When an actor dies while shooting a movie and doing what they loved, it’s tragic – but as is often the case in Hollywood, the show must go on.
Just because a star has shuffled off this mortal coil, it doesn’t mean their movie has to go straight into the bin…
Paul Walker – ‘Fast & Furious 7’
Walker had six and a half 'Fast & Furious’ movies under his belt when he died in a car crash in 2014, leaving a huge question mark hanging over the seventh instalment. Universal did the decent thing and put the movie on hold while they decided how to handle the situation, ultimately coming up with a solution that would make Paul Walker’s fans and family happy.
Walker’s character, Brian, would be able to make a dignified exit at the movie’s finale, thanks mainly to footage the actor already shot, some impressive facial CGI, and stand-in contributions from Paul’s two lookalike brothers, Caleb and Cody. We cried. You cried. Everyone cried. Mission accomplished.
Oliver Reed – 'Gladiator’
Olly Reed was always a liability, given his love of all things liquid, but everyone in Hollywood just assumed he was immortal. Not so. Reed died of a heart attack while shooting Ridley Scott’s 'Gladiator’ in Malta in 1999, leaving the director with quite the quandary – with three weeks left and a few major scenes left for Reed’s character Proximo, Scott was in quite the pickle. The director ended up compositing earlier scenes of Reed with new scenes shot opposite Russell Crowe – it’s a seamless experience, although rumour has it Reed was replaced with a mannequin in one shot.
Bruce Lee – 'Game Of Death’
When Bruce Lee was killed by a deadly reaction to an over-the-counter headache tablet, it ended the life of the most spectacular martial arts superstar cinema had ever seen. Bruce Lee’s career, however, would continue in 'Game Of Death’, Lee’s final movie but one of which he only managed to shoot the first half. Bruce’s death effectively put the kibosh on 'Game Of Death’’s proposed plot, so an alternate version was put into production, where Lee was replaced by stand-ins wearing wigs and beards to mask their faces – Bruce only appears in 11 minutes of footage. In some scenes, cardboard cut-outs of Lee were used, but the filmmakers still managed to secure shots of Bruce’s actual corpse from his open-casket funeral to insert into a scene where Lee’s character fakes his own death. Classy.
Brandon Lee – 'The Crow’
Lee’s death, following the death of his father, had conspiracy theorists racing to claim it was the result of unpaid debts or shady mafioso types, but the simple fact is, it was an unprepared prop gun that ended Brandon’s life so abruptly while shooting 'The Crow’. Director Alex Proyas had most of the movie in the can, but he ordered rewrites on the few short scenes remaining. Close-ups were achieved by digitally mapping Brandon Lee’s face onto a stunt double, while stand-ins wearing make-up got Proyas through the shoot.
Heath Ledger – 'The Imaginarium Of Dr Parnassus’
As grim as it sounds, 'The Dark Knight’ was the film to 'benefit’ from Ledger’s death, given it was the first released after his untimely sleeping pill overdose; the movie he was halfway through shooting, Terry Gilliam’s fantasy epic, was the one that suffered. Gilliam was distraught by Ledger’s death, but came up with a novel solution to the death of his leading man – with the help of Heath’s actor friends Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law, the movie was completed with each man playing a different version of Ledger’s character after passing through a magic mirror, making the film an inventive and touching eulogy.
River Phoenix – 'Dark Blood’
Phoenix had completed approximately 80% of his final movie when he took a lethal drugs overdose in 1993, leaving director George Sluizer with a movie that was tantalisingly close to being finished. 'Dark Blood’ was officially abandoned three weeks after Phoenix’s death but Sluizer kept the footage, hoping he could one day finish; at one point, he had planned to cast Joaquin Phoenix to provide the voiceover for his older brother, but he was refused. In 2012, Sluizer released a new edit of the movie, with his own stark narration over a set film stills filling in the gaps that Phoenix left behind, and it was surprisingly well reviewed when it played at the Berlin Film Festival. Sluizer himself died in 2014.
John Candy – 'Wagon’s East’
The rotund funnyman was a heart attack waiting to happen, and happen it did during shooting of this comedy Western. Candy had completed most of his work when he died during the final few days of production, but filmmakers still needed to complete several scenes, which they achieved by re-using footage from earlier points in the movie. At one point, the same shot of Candy pouring his drink on the floor is used twice, the second time in a different scene composited on a different background, while men with similar-sounding voices were used to complete Candy’s voiceover narration.
Bela Lugosi – 'Plan 9 From Outer Space’
Not even death could stop Bela Lugosi from making bad movies – the actor best known for playing Dracula seemingly had a thing for the afterlife. Lugosi suffered a heart attack in 1956 while shooting the infamously naff cult classic sci-fi, but camp director extraordinaire Ed Wood wasn’t deterred and reshot Lugosi’s scenes where possible. As a bizarre show of respect, he even asked the Lugosi family chiropractor to shoot some of Bela’s scenes, even though he bore no resemblance to the man whatsoever.
Peter Sellers – 'The Trail Of The Pink Panther’
It’s a unique film on this list in that the dead actor involved died before filming had even started – 18 months before. 'The Trail Of The Pink Panther’ was a cheap and nasty cash-grab, cobbled together with old footage of Peter Sellers in costume and deleted scenes from previous 'Pink Panther’ movies, presented as flashbacks. With Sellers out of the picture, director Blake Edwards padded the story out using doubles wearing heavy face bandages. He was sued by Sellers’ wife, Lynne Frederick; unsurprisingly, she won.
Roy Scheider – 'Iron Cross’
Digital recreations of dead movie star faces are all well and good if you’re a blockbuster with money to burn, but what are the little movies to do when an important cast member perishes? With just one important scene left to film at the time of star Roy Scheider’s death, the makers of Holocaust revenge thriller 'Iron Cross’ improvised and whipped up a latex mask, painstakingly recreated to match the Jaws actor’s features precisely. Filmed from afar, you’d never guess you weren’t looking at the man himself.