20 Actors Who Died Too Soon

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20 Actors Who Died Too Soon

VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu WRITTEN BY: George Pacheco
These celebrities may be gone, but they'll never be forgotten. For this list, we'll be remembering those celebrities who are particularly missed, actors who perhaps had more to give to the craft they loved. Our countdown includes Chris Farley, Paul Walker, Chadwick Boseman, Bruce Lee, Marilyn Monroe, and more!
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20 Actors Who Died Too Soon


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for 20 Actors Who Died Too Soon.

For this list, we’ll be remembering those celebrities who are particularly missed, actors who perhaps had more to give to the craft they loved.

What are your memories of these performers? Let us know in the comments.

#20: Chris Farley

Some actors just possess this larger-than-life presence; a charisma that permeates everything they do. Chris Farley was one of these people, a beloved comic actor whose work on “Saturday Night Live” would assist in transitioning him into a successful film career. Farley just left goodwill wherever he went, a funny man with the ability to connect on a personal level with his audience. Weight was always an issue in Farley’s life, however, combined with a substance abuse disorder that mirrored Chris’ idol, John Belushi. It was an overdose of cocaine and morphine, combined with Farley’s history of atherosclerosis, that ultimately cost the man his life on December 18th, 1997.

#19: John Candy

John Candy was a mainstay of comedic cinema in the 1980s, a supremely likable and warm presence that burned brightly in classics like “Spaceballs,” “Uncle Buck” and “The Great Outdoors.” Candy wasn’t just a foil for goofiness, either, as the man also earned acting credits in horror films like “The Clown Murders” or thrillers like “The Silent Partner.” Stress and anxiety allegedly followed Candy throughout his personal and professional life, while his weight also fluctuated, based upon the actor’s tendency to binge eat, in response to these stressors. John Candy’s death from a fatal heart attack on March 4th, 1994, left a huge hole in the hearts of his fans, friends and family. He was truly a unique talent.

#18: Corey Haim

The legacy of Corey Haim shouldn’t solely be as a cautionary tale for child actors, but it’s also important to recognize how early success was detrimental to the young man’s life. Haim was a great actor who perhaps never got to achieve his full potential, despite standout performances in “The Lost Boys,” “Lucas” and “Silver Bullet.” Corey was in and out of rehab over a dozen times throughout his life, and had a contentious relationship with his frequent partner in cinematic crime, Corey Feldman. Haim also claimed he was a victim of abuse as a younger actor. Corey died on March 10th, 2010, the result of multiple factors, including pneumonia.

#17: Naya Rivera

There have been a number of high-profile deaths behind the scenes of the Fox series, “Glee.” Naya Rivera was a member of this tragic club, a young actress whose death came as a true shock to her fans. Rivera worked as an actor, musician, and activist over the course of her life, and enjoyed a career that started way back at the tender age of four. Naya was also a mother, a fact that made her loss all the more tragic. Her body was recovered from Lake Piru, California on July 13th, 2020, after drowning five days before, while swimming with her son.

#16: Cameron Boyce

Cameron Boyce didn’t let epilepsy slow down his red-hot career as a Disney Channel star. The young actor appeared on the shows “Jessie” and “Descendants,” after cutting his teeth as a child actor on films like the 2008 horror flick, “Mirrors.” Boyce would continue to work for the Disney brand, taking lead roles on shows like “Jake and the Never Land Pirates.” Boyce died in his sleep on July 6th, 2019, as a result of a seizure that occurred over the course of the night. He was only twenty years old.

#15: Jayne Mansfield

The life of Hollywood bombshell Jayne Mansfield was many things, but it was never boring. This sex symbol of the silver screen was associated with The Church of Satan, did the first nude scene of the modern, post-silent film era and was never far from the headlines, or her legions of admirers. Mansfield was also an early Playboy Playmate, appearing multiple times throughout the late 1950s and into the sixties. Mariska Hargitay’s mom was an icon in life, but her death was tragic in equal measure. Jayne Mansfield was killed on June 29th, 1967, along with her driver and attorney, after the car they were in collided with a tractor-trailer. Three of her children, including Mariska, were asleep in the back seat, and survived with minor injuries.

#14: Jonathan Brandis

It’s difficult to know what’s going on in someone’s life, what they’re going through and how to help. This applies to celebrities just as much as the rest of us, but we as fans rarely have any insight behind the Hollywood curtain. Jonathan Brandis was a teen heartthrob, sure, but he was also a talented young actor. His work on television’s “seaQuest DSV” was particularly popular, as was his performance as Bill Denbrough in the 1990 iteration of Stephen King’s “It.” Unfortunately, Brandis’ career was in something of a slump around the early 2000s, and he descended into heavy drinking. The actor would ultimately take his own life in November 2003.

#13: Robin Williams

The saying “this one hurts” doesn’t even begin to describe how fans of Robin Williams felt when the comic legend left this world on August 11th, 2014. The man’s resume speaks for itself, from his humble origins on “Mork & Mindy” to breakout, career-defining roles on “Good Will Hunting,” “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “The Birdcage” and “Jumanji.” Elsewhere, Williams’ stand-up work, and his voice acting on classics like “Aladdin” endeared him to more fans around the world. Although the man is gone, his legacy lives forever, and his work continues to entertain and influence millions around the world.

#12: Anton Yelchin

To discuss the loss of Anton Yelchin is to mourn what might have been. This is because the career of this promising actor seemed to be just hitting its stride before it was horribly cut short by a tragic accident. Yelchin had earned rave reviews for his ability to vacillate between blockbuster features like the “Star Trek” reboots, and darker, indie fare, such as 2015’s nail-biting thriller, “Green Room.” Anton could seemingly do it all, and fans can only wonder what the actor might have achieved on future projects. Yelchin was tragically crushed by his Jeep Grand Cherokee on June 19th, 2016, while checking his mail. A wrongful death lawsuit was filed against Fiat Chrysler by Anton’s parents after his death, and settled out of court.

#11: Brittany Murphy

Brittany Murphy had a lot going for her before her untimely death on December 20th, 2009. She had broken out with some varied and engaging work after first making a name for herself with the ‘90s teen flick, “Clueless.” Murphy proved she could handle dramas like “Girl, Interrupted” and “8 Mile.” She also shined in horror films and thrillers like “Cherry Falls” and “Don’t Say a Word.” The actress even managed to escape the world of rom-coms unscathed with “Just Married,” proving her versatility and dedication to her craft. Her death was shrouded in controversy, however, with disputes as to the actual nature of her demise contrasting the official record of pneumonia.

#10: Paul Walker

The “Fast and Furious” franchise may have continued on after the untimely demise of its star, Paul Walker, but it never forgot the legacy Walker leant to those early entries. Walker’s movie star good looks belied an acting talent that worked well within big-budget, action movie parameters. The man’s presence loomed large not only in the “Fast and Furious” movies, but also in more underrated roles, such as Walker’s work in the 2006 film, “Running Scared.” Sadly, the world never got to see what Paul Walker might’ve done on future projects, as the actor was involved in a fatal car accident on November 30th, 2013.

#9: Sharon Tate

It’s unfair to associate the legacy of Sharon Tate solely with that of The Manson Family. This is not only due to the horrible crimes with which Manson and his gang were associated, but also Tate herself, who shone on the silver screen like the brightest, burning star. The actress’ beauty was undeniable, but it didn’t define her, and Sharon Tate was equally adept at comedy, as well as performances that required her to do her own stunts. She even trained with the legendary Bruce Lee while working on the spy picture, “The Wrecking Crew.” Sharon Tate may not have been able to achieve her full acting potential, but she’ll always be remembered as an icon.

#8: Marilyn Monroe

The level of talent present within Marilyn Monroe could actually be compared to that of Sharon Tate, since both actresses employed great comedic timing to offset their striking beauty. Monroe’s legacy today as a Hollywood icon is secure, thanks to her legions of fans around the world. Still, it’s the mysterious circumstances of her death, and the pain of knowing what might’ve been, that still haunt many of those same people. We’ll never know whether or not Marilyn Monroe would’ve broken through even further from the movie parts that went on to define her career, such as “Some Like It Hot” and “The Seven Year Itch.” Her barbiturate overdose on August 4th, 1962 remains one of the most contested celebrity deaths of all time.

#7: James Dean

James Dean may be young and handsome forever, but this doesn’t mean that his fans don’t wish that the Hollywood legend could’ve achieved more throughout his too-brief career. Dean was the epitome of teenage cool, a spirit of rebellion and the refusal to compromise. For many, his role as Jim Stark in 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause” was a definitive one, a film that offered a more nuanced portrayal of teenage life. Dean didn’t need to fall back on his rugged good looks to overcompensate for any lack of acting ability, as the Academy Award-nominated thespian was able to emote with the best of his contemporaries. His car accident on September 30th, 1955, at only 24 years of age, robbed us of one of Hollywood’s most promising talents.

#6: Judith Barsi

You may not remember Judith Barsi’s Hollywood headshots, but the odds are fairly good that you recall her voice, especially if you grew up in the eighties. This is because Barsi worked on two of the decade’s more successful animated children’s features, “All Dogs Go to Heaven'' and “The Land Before Time.” Barsi started acting when was young, and never looked back, appearing on television and earning small roles in movies like “Jaws: The Revenge.” Her home life was tragically fraught with mistreatment at the hands of her father, however, and it was this trauma that ultimately led to the demise of Barsi and both her parents in 1988.

#5: Bruce Lee

The career of Bruce Lee was poised to explode with commercial crossover success in 1973, thanks to the lightning rod that was his film, “Enter the Dragon.” Sadly, Lee wouldn’t live to witness just how much the world would embrace martial arts cinema in the wake of all his hard work, as the icon died of a cerebral edema on July 20th of that year. His son Brandon would pass under equally tragic circumstances while following in his famous father’s footsteps. Lee’s son died filming “The Crow” in 1993, due to human error and negligence with a prop gun. Both Lees departed this world far too soon, but their fans will never forget the gifts Bruce and Brandon left behind.

#4: River Phoenix

River Phoenix seemingly had it all: skill, charisma, good looks, and the will to make it as a star in Hollywood. The young actor and musician shined in breakout roles for films like “Stand by Me” and “My Own Private Idaho,” and who knows where River would have flowed, were it not for the tragic events of Halloween night, 1993. Phoenix was at The Viper Room, a popular and trendy L.A. nightclub that hosted some of Hollywood’s hottest young talent. River was supposed to perform in a band alongside friends Flea and actor Johnny Depp, when he complained of feeling unwell. Phoenix ultimately passed away from a speedball overdose, a deadly mixture of cocaine and heroin.

#3: Heather O’Rourke

It’s always horrible to hear about the passing of a child actor, never mind one as beloved as Heather O’Rourke. The charming young actress rose to prominence on the heels of a career-defining performance as Carol Anne in the “Poltergeist” franchise, but O’Rourke also earned praise for her work on sitcoms like “Happy Days” and “Webster.” O’Rourke fell ill with intestinal issues in 1987, after contracting giardiasis from infected well water at her home. This, combined with her diagnosed Crohn’s disease, led to the actress fatally succumbing to congenital stenosis and septic shock on January 31st, 1988. Heather O’Rourke was only twelve years old.

#2: Chadwick Boseman

It wasn’t only fans of the MCU that mourned the passing of Chadwick Boseman in 2020. This is because the actor wasn’t remembered only for his role as Wakanda’s ruler, Black Panther, but for the entirety of his too-short filmography. Boseman was a true talent, and it seemed that the sky was the limit for what was almost sure to be a thriving and varied career. Boseman could handle intense roles in both drama and action with ease, bringing the same charisma to the screen that he brought with Black Panther. Fans were excited to see what was on the horizon. Sadly, his four-year fight with colon cancer came to an end on August 28th, 2020.

Before we name our number one pick, here are some much missed honorable mentions:

John Ritter
A Master of Physical Comedy

Natalie Wood
A Sudden & Mysterious Death

Rebecca Schaeffer
Her Loss Led to Legislation Targeting Celebrity Stalking

Cory Monteith
A Promising Career Cut Short

Dana Plato
A Sad Ending to a Troubled Life

#1: Heath Ledger

There was even more to Heath Ledger than his iconic portrayal of The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight.” The talented Aussie actor had already turned heads with star-making performances in films like “A Knight’s Tale,” “Ned Kelly,” and “Brokeback Mountain,” with The Joker seemingly serving as just another step in Ledger’s impressive evolution as an actor. Ledger dealt with his own personal demons, however, including insomnia, and it wasn’t long before substance abuse disorder became an issue in the young man’s life. Heath Ledger died on January 22nd, 2008, as a result of an acute combined drug intoxication of prescription medication.
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