Hollywood is full of sad tales of promising and big-name stars who have passed way before their time. In many cases, these actors and actresses died right after filming a movie or show. Their acting ability, combined with the curiosity of fans wanting to say goodbye to someone whose previous roles meant so much to them, has led to some actors having their last roles being some of their most successful. Here are just a few talents fans adored who left us with one final role to remember them by.
James Dean as Jett Rink in Giant (1956)
James Dean was the epitome of “cool.” So much so, that 67 years after his death in a car accident in 1955 at the young age of 24, you still see posters that focus on his timeless good looks. As big of a star as he was, Dean only made three films in his career. In 1953, he was an unknown when cast in East of Eden. His biggest role came in 1955 with Rebel Without a Cause. Before his death, he had completed filming on his last film, Giant. Starring alongside heavyweights like Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, Dean plays a Texas ranch hand with big dreams who falls for his boss’ wife. Dean would earn a posthumous Academy Award nomination for the role.
Bruce Lee as Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973)
Just like Dean, Bruce Lee is another actor who, despite being gone for decades, still has a massive impact on pop culture. He is idolized by everyone from teens to the elderly. Lee died in 1973 at the age of 32. There were a few projects released after his death, including 1978’s Game of Death, but his biggest is the one that was released just a few months after his passing. Regarded by many as the greatest martial arts film ever made, Enter the Dragon made Lee an immortal icon. Who can ever forget the image of his ripped physique and the bloody scratches on his chest? The fight scenes continue to leave audiences in awe half a century later.
Vic Morrow as Bill Connor in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
This film has the unfortunate distinction of not only being the actor’s last, but also the reason for his death. In 1982, veteran actor Vic Morrow (Combat!, The Bad News Bears), was filming his part for this anthology film based on the popular TV series. His segment was directed by John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, Trading Places) and found Morrow playing a racist man who gets a taste of what it’s like to be discriminated against. In a stunt gone wrong, Morrow and two child actors were killed by a helicopter during the filming of a scene. The segment would be reworked and released, and Morrow would forever be remembered as a hero.
Heather O’Rourke as Carol Anne Freeling in Poltergeist III (1988)
Tobe Hooper’s 1982 horror film Poltergeist is regarded as one of the scariest movies ever made. It was a star-making performance for seven old Heather O’Rourke, who showed range beyond her years as a young girl who is taken to the other side by spirits. Her uttering of “They’re heeeere” is one of horror cinema’s most iconic lines. Six years later, O’Rourke was filming the second sequel, with her Carol Anne character now living with her aunt and uncle in Chicago, when the actress became ill. Six months after production wrapped, O’Rourke died at the tender age of 12. After her death, no more sequels were made to the original franchise.
Brandon Lee as Eric Draven in The Crow (1994)
Brandon Lee was only eight years old when his father, Bruce Lee, passed away. Brandon was on the cusp of superstardom as well, when, like Vic Morrow, he was killed during the filming of his last movie. The Crow, which sees a man resurrected as he seeks revenge on those who killed his fiance, would be one of the biggest hits of the 90s. It’s also one of the hardest movies to watch, knowing that its star passed away during production. During a scene in which The Crow is shot, a freak accident saw Lee shot for real. Most of the movie had already been filmed, making Lee’s work salvageable, and turning him into a legend after his tragic death.
Chris Farley as Bartholomew Hunt in Almost Heroes (1998)
Chris Farley was one of the best parts of Saturday Night Live during the 90s, and his transition to feature films was a success with 1995’s Tommy Boy. After follow-ups like Black Sheep and Beverly Hills Ninja, Farley was on the cusp of becoming a dependable leading man (he’d even been cast as Shrek), but a drug overdose ended his life in late 1997. His last film, a buddy comedy set in the 1800s with Matthew Perry, was not one of his best. But, released six months after he died, it was a fitting way for fans to say goodbye to a comedian who lived to make others laugh.
Aaliyah as Akasha in Queen of the Damned (2002)
At only 21 years old, Aaliyah was on top of the world as a successful pop star who had transitioned into being an actress with a role in the well-received film Romeo Must Die. Her second feature had her on a course to be a movie star, as she would play the lead alongside Stuart Townsend in a loosely based adaptation of novelist Anne Rice’s work, Queen of the Damned. Before the film was released, Aaliyah was tragically killed in a plane crash in the Bahamas after filming her “Rock the Boat” music video. Critics weren’t kind to the film, but Aaliyah’s popularity led to it being number one at the box office on its opening weekend.
Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008)
Ledger was already one of the most popular actors in Hollywood thanks to films like 10 Things I Hate About You and Brokeback Mountain, but the buzz was massive when he was cast as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins. An accidental overdose ended Ledger’s life in January 2008, months before the movie that would make him a movie icon was released. The film smashed box office records and is considered one of the best superhero movies ever made. Ledger’s take on the Joker is still widely seen as the best ever. The Academy Awards agreed, posthumously awarding him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee in Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)
Philip Seymour Hoffman was one of cinema’s greatest character actors. Proof of that can be found in 2005’s Capote, where Hoffman’s take on the author resulted in him taking home an Oscar for Best Actor. In 2013, he became part of the ensemble for the film adaptation of the popular Hunger Games young adult series. The first film got considerable attention from a new generation of moviegoers, becoming a worldwide sensation. At the height of his success, however, Hoffman would sadly die of a drug overdose. Hoffman had already appeared in the first sequel in 2013, but both Mockingjay Part 1 and Mockingjay Part 2 were released posthumously. Hoffman died during the filming of Part 2 and had not finished all his scenes but director Francis Lawrence refused to use CGI to make up for the late actor’s scenes. Instead, a scene that was meant to take place between Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Plutarch (Hoffman) was instead filmed as Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) reading a letter from Plutarch to Katniss.
Paul Walker as Brian O’Conner in Furious 7 (2015)
In the early 2000s, few stars were as big as Walker. Thanks to the Fast and the Furious franchise, guys wanted to be like him, and women swooned over him. Along with Vin Diesel, he made the series one of the highest-grossing film franchises of the 21st century. However, his passion sadly caused his tragic death, as Walker was killed in a high-speed car crash while filming of Furious 7 was still on-going. In 2015, the film was released in his honor. While Walker had filmed most of his scenes before his death, visual effects and the help of his brothers as stand-ins gave fans closure. His last scene with Diesel is one of the most heartbreaking goodbyes.
Chadwick Boseman as Levee Green in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020)
Thanks to his role as T’Challa in Black Panther and multiple Marvel Universe films, Boseman was an action film king. He was more than that though, having wowed audiences and critics alike with a string of acclaimed biopics such as 42 and Marshall. In what would be his last role, Boseman played a troubled musician in the 1920s. Boseman died of colon cancer three months before the film’s release. He and co-star Viola Davis helped to make the film a critical darling. It would go on to be nominated for numerous Oscars, with Boseman himself nominated for Best Actor.