During the century-long history of movies, a lot of famous actors have died during film productions, leaving those in charge to determine how -- or whether -- to continue without them. You know some of the bigger names -- James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Bruce Lee -- but there have been many others, each presenting unique challenges to the filmmakers.

I'm reminded of those premature deaths, of course, by that of Heath Ledger last year during the production of Terry Gilliam's soon-to-be-released 'The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.' Ledger, coming off a bravura, Oscar-nominated performance in 'Brokeback Mountain,' and with his soon-to-be-canonized performance as the Joker in 'The Dark Knight' already in the can, arrived on the London set of 'Parnassus' on a career high, ready to assume a role that would have him appearing in almost every scene.
During the century-long history of movies, a lot of famous actors have died during film productions, leaving those in charge to determine how -- or whether -- to continue without them. You know some of the bigger names -- James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Bruce Lee -- but there have been many others, each presenting unique challenges to the filmmakers.

I'm reminded of those premature deaths, of course, by that of Heath Ledger last year during the production of Terry Gilliam's soon-to-be-released 'The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus.' Ledger, coming off a bravura, Oscar-nominated performance in 'Brokeback Mountain,' and with his soon-to-be-canonized performance as the Joker in 'The Dark Knight' already in the can, arrived on the London set of 'Parnassus' on a career high, ready to assume a role that would have him appearing in almost every scene.

The role is that of a man with a dubious past who joins a traveling magic troupe and enters a world of adventure, romance, and fantasy where he faces the ultimate test of good and evil, administered by no less than the Devil himself. Ledger had completed more than half of his scenes when, back home in New York during a brief hiatus, he died of a prescription drug overdose.

Gilliam told me recently how Ledger's death affected him and the crew and what they did to salvage the movie (hint: he couldn't have done it without volunteer subs Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell). 'Parnassus' is now in theaters, so you can decide for yourself whether the fixes worked. (For the record, I think they do.)

Here are some of the other past examples of careers cut short during productions and what was done about their last films:

James Dean's mood must have been a lot like Ledger's when he headed north from West Hollywood to compete in an amateur road race in Salinas in northern California. Critics had raved about his performance in 'East of Eden,' released nearly six months earlier, and he had one role (in 'Rebel Without a Cause') and nearly all of another (for 'Giant') in the can when his Porsche Spyder slammed head-on with a car driven by a 23-year-old college student named Donald Turnupseed. Dean's friend Nick Adams, who'd worked with him on 'Rebel Without a Cause,' dubbed Dean's voice for Jett Rink's classic drunk speech at the end of 'Giant.'

Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in 'The Misfits'Because of her use of prescription pills and her poor attendance record on the set, Marilyn Monroe was fired during production of George Cukor's 'Something's Got to Give' in 1962. She was to be replaced by Lee Remick but when co-star Dean Martin refused to continue without Marilyn, the 36-year-old blond bombshell was rehired. Unfortunately, she died of a drug overdose before she could return to work and the movie was scrapped. A 37-minute version, cobbled together from previously shot footage, is included -- nudity and all -- in the 2001 documentary 'Marilyn Monroe: The Final Days."


Natalie Wood in last film 'Brainstorm'When Natalie Wood drowned under still-mysterious circumstances off the coast of Catalina in 1981, she was in the midst of filming Doug Trumbull's special-effects heavy 'Brainstorm.' Her co-star, Christopher Walken, was with Wood's husband Robert Wagner aboard Wagner's boat, when Wood left them alone and somehow ended up in the drink. Trumbull finished the film, reportedly against the wishes of the studio (which wanted to claim the insurance), using a body double and concealing camera angles. But the movie was a commercial and critical failure.

Hong Kong martial arts super-star Bruce Lee died suddenly at age 33, just three months before the 1973 premiere of his first Hollywood movie, 'Enter the Dragon. He'd completed that film but had taken a leave from another one -- 'Game of Death,' being made in Hong Kong -- in order to do it. Six years later, 'Enter the Dragon's' American director Robert Clouse completed 'Game of Death' using actors made up to look like Lee.

Twenty years after Bruce Lee's death, his 28-year-old son Brandon Lee died during production of the action film ('The Crow') that might have made him a star. Brandon Lee was killed when an accidentally loaded prop gun was fired at him by another actor during a scene. The movie was completed by digitally superimposing Lee's head onto the bodies of doubles.

Oliver Reed'
s legendary thirst for booze got the best of him during the production of Ridley Scott's 2000 'Gladiator,' in which he played Proximo, a manager of gladiators. Reed was $866 into a bar tab in a pub in Malta when he collapsed and died of a heart attack. At great expense, his performance was completed having a double wear a masked face that later digitally changed to that of the 61-year-old Reed.

Platinum blond sex goddess Jean Harlow collapsed during the 1937 filming of 'Saratoga' with Clark Gable and died a week later from uremic poisoning. Her role, said to have been 90% completed, was finished by a double shot only from behind and with a few lines of dialogue dubbed by actress Paula Winslowe.

Tyrone Power was 44 when he suffered a heart attack in the midst of a choreographed sword fight with co-star George Sanders for King Vidor's 1959 'Solomon and Sheba.' Though more than half of his performance was in the can, the studio replaced Power with Yul Brynner and reshot most of Power's scenes. However, a keen observer will notice Power's presence in long shots, including the scene he was doing with Sanders when he died.

Legend has it that 'Dracula' star Bela Lugosi died during the making of Ed Wood, Jr.'s 'Plan 9 From Outer Space' and that his role was completed by the chiropractor of Wood's wife, shielding his face with Dracula's cape. In fact, the footage of Lugosi in 'Plan 9' was shot by Woods for a project that never came about. Instead, Woods took the footage some years after Lugosi's death in 1956 and wrote 'Plan 9' around it. But, yeah, the fellow in the cape was Mrs. Wood's chiropractor.

Vic Morrow and two child actors died the most ironic of all on-the-job deaths, being sliced to ribbons by the blades of a falling helicopter containing the photo team shooting a night-time scene for 'Twilight Zone: The Movie.' With director John Landis yelling 'Lower! Lower!,' the helicopter descended over a stream where Morrow's character was rescuing two Vietnamese children from a besieged village. A special effects explosion brought the chopper down right on top of them. Though the filmmakers knew children were not allowed to work nights, Landis and four others were tried and acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.
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