Anton Yelchin's tragic death in 2018 was a sad reminder of other great performers who were taken from us far too soon. Due to the generally abrupt and unplanned nature of their passing, they often leave behind one last movie to be released posthumously, thus giving us one final opportunity to appreciate their considerable talents. Here are some famous swan songs from some of our favorite actors and actresses.
Philip Seymour Hoffman was forty-six and settling into the prime of his already brilliant performing career when we lost him to a drug overdose in 2014. He died before he could finish his work in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2,” forcing the filmmakers to rewrite a pair of crucial scenes to feature other characters. His understated portrayal of Plutarch Heavensbee had been a highlight of the previous two films, and his relative absence in the final installment served to underscore the immense loss filmgoers felt in the wake of his untimely passing.
An exciting young actor whose best work was still ahead of him, Anton Yelchin received posthumous raves at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival for his turn as a drug dealer in the black comedy “Thoroughbreds.” Yelchin had been killed the previous year in a freak automobile accident outside of his Studio City home. The 27-year-old left behind a trove of sensational performances in films like “Green Room”, “Only Lovers Left Alive” and “Star Trek.”
James Dean’s meaty method-actor portrayal of Cal Trask in 1955’s “East of Eden” announced him as one of the most exciting performers of his generation and an impossibly gorgeous matinee idol, but several months after the film’s release, he was killed in a car accident en route to an automobile race in Salinas, California. He left two films in the can, the first being the iconic “Rebel Without a Cause,” released less than a month after his death. His final performance as oil tycoon Jett Rink in “Giant” hit theaters the following year, and earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
The tragic shooting death of Brandon Lee on the set of “The Crow” in 1993 infuses the somber superhero movie with an emotional gravity you wish it didn’t have. He’s magnetic in the film as a supernatural force of vengeance, but the cruelly dashed promise of what might’ve been makes it difficult to watch. Losing Brandon at 28 was a devastating blow to his fans, who’d hoped he would have the long career that was tragically denied his father.
Ledger was already considered one of the most talented actors of his generation, but he was on the cusp of unprecedented brilliance when he passed away at the age of twenty-eight from an accidental drug overdose in 2008. He won a posthumous Oscar for his spellbinding portrayal of The Joker in “The Dark Knight.” As for his final performance in “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” it’s a frustratingly unfinished triumph. Faced with the prospect of scrapping the movie entirely, filmmaker Terry Gilliam called upon Johnny Depp, Colin Ferrell and Jude Law to help complete Ledger’s work, resulting in a moving tribute to their one-of-a-kind peer.
The glamorously goofy leading lady of 1930s screwball comedy classics like “Twentieth Century,” “My Man Godfrey” and “Nothing Sacred” had just completed what she considered one of the most rewarding roles of her career in Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be” when she perished in a plane crash while returning home to Hollywood (and her husband Clark Gable) after wrapping up a promotional tour for war bonds. Though controversial at the time given its satirical treatment of the Nazis at the height of World War II, “To Be or Not to Be” is considered a subversive classic today, and the thirty-three-year-old Lombard gave arguably her finest performance as the sweetly unfaithful Polish actress Maria Tura.
Unforgettable as Fredo Corleone in “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II,” John Cazale was only forty-two when he succumbed to lung cancer in 1978. He was in ill health when he shot his scenes as the steel mill worker Stan in Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter”. The studio had asked that he be recast, but Cimino and co-star Meryl Streep, who was in a relationship with Cazale, threatened to walk. It’s an agonizingly brief part for the astoundingly talented actor, but he makes the most of his limited screen time in the 1978 Best Picture winner.
Marilyn Monroe had just been fired from the production of George Cukor’s doomed “Something’s Got to Give” when she died from a barbiturate overdose in 1962 at the age of 36. Her final completed film was 1961’s “The Misfits,” which was also the last film of star Clark Gable (he died from a heart attack soon after the movie was finished). Though the film received mixed notices at the time, Monroe’s work in it is now considered a tantalizing glimpse at the superb dramatic actress she was never allowed to become.
The 40-year-old movie star was on a break from the production from “Furious 7” in 2013 when he was killed in a car wreck along with his friend Roger Rodas. His death forced the filmmakers to rewrite portions of the movie, while the renowned visual effects house Weta was tasked with inserting his digital likeness into scenes that couldn’t be cut. The finished film – which ends with a tear-jerking, happily-ever-after send-off for his character scored to Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” – was warmly received by Walker’s fans.
The explosively talented and funny “Saturday Night Live” alum died from a drug overdose on Dec. 18, 1997, leaving behind two performances, neither of which, sadly, show off his chaotic comedic talents. His final lead performance was in Christopher Guest’s adventure-comedy misfire “Almost Heroes,” while his last on-screen appearance was an uncredited cameo as a short-tempered barfly in the Norm Macdonald vehicle “Dirty Work.”
The 1970s comedy superstar battled substance abuse issues for years before fatally overdosing on cocaine and heroin at the age of 33. His final performance came alongside his friend and Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd in the black comedy “Neighbors." Belushi plays the straight man for a change, and he does it well – even though the film is largely lacking in laughs. It’s a strangely subdued sendoff for the man who put the animal in “Animal House.”
The world fell in love with Gilda Radner thanks to the indelible kooks (e.g. Emily Litella, Baba Wawa and Roseanne Roseannadanna) she played on “Saturday Night Live,” but her film career never took off the way it should’ve. That’s Hollywood’s fault, not hers. Her big-screen career ended quietly with 1986’s “Haunted Honeymoon,” a zany horror comedy that, if nothing else, allowed her to ham it up alongside her husband Gene Wilder. She was diagnosed with cancer after the completion of the film, and fought the disease bravely until her death on May 20, 1989. She left us all wanting so much more.
The martial arts superstar singlehandedly kicked off the kung-fu movie craze in the United States with his Hong Kong films “The Big Boss,” “Fists of Fury,” “Way of the Dragon” and his breakthrough Hollywood smash “Enter the Dragon.” He died in 1973 at the age of 32 from an acute cerebral edema while he was filming the ambitious “Game of Death.” Footage from Lee’s version was released under that title in 1978, but it is a shambles that bears little resemblance to his original vision. It does, however, feature Lee in the iconic yellow tracksuit fighting Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (which inspired Uma Thurman’s outfit in “Kill Bill: Volume 1”).
Generation X lost its Marlon Brando when River Phoenix collapsed and died outside of L.A.’s Viper Room in 1993. He had two films released posthumously, the first being Sam Shepard’s bizarre horror-western “Silent Tongue” in 1994. The second, a thriller called “Dark Blood,” was long considered an unfinished movie, primarily because Phoenix died five weeks into shooting. But nineteen years after the actor’s death, director George Sluizer patched together a version that, though fragmented, featured one last bravura performance from Phoenix.
The original blonde bombshell, Jean Harlow was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1930s thanks to MGM hits like “Red Dust,” “Dinner at Eight” and “Reckless.” But she struggled on-and-off with various illnesses throughout her life, and it all came to a head in 1937 when a prolonged bout with influenza resulted in kidney failure and, ultimately, a cerebral edema, which killed her before she could finish “Saratoga” with co-star Clark Gable. The studio used doubles to complete her performance in the film. Despite being unwell for most of the production, her performance is vintage Harlow.
No one could get a packed theater to roar with laughter like John Candy. A supporting secret weapon early in his career, Candy became a comedic lead thanks to hits like “Summer Rental," “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” and “The Great Outdoors.” He struggled with obesity throughout his career, which could have contributed to the fatal heart attack he suffered in 1994 at the age of 43. His final film, “Canadian Bacon,” stars Candy as an American who starts an international incident when he besmirches Canadian beer at a hockey game. It’s a mixed bag, but a far better showcase for the actor than his dreadful penultimate film (also released posthumously) “Wagons East.”
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.