People often forget that incredible amount of time and effort go into making a great film, or even a bad one. Everyone on a set has a job to do, and if someone misses a day, it can cost a production millions of dollars.
Imagine what happens then when one of the leading actors actually dies before a movie is finished. Studios take out large insurance policies to cover the possible death of an actor, but even the millions of dollars in compensation can do little to allay the panic and headache of trying to decide how to finish a film without a vital piece. Even more shocking, given the amount of money invested in a movie, directors and studios will often soldier on even without an actor alive to finish the film, seeing it through to release. The final results vary: some make for great cinema, others just make an audience opine for their favorite actor, gone too soon. The films on this list include all varieties, though if nothing else, they provide a final hurrah for a beloved actor.
Here are 15 Movies That Got Made Despite The Death Of A Cast Member
15 Paul Walker, Furious 7
Let’s start with the obvious: the sudden death of actor Paul Walker in 2013 rocked the world, due in no small part to the fact that the actor had just begun filming his scenes for the seventh entry in the Fast and the Furious series. Walker died in a tragic car accident. According to police, he may have been attempting a car stunt known as “drifting”—something often portrayed in the Fast and the Furious movies. Universal put the movie on hiatus as the cast and crew joined Walker’s family in mourning.
After meeting with Walker’s family, Universal decided to complete the film as a tribute to the actor and his character. Production on Furious 7 shut down several weeks to rework the script, and Walker’s brothers joined the film as his stand in. Some shots had the actor’s face digitally inserted onto a body double. The film also included a special montage of Walker throughout the series as a memorial. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it opened to strong reviews and box office.
14 Bela Lugosi, Plan 9 From Outer Space
Opening to far worse reviews than Furious 7, Plan 9 from Outer Space frequently ranks on critics’ lists of the worst movies ever. Some of that is owed to the death of actor Bela Lugosi, who plays the villain of the film.
Lugosi actually died before shooting even began. Director Edward Wood began filming silent footage with Lugosi hoping to use it later, without an actual script in mind. After Lugosi’s death, Wood raised money to complete the film, and wrote a story based on the leftover footage.
For some scenes, Wood used a body double in a toupee with a cape pulled up over his face to stand in for his leading actor. The character had no lines—something which contemporary and modern viewers love to point out. The film continues to have a large cult following, in part because it’s the final, abbreviated farewell from a cinema great.
13 Heath Ledger, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Acclaimed director Terry Gilliam paired with Heath Ledger in 2008 for the semi-autobiographical fantasy The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Ledger’s involvement had been key in producing financing for the film, and the director and actor looked forward to working together. After shooting about a third of his scenes, Ledger died in a tragic drug overdose, leaving the film in limbo. Gilliam expressed a public desire to finish the movie as a final testament to Ledger and his legacy.
Cue Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law—three close friends of the late actor who offered their services to finish the movie and donate their salaries to Ledger’s daughter, Matilda. Gilliam reworked the script so that Ledger’s character would undergo physical transformations to explain his change in appearance. The film proved a worldwide commercial hit, though it earned mixed reviews from critics. In a final note, Gilliam withdrew his “A Terry Gilliam Film” credit, replacing it with “A Film from Heath Ledger and his Friends.”
12 Bette Davis, Wicked Stepmother
Davis had several run-ins with mortality in the last years of her career, often shocking the world by making one comeback after another despite suffering cancer and a stroke. Her last film saw her take on the title role in Wicked Stepmother.
Davis quit the film early on due to her declining health, and director Larry Cohen reworked the script to account for the actresses’ absence. A drag queen came in to dub Davis’s dialogue, and her character transformed into a cat for a large portion of the film. Davis, in fact, lived to see the film released, though she died several months later.
Wicked Stepmother garnered sour reviews from critics and bombed at the box office, though Davis earned positive notices.
11 Peter Sellers, Trail of the Pink Panther
The Pink Panther series had proved box office gold for years thanks to the wonderful pairing of comedy director Blake Edwards and actor Peter Sellers. The two had fallen out, however, and Sellers had planned to make a new Pink Panther film on his own.
Then Sellers died. Studio MGM, anxious for another hit, then turned to Edwards. The director developed an unorthodox strategy: he wrote a script featuring new characters that would integrate outtakes and deleted scenes from previous Pink Panther movies! For some scenes, a stand-in doubled for Sellers as well.
The movie opened to negative reviews, with critics and audiences finding it in odd taste considering Sellers was dead before shooting even started. His estate also sued MGM, and won a $1.4 million lawsuit claiming that it disgraced Sellers’ memory!
10 Natalie Wood, Brainstorm
Special Effects mogul Douglas Trumbull, the genius behind the visual marvels of 2001: A Space Odyssey, decided to finally make his directorial debut with this early-80s sci-fi film. For it, he recruited Oscar winners Louise Fletcher and Christopher Walken, along with acclaimed actress Natalie Wood.
Production had almost wrapped when Walken, Wood and her husband, actor Robert Wagner, decided to take a boat trip one evening. Wood had always had a fear of water and drowning, which made the events of that night even more eerie. During a storm, Wood slipped, fell off the boat and drown.
The studio wanted to cancel the film, but a clause in Trumbull’s contract stipulated that in the event of such an accident, the final decision to proceed rested with him. He opted instead to complete the film using a stand in and a few script rewrites. The resulting movie flopped, and Trumbull’s falling out with the producers also put an end to his directing career.
9 Bruce Lee, Game of Death
Lee died suddenly in 1973 after filming Enter the Dragon. Just prior to shooting that movie, he’d suspended production on another: Game of Death.
Lee had planned to write, direct and star in Game of Death, and had shot about 30 minutes of usable footage before he shut down production. Following his death, Production Company Golden Harvest discovered the footage, and decided to write a new script based around it.
The resulting version of Game of Death met with outrage from Lee’s fans, and from critics. Along with the incomplete footage from the Lee-directed version, the studio also integrated footage from Lee’s own funeral! Nevertheless, it remains popular among the cult of Bruce Lee, and his yellow tracksuit has become his most iconic costume.
8 Oliver Reed, Gladiator
Reed had a reputation as a boozy lothario throughout his long and acclaimed acting career. Taking a role in Gladiator, in which he played a boozy former gladiator, seemed only natural.
Reed reportedly clashed with another on-set lothario, actor Russell Crowe, making his first American star-turn (he’d go on to win an Oscar for the part). Filming lasted five months, and just before he finished his scenes, Reed died of a sudden heart attack.
Director Ridley Scott and writer John Logan worked to revise the script to kill off Reed’s character. For a few remaining scenes, a body double with Reed’s face digitally inserted over his own substituted for the late actor. The film is dedicated to his memory.
7 Brandon Lee, The Crow
The son of screen legend Bruce Lee landed his own star part in The Crow for acclaimed director Alex Proyas. The film would feature a mix of horror and action, and Lee would play a vengeful spirit reborn to track down the men that killed his character.
As a low-budget production, The Crow had to cut several corners in order to have enough funds to complete the film. Production went smoothly until an action sequence shot just three days before Lee would have completed his participation. Though blanks were used for the sequence, one gun still had a bullet still lodged in the barrel, and in a tragic accident, Lee was shot in the heart. He died several hours later.
To honor their deceased friend, Proyas and the crew rewrote several scenes, adding narration to the film and letting a body double stand in for Lee. Some shots also used digital technology to make Lee appear in shot. The resulting film opened to high acclaim and remains a cult favorite.
6 Philip Seymour Hoffman, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay
The world released a collective gasp at the sudden death of Hoffman, thereto known as a wholesome father and Oscar-winning actor. What the public didn’t know was that Hoffman had struggled with drug addiction and relapsed. He died of a heroin overdose.
At the time of his death, Hoffman had agreed to appear in the final entries of The Hunger Games, Mockingjay Part 1 & 2. The actor had only two scenes left to film just prior to his passing. The production compensated by rewriting the sequences to involve other characters, and some digital magic to insert Hoffman into the background in another scene. The film went on to earn over $650 million worldwide, and insured that generations to come would familiarize themselves with an actor gone too soon.
5 River Phoenix, Dark Blood
Phoenix had already earned one Oscar nomination and been declared the actor of his generation prior to his death at age 23. The actor had dealt privately with drug use for several years when he overdosed on cocaine and heroin while visiting a Hollywood nightclub.
Before his death, Phoenix had been shooting an independent film called Dark Blood. With three weeks of shooting left, production had moved from Utah to Los Angeles, and completed about 80% of the movie. Upon Phoenix’s death, the production fell into limbo. Director George Sluzier made it clear he wanted to finish the film, while Phoenix’s family refused their participation. It saw release in 2012 with Sluzier providing some narration to smooth over certain unfinished scenes in its unfinished form.
4 Marilyn Monroe, Something's Got To Give
Monroe had become the biggest sexpot in film history when she agreed to star opposite Cary Grant in the romantic comedy Something’s Got To Give. Unfortunately, she’d also earned a reputation for drug and alcohol abuse.
Monroe filmed several weeks on Something’s Got To Give before her habit of lateness and forgetting lines caused director George Cukor to have her fired. When Monroe fell ill with a sinus infection, the studio complied.
Monroe eventually appealed to her friends in the cast and to Cukor, all of whom relented and allowed for her re-hiring. Unfortunately, she overdosed on sleeping pills before filming could resume, and the movie never saw completion. The footage, however, does survive, and has appeared in several documentaries.
3 David Carradine, Stretch
After Carradine made a big-screen comeback with his acclaimed performance in the Kill Bill movies, he’d begun to get work as a character actor, and agreed to take a role in the French film Stretch.
Filming took place in Bangkok, and just before the production wrapped, Carradine was found dead in his hotel room. Carradine’s family and investigators differ over the cause; some suspect murder, while the death was officially ruled accidental.
As for Stretch, hasty rewrites accounted for Carradine’s absence, and clever editing helped smooth the film over. Carradine’s widow sued and won a wrongful death suit against the production, which finally released the movie in 2011, two years later.
2 Clark Gable, The Misfits
Gable had suffered health problems for years before he agreed to star in The Misfits for director John Huston opposite Marilyn Monroe. The production ran into trouble with Monroe’s on set behavior: she was frequently late and struggled to remember her lines. Part way through production, Huston sent Monroe away to a rehab clinic. After several weeks of detox, she returned to complete her scenes.
Gable, ever the rough and tumble man, had insisted on performing his own stunts in the extreme heat, despite a heart condition. Disagreements with Monroe further aggravated his stress level, and left the actor exhausted. Two days after he completed filming, Gable suffered a massive heart attack and died ten days later. Huston completed the film without further post-production requirements from Gable, and the film opened to glowing reviews.
1 Vic Morrow, Twilight Zone: The Movie
Vic Morrow had long worked as a reliable Hollywood character actor, and earned the reputation as a good father and husband throughout his showbiz career. He agreed to take a role in the big-screen anthology film Twilight Zone: The Movie for a section directed by Jon Landis.
Morrow played a time traveler visiting different eras of war and persecution. One scene required that he carry two small children through a river, while chased by a helicopter with explosions detonating all around them. During filming, one of the explosions detonated too close to the low-flying helicopter, causing it to crash. The blades decapitated Morrow and one of the children, while the other died under the weight of the crash.
Lawsuits and controversy surrounded the film thereafter, including several from the families of the children who claimed to not know that a helicopter would be used in their scenes. Amid the coverage of the trials and accident, the movie opened to mixed reviews. Landis completed his segment with the help of some quick rewrites, and to date, his career has yet to recover.
Do you know of any other actors who died mid-production? Let us know in the comments!
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