When many people think of celebrities, they think of the good life; fame, fortune, and all the experiences that come along with that. Of course, celebrities are just regular people and they are just as prone to tragedy as anyone else. In some cases, it happens before the person was famous and it helped shaped their professional life. Other times, it happens when the person is already famous and their misfortunes made headlines.
10. James Ellroy
James Ellroy may not be a household name, but he is one of the most acclaimed crime writers alive. His best known novels are LA Confidential and The Black Dahlia. However, his most personal book is My Darkest Places, which examines the unsolved murder of his mother, Geneva “Jean” Ellroy on June 22, 1958.
A few days before the murder, James, who was 10 at the time, had a big fight with his mother, and then he went to his father’s home for the weekend. That was the last time he ever saw her alive. When he returned home to his mother’s house in El Monte, a suburb just outside of Los Angeles, he learned that his mother had been murdered.
The night before she was killed, Jean went to the drive-in with a date. On the way home, the man attacked her. She had been raped and strangled to death with a stocking. After she was dead, the man dumped her body on the side of the road where it was found by some kids on their way to baseball.
As a teenager, Ellroy started doing drugs and committing petty crimes, which led to a short stint in prison. Eventually, Ellroy cleaned up his life and started writing. In 1981, Ellroy published his first novel, Brown’s Requiem, and he has been writing ever since. Unfortunately, His mother’s murder has never been solved.
9. Walt Disney
Walt Disney’s family grew up poor, so when Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a huge success in 1938, Walt decided to buy a house for his parents, Elias and Flora Disney. In November 1938, shortly after moving into the house, Flora called Walt to tell him that the furnace was leaking. Walt then called a repairman, who visited the house, but the problem wasn’t fixed. Just days later on November 26, the housekeeper felt dizzy while making breakfast. After stepping outside the house, she felt better and immediately remembered the leaky furnace. She raced to Elias and Flora’s room and found them on the floor. Elias had tried to carry his wife out of the room, but collapsed. Elias survived, but Flora did not.
Walt was devastated by the loss, and since he purchased the house, Walt blamed himself for the accident. He wouldn’t speak about it for years. However, the accident did teach him the importance of spending time with his family, and he made more time to spend with his own wife and kids.
There is a rumor that this tragedy played with his consciousness for years and this is why many of the characters in Disney cartoons are motherless or their mother dies through the course of the film. Some of them include The Fox and the Hound, Pinocchio, and of course, Bambi. However, the people at Snopes said that Disney used the motherless character motif long before his mother died and it is also a long established theme in literature.
8. Woody Harrelson
In 1985, Woody Harrelson got his big break in acting when he was cast as bartender Woody Boyd in the fourth season of Cheers. He instantly became a fan favorite and won an Emmy for the role in 1989. From there, Woody managed to build a pretty impressive acting career with multiple critical and commercial hit movies and shows to his name, and he has also been nominated for two Academy Awards.
Woody’s life started off fairly rough when his father, Charles V. Harrelson left the family when Woody was only seven-years-old. Years later, while listening to the radio, Woody heard that a man named Charles V. Harrelson was going on trial for murder. Woody didn’t think there were many men with that name in Texas, so he asked his mother about it. It turned out that Woody’s father was a hit man. In 1968, Charles had been arrested for two different murders. In 1970, he was acquitted of murdering carpet-firm executive Alan Berg, and in 1973 he was found guilty of killing Sam Degelia Jr., a grain dealer, for $2,000.
Charles was given 15-years in prison, but he only did five. He wouldn’t stay out of prison for long though. On May 29, 1979, just five months after being released, Charles killed U.S. District Judge John H. Wood Jr. with a sniper rifle. He murdered him on the orders of El Paso drug lord, Jimmy Chagra who paid Charles $250,000 for the hit. Charles was sentenced to two life sentences.
In 1988, Harrelson started visiting his father, who died in prison in 2007.
7. Dylan McDermott
Born Mark Anthony McDermott, Dylan McDermott’s life took a tragic turn in February 1967 in Waterford, Connecticut, when he was only five-years-old. On that night, Dylan’s mother’s boyfriend, John Sponza, told him to leave the apartment that he shared with his mother, Diane McDermott, and his eight-month-old sister. Dylan heard arguing between Diane and Sponza, a violent and drug addicted gangster, and then he heard a gunshot. Dylan stood outside of the apartment and watched the police and paramedics go in. He was also there to see his mother being wheeled out. She had been killed by a single gunshot to the head and it was ruled an accident. Sponza said that she had picked up the gun and it accidentally went off. In a later version of the story, he said that Diane committed suicide.
In 2011, McDermott called the police station in Waterford and he said that he wanted to find out the truth about his mother. A detective agreed to look into the case, and when he did, he quickly concluded it was murder. Diane McDermott had been shot in the back of the head on the left side. However, Diane was right handed. Both of these were clear indications that she didn’t kill herself and since Sponza was the only one in the room when she was shot, it was obvious that Sponza killed her.
Sponza was implicated in two other murders and a number of bank robberies. He was shot to death himself by his fellow gang members in 1972 and his body was dumped in the trunk of a car.
6. Charlize Theron
Academy Award winning actress Charlize Theron was born in rural South Africa in 1975. When she was 12, she started to attend boarding school in nearby Johannesburg.
On the night of June 21, 1991, Charlize was 15 and she was home from boarding school with her mother Gerda. Her father, Charles, who Charlize said was verbally abusive and an alcoholic, was out drinking with Gerda’s brother. When the pair came home, they were drunk, and Charles started firing a gun. He threatened to kill both Charlize and her mother as he tried to get into Charlize’s locked bedroom. Charles fired a round from his shotgun into Theron’s bedroom door and that’s when Gerda grabbed her own gun and shot her husband and her brother. Charlie was killed and her brother was wounded, but survived.
After the fatal shooting, Gerda sent Charlize back to school so she could distance herself from the tragedy. Gerda was never charged; the shooting was deemed self-defense because Gerda was protecting her daughter. Years afterwards, Charlize told people that her father died in a car accident. When she did finally talk about it, Charlize said she would have done the same thing for her daughter and she also said that “It’s a part of me, but it doesn’t rule my life.”
5. Keanu Reeves
Before making it to Hollywood, actor Keanu Reeves had a tough upbringing. His dad abandoned his family when he was three and he rarely saw him afterwards. Keanu, who suffers from dyslexia, dropped out of school and never got his high school diploma. In 1991, Keanu starred in My Own Private Idaho with River Phoenix and the two became good friends. Sadly, Phoenix died from drug related heart failure on Halloween night 1993.
In 1998, Keanu met Jennifer Syme and they started dating. In 1999, Jennifer found out that she was pregnant, but sadly the baby, Ava, was stillborn at eight months into the pregnancy. Jennifer and Keanu broke up a few weeks later, but in spring 2001, they were apparently back together. On the morning of April 2, 2001, Keanu called the authorities because Syme never came home. It turns out that she had been killed in a car accident after leaving a party at Marilyn Manson’s house. Keanu, along with Dave Navarro and David Lynch were her pall bearers. Jennifer was buried in the lot next to their daughter.
4. Kelsey Grammer
Woody Harrelson isn’t the only Cheers alumni to have a tragic family story. Kelsey Grammer, who played Fraser on the beloved 1980s sitcom, also had a life that was poignantly marked with tragedy.
Kelsey’s rough spots started when he was just two-years-old, when his parents divorced. He and his younger sister, Karen, had to move with their mother from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, to her parents’ home in New Jersey. Growing up, Kelsey felt a close connection with his maternal grandfather, but sadly, his grandfather got cancer and died when Kelsey was just 11.
Two years later, outside of Kelsey’s father’s home in St. Thomas, a man named Arthur B. Niles set fire to his father’s car. When his father stepped out of his house, Niles shot him twice, killing him. Niles (yes, we get the irony of his name here, too) was found not guilty by reasons of insanity. He was released for a few months between November 2002 and March 2003, but went back to the hospital after threatening a judge.
Jump ahead to June 30, 1975. Kelsey’s 18-year-old sister Karen had finished her shift as a waitress at a Red Lobster in Colorado Springs and was outside on the curb, waiting for a ride. Three men, led by Freddie Lee Glenn, who was in the midst of a murderous crime spree, pulled up to the restaurant with the intentions of robbing it. When they saw Karen outside, they decided to kidnap her. They took her back to an apartment, where she was raped for several hours.
Afterwards, they led her out of the apartment and took her to a trailer park. Once there, Glenn stabbed Karen and slit her throat and left her to die. After being attacked, Karen crawled for help, but couldn’t find any and died. Glenn was arrested and convicted of the three murders that he committed over a span of less than two weeks and sentenced to death. However, the death sentence was overturned and Glenn was given life in prison, and was eligible for parole in 1996. He was denied and applied again in 2006. At that parole hearing, Kelsey said that he forgave Glenn, but he thought he should never leave prison.
The final tragedy to strike Grammar and his family happened on June 1, 1980. Five years after Karen was murdered, his half-brothers, Stephen and Billy, were killed while scuba-diving off the coast of St. Thomas. Billy didn’t resurface and Stephen suffered a fatal embolism while looking for him. Billy’s body has never been recovered.
3. Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando is one of the most iconic actors of all time, having won two Oscars for Best Actor. In 1954 he won for On the Waterfront and in 1973, he won for The Godfather. Sadly, the drama wouldn’t stay on the screen for Marlon.
The biggest tragedies of his life revolve around two of his 11 biological children – Christian Brando, who was his eldest child and his mother was Brando’s first wife, actress Anna Kashfi, and his half-sister Cheyenne Brando, who was a product of Brando’s third marriage. In 1990, Cheyenne and her boyfriend Dag Drollet moved into the home where Marlon and Christian were living on Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, California. Cheyenne, who was 20 and pregnant with Dag’s baby, told Christian that Dag had been beating her. Christian, who was probably a bit drunk, got his gun, found Dag peacefully watching television, and shot him once in the head. Christian claimed it was an accident and he was just threatening him when the gun accidentally went off. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years, he served six, and he was out in 1996.
Meanwhile, Cheyenne, who had a history of mental problems, was sent out of the country by Marlon because he thought she might hurt Christian’s defense. Notably, after the killing, Cheyenne admitted that Dag never beat her. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia and eventually hospitalized. Sadly, on April 16, 1995 Cheyenne hanged herself in her mother’s home in Tahiti. She was 25. Neither Marlon nor Christian could attend the funeral. Marlon’s health was too frail and Christian, was of course, still in prison.
2. Jennifer Hudson
Before Jennifer Hudson found fame on the third season of American Idol, she was singing on a Disney Cruise Line ship. While Jennifer was voted off in week seven of American Idol, she was able to use the reality show as a launching pad for a successful acting career, which led to an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Dreamgirls in 2007.
Tragedy would strike Jennifer on October 24, 2008, when her 29-year-old brother and 57-year-old mother were shot to death in the family’s home in Chicago. Also, her seven-year-old nephew Julian King was missing. Sadly, Julian would be found dead in an SUV that was taken from the family home; he had been shot twice in the head.
Jennifer’s estranged brother in law, William Balfour, who was married to Julian’s mother, was arrested for the three murders. He has always maintained he never killed his estranged in-laws and stepson. A jury didn’t believe him and he was found guilty. He is currently serving a 120-year sentence.
1. Roy Orbison
Musician Roy Orbison is most famous for his hit songs in the first half of the 1960s like “Only the Lonely” and “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Roy was a rather unique performer, notably, he didn’t move around or dance on stage; he just stood at the microphone, played his guitar, and sang. This worked for him because he had an incredibly powerful voice and he was an innovative songwriter. Offstage, Roy was known as a soft spoken and kind hearted man.
While the first half of the 1960s was amazing for Roy, the second half was marred by tragedy. In 1966, Roy and his wife, Claudette were riding motorcycles in England. He was driving ahead of her when she got into an accident that killed her. Two years later, there was a fire at Roy’s house and the two eldest of his three sons, Roy Duane, 11, and Tony, 6, were both tragically killed.
After the death of his two children, Roy didn’t write music for two years and his career became stagnate in the 1970s. In 1975, he quit recording music. Then in the 1980s, Roy got a career revival when he did a duet with Emmylou Harris, which won a Grammy, and he was part of the super group the Traveling Wilburys alongside Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Jeff Lynn. Orbison died of a heart attack on December 6, 1988, and after his death, his comeback album Mystery Girl was released. It featured the hit song Anything You Want and reached number five on the Billboard charts.