The journey from script to screen is often a long and arduous process which can be hampered by so many different types of creative differences and production problems. However, one of the most difficult situations a filmmaker can ever find themselves in is the untimely death of one of their leading actors. These tragedies can require extensive rewrites, creative editing and even digital special effects to fill the void left by an unexpected death.
10. Natalie Wood (1938 – 1981)
photo: Allan warren / Wikicommons
The death of Natalie Wood is still one of Hollywood’s biggest mysteries. Wood was on a boating trip with her husband Robert Wagner and her co-star Christopher Walken as she enjoyed a production break from filming sci-fi movie Brainstorm. After a night of heavy drinking, Wood’s body was found in the water 1 mile away from the yacht covered in bruises and with an abrasion on her face. Wagner admitted that there had been an argument on the boat but he said he never saw Wood fall overboard. It was claimed that Wood may have slipped into the water as she tried to tie the dinghy to the yacht and her blood levels confirmed that she was intoxicated at the time of her death. For years the death was ruled an ‘accidental drowning’ but in 2011 the case was reopened when the boat captain Dennis Davern came forward and admitted that he had lied to police and that the argument had been much more worse than Wagner had claimed. The coroner’s report changed the cause of death to ‘undetermined’ and the bruising on her body was suspected to have occurred before she entered the water.
9. Heather O’Rourke (1975 – 1988)
One of Hollywood’s most infamous urban legends is the supposed ‘curse’ of the Poltergeist trilogy after four cast members died in unusual circumstances following the release of the first move in 1982. Child actress Heather O’Rourke appeared in all three movies and had finished filming on the third film when she became seriously ill. Medical complications and misdiagnosis led to O’Rourkes condition rapidly deteriorating and she she died on January 21, 1988. Prior to her death, the filmmakers had planned to reshoot the movie’s ending with new special effects so a stand-in for O’Rourke had to be used for reshoots. O’Rourke’s passing also affected the sequel’s marketing and publicity as the studio didn’t want to be seen exploiting the situation and so prevented her co-stars from giving any interviews before its release. .
8. Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967 – 2014)
Philip Seymour Hoffman was on a break from filming The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 when he was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment on February 2, 2014. The investigation reported that the actor had heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamine in his system and that he had been found with a syringe in his arm. Hoffman had admitted in interviews that he had abused drugs and alcohol as a student but entered a rehabilitation program aged 22. He had stayed sober for 23 years but suffered a relapse in 2012 and struggled with his addiction up to his death. Although Hoffman had almost completed his involvement on the blockbuster sequel, Lionsgate Films confirmed that they would be digitally recreating the actor for one final major scene.
7. John Candy (1950 – 1994)
John Candy died of a massive heart attack while filming Western parody Wagons East in Mexico. On the evening of March 3, 1994, Candy returned to his hotel room after an exhaustive day of shooting and called his friends and co-stars before going to bed. The next morning his bodyguard knocked on the door but heard no response. Entering the room he discovered that Candy had died during the night and found him lying half-on and half-off of his bed. Previously shot footage and stand ins were used to finish production on the movie, but most critics agreed that Wagons East was a poor posthumous tribute for the larger than life funnyman.
6. Paul Walker (1973 – 2013)
Paul Walker’s death on November 30, 2013 shocked the entertainment industry. Walker was on Thanksgiving break from Fast and the Furious 7 when he was killed in a car accident in Los Angeles. Walker was heading home from a charity event when the car he was travelling in struck a concrete light pole. The vehicle, which was later found out to have been driving between 80 mph and 93 mph, burst into flames and Walker died from a combination of traumatic and thermal injuries (the driver was thought to have died on impact). Production was delayed until April 1, 2014 to give the filmmakers time to rewrite the script and decide how they could respectfully finish the movie with the footage of Walker they had already shot. It was later reported that Walker’s brothers provided their appearances as stand-ins for the late actor and CGI was being used to respectfully give his character an appropriate exit from the franchise.
5. Vic Morrow (1929 – 1982)
The tragic helicopter crash on the set of the Twilight Zone: Movie led to years of civil and criminal lawsuits as well as new safety procedures being introduced for the movie industry. On July 23, 1982, production was filming on location in California for a scene where Vic Morrow’s character was protecting two Vietnamese children from a U.S. Army helicopter. As the helicopter was hovering a pyrotechnic explosion damaged the aircraft, bringing it crashing down and killing the three actors immediately. Director John Landis and other members of the crew were ultimately acquitted on charges of manslaughter and the families of the three actors received millions in payouts from civil suits.
4. River Phoenix (1970 – 1993)
On October 31, 1993 River Phoenix collapsed outside Hollywood nightclub The Viper Room. The 23 year old actor was convulsing on the sidewalk for five minutes before paramedics arrived on the scene. Despite several attempts at resuscitation, Phoenix was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital and it was revealed that he had significant levels of cocaine and morphine in his system. The actor had returned to LA from Utah to finish production on Dark Blood but there was still three weeks of shooting left. With too many important scenes left to shoot, production on the movie was cancelled. However, director George Sluizer kept hold of the footage, adamant that it could be finished. Dark Blood finally received its international premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2012 with Sluizer narrating the significant gaps in the movie with scene descriptions.
3. Oliver Reed (1938 – 1999)
Hollywood hellraiser Oliver Reed died on May 2, 1999 while on a filming break from Gladiator. Well known for his binge drinking and alcoholism, Reed collapsed from a sudden heart attack during a session where he was said to have drunk three bottles of Captain Morgan’s rum, eight bottles of German beer and numerous doubles of Famous Grouse whiskey and Hennessy cognac. The actor still had a significant amount of shooting left to complete on Gladiator, but director Ridley Scott was hesitant to reshoot his scenes with a new actor. Re-editing, stand ins and even a complete 3D CGI mask of Reed’s face was needed to complete his scenes and the script was rewritten so that his character was killed (he survived until the end of the movie in the original script).
2. Brandon Lee (1965 – 1993)
One of the most tragic on set accidents in movie history occurred during filming of gothic supernatural thriller The Crow. On March 31, 1993, lead actor Brandon Lee was shooting a scene which required him to be shot at with blanks, but the prop crew failed to notice that a dummy bullet fragment from an earlier scene was left in the barrel. When the gun was fired, the blank forced the dummy bullet out with the same force it would a live bullet. Lee was rushed to hospital where he underwent six hours of surgery but all attempts to save him were unsuccessful. Production was immediately halted and distributor Paramount backed out over the controversy of Lee’s death. However, Miramax stepped in and offered the filmmakers $8 million to complete the movie. The Crow was rewritten to add new structure to the story and Lee’s scenes were completed thanks to the use of body doubles and digital composition.
1. Heath Ledger (1979 – 2008)
Heath Ledger was found dead in his Manhattan apartment on 22 January, 2008 from a suspected drug overdose. A toxicology report later confirmed that he accidentally taken a lethal dosage of prescription medications. Ledger had been in the middle of filming The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus and had returned to New York while the production moved from London to Vancouver. News of Ledger’s death disrupted production but director Terry Gilliam was determined to salvage his final performance. Enlisting the help of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell (all friends of Ledger), Gilliam combined existing footage of Ledger with the new performances to show his character transforming as he travelled through the film’s fantasy dreamland. The filming was said to be a positive experience, allowing the cast and crew to dedicate their efforts in Ledger’s memory.