Special Report

20 Movie and TV Stars Who Died Far Too Young

Hollywood has lost no shortage of shining stars in the midst of their careers, often when they were still young. Some of the more tragic examples include the demise of several glamorous comic actresses in the ‘30s and ‘40s to Jame Dean’s deadly mid-’50s car crash or the lurid Manson Family murders of 1969, which claimed Sharon Tate. (Some performers, of course, beat the odds. Here are 25 famous actors who lived to be over 100).

The fact that the world is watching lends each instance an even greater degree of built-in spectacle to such deaths, fueling endless tabloid gossip along with the occasional conspiracy theory or rumored curse. Was Bruce Lee murdered by the Chinese mafia, for instance? Or was his family doomed by fate, accounting for the later death of his son, Brandon? And when two young actors from the “Poltergeist” franchise died under strange circumstances, did that mean the film was jinxed? (As an example of ill fortune of another kind, here are 20 celebrities who died broke). 

Drawing on a variety of online sources, 24/7 Tempo has put together a list of 20 stars of movie and TV stars who died too young, verifying details through contemporaneous media accounts of their deaths. 

Click here to see 20 movie and TV stars who died far too young

What does it mean to die “too young” in Hollywood? The entire concept is subjective, of course, since many performers remain at the top of their game well into their 70s or even 80s (see 74-year-old Susan Sarandon or 85-year-old Donald Sutherland, for instance). But our list includes only those who left us before they had a chance to make the kind of artistic impact their talents promised, so we have included only those who died at 35 or younger.

Jean Harlow
> Year of death: 1937
> Age at death: 26
> Cause of death: Kidney failure
> Best known for: Red Dust, Dinner at Eight, Reckless

The original “blonde bombshell” with ample comedic chops, Jean Harlow was an A-list Hollywood star by the mid-1930s. She tragically passed away in the midst of shooting 1937’s “Saratoga,” which was completed using body doubles. It went on to become the most successful film of her short-lived career.

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Carole Lombard
> Year of death: 1942
> Age at death: 33
> Cause of death: Plane crash
> Best known for: Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, Mr. & Mrs. Smith

Comedy icon Carole Lombard made her big-screen debut at the age of 12 and became leading material about a decade later. She was returning to Los Angeles from a war bond rally in her home state of Indiana when her plane crashed into a mountain. Lombard’s own mother, Clark Gable’s press agent, and 15 army soldiers were also killed in the crash.

Carole Landis
> Year of death: 1948
> Age at death: 29
> Cause of death: Took her own life
> Best known for: One Million B.C., Moon Over Miami

Born Frances Ridste in rural Wisconsin, Carole Landis broke out in Hollywood playing a cavewoman in 1940’s “One Million B.C.” She was known for her  smarts. She took her own life reportedly due to a doomed romance with actor Rex Harrison.

James Dean
> Year of death: 1955
> Age at death: 24
> Cause of death: Car accident
> Best known for: Rebel Without a Cause, Giant

An avid motorsport enthusiast with a need for speed, Dean crashed his Porsche on the way to a race in Salinas, California. “Rebel Without a Cause” was released soon after his death, posthumously turning him into a paragon of rebellious youth culture.

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Jayne Mansfield
> Year of death: 1967
> Age at death: 34
> Cause of death: Car accident
> Best known for: Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Promises! Promises!

A contemporary (and rival) of Marilyn Monroe’s, Jayne Mansfield similarly died well before her time. Heading to New Orleans for a TV appearance with her attorney, a driver, and her three children, her 1966 Buick Electra crashed into the back of a tractor-trailer. All three adult passengers died instantly, but the children — one of whom grew up to become actress Mariska Hargitay of “Law & Order: SVU” fame — survived.

Sharon Tate
> Year of death: 1969
> Age at death: 26
> Cause of death: Stabbed to death by members of the Manson Family
> Best known for: Valley of the Dolls, The Fearless Vampire Killers (wife of Roman Polanski)

Sharon Tate’s murder at the hands of the Manson Family arguably represents the most shocking death in Hollywood history. One among five victims, she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time. Director Quentin Tarantino explores the event through an altered lens in the recent hit “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.”

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Bruce Lee
> Year of death: 1973
> Age at death: 32
> Cause of death: Cerebral edema
> Best known for: The Green Hornet, Enter the Dragon, Fist of Fury

The premature death of martial arts legend Bruce Lee remains shrouded in mystery to this day. Most experts agree that he died from swelling of the brain, but theories abound as to the underlying root cause. Some say it was an adverse reaction to pain medication, while others suspect he was murdered by the Chinese mafia.

Freddie Prinze
> Year of death: 1977
> Age at death: 22
> Cause of death: Shot himself
> Best known for: Chico and the Man

Despite his high-profile romances and lucrative career, stand-up comedian and TV star Freddie Prinze reportedly battled with depression for most of his life. He was also known to play dangerous games such as Russian roulette as a way to amuse his friends. He died after shooting himself. His death was ruled accidental due to the influence of over-prescribed medication. His son, Freddie Prinze Jr., became a successful actor.

Dominique Dunne
> Year of death: 1982
> Age at death: 22
> Cause of death: Strangled by her ex-boyfriend
> Best known for: Poltergeist, CHiPs

The same year she appeared in the supernatural thriller “Poltergeist,” actor Dominique Dunne was murdered by a forlorn ex-boyfriend, a chef at the L.A. celebrity hangout Ma Maison. Her death was one among a number of strange occurrences surrounding the film, prompting people to wonder if it was cursed.

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John Belushi
> Year of death: 1982
> Age at death: 33
> Cause of death: Cocaine and heroin overdose
> Best known for: Saturday Night Live, Animal House, The Blues Brothers

Famous for his excessive behavior and juvenile antics, John Belushi’s death was one that many of his peers saw coming. According to the recent book “The Castle on Sunset,” Robert De Niro and Robin Williams were two of the last people to see the comedy legend alive.

Heather O’Rourke
> Year of death: 1988
> Age at death: 12
> Cause of death: Intestinal blockage causing septic shock
> Best known for: Poltergeist

Adding fuel to the theory of a “Poltergeist” curse, Heather O’Rourke was filming the franchise’s third installment when she died a “distinctly unusual” death (to quote gastroenterology expert Dr. Daniel Hollander). It came on the heels of various illnesses, including giardiasis and Crohn’s disease.

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Rebecca Schaeffer
> Year of death: 1989
> Age at death: 21
> Cause of death: Shot by an obsessed fan
> Best known for: My Sister Sam

Teen model turned actor Rebecca Schaeffer was pursuing a film career when she was shot in her home by stalker Robert John Bardo. The crazed fan was able to obtain her home address from a private detective, who procured it from California’s DMV database. Congress passed the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act as a direct result, prohibiting the DMV from sharing home addresses.

River Phoenix
> Year of death: 1993
> Age at death: 23
> Cause of death: Cocaine and morphine overdose
> Best known for: Stand by Me, Running on Empty

A rising star with a promising future, Phoenix famously overdosed during a night of partying at Hollywood’s Viper Room. Siblings Joaquin and Rain were both in attendance, as was girlfriend (and fellow actor) Samantha Mathis. His incomplete final film, “Dark Blood,” was released in 2012.

Brandon Lee
> Year of death: 1993
> Age at death: 28
> Cause of death: Accidentally shot while filming The Crow
> Best known for: The Crow

Brandon Lee was breaking out from under the shadow of his famous father, Bruce Lee (see above), when he suffered a similarly mysterious fate. While filming “The Crow,” he was shot and killed by a dummy bullet with a lead tip. The bizarre death has prompted various conspiracy theories along with rumors of a family curse.

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Chris Farley
> Year of death: 1997
> Age at death: 33
> Cause of death: Cocaine and morphine overdose
> Best known for: Saturday Night Live, Tommy Boy, Beverly Hills Ninja

Comedy legend Chris Farley had undergone numerous treatments for both obesity and addiction before succumbing to a drug overdose in 1997. An arterial disease called atherosclerosis was also a contributing factor, according to reports. His death bore striking resemblance to that of his comic hero, John Belushi.

Michelle Thomas
> Year of death: 1998
> Age at death: 30
> Cause of death: Cancer
> Best known for: The Cosby Show, Family Matters

TV actor Michelle Thomas reportedly practiced a healthy lifestyle but nevertheless fell victim to a rare form of cancer. Former co-star and ex-boyfriend Malcolm-Jamal Warner (of “The Cosby Show”) was at her bedside during her final days.

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Brad Renfro
> Year of death: 2008
> Age at death: 25
> Cause of death: Heroin and morphine overdose
> Best known for: The Client, Sleepers

After breaking out at the age of 11 in 1994’s “The Client,” Renfro struggled with substance abuse and criminal behavior. A decade after his death, Buzzfeed used his rise and fall to examine the film industry’s supervision (or lack thereof) of at-risk child stars.

Heath Ledger
> Year of death: 2008
> Age at death: 28
> Cause of death: Prescription medicine overdose
> Best known for: Brokeback Mountain, The Dark Knight

The world was shocked by the news of Heath Ledger’s deadly overdose, which occurred approximately six months before the release of his career-making role in “The Dark Knight.” A subsequent DEA investigation cleared two physicians and celebrity Mary-Kate Olsen — who owned the apartment where his body was found — of any wrongdoing. He won a posthumous Academy Award for his performance in the film as The Joker.

Brittany Murphy
> Year of death: 2009
> Age at death: 32
> Cause of death: Pneumonia, anemia, drug intoxication
> Best known for: Clueless; Girl, Interrupted; 8 Mile

An ill-fated movie shoot in Puerto Rico kicked off a bizarre string of events for actor Brittany Murphy, who fell sick and died soon after. Her husband Simon Monjack died under similar circumstances just five months later. To this day, both incidents remain shrouded in speculation.

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Corey Monteith
> Year of death: 2013
> Age at death: 31
> Cause of death: Heroin and alcohol overdose
> Best known for: Glee

A history of substance abuse trailed Canadian TV star Corey Monteith to the set of the smash hit “Glee” and beyond. He’d recently completed a stay in rehab just months before overdosing in a Vancouver hotel room. Former co-star and then-girlfriend Lea Michele continues to pay tribute to Monteith on the anniversary of his death.

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