“Never give up, never slow down, never grow old and never ever die young.”—James Taylor.
Dead celebrities are a cliché as old as death and celebrity itself. Sometimes the pressures of fame put one’s risk in ways we can feel coming. Other times, death hits as randomly and suddenly as it does for “normal” people. In such cases, the press and the people just can’t get enough around the culture of famous death—and this goes double if the star in question left us young.
Inspiring songs, tributes, and merchandise that straddles the lines of taste, young celebrity death is big business. In addition to spilling their wallets, an early demise can let fan imaginations run wild and soon everyone has conspiracy theories about what really happened. Pay respects to these 42 unsettling facts about stars who died too soon.
42. Double Whammy
Before his untimely death at the age of 24, James Dean starred in just three Hollywood movies. Nevertheless, Dean became the first actor ever to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination. In 1956, he received a nomination for Best Male Actor for his role as Cal Trask in East of Eden. But it didn’t stop there: the next year, Dean received another posthumous nomination for playing Jett Rink in Giant. To date, Dean is the only actor ever to receive two Oscar nominations posthumously.
41. Academia is the Real Killer
When he was only 52, Harry Houdini perished shortly after a performance at Canada’s McGill University. So much folklore surrounds his death, that the McGill University library’s website still has an FAQ addressing the scandal. The rumor goes that a student at McGill punched Houdini in the stomach to test the magician’s strength, but Houdini was not 100% ready to take it. Not long after returning from McGill, the magician died of abdominal distress and a ruptured appendix. Seeing as he did not die immediately and had health problems before the incident, we can’t firmly place the blame on some alum from the Harvard of the North.
40. Overthinking It
Bruce Lee’s death was an open-call to conspiracy theorists. Doctors reported the 33-year-old actor’s death as an allergic reaction to Equagesic, which he had used to treat his seizures. But since it was official labeled a “misadventure,” theorists have gone wild. Some suggest Lee’s death was the result of a feud with the Triad or an ancient family curse. Neither of these are tasteful theories, but don’t they make his legend all the more exciting?
39. No Encore
Despite the glamor of Glee, one its stars, Corey Monteith, had quietly struggled for years with substance abuse. In 2013, Monteith was discovered dead in his Vancouver hotel room from mixing heroin and alcohol. Just months earlier, Monteith had entered rehab; Glee showrunner Ryan Murphy assured Monteith that he would still have a job on the show after completing the program.
38. Kiss Her Goodbye
Marilyn Monroe began 1962 by straightening out her life. The star had finally settled her rollercoaster relationship with the studios and was ready to keep filming her comedy Something’s Got to Give. However, on August 5, her housekeeper woke up with a “bad feeling.” We bet this feeling did not abate when she discovered Monroe had locked herself in her bedroom. Just a few hours lady, Monroe was found dead from an overdose of barbiturates at the age of 36.
37. Unfit for a King
It’s hard to say if Elvis’s death was “sudden.” The King of Rock had been on rocky health streak throughout his comeback tour in 1977. From several drug addictions to glaucoma, liver damage, and an enlarged colon, he was by no means in the best shape of his life when his girlfriend found him on the bathroom floor. He had fallen off the toilet and was lying in his own vomit. After several resuscitation attempts at the hospital, he died on August 16, 1997 at the age of 42.
36. Put a Question Mark on This One
Jack Nance is perhaps best remembered for his starring role in David Lynch’s Eraserhead. His death is perhaps as enigmatic as his filmography. On December 30, 1996, Nance was found dead from mysterious injuries, including a bruised eye. Some speculate he had gotten into a fight, or perhaps injured himself while drinking. It’s another part of the twisted Lynch lore.
35. Sail Forth to Death
Thomas Ince was a silent film actor and director who goes down in Hollywood history as “the Father of the Western.” Ironically, his death might have been the result of a shootout. On the record, Ince passed after falling ill on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924. However, rumors quickly spread that his death was more salacious; people whispered that Hearst discovered his mistress in cahoots with none other than Charlie Chaplin on their party boat. In theory, Ince just happened to be in the line of fire when he heard screaming and was accidentally (and fatally) shot by Hearst. Awkward.
34. No Excuse
Ramon Navarro was dubbed as the “Latin Lover” of 1920s silent cinema. In 1968, he was beaten to death by two brothers after apparently making advances on one in his home. While there was speculation that this was a robbery, they left with only $20 taken from the actor’s pocket. One of the brothers took full responsibility for the crime but pled “homosexual panic” as a social defense.
33. Is He Though?
At the age of 35, comedian Andy Kaufman was reported dead due to cancer-related kidney failure. However, rumors circulated that the actor had, in fact, faked his death. Kaufman was notorious for his borderline tasteless pranks; those close to him suggested that if he had indeed faked his death, he would’ve returned 20 years later in 2004. Spoiler alert: he did not.
32. Fateful & Fatal
James Dean’s co-star in Rebel Without a Cause also died an early, violent, and all-too-untimely death. At the age of 37, in 1976, Sal Mineo was stabbed to death by a mysterious aggressor while parking outside of his apartment. The 1970s being what they were, some were quick to blame Mineo’s openly gay lifestyle or prison activism for connecting him with “bad” characters. The truth was much more senseless: just three years after his death, the murderer was unveiled as a random pizza delivery man named Lionel Williams. Mineo’s killer was simply trying to rob him and had no idea who Mineo was. Once he found out, Williams gloated to his friends and was later arrested.
31. Jimmy Meets an Infamous End
Jimi Hendrix joined the “Forever 27 Club” on September 19, 1970, when he was found unresponsive in his London apartment and pronounced dead at hospital. Many have their own elaborate theories that fit his wild life, but the coroner listed the official cause of death as the less-than-superstar “drowned in his own vomit.”
30. From the Grave and Into Guinness
Without a doubt, Amy Winehouse was talented but very troubled. Her death by alcohol poisoning at the age of 27 put a sour taste in the mouth of fans all over the world. For years, the British singer and songwriter had struggled with various addictions, which formed the basis of many of her songs. Shortly after her death, however, Winehouse broke the Guinness World Record for most songs by a woman to be on the UK singles chart at the same time, with eight. It was only her second world record; the first was in 2009 for Most Grammy Awards Won by a British Female Act
29. Invisible Killers
Brittany Murphy’s death in 2009 was sudden, shocking, and seemingly senseless. The 32-year-old Clueless star was apparently in good health and had no illegal drugs in her system. Coroners listed her cause of death as “pneumonia.” Even more shockingly, Murphy’s husband died just a few months later. This led the Los Angeles County Department of Health to investigate and put forth “toxic mold” in the couple’s home as a possible accelerant of their death.
28. This Little Piggy Refused to Be Amputated
When Bob Marley died at the age of 36, a malignant type of melanoma was discovered under this toenail. This strange lesion perhaps encouraged an urban legend that a football injury was the root of the iconic singer’s early demise. In actuality, it was an early sign of cancer; doctors had previously advised Marley to amputate the cancerous toe, but he considered the medical procedure as counter to his religious beliefs. Instead, Marley opted to remove the nail and nail bed. Unfortunately, it was not enough…although he was miraculously strong enough to schedule a 1980 world tour.
27. A Starlet Dies, But A True Crime Legend Is Born
Elizabeth Short was a hopeful young actress in 1940s Hollywood. Unfortunately, she achieved more fame in the afterlife than in her prime: her 1947 murder was heavily sensationalized and goes down in true crime history as “The Black Dahlia” case.
26. Medication Blues
When 1980s teen icon Corey Haim died in 2010, the Lost Boys star had somehow obtained 533 prescription pills from 7 different doctors over a single 32-day period. This list included 195 Valium, 149 Vicodin, 194 Soma, and 15 Xanax. Officially, however, his cause of death was ruled as “pneumonia.”
25. John Doe Was a Child Star
Bobby Driscoll, child star of many Disney classics like Song of the South, died at the age of 31 in 1968—but his body went unidentified for two years. He had passed in a New York apartment and been buried at Potter’s Field in an unmarked grave.
24. You Might Know Him from Such Films…
Fans of The Simpsons might know Phil Hartman as the voice of Troy McClure, Lionel Hutz, and multiple other characters. Hartman also led a lucrative acting career, starring in SNL and many films. The Simpsons never addressed (in-show) why a recognizable voice just didn’t appear after 1998, but most people would never forget. In 1998, Phil Hartman was fatally shot to death in his sleep by his wife, Brynn. Brynn had struggled with addiction for a long time and was reportedly bitterly insecure about her husband’s success in the entertainment industry compared to her lack of it. By the time the police had arrived to their house and escorted their two children away, Brynn had shot herself to death too.
23. A Deadly Mix-Up?
Jim Morrison is one of the more famous members of the “Forever 27 Club,” having died at the age of 27 on July 3, 1971. The official report states the Doors singer died in a bathtub from drug overdose. Other takes are more chaotic, suggesting that he accidentally snorted his girlfriend’s heroin, mistaking it for cocaine.
22. The Man, The Legend, The Devil?
American blues legend Robert Johnson died tragically young in 1918—he was another star who died at the age of 27. However, his death gave birth to many a music folk legend. Some overactive imaginations whispered that Johnson sold his soul to the Devil in Mississippi—as opposed to a Devil located elsewhere?—in exchange for his success. Others said Johnson was poisoned by the jealous husband of a woman with whom he was flirting.
21. A Rolling Stone Gathers No Moss
Less than one month after being kicked out of The Rolling Stones, Brian Jones was drowned in his pool on July 3, 1969. Jones’s demise was officially declared a “death by misadventure.”
20. RIP or Simply MIA?
File this under a “gone too soon” in a very literal sense. Richey Edwards was the writer and guitarist for the Manic Street Preachers, set to leave the UK for an American promotional tour in February 1995. The day he was meant to take off, Edwards simply vanished. For years, the occasional report of sightings would surface, but Edwards has never been found. On November 23, 2008, the elusive singer was still missing, but declared legally dead.
19. Leave Them Guessing
Tupac Shakur accomplished so much in his quarter-century of life, it’s easy to forget he was only 25 years old when he died. After being shot four times in a Las Vegas drive-by shooting, it took the rapper six days to die of his injuries in hospital. Reportedly, his last statement was just as stubborn. In 2014, a police officer on the scene claimed that when he asked the bleeding Shakur if he could identify his assailant, the rapper simply uttered “F—k, you!” as his final words.
18. Shooting a Scene
William Desmond Taylor was perhaps the director of silent film-era Hollywood. His name was frequently attached to press scandal. This did not end with his death, when he was fatally shot twice in the back in 1922. Two love interests were tied to the case: Mabel Mormand, who was eventually sent to a sanatorium and died of tuberculosis, and Mary Minter, a young actress who had fallen in love with Taylor. Minter was only a teenager, but her love note and nightgown had been uncovered in the crime scene. Her mother also had a record of threatening directors for making advances on her daughter. Despite the salacious press scandal, no one has ever been convicted in this Hollywood death.
17. Everything Happens Too Fast
In 2010, Welsh actor Andy Whitfield finally caught his big break by winning the leading role of the Starz television series, Spartacus: Blood and Sand. He played a solider who is conscripted into gladiator service. Unfortunately, also in 2010, Whitfield was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Production waited for Whitfield’s expected recovery and filled in the hiatus with a prequel series. Although Whitefield was briefly declared “cancer-free,” his condition relapsed in 2011. Whitfield passed later that September, just months after Starz recast his role.
16. Staging Tragedy
Adrienne Shelley was an indie moving darling. Yet tragically, in 2006, the writer/director/actress was found dead in Greenwich work studio in an apparent suicide. The truth was bleaker. It turned out Shelley was killed by a nearby construction worker—for reasons that remain speculated upon—who staged her death to appear self-inflicted. Posthumously, Shelley’s final directorial project, Waitress, debuted tor acclaimed and continued indie fave status.
15. A Fan Goes Too Far
Rebecca Schaeffer was a rising actress of the 1980s. She was also one of the most famous victims of celebrity stalking; Robert John Bardo had become obsessed with the model and actress, stalking her for three years. However, he became enraged with her when she did a film where she appeared in bed with a male actor. Bribing an agency to find out Schaeffer’s address, the 19-year-old Bardo approached for the 21-year-old Schaeffer at her apartment and repeatedly tried to engage her. Then, Bardo shot her to death in her doorway. Schaeffer’s death pushed California to enforce stronger privacy laws around DMV information.
14. To Boldly Go to A Better Place
In 2016, Star Trek actor Anton Yelchin was tragically crushed between a brick pillar and his car at the age of 27. Star Trek: Beyond was dedicated to him, alongside Leonard Nimoy, who had also passed.
13. Fast, Furious, and Gone Too Soon
Some things are too ironic to be tasteful: Paul Walker broke through in Hollywood by speeding his way through the Fast and Furious franchise, only to die in a car accident at the age of 40.
12. Belushi Bows Out
John Belushi left behind such a long and impressive filmography, it’s hard to remember that he died when he was only 33. The Animal House, SNL, and The Blues Brothers star headlined countless comedy classics, but he also struggled with addiction. On March 5, 1982, he was discovered in a Los Angeles hotel room, overdosed on cocaine and heroin. Over 20 years later, in 2004, Belushi was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame—a posthumous award which just serves to remind us how early he left us.
11. Farwell, Farley
Chris Farley’s death is often compared to that of his SNL co-star, John Belushi. Like Belushi, Farley struggled with drug addiction. And also, just like Belushi, Farley died from heroin and cocaine overdose. At the time of his death in 1997, Farley was pegged to play leading role in Shrek and had even recorded some voice work. Posthumously, he was replaced by another SNL cast member, Mike Myers.
10. A Bombshell Blows Off Early
Before there was Marilyn Monroe, there was the original “Blonde Bombshell”—Jean Harlow. The 1930s film star made a huge name for herself as a sex symbol and co-starred in pictures with Clark Gable. Unfortunately, Harlow passed from uremic poisoning in 1937 at the age of 26. In the middle of filming Saratoga at the time of her death, Harlow was posthumously replaced with a body double who stood in for her long-angle shots.
9. The Bobby Fuller Mysteries
Bobby Fuller was a 1960s pop star best known as the frontman of The Bobby Fuller Four. In contrast to his notable life, his death is surrounded in mystery. At the age of 23, the actor was found dead in his car, covered in bruises and gasoline. Despite his condition, the death was first thought to be a suicide. However, medical examiners found that he must have been dead for much longer than the half hour the car was parked in the lot. Theories about possible causes, from mob hits to LSD, have surfaced around the young pop star’s death, but it remains a mystery to this day.
8. Wipe Your Shoes Before You Come In!
The 1984 murder of musician Peter Ivers has never been solved due to crime scene contamination by overeager looky-loos. You see, when the actor was discovered bludgeoned to death via hammer in his LA apartment, the police failed to secure the crime scene. As a result, people came and went through the famed singer’s apartment to get a gander with their own eyes. A proper forensic analysis was therefore impossible and to this day, no one has been tried for the murder.
7. RIP Heath
Most remember Heath Ledger’s death in 2008 for the tragedy it was. The actor was found unresponsive in his bed, with at least six types of prescription drugs in his system. His death came after The Dark Knight was completed but before it came out in theaters. Stories began to trickle out about Ledger’s dedication to the role of the Joker, and pictures of the “Joker diary” he had kept while preparing for the role were released. The final entry, a page scrawled with the words “Bye bye” is chilling, especially considering his untimely demise shortly after the film was completed.
In February 2008, the DEA itself was brought in to investigate Ledger’s death. During their inquest, one of the friends who found Ledger—Mary Kate Olsen—refused to be questioned. Olsen’s lawyer issued a statement to the public denying his client’s knowledge of drugs in Ledger’s body or home. In the end, of course, no one was charged.
6. The Party Stops Here
Few early celebrity deaths get more mythic than River Phoenix. News of the Stand by Me star’s death in 1993, aged just 23, broke out in the middle of a concert in the Sunset Strip’s Viper Room. Then-owner Johnny Depp was performing on stage when the tragic news began to sprinkle out in the crowd. Phoenix had collapsed just outside the venue.
5. Perilous Parallels
Grace Kelly, the “American Princess” and then actual Princess of Monaco, died in a car accident in 1982. She had been driving when she suffered a sudden stroke, forcing her car over a steep ledge. Kelly’s family had to combat rumors that she was driving on a winding road; some fans were tempted to make parallels between Kelly’s death with the time her character sped down a cliffside road in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. Leave the cinematic parallels for your cinema studies class!
4. Wonder What Happened to Wood?
Natalie Wood was one of the most popular faces in Golden Age Hollywood, so it’s ironic that her death is surrounded with such mystery. In 1981, Wood was discovered drowned to death on a boating trip with her husband to Santa Catalina Island. With her body found less than a mile away and with mysterious injuries on her body, the medical examiner changed the cause of death in 2012 from “accidental” to the ominous category of “drowning and other undetermined factors.” Seeing that she reportedly had a fight with her husband, Robert Wagner, on the evening of her death, this tale has been ripe for scandal and speculation ever since. The case was reopened in 2011, and Wagner has refused to speak to authorities—no wonder, considering that a lieutenant from the LA homicide squad has said his story “doesn’t add up.”
3. Traffic Tragedy
Aside from giving birth to Law and Order: SVU’s Mariska Hargitay, Jayne Mansfield was an actress known as “the working man’s Marilyn Monroe.” However, in 1967, Mansfield was being driven with her children and her lover when the car crashed into the rear of a tractor. There were rumors the Mansfield was decapitated since her wig flew into the windshield upon impact. Miraculously, all the children, Mariska included, survived with barely a scratch on them. More unfortunately, the driver, Mansfield’s lover, and Mansfield herself (aged 34) all perished.
2. That’s A Misfire
In 1993, Brandon Lee, the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, was killed while shooting at scene for The Crow. For the scene in question, Lee’s character is supposed to be shot by while entering his apartment. Unfortunately, the prop gun still had dummy cartridges from a previous scene; a leftover load had entered the blank round, hitting lee with the same velocity as a real bullet.
1. Not a Death to Nevermind
Kurt Cobain made such an impact on 1990s grunge culture, it’s difficult to remember that he only lived to see less than half of the decade. In 1994, the Nirvana singer died by suicide above his garage in Seattle. His suicide note was left inside of a flow pot, with a pen stuck inside it.
As a child, Kurt Cobain had an imaginary friend Boddah, whom he described as the evil part of his psyche. It was to Boddah whom he addressed his suicide note. Although many fans know about the famous suicide note, many don’t know that some investigators believe that the end of the note was doctored and it actually read differently. The main body of the note is written about Kurt’s relationship to music, it’s only the very small part of the note, the last four lines, that talk about his relationship to his family, and specifically Courtney and their daughter Frances. This coupled with a handwriting practice sheet found in Courtney’s bag (which contained letters that were used in the suicide note) have led investigators and fans to believe that perhaps the last few lines were added after Cobain was already dead and the whole suicide was staged.
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