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You can find plenty of stories of actors whose one-shining careers went out with a whimper in their final roles. You have others who managed to reinvent themselves before ultimately passing on. But there remains a rare breed of actor who died before their final film was released. Their final film turned into a final tribute.
5) Tyrone Power - Solomon and Sheba
Romantic, swashbuckling actor Power had made a name swinging his sword as pirate or Zorro and had come from a long dynasty of actors. His handsome looks was not a golden ticket, and he had to start with bit parts before working his way up to leading man. It was always his way with a sword rather than he way with words that made him appealing to audiences. Yet his greatest praise was reserved for his more serious roles in top drama movies "Nightmare Alley" and "Witness for the Prosecution". Solomon and Sheba, which Power co-produced, was a typical swords-and-sandals film. However, about 75% through the film, Power was fighting co-star George Sanders when he collapsed from a massive heart attack and died just minutes later. Without the digital magic Hollywood has at their disposal today, director King Vidor did what he saw best - refilmed all of Power's scenes with Yul Brynner and remove his name from the credits. Power can still be seen in long shots, however, and though the film cannot be considered exceptional by any means, it was in line with Power's body of work. This would be Vidor's final film until he directed the documentary short The Metaphor in 1980.
4) Oliver Reed - Gladiator
Before Gladiator, Reed was best known for the villainous Bill Sikes in Oliver! - he was also well known for being a heavy drinker and getting into fights - often hand-in-hand. He narrowly missed replacing Sean Connery as the world's most famous spy James Bond due to negative publicity. In Gladiator he was Proximo ex-gladiator and owner/mentor to Russell Crowe's Maximus. Toward the end of filing, Reed, still living life his way, took to downing rum, whiskey and beer, while arm-wrestling (and beating) members of the Royal Navy before falling to a massive heart attack. In order to finish the film, $3 million was spent to digitally insert Reed's face but Gladiator went on to make $186 million and earn five Oscars - and certainly become one of the top films of not just that year, but one could argue it ranks up there with the best of them. In fact, it is the film responsible from resurrecting the so-called "sword and sandal" genre from B-movie hell. And that is a fitting tribute for anyone.
3) Roy Kinnear - The Return of the Musketeers
While not as famous to American audiences - his most well-known role is probably as Mr. Salt in "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" - Kinnear was famous in Britain and appeared in over 150 titles when he began work on The Return of the Musketeers playing the servant Planchet - a role he originally made famous in a series of Musketeer films in the 70s. During filming, Kinnear was thrown from a horse and suffered a broken pelvis and died in the hospital a few days later. His role was taken over by a double for the remainder of the film. A film that was supposed to be a reunion of sorts for the "Four Musketeers" (including, coincidentally, Oliver Reed - who played Athos) instead turned into tragedy. No one took the actor's death harder than director Richard Lester - best known for Beatles documentaries A Hard Day's Night, Help! as well as Superman II and III - he essentially stopped directing following the accident.
2) Heath Ledger - The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
An actor who dies in the twilight of his career is one thing, but when an actor dies young, it is a whole different story. It's why the name James Dean is still instantly recognizable. Ledger was coming off one of the highest-grossing films of all time, The Dark Knight, where he took the role of The Joker and gave an unforgettable performance. He also went to a very dark place to portray the character and it may have contributed to his death - an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. At the time he was filming Terry Gilliam's Imaginarium, and though he had only filmed a portion of the film, Gillium came up with a way to finished the film and honor the actor - Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Ferrell stepped in to play different version's of Ledger's character and, with the fantasy setting, it worked. As a final gesture, all three actors donated their proceeds from filming to Ledger's and Michelle William's daughter Matilda.
1) Brandon Lee - The Crow
Another case of not only an actor who dies young, but far too soon. Son of actor and martial artist Bruce Lee (who himself died young - before he could enjoy the fruits of success Enter the Dragon brought), Lee was just beginning his film career, having appeared in just a handful of roles before landing the part of Eric Draven aka The Crow in the dark, gothic film. A prop gun loaded with blanks had not been properly cleared from an earlier scene leaving a primer in place. When the prop gun was fired, the primer hit Lee and after several hours in surgery, he was pronounced dead. Though the film was nearly finished, stunt double Chad Stahelski - a friend of Lee's - completed some of the remaining shots with Lee's face being digitally added in some scenes. Actor Michael Massee, who fired the gun in the scene - even though he was not responsible for the prop - took a year off acting and has never seen the film due to the accident. The Crow went on to become a $50 million hit and developed a loyal following amongst audiences. But much like his father, it is the somewhat mysterious circumstances involving his death at a young age that defines his life.
This list is far for inclusive, as there are other actors who never got to finish their final film - from Bela Lugosi, Jean Harlow and John Candy are also part of this dubious club and there will doubtless be more. It's not a morbid curiosity that drives me, but rather an interest in the legacy of the actors.
Chris Kavan is the Community Manager for FilmCrave.com and death is something he never takes lightly.