A Legacy That Remains To Be Seen

The Australian-born actor of considerable charm and dramatic dexterity, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his role in 2005's "Brokeback Mountain," was found dead Jan. 22 in New York.
By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 24, 2008

Eerie-strange, really, when a famous actor dies unexpectedly. His unreleased work eventually appears, like tomorrow's bloom on a rose cut today.

Life after death for Heath Ledger, who died at 28 on Tuesday in Manhattan, includes "The Dark Knight," a movie scheduled to be released this summer, with Christian Bale reprising his role as Batman, and Ledger as his archnemesis, the Joker.

Ledger's family said his death had to be accidental, but almost none of the questions swirling around the case were answered yesterday. The medical examiner's initial autopsy results were inconclusive, and further tests could take more than a week. The New York Police Department offered more details about items found in Ledger's apartment -- a rolled-up $20 bill, half a dozen different prescription medicines -- but shied away from suggesting a theory on how Ledger died. President Bush postponed a White House event about prescription drug abuse prevention.

As friends and fans continue to express grief and puzzlement, there are also unanswered professional questions. For producers, directors and studio marketing armies -- who also mourn -- the untimely demise presents special challenges.

"It's spooky," says Peter Bart, editor in chief of Variety magazine. Bart was a studio executive for 17 years. During his tenure, he says, two stars died while making films. Robert Shaw suffered a heart attack in 1978 before finishing "Avalanche Express." And Natalie Wood drowned in 1981 while filming "Brainstorm" with Christopher Walken.

Sudden death "puts the studio and the marketing people in a very depressed state," Bart says. "It's a terrible thing to have to deal with."

Studios need "a suitable gap" before releasing a star-crossed movie, he says. Wood's "Brainstorm" did not do well at the box office, "but that wasn't her fault." It was, he adds, "a lousy movie."

There is no guarantee that the added publicity cloud following a star's death will hurt or help ticket sales, Bart says, "but some people really get curious to see someone's last performance."

Patricia King Hanson, historian at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, says many screen actors' works have appeared posthumously. The first such actor that springs to her mind is Jean Harlow, who fell ill and died in 1937 before completing "Saratoga" with Clark Gable. "She was at the top of her career," Hanson says.

To finish the film, she says, "they took Harlow's double and reshot a couple of scenes." Harlow's stand-in wore a face-obscuring hat and the cinematographer shot her from a distance, Hanson says. The movie was released after Harlow's funeral and did fairly well.

Marilyn Monroe's unfinished movie "Something's Got to Give" was never released; the actress died in 1962. Monster man Bela Lugosi was working on "Plan 9 From Outer Space" when he died in 1956; the director's transparent efforts to disguise Lugosi's absence made a terrible film terribler. Brandon Lee was killed in 1993 on the set of "The Crow." The following year, John Candy died while filming "Wagons East!"

Just before the 1998 action flick "Small Soldiers" was released, star Phil Hartman was murdered by his wife. The movie was not well received. Hartman's death "brought a certain mortality to something that was supposed to be a goof-off," director Joe Dante told USA Today.

Oliver Reed passed away before "Gladiator" was finished; Ridley Scott used computer technology to insert Reed into certain scenes. Aaliyah, star of the 2002 film "Queen of the Damned," died in a plane crash before the movie was released. Actress-director Adrienne Shelly was murdered in Manhattan before she could see her 2007 film "Waitress" in commercial theaters.

Over the years, television has also been forced to deal with unexpected deaths. John Ritter died in 2003 while starring in the series "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter." He also starred in a movie, "Bad Santa," released a few weeks after his death. The movie was dedicated to Ritter.

When Ledger died, he was in the middle of shooting another movie, Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus." Last night, Us magazine's Web site reported that everyone on the set in Vancouver, B.C., was told to go home, and the movie's future is in question.

One of the most world-changing examples of a young star dying in the middle of a dazzling career, says AFI historian Hanson, is James Dean. Like Ledger, Dean had finished shooting scenes of a major motion picture: "Giant."

Before releasing the movie, the director called for some changes in a scene where Dean is drunk and loud. "They had Nick Adams dub his voice," Hanson says.

"Giant" turned out to be a huge success. And Dean's fatal car crash, she says, secured his place in the Hollywood pantheon. "His death," adds Hanson, "almost kind of made him live longer."

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