While I remain inconsolable in the wake of the recent passing of Dame Angela Lansbury, there’s some solace to be taken in news that the actor, who never formally retired, will appear onscreen one final time in Rain Johnson’s forthcoming Benoit Blanc caper Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, which is getting a limited theatrical release ahead of its debut on Netflix in December. Joining her, appropriately enough, will be the late Stephen Sondheim, who also filmed a cameo (Sondheim, of course, gave Lansbury one of her most iconic stage roles as Mrs. Lovett in the original Broadway production of Sweeney Todd.)
Posthumous film appearances often impart unintended notes of tragedy, whether because the performers in question have gone before their times or, in some cases, were taken by accidents or negligence during production. It’s far easier to see last roles like those of Lansbury and Sondheim, who died at the ages of 91 and 96, as final farewells from talents who kept working (happily, it seems) until the very end. We should all be so lucky. Here are 18 memorable performances from actors who died before the films were released.
Rudolph Valentino in Son of the Sheik (1926)
One of Hollywood’s earliest male megastars and the template on which later sex symbols were built, Valentino’s shocking death at only 31 (from complications related to misdiagnosed ulcers) sent filmgoers into hysterics: around 100,000 people lined Manhattan for his funeral, and riots occurred when fans were barred from the funeral home. A publicity stunt involving a black-veiled woman mysteriously delivering flowers to his grave has become a still persistent annual tradition. In his last role, he reprises his character from 1921’s The Sheik, and also plays the titular son of that character. After a couple of relative flops, this film was meant to be a comeback for the actor, and the gambit likely would have worked. (Technically, Son of the Sheik premiered in a limited capacity shortly before the actor’s death, but the general release followed his funeral.)
Carole Lombard in To Be or Not To Be (1942)
Carole Lombard had top billing in Ernst Lubitsch’s Nazi-era satire, a film that generated controversy upon its release, but which has since justifiably become regarded as among the best work that Lombard, Lubitsch, or co-star Jack Benny ever did. Nevertheless, it is a picture tinged by tragedy: Returning from a war bond tour, Lombard, then just 33, died in a horrific plane crash in a remote part of Nevada.
James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
American teenage culture was just coming into its own in the 1950s, and no actor captured the zeitgeist quite like James Dean, who somehow appeared in only one film role of any significance (in East of Eden) before his death at 24 in a road racing accident. The future looked bright, but not for long; that role earned him an Oscar nomination, but death moved on Dean quickly; even that very first nomination wound up being posthumous. Two classics were released after his death: Rebel Without a Cause, which solidified his place as a hero to white, suburban teens of the 1950s; and Giant, which earned him a second posthumous Oscar nomination. Though he certainly would have had more great performances ahead of him had he lived, in death, he became a Hollywood legend.
Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1957)
What probably seemed like a tragicomic ending to Lugosi’s career took on new dimensions with the release of Tim Burton’s quirky biopic Ed Wood, which cast Martin Landau as cinema’s most memorable Dracula and dramatizes, in part, the making of Plan 9, infamously regarded as the worst movie ever made (it isn’t). In the years since, Ed Wood’s magnum opus has become a midnight movie staple that defines “so bad it’s good.” Lugosi died partway through the production, and his scenes were completed with the help of the director’s wife’s chiropractor as a stand-in; never mind that he bears not the slightest resemblance to Lugosi.
Clark Gable in The Misfits (1961)
Nearly two decades after his wife Carol Lombard’s tragic death just prior to the release of To Be or Not to Be, Clark Gable died of complications from a heart attack just two days after he completed filming on John Huston’s unconventional western The Misfits. And, like that earlier film, it wasn’t terribly well appreciated in its time but is now seen as a classic, featuring impressive performances from Gable and co-stars Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe. Written by playwright Arthur Miller, who was then married to Monroe, it was also her final completed film project.
Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
Golden-age Hollywood legend Spencer Tracy died just over two weeks after the completion of filming on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, though a lifetime of hard living had seen him in failing health for years before that — even though it wasn’t known widely, some (including Sidney Poitier) doubted whether he’d be able to finish the picture. Though the movie has developed a mixed reputation over the decades, the story of two ageing liberals confronting a changing world is more thoughtful than the simple morality tale that it’s sometimes taken for. The movie earned Tracy his ninth Oscar nomination, a number equalled only by Laurence Olivier and never yet beaten.
Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973)
One of the greats among martial arts films, and wildly influential in the genre despite having an American director, Enter the Dragon was poised to make actor/martial artist/fight choreographer Bruce Lee an international star. Indeed, it wound up being one of the most successful films of 1973, both in the United States and internationally. Tragically, Lee died just about a month before the film’s release; there’s a bit of mystery surrounding his exact cause of death, but seems to have been a combination of cerebral swelling due to heat exhaustion and an allergic reaction to a common painkiller. Enter the Dragon was such a hit that the actor has since become nearly synonymous with both martial arts and the genre he unwittingly popularised.
John Cazale in The Deer Hunter (1978)
Brilliant character actor John Cazale had one of the best runs in Hollywood history. He appeared in exactly five films, each one a masterpiece, and each one nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (three of them won). He’s probably most memorable as ill-fated middle Corleone brother Fredo in the first two Godfather movies, but key roles in The Conversation and, especially, Dog Day Afternoon cemented his reputation. He chose to complete The Deer Hunter even after a terminal lung cancer diagnosis, and director Michael Cimino and co-stars Meryl Streep and Al Pacino threatened to leave the picture if the studio didn’t keep him on. He died at 42, shortly after photography was completed.
Vic Morrow in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Killed while filming a helicopter stunt under highly questionable circumstances, veteran character actor Vic Morrow died alongside two child actors (Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen) who shouldn’t have been on the set of director John Landau’s infamous segment of the TV series adaptation to begin with. Litigation around the deaths lasted for well over a decade, with Landis’ reputation taking a justifiable hit for his role in the incident.
Natalie Wood in Brainstorm (1983)
A fascinating mixed-bag of a science fiction movie, Brainstorm was already seen as a troubled production by the time, late in 1981, when lead Natalie Wood died under circumstances that still remain mysterious, to say the least — fairly or not, Wood’s death is seen as one of Hollywood’s legendary unsolved mysteries. The studio pulled the plug on special effects maestro Douglas Trumbull’s picture, but eventually reversed course, allowing the director to complete the film with a little help from Wood’s younger sister, Lana. Released two years later, the film opened to mixed reviews and middling box office, but the performances of Wood, Christopher Walken, and Louise Fletcher were well received.
Richard Burton in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)
Seen alternately as one of the greatest performers of his generation and as an actor whose substance abuse problems and heavy smoking robbed him (and us) of even greater performances. By his early 40s, Burton’s health was already in deep decline; he died at 58 just a few months before the release of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which he plays O’Brien, the main antagonist of both the film and George Orwell’s novel. The movie was dedicated to his memory, as was one another final project: Ellis Island, a CBS TV miniseries that earned him a Supporting Actor Emmy nomination.
Brandon Lee in The Crow (1994)
Legends upon legends developed around the tragic death of Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow, and it’s not hard to understand why: Twenty years after his father just before the release of Enter the Dragon, Brandon was killed in an accident involving a prop gun improperly handled by the crew (a topic very much in the news over the last year). The resulting film, about a murdered musician who returns from the grave to avenge his own death (and the murder of his love), has an unfortunate synchronicity; regardless, it was easy for a generation of goth kids to mourn and romanticize Brandon Lee’s death on the cusp of his big break-out.
Tupac Shakur in Gridlock’d (1997)
Tupac’s transition from rap icon to movie star was well underway at the time of his Las Vegas murder. He had three major films (Bullet and Gang Related being the other two) in the works at the time, all of them released posthumously. Gridlock’d is the best of the three, and Tupac gives a charismatic performance, deftly navigating the movie’s tragicomic tone.
Laurence Olivier in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
This wasn’t the first time actors had made posthumous appearances in films they didn’t actually act in: Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid saw several classic Hollywood film stars put in a appearances alongside Steve Martin, but all of them via fairly obvious older footage. Here, Sir Laurence Olivier was resurrected to be the film’s main antagonist through a combination of archive film of the star and the use of CGI and a voice double. It was nice to see Olivier back on screen 13 years after his death, but the trick raised questions about acting and agency that we’re still grappling with.
Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was the rare superhero film (certainly up until that point) to be equally welcomed by both critics and fans as something beyond typical summer popcorn fare. Heath Ledger, playing Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker, had a lot to do with that, his performance imbuing the four-colour character with genuine menace. He received a posthumous Supporting Actor Oscar for the performance, a feat pretty much unheard of for a fantasy-ish film. He’d later appear in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus after dying mid-way through production; the film had to be drastically reworked, with three other actors (Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law) portraying alternate versions of his character.
Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Released in a limited capacity shortly before Hoffman’s shocking death at 46, the John le Carré spy drama A Most Wanted Man was seen by broader audiences a few months after. It’s an exceptional thriller elevated by Hoffman’s lead performance, which is as good as any in his elevated filmography. He made two more posthumous appearances in the final Hunger Games films, but more than that blockbuster trilogy, this one was the real reminder of what we lost when he died.
Paul Walker in Furious 7 (2015)
Though the early Fast/Furious movies toyed with the anthology format, by Fast 7, the core cast/family was in place, led by one-time nemeses Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker). The latter had already filmed much of the seventh instalment of the series when he was killed while riding in the passenger seat of a car going 80 on a Santa Clarita street. Unable to ignore the loss of such a major character, the film employed selective editing, doubling by the actor’s brother, and some CGI trickery to show Brian O’Conner riding off into the sunset at the end. The finale is a little schmaltzy, but effective.
Peter Cushing in Rogue One (2016)
With the news that James Earl Jones is retiring from his Darth Vader job while offering up his voice to be used in perpetuity via recorded clips and artificial intelligence, Star Wars’ journey towards the uncanny valley will soon be complete. We recently met a remarkably life-adjacent younger Luke Skywalker in The Book of Boba Fett, recreated via face replacement technology in ways that almost made us feel as though we weren’t looking at a soulless reanimated doll. But I digress; Mark Hamill is thankfully still with us. Disney’s first attempt at recreating an old and/or dead character in their prime was an unlikely one: The prequel Rogue One brought us new scenes with Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, the secondary villain of 1977’s Star Wars. The effect isn’t entirely convincing, especially a few years on, but Cushing’s distinctive look and gaunt visage were always slightly uncanny, and the film employed an actor (Guy Henry) to act and voice the part, giving him a major post-production digital makeover. That hint of humanity makes a huge difference.