There are too many actors who claim they are dying to get a role. But on occasion, an actor dies after having landed the role. Call it fatal timing or plain old bad luck, but too often the death of an actor who has already secured a part in an upcoming feature can lead to endless speculations of “what if.” For those of us who cherish life, here is our Top 10 list of the most intriguing death-denied roles of all time.
1. Lon Chaney in “Dracula.” Filmmaker Tod Browning was set to adapt the Broadway version of “Dracula” for the new sound cinema and there was only one choice to play the Transylvanian bloodsucker: Lon Chaney, the silent movies’ master of the macabre. Browning and Chaney collaborated on the first American vampire film, the now-lost 1927 “London After Midnight,” so it seemed natural for Chaney to return to the undead. Alas, Chaney died from cancer in 1930 as “Dracula” was in pre-production. Reluctantly, Browning gave the role to the actor who played the vampiric count on Broadway: an obscure Hungarian performer named Bela Lugosi.
2. W.C. Fields in “The Pickwick Papers.” Orson Welles spent a good chunk of the 1940s trying to convince the Hollywood studios to finance his film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “The Pickwick Papers.” Films based on Dickens’ books were always successful, but the studio heads balked at Welles’ insistence on having W.C. Fields play Mr. Pickwick. Fields was memorable in another Dickens film, playing Micawber in the 1935 “David Copperfield,” but by the time Welles got to him Fields’ rampant alcoholism and unreliable on-set behavior made him too much of a liability for an expensive costume epic. Welles may have eventually seen the film made, but Fields death in 1946 squashed Welles’ enthusiasm for the project.
3. James Dean in “Somebody Up There Likes Me.” After completing his work on “Giant,” James Dean was signed to the starring role in this biopic based on the best-selling memoir by boxer Rocky Marciano. Casting Dean as Marciano seemed very strange, given the lack of physical resemblance to the muscular boxer. Whether he would’ve been able to pull it off will remain speculation, as Dean was killed in a car crash a week after completing his work on “Giant.” Another bright young talent, Paul Newman, was cast as Marciano and the performance made him a big star.
4. Bela Lugosi in “Tomb of the Vampire.” In 1956, Edward D. Wood Jr. decided to follow up on his previous collaborations with Bela Lugosi on a new project called “Tomb of the Vampire.” Considering their previous films together were “Glen or Glenda?” and “Bride of the Monster,” one can only imagine what this one could’ve been like. Wood shot test silent footage of Lugosi in several situations: grieving at a funeral, moping around the front door of his home, and striking a Dracula-worthy pose in a flowing cape. Lugosi, however, died after these scenes were shot and Wood cancelled the production. Three years later, he resurrected the footage and scissored it into “Plan 9 from Outer Space”; an unemployed chiropractor dressed like Lugosi held a cape over his face as a means of incorporating the deceased star’s old footage into this new work. The rest, of course, is history.
5. Humphrey Bogart in “The Man Who Would Be King.” John Huston first proposed a film version of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” in the mid-1950s with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart as its stars. The fact Gable and Bogart were too old and too American to play the British soldiers of fortune did not bother Huston, nor did the inaccessibility of the Afghanistan locations where Huston planned to shoot the film. Alas, Bogart was diagnosed with cancer at the time Huston proposed the project, and the filmmaker’s enthusiasm for the production offered a therapeutic diversion for the ailing star. But if Huston hoped the film would bring Bogart the strength to get back into good health, he was mistaken. Bogart’s death in 1957 cancelled Huston’s plans for two decades. He eventually made “The Man Who Would Be King” in 1976 with Michael Caine and Sean Connery, and with Moroccan locations substituting for Afghanistan.
6. Marilyn Monroe in “What a Way to Go!” After being fired from the doomed comedy “Something’s Got to Give” amidst charges of contributing to cost overruns by erratic behavior, Marilyn Monroe was still very much in demand. Her next project was supposed to be the comedy “What a Way to Go!” that cast her as an enchanting adventuress with a knack for marrying charismatic and iconoclastic men who died shortly after their weddings. But Monroe’s abrupt death in 1962 put “What a Way to Go!” on ice. The film was eventually made in 1964 with Shirley MacLaine as the star, but her frenetically aggressive performance lacked the natural sensuality and easy charm that Monroe brought to the screen.
7. Judy Garland in “Mame.” After Angela Lansbury ended her successful run in the Broadway production of “Mame,” Judy Garland campaigned furiously to take over the role. Composer Jerry Herman was concerned that Garland’s legendary poor health would not allow her to maintain the strenuous eight-shows-a-week schedule that Broadway required. However, he agreed that she would have first crack at the role when the film version was to be made. Sadly, Garland died in 1969 and never had the opportunity to play the part of the madcap Auntie Mame on screen. The 1974 film starred Lucille Ball, in what is widely considered the worst miscasting in movie musical history.
8. Diana Sands in “Claudine.” The gifted and beautiful Diana Sands was always appreciated as an actress, but she never quite found the right role to propel her to true stardom. Unable to wait for the right role to come along, Sands located a property that would’ve made her the star she deserved to be: “Claudine,” an intense drama about a single mother trying to raise a family on meager welfare payments. Tragically, Sands received a cancer diagnosis just as “Claudine” was entering pre-production. Realizing she would never be able to complete the role, she successfully campaigned for Diahann Carroll to get the part. Carroll received an Oscar nomination for “Claudine,” which opened a year after Sands’ 1973 death.
9. Jack Benny in “The Sunshine Boys.” Casting Jack Benny as the old-time vaudevillian in the film version of Neil Simon’s “The Sunshine Boys” seemed like a perfect fit. But as the film was being readied for production, Benny’s health took a turn for the worse. As with Diana Sands, Benny knew he’d be unable to finish the film and he insisted that his role go to his old friend, George Burns. Burns had not been in a film since 1939 (although he was a ubiquitous radio and TV presence), and he took over for Benny at short notice. Burns won the Academy Award for “The Sunshine Boys” and launched into a new career in films and stand-up comedy based on the role. Benny passed away in 1974.
10. River Phoenix in “Interview with the Vampire.” One would imagine River Phoenix could be ideal as either Louis or Lestat in the film version of “Interview with the Vampire” (as opposed to the stolid Brad Pitt or the florid Tom Cruise). Strangely, he was cast in the minor role as the reporter who interviews Louis. Phoenix’s death in 1993 following a drug overdose stamped out his promising life and fascinating career. Whether Phoenix could’ve made this small role into a memorable performance is difficult to determine – Christian Slater’s performance in that part was not the least bit special.