12 Movies That Had To Shoot Around Actors' Untimely Deaths

One of the fundamental maxims of show business is, "The show must go on." Unforeseen problems will always jeopardize a production, and professionals must find a way to solve them, no matter what. When a lead actor dies mid-production, this rule gets taken to its logical conclusion. The show does go on, and filmmakers usually find ways to shoot around an actor's departure. How they do it depends on a variety of factors: the size of the role, how much of the movie has already been filmed, available budget and technology, and even just the distinctiveness of the performer in question.

But every film production is different, and filmmakers who have tried to replace their stars have had varying degrees of success. Here are some films that lost a major cast member in the middle of production, and the creative ways by which filmmakers were able to complete the picture.

  • The Role: Ledger plays Tony Shepard, a charismatic drifter who joins a traveling sideshow. Dr. Parnassus's show involves a fantastical alternate reality called "the Imaginarium." Once inside, customers can either choose between a more difficult path of self-improvement, or an ostensibly easier path of pleasure that ultimately leads to their doom. For centuries, Dr. Parnassus and the Devil have been using the Imaginarium to compete for people's souls. At the beginning of the film, Parnassus hires Shepard to lead customers into the Imaginarium and hopefully down the right path. 

    The Tragedy: Heath Ledger perished suddenly of an accidental prescription medication overdose in January 2008, in the middle of filming Parnassus. Ledger had already established himself as a rising Hollywood superstar, including a highly acclaimed role in 2005's Brokeback Mountain. When he passed, he had recently finished filming the role of the Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, for which Ledger would win a posthumous Oscar. He was 28.

    How The Movie Dealt With It: Director Terry Gilliam was able to use the film's unique premise to his advantage. Most of Ledger's unfilmed scenes took place inside the Imaginarium. Because the world inside the Imaginarium varies depending on each visitor's unique desires, Tony's appearance could plausibly change whenever he brought in a new guest. Gilliam ended up using Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell in these scenes, each as a different Imaginarium incarnation of Ledger's character. Gilliam used multiple stars because he felt no one actor was capable of replacing Ledger.

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  • The Role: Walker played Brian O'Conner, a major character throughout the Fast & Furious movies, appearing in all but the third installment. In the original film, O'Conner is an undercover cop who infiltrates Dom Toretto's (Vin Diesel) ring of illegal street racers, but over the course of the series, he becomes a member of the crew. Brian was the biggest film role of Walker's career. 

    The Tragedy: Walker lost his life in a single-car accident when he crashed his Porsche in Santa Clarita, CA. The incident took place on November 30, 2013, during a break from filming Furious 7. Walker was 40 years old.

    How The Movie Dealt With It: Losing a lead actor can be especially devastating to a movie franchise because of the long relationship established between the star and the audience. Walker was one of the Furious franchise mainstays with millions of fans around the world, so replacing him with another actor wasn't an option. At the time, Walker had finished filming many of the film's action sequences, but hadn't yet completed scenes that were more character-driven. Since these required more emotional depth, they were actually trickier to complete without Walker than a frenetic action sequence would have been. Director James Wan used lookalikes to complete some of these shots, including actor John Brotherton and Walker's brothers, Cody and Caleb. But for shots that required Walker's face to be visible, Wan's team used visual effects to recreate him digitally. 

    Producers also used the break in production to rewrite the script. While the original version was going to set up the mission for the next movie, the revised script had to write Walker's character out of the series. Brian O'Conner is last seen playing on a beach with his family before driving off into the sunset.

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  • The Role: Proximo, the retired gladiator and current slave trader who purchases Maximus (Russell Crowe). Proximo initially regards his gladiators as replaceable, but eventually comes to support Maximus and his allies against the unscrupulous Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). He pays the price with his life. 

    The Tragedy: Oliver Reed was one of the major British movie stars of the 20th century. He rose to particular prominence in 1968 thanks to his performance as Bill Sikes in the Best Picture-winning Oliver! He was also a lifelong heavy drinker, and Gladiator director Ridley Scott made him promise to stay sober during filming. Reed partly complied by only drinking on weekends. He passed on the floor of a pub in Malta after reportedly only having a couple beers. Screenwriter David Franzoni later said that Reed perished moments after challenging a group of British sailors to a drinking match. The cause was a heart attack. He was 61. 

    How The Movie Dealt With It: Ridley Scott relied on unused footage to fill out some of Reed's scenes. When that wasn't possible, Scott used a stand-in and later added Reed's face digitally.

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  • The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 (Philip Seymour Hoffman)
    Photo: Lionsgate

    The Role: Plutarch Heavensbee, a character who becomes increasingly important during the Hunger Games movie franchise. In the first film, it's a non-speaking role played by another actor. Hoffman joined the cast for the second film in 2013. At that point, Heavensbee becomes the new Gamemaker. Although he convinces President Snow that he's a loyal subject, in fact he's a leader of the rebellion and assists Katniss throughout the final three films of the series. 

    The Tragedy: Hoffman, one of America's most prominent and respected actors, was found lifeless in his Manhattan apartment on February 2, 2014. He passed from mixed substance interaction with multiple narcotics in his system, including heroin and coke. He was 46.

    How The Movie Dealt With It: The two installments of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay were filmed back-to-back beginning in September 2013. At the time of Hoffman's demise, two of his major scenes were still incomplete. Although it likely would have been possible to replace him with CGI, director Francis Lawrence opted to replace Heavensbee in the scenes with Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), respectively. Most notably, his final words to Katniss were intended to be spoken to her in person; in his absence, the scene was altered so that Haymitch reads a letter from Plutarch.

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  • The Crow (Brandon Lee)
    Photo: Miramax

    The Role: Eric Draven, a heavy metal guitarist slain defending his fiancee. One year after his demise, a supernatural crow visits his grave, brings him back to life, and gives him superhuman fighting abilities. Eric becomes the Crow, and begins a quest for revenge.

    The Tragedy: Brandon Lee was an up-and-coming movie star when he passed. His father, Bruce Lee, perished when he was just 8 years old. Born into show business, Brandon at first resisted becoming a martial arts movie star like his father. Brandon began his career with roles in foreign-language movies and TV projects, and The Crow was his first star turn.

    Brandon's passing was one of the most infamous on-set accidents in Hollywood history. Earlier in production, the props department had placed a dummy bullet with a real lead tip inside the barrel of a prop gun to get a close-up. Weeks later, the same piece was used for a scene in which Draven is shot at close range, but crucially, the props department forgot to remove the lead tip from the barrel. During filming, the actor pulled the trigger and fired a blank, but the explosion was still powerful enough to shatter the lead tip and send a bullet fragment into Brandon's abdomen. The fragment struck his spine and after six hours of surgery, he passed on March 31, 1993. He was just 28 years old. 

    How The Movie Dealt With It: Initially, director Alex Proyas was too distraught to continue the film. It took Brandon's fiance Eliza Hutton and several crew members to convince Proyas to return, but about a third of the original crew refused to return to set. Completing the film required script rewrites and an additional $8 million. For Eric Draven's remaining scenes, Proyas used stuntmen Jeff Cadiente and Chad Stahelski (now known as the John Wick mastermind) as body doubles and superimposed Brandon's face onto them.

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  • The Role: Hai Tien, a retired martial artist whom Korean gangsters force to infiltrate a heavily guarded pagoda and swipe a coveted object. (Exactly what the object is has been lost to time, which we'll get to below.) The pagoda is multiple stories and packed with warriors, each one specializing in a different martial arts style and each one tougher than the last. 

    The Tragedy: Bruce Lee perished suddenly and unexpectedly at just 32 years old in July 1973. The cause of his demise was a cerebral edema, AKA a swelling in the brain caused by excess fluid. Lee did have a recent history of brain health issues - his fatal edema followed another edema two months earlier - but the exact cause of the edema is unknown. Doctors have theorized that it was anything from sensitivity to Equagesic, a tranquilizer and analgesic he took earlier that day; sensitivity to hash, which he'd also consumed that day; or heatstroke.

    How The Movie Dealt With It: Today, Lee is remembered as perhaps the greatest martial arts movie star of all time. But his life was cut short just as he was getting an opportunity for crossover success. Lee wrote, produced, directed, and starred in Game of Death. He had already completed up to 100 minutes of footage for the film when Warner Bros. approached him with an opportunity to star in Enter the Dragon. Since it was the first martial arts film produced by a Hollywood studio, and because it had an unprecedented budget of $850,000, Lee had to accept the offer. He passed days before Enter the Dragon premiered, and before he could finish Game of Death.

    Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse was hired to finish Game of Death, and immediately ran into problems beyond Lee's absence. Some of the footage was lost, as well as major plot details, like the identity of the object inside the pagoda. Clouse still tried to cobble together a film using footage from Lee's other movies. When he needed new footage, he used various techniques to replace Lee, but none were particularly successful. Some scenes were completed using body doubles in disguises like heavy makeup, unconvincing fake beards, or a motorcycle helmet. For one scene, a cardboard cutout of Lee was used. Although the film was technically finished and released, many fans don't consider Game of Death complete.

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