Very few celebrities remain consistently popular for years and years. Most have as many valleys as they do peaks, and often find themselves having to fight to regain their previous level of success and/or popularity prior to the lull they found themselves in– possibly even repeating that cycle multiple times during their career.
There are any number of reasons why an actor or musician hits a low point in their career. A box office flop, a poor-selling album, some high-profile personal turmoil, and a series of career missteps are among the most common reasons why a celebrity’s career might fall on hard times. Occasionally, a celebrity just voluntarily takes time off and later decides they want to regain their place in the limelight, taking the risk that their fans might not be willing to wait around for them to return.
For some, the return to prominence is easy– for others, it is a hard-fought battle that they may never win. And as tragic as it is when a celebrity tries and fails to make their big comeback, what it is even more tragic is when someone dies just as their career is rebounding from a slump. As it turns out, it happens more often than you might think.
Here are 15 Stars That Died During Major Comebacks.
15. Chester Bennington
One of the breakout bands of the turn-of-the-century rap-rock/nu metal explosion, Linkin Park was led by two frontmen: rapper Mike Shinoda and singer Chester Bennington. Bennington seamlessly flowed between a gravelly-voiced howl and a more subdued, melodic tone as he delivered lyrics that frequently dealt with themes of anger, isolation, and self-doubt.
Although Linkin Park never went more than a few years between album releases, 2017’s One More Light was seen as a major renaissance, especially for Bennington, who had quit his various side bands to focus on LP again full-time. However, in the middle of the tour supporting One More Light, Bennington took his own life in his California home.
14. James Gandolfini
Few actors get the opportunity to play as meaty a role as conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano, and even fewer are able to do so as skillfully as Gandolfini did. But Gandolfini wasn’t content being a one-trick pony; the actor continued to take on a variety of roles following The Soprano‘s 2007 finale.
Perhaps it was by design, but most of his post-Soprano roles were fairly subdued, with Gandolfini rarely being central character. He certainly wasn’t raking in the awards like he did as Tony Soprano– that is, until 2013’s romantic comedy Enough Said with Julia-Louis Dreyfus. In addition to showing the softer side of his range, Gandolfini earned his biggest non-mafia-related raves with Enough Said and was poised to begin an interesting new phase for his career.
13. Carrie Fisher
Carrie Fisher has actually had a much busier career between Leia portrayals than one might realize, as the actress had been pretty steadily working for the last 40+ years. Following her first break from the hair buns, Fisher went on to appear in such classic films as Hannah and Her Sisters, When Harry Met Sally, and Austin Powers.
With that in mind, it might seem a bit short-sighted to infer that returning to the role of Leia Organa in the latest Star Wars trilogy marked a comeback for the veteran actress. But there are few movie events as huge as a new Star Wars film, and it’s impossible not to view Fisher’s return to her most famous role after over 30 years as a high-profile return to major mainstream cinema.
12. John Ritter
John Ritter was among the short list of celebrities who was, by most accounts, unfailingly kind and generous. It’s tragic enough that a guy as well-liked as Ritter passed away at a fairly young age (54), but what’s worse is that he was just beginning his triumphant return to TV by headlining a hit show for the first time since Three’s Company two decades earlier.
8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, which co-starred past and future TV vets Katey Sagal and Kaley Cuoco, was just hitting its stride when Ritter passed away. In addition, Ritter’s movie career had just begun to pick up steam again, having recently completed a hilarious role in the acclaimed black comedy Black Santa— only to have it all cut short by a misdiagnosed heart condition that came on with almost no warning and killed the actor in a matter of hours.
11. Anna Nicole Smith
For every Pamela Anderson or Jenny McCarthy, there are dozens more Playboy Playmates that are unable to parlay anything beyond being the hot pin-up for that month. Initially, March 1992 Playmate Anna Nicole Smith wasn’t one of the forgotten ones, moving on to being the Guess Jeans girl for a time and appearing in movies like The Hudsucker Proxy and Naked Gun 33 1/3. But Hollywood quickly lost interest and her acting career proved short-lived, as did her legitimate modeling gigs.
In the early-2000s, Smith was the focus of an E! reality show called The Anna Nicole Show, which– although it didn’t portray her in a positive light– was successful in reviving her career. She eventually began to return to the hourglass shape that made her famous, and it seemed like Smith was getting another shot. That is, until she died of a drug overdose in 2007.
10. Lee Thompson Young
While the Disney Channel has introduced a lot of young talent to the world, not all of its child and teenage stars have been able to sustain a career into adulthood.
Originally starring as the titular character in the 1998 Disney Channel original series The Famous Jett Jackson, then-14-year-old actor Lee Thompson Young was off to a strong start. Following his appearance in the movie Friday Night Lights, however, Young’s career seemed to slow a bit as he entered his 20s, with parts largely consisting of single-episode appearances in TV shows.
In 2010, Young finally scored a steady gig as one of the main cast members on the drama Rizzoli & Isles, but during the show’s fourth season, Young took his own life– just as his career was seeming to get back on track.
9. Leonard Nimoy
After 1991’s Star Trek VI, Leonard Nimoy was satisfied with the movie serving as Spock’s final send-off to Star Trek and its fans, so he declined an invitation to cameo in Star Trek: Generations. In fact, Nimoy was essentially done with movies altogether after that, largely only doing voice work on the big screen.
That all changed in 2009 when J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek, and convinced Nimoy to come out of quasi-retirement to reprise his role as Spock once again. In fact, he was the only previous Star Trek actor– of any era– to appear in the film as their original character. It was definitely a huge deal for Nimoy to play Spock again, as the actor had always had a somewhat conflicted relationship with his association with the Vulcan.
Just two years after a cameo in the next Star Trek film, Nimoy passed away due to complications from COPD – he was mourned by friends, family, and fans offscreen and by the crew of the Enterprise on screen in Star Trek Beyond.
8. Whitney Houston
With over 200 million records sold, Whitney Houston is one of the most successful singers of all time. She currently still holds the distinction of being the only artist in history to have seven consecutive #1 songs on the Billboard Hot 100. Houston also had a fairly successful stint as an actress in the mid-90s, including her starring role in The Bodyguard opposite Kevin Costner.
The new millennium saw Houston’s career and personal life take a nosedive, facilitated by her troubled marriage to Bobby Brown. After years of turmoil (including admitted drug use), Houston was finally poised to make a comeback with the release of a well-received new album in 2009 and talk of a return to acting, remaking the 1976 musical Sparkle.
7. Richard Harris
British actor Richard Harris had his critical and commercial peak decades in the ’70s and was just beginning a twilight revival when illness got in the way.
After having garnered most of his acclaim in the late-1960s and early ’70s with roles in Hamlet, A Man Called Horse, and Cromwell. The ’80s and ’90s saw Harris resign himself to much lesser roles in an attempt to at least keep working, until Ridley Scott saved him from completely fading into obscurity by casting him in the Oscar-winning Gladiator in 2000. The following year, the reinvigorated Harris scored the coveted role of Albus Dumbledore in the first Harry Potter film.
It was a role he reprised in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but Harris passed away from complications with Hodgkin’s disease in 2002, before the filming of Prisoner of Azkaban. Still, for many fans, he is the true cinematic Dumbledore.
6. Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes
Every musical group has its stand-out member, be it the one with the most talent or just the one with the strongest personality. It’s debatable who the “best” member of TLC is, but there’s no denying that Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes was the group’s most colorful character.
By the end of the ’90s, the ladies of TLC weren’t getting along so well, with Left Eye seeming to be at the heart of the feud. She even issued a challenge to the other two members of the group via Vibe magazine that all three of them release competing solo albums to see which one did the best (a challenge that was never taken up).
5. Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando is a complicated figure, both one of the most acclaimed actors in Hollywood history and one of the most eccentric. Not coincidentally, the increase in the strangeness of Brando’s real-life behavior directly corresponded to the decrease in the quality of his roles. His involvement with– and absolutely bizarre work on– troubled 1996 movie The Island of Doctor Moreau seemed to seal the deal on how Brando was going to wind down his otherwise celebrated career.
There was just one glimmer of hope that Brando still had good, normal work left in him when he appeared alongside Robert DeNiro and Edward Norton in the 2001 heist thriller The Score. It was his first well-received performance in over a decade.
4. Redd Foxx
While many people’s first and only exposure to Redd Foxx was via his iconic role on groundbreaking ’70s sitcom Sanford and Son, Foxx had already had a successful comedy career that stretched back several decades. However, following his mainstream breakthrough with Sanford and Son, Foxx struggled both professionally and financially.
By 1983, only six years after Sanford and Son went off the air, Foxx filed for bankruptcy in proceedings that lasted all the way to 1989. During that time, he was unable to match the success of his most famous role.
In 1991, he got a hand from pal Eddie Murphy, who created and executive produced Foxx’s big comeback sitcom, The Royal Family. Initial ratings were high and things were looking promising for Foxx, but he ended up suffering a fatal heart attack on the set of the show after having only filmed seven episodes.
3. Larry Hagman
Actor Larry Hagman actually had two pretty substantial comebacks during his 60+ year career– and both of them involved the same character and television franchise.
Following his first breakout role, as Major Nelson on the sitcom I Dream of Jeannie, Hagman had largely settled into smaller supporting roles for much of the ’60s and ’70s. It wasn’t until he took on the role of oil baron J.R. Ewing in prime time soap opera Dallas in 1978 that he had his second career renaissance. Hagman would play J.R. in various capacities all the way through the 1998 TV movie Dallas: War of the Ewings.
Again, Hagman’s career cooled– until, again, J.R. came calling. In 2012, Dallas was revived, and so was J.R. and Hagman’s portrayal of him. Unfortunately, Hagman died during the production of the new series’ second season, and J.R. was finally put to rest.
2. Heavy D
When Heavy D appeared on Janet Jackson’s 1989 single “Alright” it was one of the first times that a rapper was featured in a pop single, making Heavy D far more influential than many people realize. He would grow his success through the ’90s with hit songs like “Now That We Found Love” and “Nuttin’ but Love” with his group Heavy D & the Boyz. Heavy also had a respectable acting career, even landing a role in the acclaimed, Oscar-winning drama The Cider House Rules near the end of the decade.
After that, things slowed down considerably for Heavy, until he decided to revive both his music and his acting career in 2011 by appearing in Tower Heist, putting out a new solo album, and performing on TV for the first time in 15 years– a performance that would be his last. He died less than a month later of a heart attack.
1. Michael Jackson
Not since fellow musical “king” Elvis Presley’s celebrated ’70s revival had a once-great artist fallen on harder times and was more poised for an epic comeback than Michael Jackson circa the ’00s. Jackson made it clear during the 2009 press conference announcing the upcoming shows that they would be his last, and that he was going to be done with performing– and presumably, music in general– after the shows were over. The title of the mini-tour was to be “This Is It,” which turned out to be chillingly prophetic.
As it turned out, Jackson’s last concerts were already behind him, as the rigors of preparing for a multi-million dollar stage show got the better of him and he died from a bad reaction to improperly-diagnosed drugs that were reportedly for helping him sleep.
The footage recording during the rehearsals for the shows were edited together and released as the 2009 documentary This Is It.
Share your favorite memories of these stars in the comments.
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