Paxton's initials across the "Spotter Network," a system used to track major meteorological events. Apparently real storm chasers are huge fans of Twister.


Can you think of any other actors who have died of rare or sudden diseases? Let us know in the comment section.

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