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17 Unbelievably Tragic Movie Star Deaths In Hollywood History

Deaths that shocked the entertainment world.

1. River Phoenix

River Phoenix with long hair and wearing a flannel. It was the '90s after all.
Nancy R. Schiff / Getty Images

In the '80s, River Phoenix was a rare combination: a teen heartthrob and a deeply talented actor who was expected to become one of the greatest actors of his generation. He made his mark in Stand By Me, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (playing young Indy), and Running on Empty, for which the then 18-year-old earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards.

Sadly, while Phoenix espoused a clean living lifestyle publicly, he privately struggled with drugs. On Oct. 30, 1993, Phoenix went with his girlfriend Samantha Mathis and siblings Joaquin and Rain to the Hollywood club the Viper Room. While there, Phoenix took drugs and soon collapsed outside. He died later that night at just 23. A toxicology report would find cocaine and morphine in his blood.

While Phoenix's tragic death meant he would never go on to become a leading actor of his generation, his brother Joaquin would. In 2020, Joaquin, while accepting the Best Actor Academy Award for Joker, paid tribute to his older brother by quoting one of his lyrics. Later in the year, he and his partner Rooney Mara named their first child River.

2. Sharon Tate

Sharon talking to Roman Polanski in "The Fearless Vampire Killers"
MGM

The Texas-born daughter of an army officer had won beauty contests before settling into Los Angeles and beginning an acting and modeling career. A hesitant actor initially, she cut her teeth on roles on TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies before moving on to more substantial roles in films like Valley of the Dolls (for which she earned a Golden Globe Award nomination). By the end of the '60s, she was viewed as an up-and-coming star with a touch for both comedy and drama.

On Aug. 8, 1969, Tate was pregnant with her first child (the father was her husband, director Roman Polanski). After she and three friends had dinner at El Coyote Mexican Restaurant, they returned to her home in Benedict Canyon. Shortly after midnight, members of Charles Manson's "family" broke into the home and brutally murdered her and her three friends. She was just 26.

3. Chadwick Boseman

Chadwick smiling in a jean jacket
Emma Mcintyre / Getty Images

Chadwick Boseman became a movie star with his moving performance as Jackie Robinson in the hit film 42, and soon went on to play another legend, singer James Brown, in Get on Up. Boseman’s career really took off in 2016, though, when he first appeared as the Black Panther in Captain America: Civil War. Over the next five years, he riveted audiences in films like Marshall, where he portrayed Thurgood Marshall, 21 Bridges, Da 5 Bloods, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and, of course, the blockbuster Black Panther.



Tragically, the start of that amazing run of success coincided with Boseman being diagnosed with colon cancer. Boseman kept his diagnosis private while filming all of these incredible performances, and the world was shocked when it was announced that he'd died on Aug. 28, 2020.

4. Jean Harlow

An image of in a trailer for 1936's "Riffraff"
MGM

Jean Harlow was one of the biggest movie stars to break out in the immediate post–silent film era, and starred in hit after hit in the ‘30s. A sex symbol famous for her platinum blonde hair (she was the first to be called a "blonde bombshell"), she also had serious comedic chops and showed them off in hits like Reckless.

The young star had health problems in 1937 — she contracted influenza and developed sepsis after a wisdom tooth extraction — but she nevertheless was able to start filming Saratoga with Clark Gable in May. She complained of sickness while filming, but the studio doctor didn’t take her sickness very seriously; so she kept working. Sadly, she felt worse and worse, most notably when she had to perform a scene where her character was sick and appeared far sicker than her character was supposed to be.

She finally went home to rest on May 30, but didn’t improve. On June 6, she was raced to the hospital, where she slipped into a coma and died. The cause of death, it turned out, was kidney failure, possibly a result of having had scarlet fever a decade earlier. She was just 26.

5. Chris Farley

Chris Farley trying to make a sale in "Tommy Boy"
Paramount

Chances are that if you were around in the ‘90s and watched Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live or in his films, you absolutely loved him. He was a comedic force — a whirlwind of endless energy hollering and doing pratfalls on stage as Matt Foley, the inspirational speaker who lived in a van down by the river — but also an actor able to convey endearing vulnerability, most notably in his hit film Tommy Boy. Frequent co-star Adam Sandler called him “the funniest man I ever knew.”



Sadly, behind the laughs, Farley struggled with drug and alcohol dependency and went to rehab a number of times. Fans nevertheless were shocked to learn on Dec. 18, 1997, that his brother John found him dead in his apartment from an overdose of cocaine and morphine. He was just 33.

6. Susan Peters

A promotional image of Susan on the beach, circa 1940s
Warner Bros. / Via en.wikipedia.org

Peters had already established herself as one of the finest young actors in Hollywood when, at just 21, she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards for her role in 1942's acclaimed drama Random Harvest. Afterward, her studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer elevated her to the studio's official "star" category, and she turned in a slew of fantastic performances in everything from comedies to war films.



On New Year’s Day in 1945, Peters and her husband were hunting ducks when she reached for a rifle that accidentally fired a bullet into her abdomen. She was raced to the hospital, where she underwent emergency surgery. She survived, but the gunshot left her permanently paralyzed from the waist down.



The years that followed were difficult for Peters. Her beloved mother died, she and her husband divorced, and she left MGM, unhappy with the roles she was offered. She had professional successes — notably playing Laura in a stage production of The Glass Menagerie — but she soon fell into a deep depression and stopped eating and drinking as much as she should. According to her doctor, this hastened her death from a kidney infection (a condition brought on by her paralysis) and pneumonia. She was just 31.

7. Cameron Boyce

Cameron at a premiere wearing a beanie
Tommaso Boddi / Getty Images

Cameron Boyce was one of the Disney Channel's biggest stars last decade, appearing for five years on the comedy Jessie, supplying the voice of Jake on Jake and the Never Land Pirates, and, of course, playing Carlos in the three Descendants movies. His incredible talents weren’t limited to Disney, though. He was also a gifted professional dancer and in 2019 branched out to take a role on HBO’s Mrs. Fletcher. 



Fans were shocked when, on July 6, 2019, the just 20-year-old actor died in his sleep after having an epileptic seizure. Following his death, the Cameron Boyce Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was created to help young people explore creativity as an alternative to violence.

8. Aaliyah

Aaliyah with long hair in front of a colorful background
Dave Allocca / The LIFE Picture Collection via

After spending her teenage years establishing herself as a major recording artist — most notably with the albums Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number and One in a Million, both of which sold over 3 million copies — Aaliyah began her twenties by launching her career as an actor. Her first film Romeo Must Die opposite Jet Li was a hit, grossing more than twice its budget domestically. And critics singled out Aaliyah as the best part of the film. Her next film Queen of the Damned saw her receive top billing.



On Aug. 25, 2001, after completing the filming of a music video in the Bahamas, she boarded a private plane with eight others headed to Florida. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed, killing everyone aboard. An investigation later determined the plane carried more weight than was safe, and it found traces of cocaine in the pilot's body. Aaliyah, who had already become a star of music and the screen in her short life, was just 22.

9. Brandon Lee

Brandon Lee in full makeup and costume as the Crow
Miramax

Brandon Lee had big shoes to fill — his father was legendary martial artist and actor Bruce Lee — but he was on his way to doing just that when his life was tragically cut short. Like his father, Lee was an accomplished martial artist and actor, and had already appeared in the minor action hit Rapid Fire when he was cast in The Crow, a comic book adaptation 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 led 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.



After some rewrites, Lee’s remaining scenes were completed using a stunt double and early CGI effects. The film became a hit upon release largely thanks to Lee's talent and made him a posthumous star. Today, like his father, he is remembered as a star gone too soon.

10. Peg Entwistle

An image of Peg and an old photo of the Hollywood Sign as it was
en.wikipedia.org Getty images

Peg Entwistle was a successful Broadway actor who came to Hollywood in 1932 to try to make it on the big screen. She soon was signed by RKO Studios and made her film debut in the thriller Thirteen Women. Unfortunately, much of her performance was cut from the final film, and, adding insult to injury, RKO declined to renew her contract. So, on the night of Sept. 16, 1932, Entwistle left her uncle’s home, climbed to the top of Hollywood sign, and leaped to her death.

Entwistle’s story has become Hollywood legend — a perfect embodiment of the disappointment and struggle so many who have come to Hollywood have experienced. But according to the biography Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide, she had endured career disappointments before and it's unlikely she killed herself over these recent ones in Hollywood. The reasons for her suicide were more complex and hinted at in her suicide note found at the scene: “I am afraid. I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.”

11. Anton Yelchin

Anton wearing a suit
Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

Yelchin and his family left Russia and came to the United States when he just six months old. His parents — Jewish pair figure skaters – settled into Los Angeles, where Yelchin soon became a child star in high-profile movies like 2001’s Along Came a Spider. He continued acting steadily into adulthood, exuding likable intelligence and empathy. He was most famous, of course, for playing Chekhov in the three most recent Star Trek films.



Horrifically, on June 18, 2016, Yelchin left his Jeep Cherokee parked on an incline and went to check his mailbox. The Jeep rolled down the incline, trapping him against a pillar and security gate. He died from blunt traumatic asphyxia. The model of Jeep Yelich owned was in the process of being recalled at the time of his death due to a confusing gear selector design that made it easy to confuse "neutral" with "park." His family sued Fiat Chrysler and later reached an out-of-court settlement.

12. Naya Rivera

Naya smiling at a Hollywood event
Vittorio Zunino Celotto / Getty Images

Naya Rivera was a born entertainer who was already starring on a sitcom (CBS’s The Royal Family) when she was just 4 years old. It was as Santana Lopez on Glee, though, that she is best remembered. Her depiction of Santana’s journey to accepting her sexual identity was nuanced and emotionally powerful, and she absolutely crushed all the songs she sang along the way (earning her a couple Grammy nominations alongside the rest of the cast).

Unspeakably, on July 8, 2020, Rivera drowned while swimming in California's Lake Piru. Rivera’s 4-year-old son Josey was later found alone in a rental boat on the lake. It is believed Rivera and her son got caught in a rip current, and she expended the last of her energy to lift her son to safety in the boat.

13. Haing S. Ngor

Haing in "The Killing Fields"
Warner Bros / ©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Incredibly, Ngor had never acted before when he was cast in 1984’s The Killing Fields, and his performance won him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. The film was about the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, and part of what made Ngor’s performance so riveting was that he’d lived through it in real life.


Ngor had been in a concentration camp, where he had to hide the fact he was a doctor because the Khmer Rouge regime hated intellectuals and would have most likely executed him if it became known. Horrifically, because of this, Ngor was unable to give his pregnant wife a needed Caesarean section, and she died giving birth in the camp.

 He later escaped to America with his niece.

After the success of The Killing Fields, Ngor started a charity helping orphans and acted in acclaimed films like My Life and Oliver Stone's Heaven & Earth.

 Tragically, in 1996, Ngor was held up by gang members who took his Rolex watch and told him to hand over a golden locket. When he wouldn’t give them the locket (because it included a photo of his deceased wife), he was shot and killed. He was 55.

14. Dominique Dunne

Dominique and the rest of the "Poltergeist" cast staring into a bedroom, scared
Mgm / ©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Dunne quickly won a number of television roles after graduating from high school, but it was her performance as the Freeling family's oldest child in her first feature film Poltergeist that made her a star on the rise. The Steven Spielberg–produced supernatural horror film grossed $122 million and spawned a number of sequels and remakes. Off this success, the talented Dunne won a coveted role in the highly anticipated television miniseries V, but she would never complete it.



On Oct. 30, 1982, a few weeks after Dunne broke up with her abusive boyfriend John Sweeney, Dunne was rehearsing with V co-star David Packer when Sweeney showed up. Dunne agreed to step outside to speak with Sweeney, who attacked her. Later, Packer came outside to see Sweeney kneeling over an unconscious Dunne. When police arrived, Sweeney said, “I killed my girlfriend,” and admitted to choking her.

Dunne never regained consciousness and was taken off life support a few days later. She was only 22. Sweeney was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served only three and a half years in jail.

15. Sal Mineo

A promo shot of a smiling Sal
Courtesy Everett Collection

The iconic 1955 teen film Rebel Without a Cause famously made a star of James Dean (another Hollywood star tragically lost too soon), but it also launched the career of Sal Mineo (and earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Academy Awards). He went on to star with Dean again in the acclaimed Giant, and even had a brief yet successful recording career, releasing the hit song "Start Movin' (In My Direction)."

Mineo’s career had some trouble transitioning out of teen roles, but he continued to work steadily on stage and in television throughout the '60s and '70s. 

On Feb. 12, 1976, Mineo had just returned home from rehearsing his latest play when a mugger stabbed and killed him in the carport below his West Hollywood apartment. He was just 37.

16. Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn wearing pink in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"
20th Century Fox

You don’t need to be told who Marilyn Monroe was. Even in 2021, Monroe remains one of the most iconic celebrities of all time. While the actor/model was known for her beauty and style, she was also a versatile actor, equally adept at comedies like Some Like It Hot as she was at dramas like Bus Stop. She was also a talented singer who sang the best known version of the classic song "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend."

Her unexpected death on Aug. 4, 1962, sent shockwaves across the country (and beyond). Monroe had experienced depression and drug dependency during her lifetime, and her death — by an overdose of barbiturates — was ruled a probable suicide. She was 36.

17. Adrienne Shelly

Shelly dressed as a waitress, acting in her film "Waitress"
Fox Searchlight / ©Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection

Adrienne Shelly made her name in the early ‘90s as an actor in acclaimed independent films like The Unbelievable Truth and Trust. She went on to act on television before shifting toward writing and directing. Waitress starring Kerri Russell, her third film as a writer/director/actor, became a critical darling and box office success. It was later adapted into the smash Broadway musical Waitress, with music by Sara Bareilles.



There was much anticipation of what this talented filmmaker would do next, but on Nov. 1, 2006, she was found dead in her bathroom of an apparent suicide. However, when her husband protested, saying she was happy and wouldn’t leave their daughter behind, further investigation discovered a footprint in the bathroom belonging to a construction worker who had been working in her apartment building. Shelly, it turned out, had asked the worker to keep the noise down, after which he followed her to her apartment and attacked her. Believing she was dead and scared of being caught, he staged the scene to make it appear like a suicide. Shelly was just 40.

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