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When Dead Actors Still Make Movies

Updated on October 20, 2009

      Halloween. The season where the legion of the undead walk the earth. At least that is what medieval folklore tells us. Their darkest fear has become our celebration. We dress up in costumes to go to parties and to go trick or treating. Originally costumes were worn on Halloween by desperately frightened Christians who believed it would ward off the witches, demons, and evil spirits. Halloween is short for "All Holy Evening", the night before November 1st which is "All Holy Day" or better known today as "All Saints Day". The belief that evil spirits walked the earth in the beginning of harvest season predated Christianity, and the Pope thought that by creating an "All Holy Day" where any menacing spirits would be vanquished would not only assert the power and supremacy of the Catholic Church, but would calm down Christians all over Europe. This plan backfired as Christians began to believe that the day before there would be no divine authority on Earth and therefore Satan and his minions had free reign everywhere. Today no one believes in ghosts and goblins. That is why Halloween is a day of celebration we all look forward to while "All Saints Day" is almost completely ignored. But what if there were proof this season that the undead exists?

     Last week Terry Gilliam's latest movie "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" began making it's debut in America at film festivals and was released in theaters across Europe. It is the latest movie to star actor Heath Ledger. But wait, didn't Heath die more than a year ago? This movie was only completed about a month ago. Is it possible that Heath Ledger returned from the grave to make one last film? Is this proof that the undead still indeed walk the Earth? It turns out that Heath Ledger was not the first actor to complete a movie from beyond the grave. I did a little research on the IMDB and discovered that Peter Sellers, Natalie Wood, Oliver Reed, Bruce Lee, and even Dracula himself Bela Lugosi have all starred in movies long after their deaths. Gasp! The Druids were right. The undead do walk the Earth! The proof is there on the big screen! I am going to be spending this Halloween in the basement surrounded by crucifixes and candles and praying for the dawn while Farrah Fawcett and Ed McMahon roam the Earth seeking brains and a movie set.

     As it turns out there is nothing to fear. Motion pictures are all about illusion. There has been a long history of completing movies long after the star has left the studio either by choice or in a box. It all dates back to when Charlie Chaplin left Essenay in 1916. The studio took possession of all the footage Chaplin had shot while there including two unreleased movies. One of those movies, "Chaplin's Burlesque on Carmen" was expanded from two reels to four using deleted scenes and the studio shooting an extra reel of footage with Ben Turpin. Chaplin sued and lost and the studio released the expanded movie. Essenay then made plans to turn his last unreleased film into two unreleased films. "Police" had an entire scene removed and replaced with new footage. The scene that was removed from "Police" was put into a film Chaplin never worked on called "Triple Trouble" which also included scenes Chaplin had deleted from his other movies as well as footage from some of his released films, all tied together with new footage shot by Leo White. Other actors and actresses discovered themselves edited into new movies long after they quit or retired from their previous studio. The great silent actress Theda Bara found herself in a movie months after she retired when Hal Roach used footage of her in "45 Minutes From Hollywood", a movie that is better remembered today as the first Roach comedy to feature both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the cast. Stan Laurel had always claimed he had never appeared in any of the Our Gang/Little Rascal comedies, which was the truth because unbeknown to him unused footage from "Love 'em and Weep" was edited into "Seeing the World" while deleted footage from "Brats" was edited into "Wild Poses", this while Laurel was still working at the same studio. It would not be long for motion picture companies to figure out that they could do the same thing with their dead stars. One of the first actors to die during a movie's production was Lieutenant Omer Locklear was killed during the filming of "The Skywayman" in 1920. Omar, a professional daredevil and barnstormer, and was the star of the movie. While filming aerial tricks at nighttime one of the crew aimed a spotlight right into his plane temporarily blinding him and causing him to crash killing him and his co-pilot. The movie was completed and released showing the actual fatal crash. The plot of the movie was changed so that Omer's character dies in the crash. Three years later actress Martha Mansfield burned to death on the set when her dress caught fire during the civil war picture "The Warrens of Virginia" The movie was completed with her character's scenes being given to a different character. Other actors would be killed on set or die of natural causes in the years to come with the movie being completed using existing footage and doubles.

     When Heath Ledger died of a drug overdose last year in the middle of filming "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" there was doubt that the movie would ever be released. Even Gilliam had initially thought that the film could never be completed without re-shooting from scratch, and that since investors in the film had done so with the understanding it would be a Heath Ledger movie would most likely pull out. A few years earlier Gilliam had been directing "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote" when during the shoot a combination of the sets being ruined by a hail storm and the lead actor taking ill shut down production indefinitely. With Heath dead after only shooting half his scenes it looked like history would repeat itself. Gilliam eventually came up with an idea as to how to salvage the film and complete it with very little change to it's plot. Other actors including Johnny Depp would be brought in to shoot the rest of Heath's scenes, and since the film was a fantasy taking place inside a magical realm it would be explained that his character was changing appearances throughout the movie. For Gilliam this would not be the first time he toyed with the idea of making a movie with a dead actor. Prior to Graham Chapman's death the other members of Monty Python had kept his spirits up by promising that once he got better they would all work together on a new Python movie. After he died one of the ideas that had been kicked around for a sequel to "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" began to take momentum. It initially began as an idea by John Cleese who wanted to do a Python movie once they all got old, which in turn became the idea of the nights of the round table coming out of retirement and going on the crusades. A suggestion was made where Graham could still be part of the movie. When they had been recording their comedy albums there was still an hour worth of outtakes of sketches with Graham that had never been used on any of the albums. In the "....Holy Grail" sequel the knights would carry around with them a box of relics which when opened the voice of Graham Chapman would be heard, courtesy of the album outtakes. Inevitably it was John Cleese who decided that it was not a good idea and the movie was never made. Graham himself had worked on two movie projects where one of the stars died during production. "The Odd Job" was originally written for Graham's friend Keith Moon to star as the Odd Job man. Keith died just before filming was to begin and Chapman was legally obligated to complete the movie with another actor, David Jason who is better known as the voice of Danger Mouse. Graham would pay tribute to his friend by naming the villain of the movie "Yellowbeard" Moon. It was in the movie "Yellowbeard" that one of it's co-stars Marty Feldman died during production. Having already shot all of his scenes based in London but only half his scenes based in Mexico the movie was completed by omitting the rest of the scripted scenes with Feldman's character, and bringing in a stunt double to play Feldman's character in the finale who walks into the scene only to be tripped into a pool of acid within seconds. A crude but effective way to explain what happened to his character.*

     Perhaps the best known actor to continue making movies long after he was dead was Bruce Lee who has been credited as the star in several movies since his death. Many of these were from Bruce Lee imitators who would for legal reasons later change the spelling of their names to Bruce Li and Bruce Le. Much of the other movies were re-edits of older Bruce Lee footage. For instance "Fury of the Dragon" was edited from three existing episodes of "The Green Hornet" television series. But there was one legitimate unfinished film project Bruce Lee had been in the middle of filming. "Game of Death" was suspended when Lee started work on "Enter the Dragon". He had planned to return to "Game of Death" once "Enter the Dragon" was completed, but then died of a brain hemorrhage. Using the footage that had been shot so far and using footage from other Bruce Lee movies along with a double to shoot additional scenes with Bruce Lee's character "Game of Death" was completed. The trick worked so well that the same studio later released "Game of Death II" using outtakes from "Enter the Dragon". Bruce Lee's son Brandon also died during the production of a movie when he was accidentally shot to death on the set of "The Crow". Most of the scenes with his character had been filmed and only a few scenes he had not yet filmed had to be rewritten. Another famous Martial Arts actor to die midway through a film was Alexander Fu Sheng during the filming of "The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter" During the movie his character simply vanishes and his sister's character replaces him during the final fight. Another martial Arts movie to have it's lead actor die mid production was "Magnificent Butcher" which was to star Simon Yuen. Simon died halfway trough production but his son, who was the movie's director, decided it would have been disrespectful to complete the movie using a double. Simon's footage was re-shot with another actor. Never the less the studio released a trailer and movie poster showing Simon Yuen in the movie.

     Among the big budget Hollywood productions to have an actor die mid movie is "Gladiator". Actor Oliver Reed died during production and his scenes were completed using a CGI replica who stood mostly in the shadows. A more notorious mid filming death was in "Twilight Zone: The Movie". During the filming actor Vic Morrow and two children where killed when an explosion on the set caused a helicopter to crash on top of them causing it's blades to cut through the actors. Director John Landis had saved this scene for last so there was only a few action sequences Morrow had not shot. Since the movie was four separate stories each based on a Twilight Zone episode it was decided to release the movie anyway. At the last minute Spielberg decided that the Vic Morrow story had enough footage to be edited together and used in the movie. Another film that got notoriety from a death was "Brainstorm". It was off the set that actress Natalie Wood drowned while on vacation with her husband Robert Wagner and actor Christopher Walken. The shocking event was scandalized with reports of a fight between Wagner and Walken over Natalie and the suspicious circumstances behind her drowning death. She still had a few scenes she needed to shoot for the movie which was reportedly resolved by using some special effects.

     Rearranging scenes in a movie to accommodate the death of an actor compromises the film. Studio executives realize the commercial value of releasing what is an actor's final movie. In some cases the actor had completed all of his scenes and the movie could be finished as planned. But whenever there are still scenes to be shot with that actor the problem begins. The more scenes that actor can not be in the more changes must be made in the script. Having a double walk around in a scene just to establish the character is still there only works as long as you shoot him from a distance or from the back, both which can look awkward. Assigning lines and scenes to other characters, or creating a new character to take over scenes that would otherwise be missing permanently alters the story for better or worse. And if your actor only completed a scant amount of scenes then you will get the worst. As a matter of fact some of the worst movies ever made used footage that the actor never even intended for that movie. Both "Game of Death" and it's sequel have already been mentioned. But the worst movie to reuse spare Bruce Lee has to be "Fist of Fear, Touch of Death" Here the director used a brief 30 second interview Lee did for television and padded it out to four minutes, along with re-dubbing footage from a film Lee co-starred in as a teenager. "Plan 9 From Outer Space" used a few moments of spare footage of Bella Lugosi to claim that it was his final movie. For the rest of the movie director Ed Wood's had a chiropractor doubled for the late Lugosi wearing a vampire cape that he covered his face with. "The Trail of the Pink Panther" was reportedly the final film made by Peter Sellers before his death, but instead consisted of nothing but outtakes from past Pink Panther movies for it's first half, and during the second half of the movie has a plot device where a television reporter interviews Clouseau's friends and co-workers which allows for flash backs to earlier Pink Panther movies. Not all comedies using dead actors are that dreadful. Steve Martin's "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" is intercut with footage from many old black and white movies, most of who's actors were long dead by the time that film came out. It was, never the less, entertaining and quite funny.

     Many other examples can be found of movies completed after it's actors have passed on, each usually released as a tribute to the actor in order to divert the public from the obvious reason the film was actually released, to cash in one last time on the name of a star. We live in a world where the famous grow even more desirable after they are gone. James Dean is more famous for being dead than remembered for his movies. People bough Bruce Lee posters who never saw one of his films. Celebrities become fascinating after they have died, and all their past sins are forgiven. This month also marks the release of Michael Jackson's "This is It" which will be made up of raw video footage of him rehearsing for a tour. For the past decade Jackson was washed up as a celebrity. If Jackson had not died and had shot a proper concert movie of his tour it would have made only a fraction of the money that "This is It " is now expected to make. For the same reasons "Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" will most likely be Terry Gilliam's highest grossing movie. Which is a shame, because there can not possibly be a sequel. Unless, of course, someone can find a few reels of footage of Heath Ledger that has not yet been used in any other movie.

*While mentioning members of Monty Python it should be mentioned that the Python group had once done a sketch about posthumous movies on their "....Holy Grail" soundtrack album. A sleazy director boasts that he has cast the body of the late Marylin Monroe in his new movie who does such things as lay on the floor and fall out of cupboards. When the interviewer points out that Marylin Monroe had been cremated the director admits they needed to use a stunt corpse for Marylin's scenes while Marylin herself was always in shot, such as in an ashtray. The Python's would later bring an urn supposedly containing Graham's ashes to the Aspen Festival to collect a comedy award. As part of the bit Gilliam accidentally kicks the urn over. As for Monroe, she herself had been working on a movie when she died. About a third of "The Girl Can't Help It" had been shot, although the studio decided to abandon the movie rather than finish it or use the footage in any other movie.

For reviews of many of the movies mentioned including a more detailed synopsis of their plot, see the following links....


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