There are many ways filming a movie can go wrong, but an actor dying in the middle of production is probably the worst disaster any movie could face.
Here are the stories of actors who passed away due to accidents, heart attacks and other health issues experienced while they were not yet done with a film project.
Some of the movie roles were recast. Other movies were canned because no workaround was found. In other cases, filmmakers figured out creative ways to complete the movie by incorporating the actor’s death.
Chris Farley died of an accidental drug overdose in 1997 when he was almost done recording the voice of the title character for the animated movie “Shrek.” Fellow comedian and actor Mike Myers, a friend of Farley’s from their “Saturday Night Live” days, replaced Farley in the iconic role of Shrek before the film was released in 2001.
In the process, the character of Shrek himself shifted from an innocent teen to the more dour ogre we know and love.
In 1981, Natalie Wood died from drowning under circumstances that are still unclear while on a yacht with her husband Richard Wagner and Christopher Walken, her co-star in an in-progress film, “Brainstorm.” Wood had finished most of the film before her death and its director was able to eventually finish the movie with some difficulty. It would be her last movie.
The first Albus Dumbledore, famed head of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, was played by Richard Harris in the first two films of the series. But after Harris passed away from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2002, fellow British actor Michael Gambon replaced him in the role for the rest of the “Harry Potter” movies. (Ian McKellen turned down the role first.)
Martial arts movie star Bruce Lee died shortly before his best-known film, “Enter the Dragon,” was released. He was also in the midst of filming the movie “Game of Death.” Lee was only 32 when he died and the cause was attributed to brain swelling and possibly heatstroke.
A version of “Game of Death” was eventually finished after Lee’s passing.
Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon Lee, tragically died on the set of the movie “The Crow.” He was shot with a gun that was supposed to be safely filled with blanks but ended up being “live.” He died from the resulting injuries. Body doubles and special effects helped finish “The Crow” so it could be released.
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffman was an acclaimed actor at the top of his professional game and was shooting a part in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2” when he was found dead of an overdose in early 2014. He had almost finished shooting his part for the film, so the production completed the film by writing him out of certain scenes.
Hoffman is pictured below on Jan. 17, 2014, less than a month prior to his death, promoting the film “God’s Pocket” with the film’s director, John Slattery, and co-star Christina Hendricks.
Paul Walker was 40 when he died as a passenger in a high-speed car crash while in the midst of filming “Fast & Furious 7.” With Walker’s brother as a stand-in and some computer imagery, the franchise was able to write a conclusion to Walker’s character and release the film.
In the movie’s world, he lives on and ends up happily retired with his wife and kids.
In 1994, the 43-year-old comedian and actor John Candy had finished filming his scenes for the comedy “Wagons East,” cooked a spaghetti dinner, called some castmates and gone to bed. The next day he was found dead of an apparent heart attack. Because Candy had shot almost all of his scenes, a body double was used to complete any necessary reshoots in the film.
Clark Gable’s death within days of finishing his last movie “The Misfits” is a touch ironic since his co-star Jean Harlow died during filming “Saratoga” with him. Gable’s death from a heart attack was thought to have been brought on by stress caused by shooting without a stunt double on “The Misfits” set.
Early film star Jean Harlow, who was the first to be labeled a “platinum blonde,” died unexpectedly from kidney failure while filming the movie “Saratoga” with Clark Gable. It was a condition that had gone undiagnosed and untreated up until right before her death.
The movie was finished using a lookalike actress as a body double and another actress for her voice in the small number of scenes that remained after Harlow died.
In 1962, Marilyn Monroe was having ongoing personal and health issues while beginning to film the comedy “Something’s Got to Give” (unrelated to the 2003 film “Something’s Gotta Give”). She co-starred in this remake of 1940’s “My Favorite Wife” with Dean Martin. Monroe was fired from the project before Martin’s protest and new agreement led to her rehiring.
However, Monroe died in August 1962 of an overdose before much of the movie could be shot. The Monroe-starring version was never finished, though some of the film’s sets were reused in the 1963 Doris Day and James Garner version of the film, called “Move Over, Darling.”
River Phoenix was only 23 when he died from a drug overdose outside the Viper Room club in Los Angeles. He had been in the process of filming a role in the movie “Dark Blood” when he died. The film was canned until years later when the original director resurrected it with a voiceover to explain the missing parts that were never filmed. Phoenix’s family was allegedly not happy about the resurrected film.
Oliver Reed was an actor known for drinking and partying. While filming the movie “Gladiator” in 1999 in Malta, he collapsed while out drinking with friends and died soon after. He had filmed much of his part in “Gladiator,” so CGI work and use of a body double helped complete the scenes in which he was featured.
Australian animal expert and “Crocodile Hunter” screen star Steve Irwin died in 2006 while filming a nature documentary called “Ocean’s Deadliest.” He was repeatedly stabbed in the chest by a stingray’s barb and died soon after from the injury.
While that footage of the stingray attack has never been seen publicly, the rest of the documentary was eventually completed and released. Irwin’s wife and kids continue his legacy of working with the animal world.
Bela Lugosi was an early film star most famous for playing Dracula. He died of a heart attack in 1956 during a film collaboration with director Ed Wood, which Wood eventually turned into the film “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”
The 1994 film “Ed Wood” starring Johnny Depp was loosely based on Lugosi and Wood’s film collaborations. And Wood (seen below with Lugosi) did actually use his chiropractor as a stand-in for Lugosi in “Plan 9 from Outer Space” after Lugosi died.
In a shocking on-set accident in 1983, actor Vic Morrow and two child actors were killed while shooting a helicopter scene in “Twilight Zone: The Movie”. The children’s parents and Morrow’s family later won civil suits due to safety issues and violation of child labor laws. The accident led to risk management specialists becoming a regular part of film shoots.
Actor Don Rickles had agreed to be the voice of Mr. Potato Head once again for “Toy Story 4.” Sadly, he passed away at age 90 in 2017 before doing his voice work for the film. With the permission of Rickles’ family, Pixar collected all the recordings he had done as Mr. Potato Head over the years and pieced together dialogue to fit lines in the latest “Toy Story” film.
The fourth film’s director, Josh Cooley said at the movie’s premiere in 2019, “I can only see Mr. Potato Head as Don Rickles doing that voice. I can’t imagine anyone else.”
Tyrone Power had been a Hollywood leading man since the late 1930s. But he died relatively young, at age 44, in 1958 after having a heart attack while filming a sword fight on the set of the epic “Solomon and Sheba.” His actor father had also died of a heart attack. Power had shot much of the movie but his role as Solomon was recast with Yul Brynner of “The King and I” replacing him in the part.
It what seems like a terrible trick of fate, silent film actress Martha Mansfield died from burns she suffered while taking a break on the set of “The Warrens of Virginia” in 1923. Mansfield was wearing a Civil War-era costume with a hoopskirt and many flammable layers when apparently a cigarette butt or match fell onto her costume, igniting it and causing her severe burns. She died at a hospital the next day at age 23.
At the time she was a rising film star, and can be seen here in a movie scene with actor Bela Lugosi (left) who would also die in the middle of filming a movie three decades later.
Aaliyah was a fast-rising singer-actress when she died in a plane crash in 2001 while flying back from a music video shoot (the plane was overloaded on weight). She had been set to act in the two “Matrix” sequels and had filmed part of her role in one before her death. The filmmakers ended up recasting the 22-year-old’s role.
In addition, Aaliyah’s brother dubbed some of her lines from the vampire film “Queen of the Damned,” since the late singer-actress had recorded her part but some lines were hard to understand and needed post-production work she was never able to complete.
Carrie Fisher finished filming her part as Princess Leia in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” before she died unexpectedly in 2016 from a heart attack brought on by an accidental drug overdose. However, she hadn’t started ADR or dubbing for parts of her dialogue in the film that were hard to hear.
“We had to do a lot of sound work and that was kind of tough, but we managed,” said writer-director Rian Johnson in a Rolling Stone interview. “We have a great sound team and we managed to pull her dialogue out and find little snippets from here and there and make it work. You do what you’ve gotta do.”
Heath Ledger was 28 and on the top of his game after just playing The Joker in “The Dark Knight” when he died from an accidental drug overdose in 2008. At the time, he was filming a part in the movie “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” The fantasy film lent itself to multiple actors playing Ledger’s parts, so Ledger’s friends and fellow actors Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell stepped into the role throughout the rest of the film.
One still wonders what the movie might have been like if Ledger had completed it.
British actor Roy Kinnear, who played spoiled Veruca Salt’s father in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” among many other roles, fell from a horse during the filming of “The Last Return of the Musketeers” in 1988. Kinnear broke his pelvis and was taken to a hospital with internal bleeding where he soon died of a heart attack.
His family later won a lawsuit after they successfully argued Kinnear should have had a stunt double for the scene where he had to race his horse. A fellow actor in “The Last Return of the Musketeers,” Oliver Reed, would also die in the middle of filming a movie (“Gladiator”) years later.
In 1955, young, up-and-coming actor James Dean was working on his third film, “Giant,” co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. The 24-year-old had finished shooting all of his scenes for the movie but hadn’t completed post-production voiceover work when he took his new Porsche out and crashed it at high speed, resulting in his death.
To finish “Giant,” his good friend did the voiceover work to dub over one inaudible scene Dean had shot before he died.
This last death stretches the definition of dying during a project, but it is tragic all the same. Heather O’Rourke, who played the little girl who communicated with supernatural forces in the “Poltergeist” films, died during surgery to fix a previously undiagnosed congenital intestinal obstruction a few months before”Poltergeist III” was released in 1988. She was just 12 years old.