Reaper Madness: Actors Who Died Mid-Production

Thinking about death is creepy, but, thankfully, our brains are experts at tuning it out. However, when your favorite character vanishes mid-franchise, or when it’s obvious that stand-ins have been hired to replace an actor, those morbid thoughts come creeping right back in. And no matter how hard studios try to hide it, their actor’s absence is always felt.

Carrie Fisher / Bruce Lee / Paul Walker / Chris Farley

Photo by Aaron Rapoport, Corbis, Getty Images / Warner Brothers, Getty Images / Chris Polk, FilmMagic, Getty Images

Some filmmakers use digital tricks to “bring them back to life,” others use lighting and angles, and some are so devastated by the loss that they decide to scrap the film altogether. Here’s a list of some major stars who died halfway through filming and how Hollywood studios dealt with it.

Heath Ledger’s Lethal Cocktail

Heath Ledger’s death in 2008 struck the world like heavy rain on a sunny day. He seemed to be on a perfect roll after filming one of the most significant roles of his career, the Joker in The Dark Knight. Ledger was in the middle of shooting another noteworthy film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus when his life was tragically cut short.

Heath Ledger reading a paper while Lily Cole sits behind him talking to him

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On January 22, at the young age of 28, Ledger died of an accidental drug prescription overdose. He was found unconscious in his Manhattan apartment, face down and naked at the foot of his bed. The medical report stated that he died of an accidental cocktail of painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, and sleeping pills.

Star Stand-Ins Helped Complete the Film

Heath Ledger was cast to play the film’s lead man, suave con artist Tony Shepard, and was nearly done with all of his scenes when tragedy hit. Producers were left grieving and befuddled. They knew he struggled with sleep issues, but, other than that, he looked as if he was in perfect shape.

Colin Farrell as Heath Ledger's part / Jude Law as Heath Ledger's part / Johnny Depp as Heath Ledger's part

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Still in mourning, producers decided to cast different actors to finish Ledger’s scenes. Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell all stepped in to help complete Heath’s unfinished work. “I am delighted that Heath’s brilliant performance can be shared with the world,” director Terry Gilliam stated.

Oliver Reed’s Last Drink in Malta

British actor Oliver Reed was known for his hard-drinking, hell-raising lifestyle. But, in 1999, at the age of 61, his heart finally gave out. Unsurprisingly, he dropped dead after challenging a group of sailors at a bar to a drinking competition. After eight pints of lager, a dozen shots of rum, and half a bottle of whiskey, Reed’s run was done.

Oliver Reed sitting at a table next to a bowl of grapes and a bird

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The actor was just weeks away from finishing his role as Proximo in the epic historical series Gladiator, the film he believed would be the start of his late-career comeback. Instead, Gladiator became his final performance.

Digital Trickeries Helped Finish the Job

Reed had just two remaining scenes left, which were digitally completed at the cost of $3.2 million. One scene involved mapping a three-dimensional mask of Reed’s face onto a stand-in’s body. And the second one showed a stand-in’s back, with alternate footage of Reed digitally edited into the frame.

Oliver Reed surrounded by soldiers

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Gladiator was a blockbuster success, winning 59 out of 105 nominations, including five Academy Awards and one Golden Globes. For his role as Proximo, the late actor was posthumously nominated for a BAFTA award.

Marilyn Monroe’s Cries Went Unnoticed

Marilyn Monroe’s apparent suicide in 1962 was nothing short of an enigma. While people knew she was struggling mentally, no one expected she would actually poison herself and fade off into an endless sleep. But, tragically, at the age of 36, she was discovered in her L.A. home lying face down on her bed.

Marilyn Monroe on the set of Something's Got To Give

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Monroe’s last and unfinished cinematic project was her role in the screwball comedy Something’s Got to Give, a remake of 1940’s My Favorite Wife. From the get-go, production was disturbed by Monroe’s personal troubles, but it was abandoned altogether after her unexpected death.

There Was No Replacing Her

So, how do you go on filming without the iconic and bubbly Marilyn Monroe? It’s simple – you don’t. Director George Cukor wrapped up the film and put his cinematic dreams aside, leaving the vacant studio echoing with Monroe’s troubled ghost.

Marilyn Monroe with her foot and upper body coming over the edge of a swimming pool at night

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One year later, Twentieth Century-Fox remade My Favorite Wife from scratch, calling it Move Over Darling, with Doris Day as the leading lady. Only short snippets of Something’s Got to Give have been released. In them, Monroe is seen swimming nude in a pool, beautiful as ever.

Philip Seymour Hoffman Spiraled Back Into Old Habits

Philip Seymour Hoffman was considered one of the finest actors of his generation. He was bold, ambitious, and breathed life into each of his characters. His death in 2014 (or, more accurately, how he died) left everyone at a loss for words. He was found in his Manhattan apartment, lying dead on the cold, bathroom tiles, with a syringe in his arm.

Philip Seymour Hoffman sitting at a table in The Hunger Games

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While the actor messed around with drugs in his early 20s, he remained sober for 23 years, a period long enough to convince everyone, including himself, that he would never fall into that dizzying trap again. Hoffman was just weeks away from completing his work in the Hunger Game series before he overdosed on heroin.

His Lines Turned Into a Letter

Hoffman had just one week of shooting left, but it was a significant one. He was supposed to act out his final dramatic scene with the film’s heroine, Katniss, tying the franchise up with an emotional cinematic moment. Producers went back and forth on how to conceal Hoffman’s absence, ultimately agreeing on tweaking the script.

Woody Harrelson adjusting a webcam in a room full of computers

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Instead of having a face-to-face meeting, producers changed it to something more subdued. They had Woody Harrelson’s character, Haymitch Abernathy, read out Hoffman’s lines as if he were reading to Katniss from a letter. A little bit of digital trickery was also employed in certain shots.

Paul Walker’s Ironic Car Crash

In a horrific twist of irony, Paul Walker, a Fast and Furious legend, was killed in a car accident. He was halfway through filming the franchise’s seventh film when he and his friend, Roger Rodas, crashed into a lamppost. The car caught fire and Walker died from the combined effects of the burns and the initial impact’s blow.

Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker, and Ludacris standing in a garage

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Fast and Furious’s shooting was put on hold, giving everyone the space to mourn and let the horrifying new reality sink in. Walker was the heart and soul of the film, and producers were left absolutely stumped.

Paul Walker’s Brothers Filled In

The film’s producers mulled over their options and ultimately settled on rewriting the script, making it so that Walker’s character retires. A combination of body doubles (Walker’s brothers, Caleb and Cody), as well as old footage of Walker and digitally composed shots of his face, made his sudden retirement seem more authentic.

Cody, Paul, and Caleb Walker posing on the red carpet

Cody, Paul, and Caleb Walker. Photo by E Charbonneau / WireImage for Sony Pictures Los Angeles / Getty Images

With the help of lighting and different camera angles, Walker’s brothers acted as body doubles and together created the spitting image of their late brother. Everyone involved in the movie felt it was important to complete the story to respect Walker’s memory.

Aaliyah’s Disastrous Plane Crash

An already established singer, Aaliyah was just dipping her toes into acting when she unexpectedly died in a plane crash. She was cast to star in the Matrix franchise as Zee and they had already shot part of her scenes for The Matrix Reloaded when a brief work trip to the Bahamas put an end to it all.

Aaliyah standing with others looking into the distance in The Matrix Reloaded

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Aaliyah had just finished shooting a sun-bathed music video for her single Rock the Boat, when the allegedly overloaded plane she boarded crashed shortly after take-off, killing all the passengers. Her unexpected death was impossible to grasp.

They Scrapped All the Footage

The film’s directors, Lilly and Lana Wachowski, had little to do after Aaliayah’s death, and their only reasonable option was to find someone else to play the role. With a heavy heart, they scrapped Aaliyah’s footage and cast Nona Gaye instead.

Aaliyah posing for a portrait / Nona Gaye in The Matrix

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They shot all of Zee’s scenes from the beginning, a year after Aaliyah’s fateful crash. Today, the only memories fans have of Aaliyah on set are some behind-the-scenes footage that show a bubbly, young girl excited to be living her dream.

John Candy Neglected His Health

John Candy appeared in a string of films that made him one of the greatest comedy stars of the ’80s. But one morning in 1993, a startling heart attack put a halt to his joyous life. The 43-year-old was found lifeless in his hotel room.

John Candy and Rhea Perlman bundled up for the winter looking scared

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While the exact cause of death is a bit foggy, doctors suspect it had to do with his weight, smoking habits, and alcohol abuse. John Candy left behind him several unfinished projects, including the Western comedy, Wagons East.

Their Efforts to Save the Film Were Clumsy

Replacing Candy’s colorful presence with another actor was out of the question, so producers had to think long and hard about how to disguise his sudden absence elegantly. Incredibly, with the help of stand-ins and special effects, they managed to finish it.

John Candy reading a map while sitting on a horse

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But the result was questionable, to say the least. Despite the creators’ best efforts to save the movie, the special effects were poorly executed. For example, they used the same footage of Candy in a bar but changed the background repeatedly. Calling that trick a bad move would be an understatement.

Heather O’Rourke’s Death Was Distinctly Unusual

Child star Heather O’Rourke was prematurely taken from this world after she collapsed in her home one early morning in January of 1988. The precious talent was cast at the young age of seven to star in Steven Spielberg’s Poltergeist trilogy, but by the time the third film came around, she was already severely ill and never managed to finish it.

Heather O'Rourke holding herself on a doorframe while someone tries to pull her through

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O’Rourke died in surgery while doctors attempted to repair an acute bowel obstruction caused by what was thought to be a long struggle with Crohn’s disease. Doctors weren’t fully convinced of the cause of her death, deeming it “distinctly unusual.”

A New Girl Stepped In

Heather O’Rourke’s premature death was difficult to stomach, so difficult that director Gary Sherman wanted to temporarily shelve the project. But MGM had no intention of wasting all the money and time they had spent on the film and threatened to replace Sherman if he wasn’t willing to continue the project.

Heather O'Rourke sitting on a bed with a pink telephone next to her

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So, with the help of child actress Heather Holty as O’Rourke’s stand-in, Sherman hastily crafted a new ending, and the film was released to cinemas that same year, six short months after her death. The film was a sad flop and received poor reviews.

Vic Morrow and the Horrible Twilight Zone Accident

Vic Morrow’s death is arguably the most disturbing one on the list because it happened right on the set of the film. Morrow and two illegally hired Vietnamese child actors, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, were all killed during the making of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Vic Morrow looking worried in a scene from the Twilight Zone movie / Vic carrying the two child actors across the water

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The disastrous scene centered on Morrow’s character’s desperate attempt to carry two children across a river while being pursued by a hovering, menacing helicopter. Tragically, the scene’s fake explosions caused the chopper to spin out of control, crash, and crush the three innocent actors to death.

Everyone on Set Was Sick to the Center of Their Souls

None of the film’s crew ever truly recovered from this horrific accident. But they couldn’t bring themselves to scrap the whole thing. They had enough footage to keep the film intact, so they decided to give up on the remaining scenes and edit the whole movie accordingly.

The helicopter being disassembled after the crash which killed Vic Morrow

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The film was released one year after the accident, but no one was really up for a celebration. Steven Spielberg revealed that the crash made him “grow up a little more,” and it left everyone on set “sick to the center of their souls.”

Natalie Wood’s Bizarre Drowning

Natalie Wood’s drowning remains one of Hollywood’s eeriest deaths. The 43-year-old endearing actress was on a casual boat trip with her husband, Robert Wagner, and co-star, Cristopher Walken, when she fell off the vessel and was swept under the merciless tides.

Robert Wagner holding Natalie Wood for a photograph / Christopher Walken and Natalie Wood dressed as bride and groom in a movie

Robert Wagner with Natalie Wood (left) and Christopher Walken with Natalie Wood in ‘Brainstorm.’ Photo by Silver Screen Collection, Getty Images / Bettmann, Getty Images

But did she innocently trip and fall to her death? Or was she pushed off? Speculations surrounding the event spread like wildfire. Whatever the truth is, Wood’s death broke many hearts and put a halt to many plans, including the new sci-fi film she was working on, Brainstorm.

Replaced by Her Younger Sister

MGM was financially strapped when Woods died, so even though the actress had already shot most of her major scenes, the studio still shut the pricy sci-fi film down, as a way to catch up with their finances. Fortunately, Lloyd’s of London pitched in and collected the additional funds.

Natalie and Lana Woods posing for a portrait with woods behind them

Natalie and Lana Wood. Photo by Earl Leaf / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

To complete the film, the script was slightly tweaked, and the few remaining scenes were done by Natalie Wood’s younger sister, Lana. Brainstorm was finally released in 1983, two years after Wood’s tragic demise.

Chris Farley’s Heart Ultimately Gave Out

SNL star Chris Farley lived life on the edge, testing his body’s boundaries every time he messed around with illegal drugs and alcohol. Ultimately, his heart failed at the young age of 33, after Farley numbed himself with a lethal combination of cocaine and morphine.

Chris Farley with a phone held onto his ear with a headband sitting behind a desk

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Sadly, despite his numerous runs to rehab, the comedian’s reckless lifestyle got the better of him. At the time of his death, Farley had been working on Shrek and had already voiced about 80% of his dialogue as the loveable ogre.

Shrek Turned Into a Scottish Ogre

Farley wasn’t physically present in the animated film, so replacing his voicework was relatively easy and didn’t require any special effects or digital tricks. Still, his presentation was one of a kind, and producers struggled to think of anyone suitable for the job of replacing him.

Chris Farley smiling on the red carpet / Mike Myers making a funny face on the red carpet

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They ultimately recruited Mike Myers, another SNL star who demanded that he re-voice the whole script from beginning to end. Farley’s American accent didn’t sit well with Myers, so he ditched it and turned the green-skinned ogre into a Scottish beast.

River Phoenix Took His High One Step Too Far

At just 19, Joaquin Phoenix had to call 911 to report his older brother River’s deadly overdose. The two were hanging out at L.A.’s Viper Room nightclub, along with several other friends, when River took his high one step too far and ended up convulsing on the stony pavement outside.

Joaquin and River Phoenix eating out of a pan on the stovetop

Joaquin and River Phoenix. Photo by Dianna Whitley / Getty Images

River was 23 at the time of his death and only three weeks away from completing the 1993 thriller, Dark Blood, a film he had been shooting in Utah’s deserts. Grief, confusion, and anguish flooded the film’s crew, who were left wondering what to do next.

Dark Blood’s Footage Remained Untouched for Nearly Two Decades

The film was more than halfway done when River died, but director George Sluizer still preferred to shelve it. Dark Blood’s footage was kept under wraps for almost two decades until, in 2012, an 80-year-old Sluizer decided it was time to bring closure to the film.

River Phoenix with a woman and man standing in a desert

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Surprisingly, none of the Phoenixes wanted anything to do with River’s last film and refused to go along with Sluizer’s plan. Sluizer ignored people’s dubious comments and went ahead with it. He reedited the material and managed to debut the film in 2012 at the Netherlands Film Festival.

Bruce Lee’s Surprisingly Young Death

Bruce Lee’s unbeatable character was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before in action films. But despite his lean physique, clean lifestyle, and healthy habits, the martial arts legend died at the surprisingly young age of 32 from a cerebral edema (a swelling in the brain).

Bruce Lee in Game of Death with his hands up ready to fight

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At the time of his passing, Bruce was busy working on his action movie titled, ironically, The Game of Death. Unlike the other deaths on this list, Bruce’s demise was a double blow because not only was he the star of the show, but he was also the film’s director.

It Was Hard to Hide His Absence

It felt virtually impossible to keep on going without him. With only 100 minutes of footage and too many key sequences left undone, The Game of Death was pretty much, well, dead. But not everyone was willing to give up on Lee’s dream, and five years later director Robert Clouse came to the rescue.

Bruce Lee mid-air about to kick Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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He hired stand-ins and managed to (sort of) salvage the film by using some ridiculous tactics to hide the fact that the actor wasn’t Lee. He went so far as to badly map an image of Lee’s face over one of the stand-ins. Viewers weren’t happy with the end result.

Brandon Lee Was Accidentally Shot to Death

In a freaky turn of events, Bruce Lee’s son Brandon followed in his dad’s footsteps and died halfway through shooting his own film titled, The Crow. While Brandon believed it would be his breakout movie, it ended up being the death of him.

Brandon Lee sitting in make up in a chair in a deserted mansion

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Only eight short days away from completing the film, Brandon was killed after actor Michael Massee fired an actual bullet right into his abdomen. The “prop” gun was supposed to be charged with a few dummy bullets, and apparently one of them was missing its safety tip.

They Had Enough Footage to Salvage the Film

Unlike his dad’s film, Brandon’s movie had way more footage in the can when he died. With enough material on hand, executives decided to finalize The Crow by tinkering around with the material and rewriting certain parts of the script.

Brandon Lee talking to a crow on a tree branch in the rain

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The Crow proved to be a “sleeper hit” at the box office, meaning that it took a while for viewers to warm up to it. The film ultimately grossed a worldwide total of nearly $100 million, making Brandon a posthumous star, just like his legendary dad.

Richard Harris Was No Longer Hogwarts’ Leading Wizard

Irish actor Richard Harris was cast as Harry Potter’s first Professor Dumbledore back in 2000. He completed two films, The Philosopher’s Stone and The Chamber of Secrets, before passing away from pneumonia in the fall of 2002.

Richard Harris as Dumbledore on the left and Michael Gambon as Dumbledore on the right

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Producers contemplated digitally recreating Harris’ character for the remaining films, but (luckily) scrapped that idea and opted to recast instead. Michael Gambon was then chosen to save the day and became Hogwarts’ new leading wizard.

Anton Yelchin’s Freaky Car Accident

Anton Viktorovich Yelchin played the role of Pavel Chekov in the Star Trek franchise. The rising star looked like he had a promising future ahead of him in the industry, before a fatal car crash took away his life. In 2016, he was found between his Jeep and a brick pillar outside his L.A. home.

Anton Yelchin and Chris Pine in uniforms in a scene from Star Trek

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In what could only be considered a freak accident, Anton had exited his car to double-check his gate and mail when his car rolled back down the driveway and trapped him against the pillar and a security fence. Following his death, Star Trek’s producers announced they would not recast and would write his character out of any subsequent films.

Roy Scheider Died Before Finishing His Last Movie

Roy Scheider had an incredibly impressive career as an actor. He starred in All That Jazz, Jaws, The French Connection, and many more films. Scheider’s final role was in the Holocaust film Iron Cross, in which he played a Holocaust survivor who takes vengeance on the officer who killed his family. At the time of filming, the actor was in his seventies and battling cancer.

Roy Scheider looking into the distance in a scene from Iron Cross

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Partially through filming, his cancer took a turn for the worse, and Scheider was forced to check into a hospital, where he died shortly after. After his passing, director Joshua Newton finished the film using CGI to “revive” Scheider.

Star Wars’ Princess Leia Is Deeply Missed

Carrie Fisher was fully present on the set of Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi. However, by the time the movie came out, Fisher had been gone for almost a year. Her death at the end of 2016 at the age of 60 was a startling and heartbreaking moment for fans worldwide.

Carrie Fisher on the ship in a scene from Star Wars the Last Jedi

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Fisher had finished shooting all her scenes, so the film unfolded as planned. But the whole crew decided to dedicate the film to the legendary Leia, ending the movie with the dedication: “In loving memory of our princess, Carrie Fisher.”

Filmmakers Got Creative for Mr. Potato Head

Legendary comedy star Don Rickles took on the role of Mr. Potato Head in Toy Story 4, but tragically died of kidney failure before he was able to record any dialogue. When the comedian’s family asked if there was any way to include him in the film, producers got creative.

Don Rickles holding a Mr Potato Head doll on the red carpet

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Director Josh Cooley dished, “We went through, jeez, 25 years of everything we didn’t use for Toy Story 1, 2, 3, the theme parks, the Ice Capades, the video games — everything that he’s recorded for Mr. Potato Head. And we were able to do it. And so, I’m very honored that they asked us to do that, and I’m very honored that he’s in the film. Nobody can replace him.”

Jean Harlow and Saratoga

In 1963, 26-year-old Jean Harlow was a glamorous actress and seductive sex symbol. Sadly, she passed away out of the blue from kidney failure while filming the romantic comedy Saratoga. Originally, the studio thought of reshooting her part but decided not to after her devoted fans complained.

Clark Gable and Jean Harlow in the film Saratoga

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They kept her in the film by filling in her remaining scenes with doubles who were shot from behind or had their faces obscured with creative costumes and lighting tricks. The movie was released only seven weeks after her death and became one of the year’s biggest hits.

Cory Monteith’s Heartbreaking Death

In 2013, Glee star Cory Monteith sadly died from a toxic mix of illegal drugs and alcohol. His tragic demise rattled everyone on the show, and production was delayed so that the writers could figure out how to adjust the story following their quarterback’s death.

Cory Monteith with Jayma Mays standing in the band room in Glee

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The show had his character, Finn, die off-screen and created a touching tribute episode dedicated to him. “There was no greater man than Cory,” Lea Michele told Australia’s TV Week, “So, for the time we spent together, I consider myself very lucky.”

Naya Rivera’s Chilling Death

Another Glee alumna, Naya Rivera, drowned in 2020. The young actor and mom of one was out with her little boy on a boat trip when she mysteriously drowned. Reports claim she probably dived in to save him, and upon lifting him back up to safety, got carried away herself.

Naya Rivera and Ne-Yo dancing in the living room in Step Up

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Rivera was in the middle of filming the drama series Step Up when tragedy hit. Her character was set to play a critical role in the series, but, following her sad demise, the script had to be rewritten. The show’s creator, Holly Sorensen paid tribute to the late actress and said, “She was a leader, a creative wunderkind, and a pro.”

Mr. Hooper From Sesame Street

Death is hard to grasp, regardless of your age. But, as an adult, you’re able to (sort of) understand the event a bit better. Trying to explain death to little kids is a lot trickier. When Will Lee, aka Mr. Hooper, passed away from a heart attack, the adult cast struggled to explain to the child actors what had happened to their beloved Big Bird.

Ernie and Bert with Will Lee behind a counter in Sesame Street

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Uncertain how to approach his death, producers eventually decided to have his character die as well. They created a full episode dedicated to the subject of death, covering the uncomfortable yet true nature of our fate.

John Ritter’s Fell Ill Mid-Production

John Ritter starred in several films and shows throughout his prosperous career. His final gig was the role of Paul Hennessey in 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, a series based on a novel of the same name. He starred in Season One, but shortly after he began working on Season Two, he fell ill.

John Ritter with his two on screen daughters in a promotional shot

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Ritter was rushed to a hospital, where he was misdiagnosed as suffering from a heart attack. The actor was actually suffering from an aortic dissection, a condition that ultimately claimed his life. After his passing, the show rewrote the script and added his death to the storyline.

Steve Irwin, the Beloved Crocodile Hunter

Steve Irwin’s death broke the hearts of many. A truly special man, Irwin was a joy to watch on our screens! His love for nature and excitement upon seeing new animals was contagious and inspirational. Sadly, the Crocodile Hunter passed away while filming in Queensland.

Steve Irwin holding a baby alligator

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When he spotted a huge stingray in the water, Irwin approached it cautiously, but the stingray attacked and claimed his life. The crew managed to get Steve back on the boat, but he was pronounced dead before the medics arrived.