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11 Actors Who Died While Filming Movies — And How The Movies Got Finished

The show must go on.

1. Heath Ledger and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus:

Lion's Gate/Sony

When Heath Ledger, 28, died of an accidental overdose on Jan. 22, 2008, in the middle of filming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, director Terry Gilliam thought the production was certain to be shut down.



Soon, though, Gilliam came up with a clever idea. What if — since the movie involved Ledger’s character taking people through a magical mirror into a dream world — Ledger’s character changed his appearance every time he entered the dream world? Gilliam reached out to Ledger’s friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, and they all agreed to play the dream world versions of Ledger’s character.

The addition of these stars made finishing the film — and keeping the financing — possible. 

Gilliam told Entertainment Weekly, “We’ll never know what the movie would’ve been like with Heath playing all of it, but what we have is magical.”

2. Chris Farley and Shrek:

Paramount, Universal

We all know Mike Myers as the voice of Shrek, but originally Universal hired a different Saturday Night Live funny man, Chris Farley. Farley worked on the film for over a year and had completed 80-90% of Shrek's lines when he died of a drug overdose at age 33 on Dec. 18, 1997.

Co-screenwriter Terry Rossio was a fan of Farley's performance as Shrek, writing, "What struck me most seeing him work was his willingness to reveal himself, lay himself out bare, over and again, for the sake of his performance."

Nevertheless, rather than attempt to complete the film with Farley's audio (and, perhaps, an impersonator completing the missing lines), Universal recast the role. In came Myers, who had the script reworked to fit his comedy persona.

Farley's brother, Kevin, said, “The studio needed to do what they needed to do. It was a bad time, bad timing…a tragedy. Mike did a great job with Shrek. He knocked it out of the park.”

3. Paul Walker and Furious 7:

NBC/Universal

When Paul Walker, 40, died in a car accident on Nov. 30, 2013, it left The Fast and the Furious franchise without a key star in the middle of production on a sequel expected to make hundreds of millions of dollars.

Despite the huge stakes, the studio suspended production and, while mourning Walker, left the film's future up in the air. Director James Wan told BuzzFeed, "I actually want to give credit to the studio for not jumping at that. Because they were just as shocked. They truly loved Paul. It hit everyone really hard. We truly did not talk about finishing the movie until Paul was buried and we had a memorial for him. It was in the following weeks that we started thinking if this was something that we could actually finish without him."

The challenge of finishing a film of this size without its star was incredibly daunting, but the ingenuity of Wan and his team made it possible. First, they poured over every bit of footage (including outtakes) that they had of Walker from all of the films. They then used the footage to create a bible of Walker's facial expressions in different situations that the visual effects artists could reference when creating CGI of Walker.

They also hired Walker's two brothers as stand-ins to many scenes (with Walker's face often digitally superimposed over theirs) and to do some line readings. In some instances, a line would be half said by Walker, and half said by one of his brothers. The screenwriters also rewrote the ending to complete Walker's story arc so the franchise could continue without him.

All in all, the film was delayed a year and the budget ballooned by tens of millions of dollars, but it was worth it, as Furious 7 acted as a fine tribute to Walker and became the most successful film in the franchise, grossing upwards of $1.5 billion.

4. Don Rickles and Toy Story 4:

Robert Mora / Getty Images, Pixar/Diseny

Legendary comedian Don Rickles had signed on to reprise his role as Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story 4, but had yet to record any dialogue when he died at 90 of kidney failure in April 2017. However, when Rickles' family asked if there was any way he could still be included in the sequel, the filmmakers got creative.

Director Josh Cooley told Entertainment Weekly, "We went through, jeez, 25 years of everything we didn’t use for Toy Story 1, 2, 3, the theme parks, the ice capades, the video games — everything that he’s recorded for Mr. Potato Head. And we were able to do it. And so I’m very honored that they asked us to do that, and I’m very honored that he’s in the film. Nobody can replace him.”

5. Jean Harlow and Saratoga:

MGM

In 1937 Jean Harlow was a world-famous actor and sex symbol — and only 26. Sadly, she died suddenly and shockingly of kidney failure while filming Saratoga with Clark Gable.

The studio originally planned to reshoot her role, but decided against it when her fans complained. They ended up finishing her remaining scenes with doubles who were shot from behind or with costumes obscuring their faces. Paula Winslowe also overdubbed an impersonation of Harlow's voice when necessary.

The film was rush-released just seven weeks after her death, and — likely buoyed by her mourning fans — went on to become one of the year's biggest hits.

6. Phillip Seymour Hoffman and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2:

Lions Gate

When Academy Award winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman, 46, died of a drug overdose on Feb. 2, 2014, he was in middle of filming the franchise finale The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. There were a fair amount of scenes with Hoffman's character Plutarch Heavensbee still to be shot — including an important emotional moment with Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss — but director Francis Lawrence decided that, instead of trying to fake as much of his performance as possible with CGI and other digital trickery, he would scale back Plutarch's role.

As a result, that emotional scene with Katniss was changed to have Plutarch's words read from a letter by another character. And, while the character plays a sizeable role in the book's ending, the filmmakers changed the film's ending to be less Plutarch-focused.

Director Lawrence told The Guardian, "There’s not quite enough of him in it. I would have liked his role to be larger.”

7. Vic Morrow and Twilight Zone: The Movie:

Warner Bros.

In 1982 Warner Bros. had high hopes for their big-screen remake of the classic TV series The Twilight Zone. The plan was to tell four separate stories — each directed by a different director — and they'd landed top directors Steven Spielberg and John Landis to helm two of them.

Landis' segment was about a racist white man played by 61-year-old Vic Morrow who gets zapped through history into the lives of persecuted people of color. He finds himself being hunted by Nazis in Germany, chased by the Klan in the South, and then fleeing US soldiers in Vietnam.

Horrifically, while shooting the Vietnam segment on the last day of production, Morrow and two child actors, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, died when a stunt helicopter pilot, disoriented by pyrotechnics, crashed atop the actors.

Despite the horrific tragedy, a decision was made to finish the film and put it out as a big summer release. To do this, Landis excised the scene involving the helicopter. This made the Vietnamese part of the story shorter, but still functional.

While it was later found the production ignored child labor laws, Landis and other members of the production team were acquitted of manslaughter charges. The families of the victims later settled lawsuits against the studio and filmmakers for an undisclosed amount.

8. Bruce Lee and Game of Death:

Golden Harvest

In the fall of 1972, Bruce Lee began filming Game of Death and completed a fight scene with 7-foot-2 basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Soon, however, he was offered the chance to star in Enter the Dragon, a Warner Bros. film, and Game of Death went on hiatus to allow him to film the latter.

Six days before the release of Enter the Dragon, a 32-year-old Lee was discussing the resumption of filming of Game of Death when he fell ill. He later died at the hospital (likely from cerebral edema). 



Enter the Dragon became a huge success upon its release, so the Game of Death producers sought to complete the movie. It took a while, but in 1978 they hired director Robert Clouse to finish the film. To do this he enlisted two stand-ins to play Lee’s role. Since they looked nothing like Lee, they spent much of the film wearing disguises, like large beards or sunglasses. Clouse also occasionally spliced archival fight footage of Lee into fight scenes, and, shockingly, even included footage of a dead Bruce Lee in his open casket at his funeral in a scene where Lee’s character fakes his death.

While some found this completed version of Game of Death distasteful, it was generally successful, both at the box office and with critics.

9. Brandon Lee and The Crow:

Miramax

Eerily, Bruce Lee’s son, Brandon, is also on this list. The younger Lee was playing the title character in The Crow about a rock musician brought back from the dead to avenge his and his fiancé’s murder. On March 31, 1993, he filmed the scene where his character was to be shot and killed. 
Tragically, a series of mistakes by the production team lead to the 28-year-old star being shot with the remnants of a real bullet instead of a dummy cartridge. Cameras were rolling when the actor fired the gun, fatally wounding Lee.



Paramount decided against proceeding with the film, but Miramax picked it up — and added $8 million to help finish the production. After some rewrites, Lee’s remaining scenes were completed using a stunt double and CGI effects. The Crow’s long hair — and the dark, grimy nature of the film's cinematography — helped make this subterfuge convincing.



The film was a hit and spawned a sequel, this time with The Crow played by Vincent Pérez.

10. Oliver Reed and Gladiator:

Dreamworks/Universal

Gladiator was a huge success — winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards and grossing $460 million worldwide — but it ran into serious trouble when costar Oliver Reed, 61, died of a heart attack before completing his character's climactic scene, where he helps Russell Crowe's Maximus escape prison.

The production team originally discussed reshooting all of Reed's scenes, but doing so would have been incredibly expensive and might not have even been possible as they shot his scenes on location. So instead, they set out to somehow create a sequence that resolved Reed's character and freed Maximus.

After looking through every bit of footage shot of Reed, they found enough reaction shots and stray bits of dialogue that, when altered with digital effects and combined with new footage of Reed's double and Crowe, were turned into Reed's brilliant final scene seen in the movie.

This documentary (go to 10:47) explains how they pulled it off.

11. Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker:

Disney

After having killed off Harrison Ford's Han Solo and Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker in episodes 7 and 8, the filmmakers wanted Carrie Fisher, to play a large role as Princess Leia/General Organa in episode 9. Sadly, Fisher, 60, died of a sudden cardiac arrest on Dec. 27, 2016.

Instead of cutting her out of the film, director J.J. Abrams decided to take unused scenes of Fisher from The Force Awakens to create original scenes that could fit into the new film's plot. This took a lot of creative thinking on the part of Abrams and co-screenwriter Chris Terrio. Abrams told Vanity Fair, "We started looking at what these shots were; we started writing scenes around these shots, completely new contexts, new locations, new situation...whenever you see Carrie, we completely constructed, lit, and composed the shots around the original pieces that we had."

A lot of visual effects work was also needed to make the older footage work (one reason among many: Fisher had different hair and costumes in The Force Awakens). In general, Fisher's facial expressions were from actual, earlier footage, but her body and movements were created by CGI.

Love it or hate it, you can't deny the filmmakers succeeded in making Princess Leia a part of the last Star Wars film in the original series.

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