Heath Ledger will be remembered for several of his movies, no doubt -- his turn in Brokeback Mountain catapulted him into the stratosphere of stardom, to be sure. But the role for which he might most be remembered is his last: that of the Joker in the upcoming Batman: Dark Knight, opening on July 18, which is already being lauded and named “iconic” by critics and fans.
Of course, Ledger is by no means the first actor to pass away before a film premieres -- or is even finished. Here, then, is a list of seven movies from the past twenty years that weren’t meant to be star swan songs, but ended up that way nonetheless.
Heather O’Rourke, Poltergeist 3 (1988)
Poltergeist is legendary, of course, for being cursed -- several people involved with the films have died either in production or soon after. The actress Dominique Dunne (who played oldest sister Dana in the first movie) died from strangulation; two other actors died of health problems soon after filming as well. And Heather O’Rourke, who played the youngest (and most haunted) daughter, Carol Anne, died of septic shock -- or something. They’re not quite sure which. Whatever it was, her death cemented the horror story of this particular horror movie -- and finished the (already languishing) film series, as well.
River Phoenix, Dark Blood (1993)
When River Phoenix died at the Viper Room on Halloween night in 1993, he was working on a thriller called Dark Blood; it was a post-apocalyptic tale of a young widower (played by Phoenix) just named “Boy.” When Phoenix died, there was so much left to film that the movie was abandoned. Phoenix’s youth, his talent, and the sudden loss of both have since put him in the caste of James Dean. One might guess -- probably accurately -- that Heath Ledger will join these two as dramatic artists lost too soon.
Brandon Lee, The Crow (1993)
In the early '90s, it looked like Brandon Lee was going to successfully follow in his famous father Bruce Lee’s footsteps -- and he did, right down to his too-early and tragic death. On the set of The Crow in 1993, a malfunctioning pistol accidentally fired a real projectile at close range, and it hit Lee in the abdomen and lodged in his spine. He died hours later, but the movie went on to make him (and the movie) a goth legend -- especially since the film itself dealt with Lee’s character coming back from the dead to avenge injustice.
John Candy, Wagons East (1994)
The years 1993 and 1994 were terrible years for film star deaths; Candy was perhaps the most troubling given not only the suddenness of his demise from a heart attack, but how beloved he was as both performer and personality. Wagons East limped into theaters, using creative editing and massive rewriting to finish it without Candy, but not even the accumulated goodwill of one of Hollywood’s favorite funnymen could save it from the critics.
Massimo Troisi, il Postino (1994)
Another shocking death in ’94 was the tragic story of Massimo Troisi, especially since his starring role in il Postino was a big part of its crossover success. He died just twelve hours after the completion of filming due to a heart problem that he reportedly refused to have corrected while the movie was still in production. Troisi was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for the role -- only the sixth actor to be so honored posthumously.
Oliver Reed, Gladiator (2000)
Oliver Reed was a great actor with a great temper, which he showed on David Letterman’s show after disliking being asked about his drinking habits. And it was those very drinking habits that may have ended his life early (it was said that he spent nearly $1,000 on liquor the night of his death, much of it imbibed by Reed himself), while the movie Gladiator was still filming. The film, which went on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, had to be rewritten so as to kill off Reed’s character Proximo earlier than originally intended, and his face was digitally inserted in some scenes that had yet to be filmed. The motion picture was dedicated to his memory.
Richard Harris, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Film legend Richard Harris died only a few weeks before this second installment in the Harry Potter series premiered, but his passing still left a huge hole in the adaptations, the fans of which are notoriously finicky about who plays their beloved characters. As the wizard Dumbledore, Harris brought a fantastic combination of both gravitas and whimsy to the role. And like the character from the books, Harris remained beloved and greatly missed. -- Teague Bohlen