13 Actors Who Tragically Died While Filming Their Last Movie, And The Stories About What Happened

1. Chris Farley: Shrek

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What happened:

Farley died on Dec. 18, 1997, of an overdose of cocaine and morphine and was found dead on the floor of his apartment in Chicago. He was 33 years old.

At the time, Farley had been recording dialogue as the titular character in Shrek. According to Yahoo Entertainment, “The Saturday Night Live and Tommy Boy star had recorded nearly all of Shrek’s dialogue before he died.” However, with Farley’s death, Dreamworks Studios decided to recast the role with Mike Myers. “The (original) concept was the Shrek character was a little bit more like Chris, like a humble, bumbling innocent guy,” said Chris’s brother, Kevin Farley.

You can see “lost footage” of Chris Farley’s recordings for Shrek here:

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2. Heather O’Rourke: Poltergeist III

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What happened:

O’Rourke died on Feb. 1, 1988, at the Children’s Hospital and Health Center in San Diego, California, as the result of an acute bowel obstruction, complicated by septic shock. She was 12 years old.

According to the New York Times, she had “undergone surgery for the obstruction, which was congenital, after an emergency flight to the hospital from another hospital in the area.” Although O’Rourke had finished shooting principal photography for Poltergeist III, the film was still in post-production at the time of her death. According to Screen Rant, director Gary Sherman “was informed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (the studio) that they were contractually obligated to finish the film. [Sherman] and crew members fought against having to continue filming without O’Rourke. Sherman expressed that it felt disrespectful towards her family and her recent passing. Regardless, MGM insisted that they cast a body double. Due to their contract, Sherman had no choice but to oblige. A body double was hired, the film wrapped, and a card at the end of the credits dedicated the film to O’Rourke.”

You can see the ending of Poltergeist III here:

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3. James Dean: Giant

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What happened:

James Dean died in a car accident on Sept. 30, 1955, in Southern California. He was 24 years old.

According to the BBC, “The actor was behind the wheel of his German-made Porsche sports car when it was involved in a head-on collision with another car 30 miles (48 km) east of Paso Robles.” Dean had recently finished filming for the upcoming film Giant. However, according to the book Ferber, A Biography of Edna Ferber and Her Circle, “Dean never completed his work on Giant. His scenes on camera were in the can, but since one of them in particular was inaudible, he was scheduled to come back for looping — a post-production technique that involves dubbing in clarified dialogue to match the picture. Dean was not available to do this for one of his key scenes. It was the banquet speech. … George Stevens and William Hornbeck, the film editor, recruited Dean’s former roommate and best friend, a young actor named Nick Adams, to complete the vocal role of Jett Rink (Dean’s character).”

You can see the banquet scene from Giant here:

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4. Natalie Wood: Brainstorm

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What happened:

Natalie Wood died on Nov. 29, 1981, drowning off the coast of Catalina Island, California. She was 43 years old. 

The circumstances around Wood’s death have been filled with many mysteries, and recently, in 2018, her widower, Robert Wagner, was named a person of interest in the ongoing investigation. At the time, Wood had been in the process of filming a movie called Brainstorm. (It’s worth noting that part of the mystery around Wood’s death relates to her Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken, who played her husband in the film and allegedly became “emotionally close” to Wood while filming.) Walken was on the boat with Wood and Wagner at the time of her death. Wagner claims that he “had an argument with Walken about Wood” on the boat before Wood “excused herself and then went missing.” 

Although Wood’s part in Brainstorm was “already in the can” when she died, Wood’s sister Lana stood in for a few “long shots and shaded profiles” to help complete the film. Despite this, the studio still tried to shut the film down. According to the New York Times, “MGM wanted to jettison the project at that point, and [Doug] Trumbull (the director) faced tremendous resistance from the studio as he struggled to complete the film. In the end, Mr. Trumbull emerged victorious from his battle with MGM executives, and Brainstorm finally opened in New York…two years after filming began.”

You can see the ending of Brainstorm here:

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5. River Pheonix: Dark Blood

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What happened:

Phoenix died on Oct. 31, 1993, from “acute multiple drug intoxication involving lethal levels of cocaine and morphine” outside the Viper Room nightclub in West Hollywood, California. He was 23 years old. 

According to Variety, Phoenix had “approximately a month of filming left to go on Dark Blood at the time of his death; upon completing that film, he was scheduled to play the reporter in Interview With the Vampire.” That role, of course, ended up being played by Christian Slater. After a long battle surrounded by controversy (director George Sluizer said he had received a letter from Phoenix’s mother asking him to abandon the project), Dark Blood was eventually completed and released in 2012.

You can see the trailer for Dark Blood here:

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6. Aaliyah: The Matrix Reloaded

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What happened:

Aaliyah died on Aug. 25, 2001, alongside eight other passengers in a small plane crash in the Bahamas. She was 22 years old.

The Matrix Reloaded had started filming in March 2001, and Aaliyah had been cast as Link’s (Harold Perrineau) wife, Zee. According to Screen Rant, at the time of her death, Aaliyah had already filmed her scenes for Reloaded, but because Reloaded and Revolutions (the third Matrix film) were filming back-to-back, Aaliyah had not yet filmed any scenes for Revolutions. Ultimately, directors Lilly and Lana Wachowski chose to recast Zee with Nona Gaye (daughter of Marvin Gaye) taking over the role.

You can see behind-the-scenes footage of Aaliyah on set here:

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7. Heath Ledger: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

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What happened:

Ledger died on Jan. 22, 2008, in an apartment in SoHo that he had been renting. The New York chief medical examiner ruled that he had died of “an accidental overdose of prescription medications that included painkillers, sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety drugs.” He was 28 years old.

In an Associated Press report, Ledger’s uncle, Neil Bell, said the family was shocked: “He was in good spirits and having a wonderful time on this Terry Gilliam movie (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus).” Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law ended up stepping in for Ledger, playing “transformations” of his character as he travels through a dream world, in order to help complete the film. At the time, Gilliam said, “Each of the parts played by Johnny, Colin, and Jude is representative of the many aspects of the character that Heath was playing.”

You can see behind-the-scenes footage of Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus here:

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8. Philip Seymour Hoffman: Hunger Games: Mockingjay

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What happened:

Hoffman died on Feb. 2, 2014, in an apartment in Greenwich Village that he was renting as an office. According to the New York Times, Hoffman “was killed by a poisonous mix of drugs that included not only heroin but also cocaine, amphetamines, and sedatives.” He was 46 years old.

According to MTV, at the time of his death, Hoffman had “nearly completed his work on the two-part conclusion of the Hunger Games series.” According to the Guardian, “After Hoffman’s death, there was a change to the shooting schedule, giving the cast shorter working days to allow time for mourning. A small amount of digital trickery, using existing footage of the actor, was used to disguise his absence.”

You can see an extended scene with Hoffman from Mockingjay here:

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9. Oliver Reed: Gladiator

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What happened:

Reed died on May 2, 1999, of a heart attack in Malta. He was 61 years old.

At the time of his death, Reed was in Malta working on the film Gladiator. According to the New York Times, “Agence France-Press reported that Mr. Reed fell ill in a bar in Valetta, Malta, accompanied by his wife, Josephine, and friends.” Reed’s remaining scenes for Gladiator were completed using visual effects. According to Looper, “Two scenes were shot which would complete Proximo’s arc. In the first, Proximo visits a jailed Maximus, whose plan to escape and reunite with his still-loyal armies was discovered by Commodus. … A stand-in was used for the actual shoot, then, in post-production, special effects house The Mill used extra footage of Reed to digitally graft the actor’s face onto the stand-in’s body. 

In the second scene, Proximo allows himself to be set upon and killed by the Praetorian Guard while Maximus escapes. For this scene, another stand-in was shot from behind for one portion, while alternate footage of Reed from an earlier scene was digitally edited and inserted into the frame for another.”

You can see “digital Proximo” here:

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10. Brandon Lee: The Crow

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What happened:

Lee died on March 31, 1993, after being shot on the set of The Crow with a gun that was supposed to fire blanks. He was 28 years old.

According to the New York Times, “The tip of a .44-caliber bullet had become lodged in the gun’s barrel in filming a close-up scene and dislodged when a blank cartridge was fired. The bullet pierced Mr. Lee’s abdomen, damaging several organs and lodging in his spine.” 

“After a great deal of soul-searching, (Alex) Proyas (the director) and the rest of The Crow‘s cast and crew arrived at the conclusion that Lee would have insisted that they finish the film,” explained Looper. So, various special effects were used to complete Lee’s work. For example, “For a handful of scenes, including the one in which Eric sports his eerie makeup for the first time … (stunt performer) Chad Stahelski stood in for Lee during shooting.” Then, previously filmed footage of Lee’s face was “digitally grafted” onto Stahelski’s body.

You can see one of the “digitally grafted” faces scenes here:

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11. Bruce Lee: The Game of Death

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What happened:

Lee died on July 20, 1973, at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong after being found unconscious on the floor of his apartment. He was 32 years old.

According to the New York Times, Lee’s “cause of death was thought to be a brain edema, possibly resulting from an adverse reaction to medication.” However, there have been other theories over the years, including one from biographer Matthew Polly who believes that Lee died of heatstroke.

Before his death, Lee had started work on a film called Game of Death, but briefly left to work on his first Hollywood-produced film, Enter the Dragon (which would also become his only Hollywood film). Lee died not long after his return to Game of Death and, according to Screen Rant, “The project was abandoned…but a few years later, Golden Harvest made the decision to release the movie anyway,” even though Lee had only shot about 40 minutes of footage. In order to work around this fact, the film’s story was reworked, actors posed as stand-ins for Lee, and recycled footage from some of Lee’s previous films was used.

The article continued, “In what became a highly criticized move, Game of Death also incorporated footage from Lee’s actual funeral, which is used in a scene where the main character faked his death. Lee’s face in the casket could be seen in one of the shots.”

You can see the Game of Death funeral scene with Lee’s face in the casket here:

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12. Paul Walker: Fast & Furious 7

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What happened:

Walker died on Nov. 30, 2013, alongside friend Roger Rodas, who was driving, in a single-car accident in Valencia, California. He was 40 years old.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, several of Walker’s key scenes had not been filmed by the time of his death. So, Universal (the studio) resorted to visual effects. VFX supervisor Joe Letteri explained, “We didn’t have everything you would have wanted from a reference and research perspective when Universal and the filmmakers regrouped and decided they did want to finish the film and the Paul Walker story.” Walker’s brothers, Caleb and Cody, “allowed us to scan them and work with them in the scenes, it really gave us something as close to Paul as we could hope for. That got us a long way toward being able to create a realistic character and performance.”

In the end, “Roughly 260 shots involved performances by one of the two brothers, whose own faces were replaced by CG versions of Paul’s,” and, “An additional 90 or so shots were completed with outtakes or older footage of Walker that had already been shot.”

You can see a breakdown of the VFX used to complete Walker’s performance here:

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13. Finally, Vic Morrow and child actors Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen: The Twilight Zone: The Movie

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What happened:

Morrow, Le, and Chen died on July 23, 1982, while filming a mock Vietnam battle scene near Santa Clarita, California. Morrow was 53 years old. Myca Dinh Le was 7 years old. Renee Shin-Yi Chen was 6 years old.

Morrow, Le, and Chen were actors in “Segment One” of this anthology film, where Morrow’s character was supposed to save two Vietnamese children in the middle of war. According to Slate, “When the cameras rolled, pyrotechnic fireballs engulfed Dorcey Wingo’s (an actual Vietnam veteran) helicopter, forcing him down into a river where the actors waded. As a hundred or so people looked on, the right skid of the aircraft crushed 6-year-old Renee, who was a few feet from Morrow (the aging star had dropped her). The helicopter then toppled over, and its main blade sliced through Morrow and 7-year-old Myca.”

After this tragic accident, the Vietnam ending was changed to have Morrow’s character return to Nazi-occupied France, being sent off to a concentration camp.

John Landis, who was the director of Segment One, was tried (alongside the film’s unit production manager, special effects coordinator, and the pilot, Wingo) for the deadly accident. All, including Landis, were ultimately acquitted of manslaughter. However, multiple further lawsuits continued. 

You can watch the beginning of Segment One here:

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