When a popular actor dies suddenly, they sometimes have an unreleased project or two in the can. And when these projects eventually hit the big screen, it can be hard for audiences to separate their fondness for the late performer from the fictional role they assumed. But occasionally, even setting aside any sentimentality, these films provide something poignant and substantial by which to remember the deceased star – whether the production becomes a roaring critical success, a box-office hit or a long-surviving cult favorite. Indeed, the following ten movies serve as moving and well-respected final testaments to the world-famous actors who tragically died before their release.
10. A Most Wanted Man (2014)
Contemporaries, acquaintances and devotees alike reacted with incredulity following news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unexpected death in February 2014. The star – who has been described as “the greatest actor of his generation” – passed away in the bathroom of his Manhattan residence after taking an assortment of illegal and prescription drugs. Six months later, British spy thriller A Most Wanted Man – one of four movies featuring Hoffman to be released after his death – hit U.S. theaters, going on to become a critical triumph. Indeed, Rolling Stone called Hoffman’s understated portrayal of Günther Bachmann “simply magnificent,” while the Los Angeles Times said that he was “at the top of his form” in what was ultimately a “crackerjack thriller.” Meanwhile, USA Today added that Hoffman’s performance was “breathtakingly nuanced.”
9. Enough Said (2013)
James Gandolfini was most famous for playing emotionally troubled yet merciless crime kingpin Tony Soprano on HBO mafia mega-hit The Sopranos. So much so, in fact, that many were caught off guard by his sweet, charismatic performance as Albert, alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in romantic comedy-drama Enough Said. Released in the U.S. in September 2013, the production went on to garner widespread critical acclaim, as evidenced by a slew of award nominations. Indeed, Gandolfini was to win Best Supporting Actor honors from the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Chicago Film Critics Association for his role. Sadly, though, the actor didn’t make the film’s opening, and his awards were conferred posthumously, as Gandolfini died of a heart attack in June 2013 while taking a break in Rome.
8. Gladiator (2000)
Legendary British thespian Oliver Reed was almost as well known for his wild boozy nights and drunken talk show appearances as he was for his acting ability. It was the latter talent on display, though, in Reed’s final role as gladiator mentor Proximo in Ridley Scott’s award-winning historical drama Gladiator. Sadly, Reed was struck down by a heart attack in May 1999 while shooting the epic in Valletta, Malta. Following the actor’s death, his performance – and hastily written on-screen death – was completed via expensive CGI and the help of a stand-in. Gladiator was released in May 2000, a year after Reed’s demise, and went on to win five Academy Awards and gross over $457 million at the worldwide box office. There was also critical acclaim for Reed’s performance; in particular, Empire magazine described the actor’s turn as “remarkably vociferous and effective.”
7. Gridlock’d (1997)
Vondie Curtis-Hall’s stark 1997 black comedy, Gridlock’d, may have underperformed at the box office, but it’s since become a cult classic – thanks, in part, to co-lead Tupac Shakur being shot and killed four months ahead of its January release date. And, impressively, Gridlock’d currently holds an 88 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while Film4 describes it as a “dark, effective satire about drug addiction that offers laughs as well as savage criticism of the U.S. approach to dealing with users.” Shakur’s showing, in particular, received critical praise. The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “[Shakur] played this part with an appealing mix of presence, confidence and humor.” Legendary film critic Roger Ebert, meanwhile, awarded the movie three out of four stars and called it Shakur’s “best performance.”
6. The Dark Knight (2008)
Health Ledger’s haunting portrayal of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman sequel, The Dark Knight, was so exceptional that he was awarded more than two dozen Best Supporting Actor prizes; this led to him becoming only the second winner of a posthumous acting Oscar. In fact, The Dark Knight was nominated for eight Oscars overall and won two, making it the most acknowledged superhero movie in Academy Awards history and Ledger the only actor to scoop a prize for a comic book-style role. The film was released in July 2008, almost six months after Ledger’s tragic death, officially attributed to “the result of acute intoxication by the combined effects” of various prescription drugs. The picture was dedicated to Ledger and stuntman Conway Wickliffe, the latter of whom died practicing a stunt for the movie.
5. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
Spencer Tracy was one of the most highly regarded stars of Tinseltown’s “golden age” and was put forward for an incredible nine Best Actor Oscars, winning two along with an array of other awards. In 1967 Tracy starred opposite real-life partner Katharine Hepburn for a ninth and final time in Stanley Kramer’s celebrated comedy-drama Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which explores the idea of an interracial liaison. Regrettably, Tracy was in a bad way while shooting the movie and died of a heart attack in June 1967, just 17 days after filming had wrapped and six months before the feature was released. Tracy was posthumously nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance but lost out to Rod Steiger.
4. The Misfits (1961)
Director John Huston’s 1961 romantic Western, The Misfits, is notable as the final finished movie to feature iconic Hollywood stars Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The actors did not get along, however, with Gable prophetically complaining on the last day of the shoot that performing alongside Monroe almost caused him to suffer a cardiac arrest. Tragically, Gable would pass away in November 1960 – soon after filming wrapped – as a result of coronary thrombosis following a heart attack. The film premiered in February 1961, and although it was a disappointment at the box office, both Monroe and Gable’s performances are highly regarded by critics. Impressively, the production has a perfect 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where one critic praised it for critiquing “Hollywood’s cowboy myth.”
3. Enter the Dragon (1973)
Bruce Lee came to Golden Harvest studios in May 1973 to dub lines for the then soon-to-be-released film Enter the Dragon, but left in an ambulance after collapsing and becoming non-responsive. The cause of the iconic martial artist and movie star’s distress was attributed to cerebral edema – a build-up of fluid in the brain. The same condition would ultimately cause his death just over two months later at the tragically young age of 32. Arguably Lee’s best and most admired movie, Enter the Dragon was released in the U.S. in August 1973 and went on to gross $90 million globally – which is incredible considering the fact that it was made for around $850,000. It currently holds a hugely impressive 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 44 member reviews.
2. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
In September 1955, James Dean became the eternal poster boy for unruly “live fast, die young” adolescents after dying aged just 24 in a car crash. The fact that his penultimate movie is titled Rebel Without a Cause likely adds to his near-mythical status. Released in October 1955, less than four weeks after Dean’s death, Rebel Without a Cause was well regarded by critics and has gone on to become a classic. It currently holds a rating of 96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, where it is described as a “landmark juvenile-delinquent drama.” Dean was nominated for a BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Actor for his performance, while the picture itself was put forward for Best Film. Rebel Without a Cause was also nominated for three Academy Awards.
1. The Crow (1994)
Speculation that a curse had been placed on the late Bruce Lee’s family intensified when his only son Brandon died in March 1993, while filming dark comic book adaptation The Crow. In a cruel twist of fate, the actor was killed by a gunshot while acting out his on-screen death, as the dummy gun fired at him contained a stray live round. Much as with Oliver Reed’s appearance in Gladiator, the movie was finished some time later using computer effects and body stand-ins for Lee’s unfinished scenes. The Crow was released in the U.S. in May 1994, just over a year after Brandon’s demise, and went on to become a commercial and critical success, spawning both a cult fan base and a string of sequels.