FilmThe morbid movie magic of post-mortem performance
As death tends to maintain a schedule of its own, not all actors are able to be present for their final performances. Here's how film and television productions went on without them.
The 27 Club and its members are well mythologized these days: D. Boon, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain are among many of the brilliant young folks who didn't make it to 28. But what will we call the club of people whose ultimate contract—the one with the grim reaper—couldn't get them out of the ones they signed with Hollywood? There is a history of films and television shows whose production had to continue even when principle cast members involved passed on. Confronting such conundrums, these productions reanimated their players in all sorts of ways, ranging from the practical to the out and out morbid.
Paul Walker is one of those people who spent more years of his life on screen than off. While internet hearsay puts him in a Pampers commercial at age two, Walker's career really took off in the '80s, starting with a role at age 12 on a show about a cop with a guardian angel called Highway to Heaven. Throughout that decade, he appeared on Who's The Boss? and The Young and the Restless. Walker lost his life in a car accident right around Thanksgiving in 2013, while the production of Furious 7, the latest entry in The Fast and the Furious franchise, was on break for the holiday. The fact that the actor died during a short breather from screen time, combined with the circumstances—a crash in a fast, high-end car—color his passing with a tragic kind of poetry. After putting production on hiatus, the producers of Furious 7 decided to resume filming with a new storyline in which Walker's character, Brian O'Connor, retires from the game. In order to film these scenes, the production brought in Walker's brothers, Caleb and Cody, to perform lookalike duties for the remainder of the character's on-screen appearances. This, combined with some strategic cutting, saw Walker's final role incorporated into Furious 7 rather elegantly.
During his heyday, Oliver Reed was as known as a drunk as he was an actor—tales include showing up hammered to his godson's christening only to play mock rugby with the boy as the ball, drinking 106 pints of beer in a single sitting, and demanding a kiss from a gambling club's proprietor after showing up in full Scottish highlander garb — he logged iconic roles in Ken Russell's best and most controversial films, as well as key parts in David Cronenberg's The Brood and Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. His final role would be in the 1998 vehicle which made a star out of Russell Crowe, Gladiator. At age 49, a doctor predicted that Reed's drinking would take him to the grave, and at age 61, his heart finally gave out after years of liquid brutalization. As death tends to maintain a schedule of its own, Reed had not finished filming all of his scenes for Gladiator. The film director, Ridley Scott, was particularly well-suited to solving this problem. Scott has had a long career of technical innovation—the cutting-edge practical effects in his breakout films Alien and Blade Runner are awe-inspiring to this day. He used then-developing CGI technology to graft Reed's face onto the head of an extra and, in one case, a mannequin. In order to keep the CGI graft from falling into the uncanny valley, Reed's face is not all that expressive in the scenes in which a soundalike voice actor overdubbed his dialog, but hey, at least he doesn't look like a character in The Polar Express.
In one of the biggest news stories of 2008, rising star Heath Ledger died in his Manhattan apartment from acute intoxication involving a combination of six prescription drugs. By that point, Ledger had finished filming his last iconic role, the Joker in the runaway superhero blockbuster The Dark Night, but not the one in Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Gilliam displayed a remarkable resilience in making his film work given the circumstances. The director was likely confident that no matter how hearty the hiccups, the production for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus couldn't turn out as bad as his attempts at adapting Don Quixote, a production which was so troubled that it spurred a feature-length documentary chronicling the various mishaps. For The Imaginarium, Gilliam went back to the drawing board and retooled Heath Ledger's character, Tony, so that could be played by a different actor for each of the film's different imaginary universes. Gilliam so committed to lending Tony several personas that he contracted Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrel to each play the part in different scenes. The result is a movie which, after viewing it, makes you wonder if in fact it would have been as surreal, and in turn fun, if only one actor had played Tony throughout the movie.
Age Ain't Nothin' But A Number
By 2001, it had been seven years since the artist born Aaliyah Haughton broke out with the '90s R&B classic Age Ain't Nothin' But A Number. Things were a bit quiet from Aaliyah's camp just before the turn of the millennium, but in 2001 was gearing up to take her career to the next plateau. In addition to readying her fantastic self-titled album, Aaliyah was preparing for a transition into acting. Her slated roles included the character Zee in the two sequels to The Matrix and the lead in the Anne Rice adaptation, The Queen of the Damned. There is good reason to believe that Aaliyah would have enjoyed the kind of superstardom as Jennifer Lopez did around that time. But on her way home from filming the video for “Rock the Boat” in the Bahamas, Aaliyah perished in a plane crash along with eight others. By this point, filming had wrapped on The Queen of the Damned, but some of Aaliyah's lines were incomprehensible as spoken with her faux-Egyptian accent. Fortunately, Aaliyah's brother spoke with a similar cadence, and the crew brought him in to overdub those last few lines. Aaliyah's self-titled album went double platinum in the States, but The Queen of the Damned was a critical and financial fiasco.
Nancy Marchand was in the television game longer than most, working in the medium during its inception in the early '50s. But it would be her final role that would define her, as Tony Soprano's needling mother with whom he would constantly squabble. More so than the other characters who made up the rich tapestry of damaged family members which gave Tony panic attacks, Livia Soprano had a mainline to Tony's neuroses and their conflicts are among the shows finest moments. Midway through the show's third season, Marchand's succumbed to complications of lung cancer and emphysema forcing the show's writing staff to kill off her character. As this was an abrupt turn of events, the crew was left scrambling to give her some more screen time before Livia died. The solution was partially to use outtakes and partially to graft Marchand's head onto an extra's body and cobble together lines of dialog from her other on-camera appearances. The resulting scenes feel a bit stilted, but maybe you try acting from the beyond some time.
Like so many stars from Hollywood's Golden Age, Bela Lugosi took a free fall from former glory in his latter years. In 1955, following a divorce from his fourth wife, Lugosi checked himself into the psych ward at Los Angeles General Hospital while in the grips of an addiction that had seen him transition from morphine to methodone and demoral. During that stay, he pleaded with a California judge to have him committed to a state institution. But the most sordid detail from Lugosi's final days does not concern the pits of addiction or his own failing health, but his involvement with anti-auteur Ed Wood. The director had wooed the down-and-out Lugosi, leading them to collaborate on the films Tomb of the Vampire and Ghouls Go West. Both of theses projects were later scrapped, but Wood recycled footage he shot for them for his most notorious bungle, Plan 9 From Outer Space. Since Plan 9 was made entirely after Lugosi's death 1956, Wood had to find a way to lend this disjointed footage narrative cohesion. His solution was to hire his wife's chiropractor to double for the late horror legend, obscuring his face for all onscreen appearances with his cape.
The progeny of Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee was carving out a niche for himself in the late '80s and early '90s. He hit major action genre milestones of starring in a Hong Kong-made crime film and playing foil to Dolph Lundgren in the buddy cop movie, Showdown in Little Tokyo. Lee's breakout would come in 1994 with the release of his starring vehicle The Crow, but he would not live to see the film's success. In what ended up being one of the biggest entertainment news items of the '90s, Lee was tragically shot on camera, on set, with a prop pistol. Because the production's firearms expert left early that day and the rest of the crew was ignorant about the safety standards of using firearms on set, a scene in which Lee's Crow gets into an altercation with Michael Massee's Funboy turned into a grisly mishap. The accident led to Paramount pulling all remaining funding from the production, but filming was resumed when Miramax stepped into the picture. As Lee only had three more days of filming for the picture, the creative team was able to do some surgery on the script and use CGI to graft Brandon Lee's face over an extra. The film grossed over $50 million (big money in those days) at the box office and spawned three sequels.
Few comedic actors were as widely beloved and versatile as John Candy at the height of his fame in the '80s. The multiplying career possibilities for his film career in the '90s make him one of comedy's greatest “what if” stories, alongside the likes of Gilda Radner, John Belushi, and Mitch Hedberg. At just 43 years old, an obese Candy was taken in his sleep by a heart attack during the filming of Wagons East in Durango, Mexico. A heart attack at a young age was something Candy feared, given the fact that his father, Sidney, died from one at age 35. Since Candy was not done filming all of his scenes for Wagons East, the film's editors had to use a combination of savvy cutting techniques and some digital manipulation to put him into scenes which had yet to be completed at the time of Candy's passing. While Wagons East ended up a critical and box-office flop, another posthumously released Candy vehicle, Canadian Bacon, ended up being one of the most beloved roles in the entirety of his oeuvre.