Cut Down In Their Prime


John Belushi in his classic Blues Brother costume.

CPO Editor: This article was written in 2009 as you will realize below.

We have all heard the news when one of our favourite actors suddenly and unexpectedly dies, often due to substance abuse, and we are struck by the tragedy and waste of a great light. This article takes a look at some of these events in the movie business.

When things are going great, you are getting spectacular roles, and tons of accolades, it must be a heaven-sent gift to be an actor or actress. But when things aren't going so good, or when tragic events unfold and one of their own is cut down in his or her prime, it must be very painful for actors and actresses to see. It is also painful for the public as well, and we commiserate with the families, feel their loss and call it a deep shame. Not to glorify and sensationalize these deaths, but to help us remember and praise those who were taken from the movie business too soon, we would like to take a look at a few of these actors and the heart-wrenching occurrences.

James Dean had a short but spectacular career and was viewed as a great new actor, the next James Cagney or Humphrey Bogart for instance. The world was stunned in 1955 by his untimely and tragic death. Perhaps in a case where death too closely imitates art, at the young age of 24 Dean died in a car accident only days after completing principle photography on his third major film, Giant. Fifty years after he was killed when a car crossed an intersection straight into his oncoming path, that highway stretch and intersection has been renamed the James Dean Memorial Highway. Furthermore, though it has been more than half a century since his death, Dean is still remembered today for his outstanding portrayals of troubled teen rebel Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause, of loner Cal Trask in East of Eden, and racist oil baron Jett Rink in Giant. Dean was the first person to receive an Academy Award nomination posthumously for Best Actor, for his performance in East of Eden. He also received a posthumous Best Actor nomination for Giant, for both the Oscars and the Golden Globes. He won the Golden Globe award.

John Belushi is another actor whose death stunned the world. In 1982 at the age of 33 he died of a drug-overdose from mixing heroin and cocaine. Only hours before his death he had been visited separately by Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams, but neither had been onsite at the time of his overdose. He was injected with the lethal dose by his friend Cathy Smith, who was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter and served 18 months in prison.

Belushi's career began in stand-up comedy and with the Chicago-based comedy troupe Second City in the early 1970s. He then became one of the founding cast members of Saturday Night Live in 1975. He got his first major movie role in cult favourite Animal House (1978). Other notable Belushi movies were 1941 (1979) and The Blues Brothers (1980), before the final movie of his career, 1981's Neighbours.

Brandon Lee's death was particularly heart-wrenching due to the fact that it was not self-inflicted like a drug-overdose and was completely beyond his control. He died in a freak accident on the set of the movie The Crow in 1993. Lee was 28 and although he was famous for being the son of martial arts film star Bruce Lee, he showed much potential for coming into his own with The Crow.

Like James Dean, Lee starred in only three studio movies before his untimely death. He starred with Dolph Lundgren in 1991's Showdown In Little Tokyo, then he got a lead role in 1992's Rapid Fire, and finally as mentioned, his final role was for 1994's The Crow which had to be completed without him. Many critics felt he was showing great promise as a new action star, but he unfortunately never got the chance to prove it when a blank bullet was accidently substituted with a real bullet and fired at him during the shooting of a scene in The Crow.

River Phoenix, older brother of actor Joaquin Phoenix, also died tragically in 1993 at the age of only 23. He died at the Hollywood night club Viper Room which was partially owned by Johnny Depp until 2004. River died of a drug overdose after mixing cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.

Before his death River had starred in a number of movies beginning with 1985's Explorers and the following year's Stand By Me, and continuing with such notable films as 1990's My Own Private Idaho and 1992's Sneakers. My Own Private Idaho garnered several accolades and won River the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival, and this successful role was beginning to show him as an actor who could easily play gritty roles.

Heath Ledger is another tragic and heart-wrenching death amongst bright young actors. At the age of 28 he died in January 2008 from a lethal combination of prescribed medications. Although there were, and probably still are, views that the doctors who prescribed the medications should be held accountable, official pronunciations on the death have ruled it as accidental and that there is no criminal liability. His death occurred only months after principle photography was completed on the 2008 movie The Dark Knight, in which he played the particularly dark and maniacal role of The Joker. Urban legend has it that he had so many prescriptions for different types of anti-depressants and other narcoutics because he was having a troubling time removing himself from the role of his character in that movie. In November 2007 he said in an interview for the New York Times that he had been having great difficulties sleeping lately... "Last week I probably slept an average of two hours a night. ... I couldn't stop thinking. My body was exhausted, and my mind was still going."

Although Ledger will probably be forever best known for his role in The Dark Knight, he has done some other great work for such a young actor. Ledger began his career with small roles in his native Australia but then landed his first American studio role in 1999's 10 Things I Hate About You. He followed this the next year with a major role alongside Mel Gibson in The Patriot and another alongside Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry in Monster's Ball. In 2005 it seemed Ledger was everywhere, with starring roles in four movies all released that year, Cassanova, , The Brothers Grimm, The Lords of Dogtown and perhaps his best known movie besides The Dark Knight, Brokeback Mountain for which he received numerous nominations including Best Supporting Actor for both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. Then in January 2009 he posthumously won his first Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe for The Dark Knight and the word on the street is he may also win Best Supporting Actor at the upcoming Academy Awards (addendum: Heather Ledger did win Best Supporting Actor at February 22nd, 2009, Academy Awards).

Bernie Mac, while not exactly dying young like the others here, still had a somewhat sudden and unexpected death. He died in August 2008 at the age of 50, from complications brought on by pneumonia. The reason we have added him here is that in a way he was still cut down in his prime, in the sense that it is really only in the last ten or so years before his death that he had become a household name in the movie business and had gotten major roles. Before that he was well known mainly as a stand-up comedian.

It was not until the 2000s with his supporting role in the Ocean's franchise and 2003's Bad Santa, and his lead role in movies such as Mr. 3000 (2004) and Guess Who (2005) that he became better known to the wider public. He also had his own TV show, The Bernie Mac Show (2001-2006) which was popular and won him two Emmy nominations and two Golden Globe nominations as well as a number of NAACP Image Awards.


Reading about the careers and unfortunate deaths of these great actors makes one wish that these kinds of circumstances would not occur, but alas it is a tragic consequence of such a scrutinized, and occasionally difficult and stressful industry, as the movie business.



Addendum: Well, here we are in December 2009 and we have another to add to this list. Brittany Murphy tragically and suddenly passed away at the young age of 32. It is still early days since she was found in her bathroom after an apparent heart attack, and we probably won't know the full details for weeks. Yet eventhough initial findings suggest it was due to natural causes, there are already rumours swirling about heavy drug use, both prescription and illicit. Another bright star snuffed out.


2016 Addendum: Of course unfortunately there have been more sudden deaths of young or younger stars in the last few years. Certainly Paul Walker and Anton Yelchin who both died in car accidents, although in decidedly different ways, can be added to this list.

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