While most human beings enter and leave this planet with little notice, there are those among us whose passing—especially if untimely—captures headlines. Celebrity deaths are not only top news but can, in some cases, create entire cottage industries dedicated to keeping alive the memory of those we deem worthy of our affections.
I’ve included individuals whose deaths were unusual, untimely, or had a profound impact on their profession or society to this day. So now, without further ado, here is my list of the top 10 Hollywood deaths over the last half-century:
10. Vic Morrow, 1982
Long-time Hollywood actor Vic Morrow went out with a bang—literally—when pyrotechnics set off during the filming of a scene for Twilight Zone: The Movie brought down one of the circling helicopters, decapitating the 53-year old actor and killing the two child actors he was holding in his arms at the time. The accident very nearly derailed the careers of director John Landis and producer Steven Spielberg, but both were acquitted on charges of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment (though they did pay a hefty settlement to the victim’s families). The film, being a Landis/Spielberg production, was expected to do well but flopped at the box office—not because of Morrow’s death, but because of choppy writing and the movie’s uneven and bewildering multi-story vignette style. Vic, whose career spanned nearly thirty years, deserved better.
9. Bob Crane, 1978
In one of those truly bizarre incidents Hollywood is famous for, actor Bob Crane—best known for his role as Colonel Hogan in the goofy but successful sixties sitcom Hogan’s Heroes—was found bludgeoned to death in his apartment with a mysterious murder weapon that remains unknown to this day. The case remains unsolved, a friend of Crane’s named John Carpenter was arrested for the murder and tried for the crime in 1990, but he was acquitted due to insufficient evidence. Some allege, that Carpenter maintained a friendship with the actor so he might participate in Crane’s many sex-themed parties (Crane was a reputed sex addict and pornographer) and that he became angry when Crane broke off their friendship the previous day. The only suspect, Carpenter died from natural causes in 1998 so the case will probably never be solved and remains one of the more famous—and most sordid—celebrity murder mysteries to this day.
8. Nicole Brown Simpson, 1994
This is a case of someone becoming famous only after their death and only because their alleged murderer—in this case one-time football great O.J. Simpson—was more famous still. The brutal stabbing death of Simpson’s ex-wife—along with her friend Ron Goldman (who apparently was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time) resulted in one of the most bizarre and racially charged trials of the century. Somehow, after a media circus of unprecedented proportions, Simpson—packing one of the slickest defense teams on the planet—managed to walk away from this gruesome scene free as a bird (the glove didn’t fit, it seems) though he was never able to regain his reputation. Later he lost a wrongful death civil suit that ordered him to cough up $33.5 million dollars in damages and, in 2007, he was convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping, which some might surmise has further tarnished his once sterling reputation.
7. Sharon Tate, 1969
While not a particularly famous star at the time, the beautiful wife of Polish director Roman Polanski became the unfortunate subject of one of the most famous and gruesome murders in modern history—rivaling even that of Jack the Ripper. Accosted in her Los Angeles home on the evening of August 8, 1969 by members of the Charles Manson gang, she, along with four other people in the house, were strangled and/or bludgeoned and stabbed numerous times. Eight months pregnant at the time, the news of her death shocked the nation and turned the trial of Manson and his followers into one of the first media circuses. Manson remains in prison for his role in the killings (he didn’t directly participate in the murders but was able to induce his brain-addled followers to do the dirty work). He maintains his claim of innocence to this day, as well as remaining convinced that he may very well be the messiah.
6. Marilyn Monroe, 1962
The sultry 36-year old blond bombshell was found dead in the bedroom of her Brentwood, California home in August of 1962. Her death was originally considered a prescription barbiturate induced suicide, though later some suggested she was murdered. Why? According to conspiracy buffs, she had a well-known relationship with President Kennedy, which may have included some genuine White House hanky-panky. This affair needed to be kept quiet lest word of his indiscretions got out, costing the recently elected Senator from Massachusetts his bid for a second term in 1964. Since then, her death has been investigated to death, making her one of the few people who really may be more famous in death than she was ever likely to be in life.
5. Buddy Holly, 1959
When up-and-coming singer and pioneer rock-and-roller Buddy Holly died in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa on February 2, 1959 it abruptly ended the career of someone who could arguably have become the most important voice in Rock and Roll. Holly, who was touring with a group that included Dion and the Belmonts, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson (the latter two of whom also died in the crash), had rented the charter at the last minute rather than spend another miserable night in their perennially broken down, unheated bus. Unfortunately, as soon as they got airborne their equally young pilot decided the near white-out conditions were not conducive to flying and tried to turn back, only to fly the plane right into the ground, killing all of them instantly. In a note of irony, future Country Western star Waylon Jennings, who had been playing bass guitar for Holly during the tour, lost a coin-toss with Valens for the fourth seat on the plane. It was to be something that would haunt him the rest of his life.
4. James Dean, 1955
James Dean died in a high speed car crash in California in the fall of 1955. People today may find it hard to understand the impact that the death of the up-and-coming 24-year old actor had on an entire generation of school kids who dreamed, in vain, of being as cool as the sultry Dean. Ironically, just a few weeks before Dean wrapped his sleek, silver Porsche Spyder around the grill of a 1950 Ford Tudor Coupe (driven by a guy with the unlikely name of Donald Turnipseed), he had made a short film clip encouraging drivers to slow down and “take it easy out there”. Too bad he didn’t take his own advice, for he had been ticketed earlier that day for speeding. (Evidence suggests, however, he wasn’t speeding at the time of the accident, but when two cars collide head on at speeds in excess of 50 mph, does it really matter?)
3. John Lennon, 1980
No one could imagine one of the Fab Four dying, much less being shot to death by a crazed fan. Then again, such a bizarre ending seemed strangely consistent for the Beatle many consider to have been the most bizarre of the group. John Lennon’s death at the hands of obsessed fan Mark David Chapman in New York City did more than enter his name into the Hall of Unwanted Martyrdom. His death, combined with the attempted shooting of President Reagan and Pope John Paul II a few months later, would lead to a major crackdown of the sale of handguns. Chapman, by the way, never really had a good rationale for why he shot his favorite celebrity and has been cooling his heels in Attica’s famous prison in upstate New York ever since. Eligible for parole since 2000, he has been turned down every year, probably in an effort to protect surviving Beatles Paul and Ringo.
2. Michael Jackson, 2009
In a death eerily reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s, the King of Pop was likewise discovered dead in his home in Los Angeles. Like Presley, initial reports claimed Jackson died of a heart attack, but it was later determined that he probably died from a cocktail of prescription drugs, again taken in massive doses. (It seems that among celebrities, the leading cause of death is being rich enough to afford one’s own personal physician). His death gave quite a boost to his career while prior to his death, his career was waning a bit after he was narrowly acquitted of child molestation charges and skipped the country. His death was unusual in that, unlike Elvis Presley’s, his was officially ruled a homicide and his physician was brought up on charges, but has yet to go to court. In any case, his death proved to be hugely traumatic to his millions of faithful fans around the world who lost not only a pop icon but, to many of them, a minor deity.
1. Elvis Presley, 1977
When the King of Rock and Roll was found dead in his bathroom at Graceland at the age of 42, one would think the world had ended. While for some of his more rabid fans it may have, somehow life went on for the rest of us. What was most controversial about his death was its cause. Originally listed as “cardiac arrhythmia” (basically his heart stopped), it later turned out that Mrs. Presley’s boy had ingested a whole cocktail of prescription drugs—from Morphine and Demerol to Placidyl and Valium—taken in doses no competent doctor would prescribe. Oh, and he also had codeine, quaaludes and a bunch of other drugs in his system which, when combined with the eating habits and diet of an eight-year-old, makes one wonder how he made it to 42. Still, no one could match that honey-laced voice of his then or since, leaving a real hole in the music industry.
Honorable Mentions: Janis Joplin, 1970 (drug overdose), Jim Morrison, 1971 (drug overdose), Jimi Hendrix, 1970 (unintentional prescription overdose), Kurt Cobain, 1994 (suicide), Sal Mineo, 1976 (homicide), Jayne Mansfield, 1967 (car accident) and Tupac Shakur, 1996 (homicide). RIP one and all.
Jeff Danelek is a Denver, Colorado author who writes on many subjects having to do with history, politics, the paranormal, spirituality and religion. To see more of his stuff, visit his website at www.ourcuriousworld.com.