Handling Death in the Midst of Making Movies

The loss of "Fast and Furious" actor Paul Walker isn't the first time a film's tried to go on after losing one of its leads

BRITAIN Fast and Furious Premiere

The tragic and unexpected death of actor Paul Walker in the midst of filming the seventh installment of the “Fast and Furious” film franchise has, of course, caused the cast and crew to halt production to both grieve and to consider just how the film might move forward without him.

The “Fast” sequel – slated to arrive in theaters on July 11 – isn’t the first high-profile film to face uncertainty in the wake of the tragic loss of one of its biggest stars: here are just some of the many ways Hollywood found to move forward following the death of a leading player.

In 1958 the dashing, swashbuckling 44-year-old leading man Tyrone Power was filming director King Vidor’s Biblical epic “Solomon and Sheba” in Spain when he died of a heart attack. Though Powers had shot nearly three-quarters of the film, the role of Solomon was recast with Yul Brynner; eagle-eyed viewers can still spot Powers in long shots – and in the dueling sequence.

When 36-year-old Marilyn Monroe died of a barbiturate overdose in 1962 in what are still mysterious and oft-debated circumstances, she was in the middle of filming the romantic comedy “Something’s Got to Give." The film itself was already the subject of her then-contentious relationship with the film’s studio, Twentieth Century Fox, and frosty rapport with her director, George Cuckor. Fox had already fired Monroe and attempted to recast her role with starlet Lee Remick, but leading man Dean Martin, who had co-star approval, objected. Monroe was ultimately reinstated but her death sealed the film’s fate – at least, under that title: a year later the script was reworked as “Move Over, Darling” starring Doris Day and James Garner.

Funnyman John Belushi was discovered dead of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont Hotel in Los Angeles in 1982. At the time the 33-year-old actor had been contemplating a number of film projects, including a paranormal comedy script written by his longtime collaborator Dan Aykroyd with a role tailored especially for him. That film – “Ghostbusters” – would eventually become one of the most popular comedies of all time, with another pal, Bill Murray, taking on the Belushi-inspired role of Dr. Peter Venkman.

Character actor Vic Morrow, 53, was killed along with two child actors in a freak helicopter accident during the filming of “The Twilight Zone: The Movie” in 1983. Enough footage existed to complete his segment of the anthology movie, though the helicopter sequence and all scenes involving the children were removed from the final cut.

Also in 1983 the drowning death of Natalie Wood at age 43 nearly caused her final film “Brainstorm” to be scrapped – its cash-strapped studio MGM had already been itching to halt production even before the tragedy – but director and special effects wizard Douglas Trumball was able to complete the film with insurance payouts. Enough footage of Wood existed to allow for a rewrite and some creative editing and body doubling, and the film was dedicated to Wood’s memory.

When Brandon Lee, the 28-year-old son of the late actor/martial arts master Bruce Lee, accidentally killed himself with a prop pistol during filming of “The Crow” in 1993, only eight days of shooting remained. The initial distribution studio, Paramount, backed away from the film over concerns about the tie between its violent subject matter and the real-life tragedy, but Miramax picked it up and added financing. After a respectful production break – and with the blessing of Lee’s fiancée – the film was completed using rewrites, stunt doubles and special effects that digitally pasted the actor’s face onto their bodies.

In 1993 River Phoenix was in the middle of production in his final film “Dark Blood” when, during a break in shooting, he died of a drug overdose outside the Viper Room at age 23. With only about 80% of the film finished and key scenes still to be shot, “Dark Blood” was ultimately uncompleted – although over time director George Sluizer would rework the film and screen a fragmentary cut at various film festivals in 2012 and 2013. Additionally, several upcoming projects Phoenix had signed on to, including “Interview With a Vampire” had to recast.

Comedian John Candy, 43, had completed filming on his latest comedy “Wagons East!” only a few hours before he died of a heart attack in 1994. Despite it being among two posthumous film releases featuring Candy, the film was a critically derided and flopped at the box office.

Burly longtime bad boy Oliver Reed died of a heart attack in 1999 prior to finishing production on director Ridley Scott’s epic “Gladiator," in which he played the aged slave dealer Proximo. The Britsh post-production company The Mill created a digital body double and layered on a CGI mask of the 61-year-old actor’s face to complete his shadowy scenes – costing over $3 million for two minutes of footage. It paid off: not only was the film a massive hit at the box office, Reed was posthumously nominated for a British Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.

One of the more creative solutions to the loss of a lead actor came in the wake of Heath Ledger’s death in 2008 from a prescription drug overdose. Ledger, 28, had already completed his now-iconic performance as The Joker in “The Dark Knight” and was in the midst of filming director Terry Gilliam’s fantasy “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.”

With the loss of Ledger occurring only one-third of the way through production, Gilliam still hoped to complete the film.  He ultimately took an inventive approach: the character was split into multiple incarnations, with Ledger representing the “real world” version while the actor’s admiring close friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell each essaying the role as it appears in various fantasy realms. Despite the pallor cast over the film by Ledger’s death, it ultimately performed strongly at the box office both internationally and in the U.S.

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