Unfinished Business: A Star’s Death

Hard knocks
Shooting stars can go by so fast.

By Gary Dowell

While Paul Walker’s death in November devastated the friends and fans of the popular actor it also put the future of the “Fast and Furious” franchise in limbo. The seventh film in the series, intended as a starting point for a third trilogy of “F&F” movies – was in mid-filming when Walker died, and the actor still had several major scenes to shoot. The release date has reportedly been pushed back a full year while director James Wan and Universal Studios execs discuss their options, which range from heavy rewrites to starting the production over from scratch.

It’s a difficult situation, and one that sadly occurs from time to time. Following are some past instances when a star died during production, and how filmmakers responded to the challenge:

The Three Stooges Shorts (1956)
When “Shemp” Howard died from a heart attack in 1955, it left Moe and Larry one stooge short and contractually obligated to deliver four more shorts to Columbia Pictures. Budget cuts forced the other two Stooges to complete Rumpus in the Harem, Hot Stuff, Scheming Schemers, and Commotion on the Ocean via use of stock footage, a stand-in, and dialogue dubbed in from previous shorts. Shemp was replaced by Joe Besser later in 1956.

Saratoga (1937)
The original platinum blonde starlet, Jean Harlow, had experienced a meteoric rise to stardom before her tragic death from kidney failure at age 27. Though the movie was 90 percent finished, Universal Studios wanted to re-shoot it with another actress. Harlow’s fans protested, and the film was completed with body and voice doubles. (Co-star Clark Gable likened it to performing with a ghost). The movie was released less than two months after her passing.

 Giant (1956)
James Dean had just one film (East of Eden) in theaters and two more (Rebel Without a Cause and Giant) on the way when he died behind the wheel of his Porsche 550 Spyder in 1955, cutting short one of the most promising acting careers of the era at age 25. Dean still needed some voice dubbing on Giant as co-star Nick Adams impersonated his voice in Dean’s climactic final scene.

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
Legendary schlock director Ed Wood had been working with Dracula star Bela Lugosi on a number of low-budget projects when the latter died of a heart attack in 1956. Wood handled the situation in his own inimitable style by writing Plan 9 aka Grave Robbers from Outer Space, working his unused footage of Lugosi into the film, and using footage of his wife’s chiropractor as a stand-in, even though he bore little resemblance to Lugosi (a problem “solved” by having him hold a cape in front of his face much of the time).

Something’s Got to Give (1962)
Marilyn Monroe already had been fired from and re-hired to this troubled remake of My Favorite Wife when she committed suicide shortly before filming resumed. Twentieth Century-Fox overhauled the film with an entirely new cast and released it as Move Over, Darling in 1963. Monroe’s footage remained unseen until 2001, when it was digitally restored and assembled into a 37-minute segment and released on her 75th birthday.

The Game of Death (1978)
Bruce Lee had completed Enter the Dragon and filmed roughly 100 minutes of footage for Game of Death when a cerebral edema claimed his life in 1973. The epic action centerpiece of the latter (which included battles with Hugh O’Brien and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) had been completed but most of the rest of the film was not. Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse was hired to finish the film via use of stand-ins (including a cardboard cut-out in one shot), archive footage, and (questionably) footage from Lee’s funeral.

The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
This anthology film directed by John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller was almost scrapped when a helicopter crash during a stunt sequence took the lives of actor Vic Morrow and two child actors (who had been illegally hired). Morrow’s segment was left slightly incomplete, and all the scenes featuring the children were removed. Litigation over the incident lasted for nearly a decade.

Brainstorm (1983)
Special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull’s haunting sci-fi drama was nearly scrapped when lead actress Natalie Wood drowned during a boat trip with husband Robert Wagner and co-star Christopher Walken. Wood had already completed her major scenes, but MGM used her death as an excuse to shutdown the over-budget production. Lloyd’s of London stepped in to finance the remainder of the filming, and Trumbull completed it with rewrites and a body double.

The Crow (1994)
In a cruel twist of fate, Bruce Lee’s son Brandon died during the filming of what would have been his breakthrough role, killed in a freak accident involving a prop gun. The movie went into limbo until Miramax picked it up; some script rewrites allowed for it to be completed with minimal use of a stunt double and CGI.

Wagons East! (1994)
John Candy didn’t want to appear in this western comedy, but was contractually obligated to do so. After his death from a heart attack mid-production, his few remaining scenes were either not filmed, rewritten not to involve him, or were filmed using a stand-in. (One sequence simply re-used footage from an earlier one.) Despite being Candy’s final role, it was a box office bomb, and currently holds a 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Gladiator (2000)
Oliver Reed’s death during the filming of Ridley Scott’s historical epic created an unexpected and tricky post-production hurdle for the crew, who created a digital double for the remaining scenes involving his character by photographing a live action body-double and mapping a three-dimensional CGI mask of Reed’s face onto him. The estimated cost – $3.2 million for two minutes worth of footage.

Queen of the Damned (2002)
Budding young singer-actor Aaliyah was barely into a promising career that included three studio LPs and a feature film Romeo Must Die when she died in a plane crash at age 22. Queen of the Damned was largely complete at the time, though her brother Rashad re-dubbed some of her lines during post-production. She had been cast in a small role in the Matrix sequels, and was subsequently replaced by Nona Gaye.

The Matrix Revolutions (2003)
Gloria Foster died before she could complete any of her scenes as the Oracle for the final film of the Matrixtrilogy or its video game spin-off, Enter the Matrix. Her friend and colleague Mary Alice took over the role, with the change explained in-story as a disguise of sorts.

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009)
When Heath Ledger died suddenly in 2008, his work on The Dark Knight was fully completed. Director Terry Gilliam, whose bad luck during filming is almost legendary, was not so fortunate, having just begun work on this fantasy. Gilliam found a novel solution involving neither CGI nor doubles. Instead, he rewrote Ledger’s character to morph into others as he traveled through a dream world; each incarnation was played by the actor’s friends, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, and Johnny Depp, all of whom donated theirpaychecks to Ledger’s daughter.

Iron Cross (2009)
During the filming of writer-director Joshua Newton’s Holocaust drama in 2009, leading man Roy Scheider (Jaws) died of multiple myeloma – the same disease that killed Newton’s father (upon whom the story is based) nine months earlier. His scenes were completed with the now-standard use of CGI and a stand-in.

Dark Blood (2012)
River Phoenix’s fatal drug overdose in 1993 left George Sluizer’s drama only partially finished, and the project was virtually abandoned for 18 years. Sluizer held onto the footage until recently, re-editing it and replacing the unfilmed scenes with narration – a solution some critics described as surprisingly effective, though it still technically is an incomplete film.