Weekend Roundtable: Only the Good Die Young

From James Dean to Marilyn Monroe, Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman, cinema history is cluttered with stars whose lives were tragically cut short right in the primes of their careers. As we witness the posthumous release of one of Paul Walker’s final movies, this week’s ‘Brick Mansions’, we’ll use today’s Roundtable to look back on other talent taken from us too soon.

Shannon Nutt

On Halloween night in 1993, actor River Phoenix collapsed and died outside the Viper Room night club in Hollywood. He was only 23-years-old, but had already made quite a mark for himself in the industry. Phoenix first caught my eye as the one of the childhood friends in ‘Stand by Me‘, playing the kid with a bad family history who’s scared of turning out just like them. That same year, he would impress again as the son of Harrison Ford’s eccentric inventor in ‘The Mosquito Coast’. Later in his career, Phoenix would hold his own with Oscar winner Sidney Poitier, not once but twice – in the films ‘Little Nikita’ and ‘Sneakers’. Then he would find himself in yet another Harrison Ford movie, playing the younger version of the famous archaeologist in ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’.

Phoenix wasn’t above small, independent movies either. He co-starred with Keanu Reeves in Gus Van Sant’s highly acclaimed ‘My Own Private Idaho’, where he played a gay street hustler. Phoenix was both watchable and likeable in almost every performance. It’s not hard to imagine that many of today’s roles that go to stars like Leonardo DiCaprio (who in fact took the lead in movies Phoenix was attached to, most notably ‘The Basketball Diaries’) or even River’s younger brother Joaquin, would have wound up in his hands. At the time of his death, Phoenix was already a popular actor. He was well on his way to becoming a great one.

Mike Attebery

John Candy was only 43 when he died. Compared to James Dean or celebrities in the 27 Club, I know that seems old, but from the point of view of someone in his mid-30s, 43 is far, far too young. Fortunately for us, Candy packed a lot of memorable roles into his relatively short life. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of all the parts we missed out on seeing him play. Imagine the warmth and humor he would have brought to roles as a parent, or later, god willing, as a grandparent. Those are movies I would have liked to see.


Daniel Hirshleifer

For me, one name stands above all the others: John Cazale. He never had a leading role, but in the five films he made (three directed by Francis Ford Coppola), he proved capable of playing with the best, including Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep and even Marlon Brando. Most people remember him as Fredo Corleone in the first two ‘Godfather‘ films, but for me his best performance will always be as Pacino’s pre-transgender lover in ‘Dog Day Afternoon‘. The man had incredible depth and his death from cancer at age 42 was one of the worst losses in film history.


Brian Hoss

Count me among the people who find Bruce Lee fascinating even now, some 50 years after his death. The recent announcement that Lee would be included in the new ‘EA Sports UFC’ just confirms that the man has spent more time as a cultural icon than he did living. He made some amazing movies and developed martial arts in ways that are worthy of study on their own, but it’s the uncompleted projects that come to mind for this Roundtable. Starting with the unfinished ‘Game of Death’, it’s hard not to feel robbed of serious creative output by the man’s early passing. It’s also difficult not to speculate how the acting career of Brandon Lee would have gone had either father or son lived to be 40.


Luke Hickman

Even though he died before my second birthday, my pick is John Belushi. I was fortunate that my parents raised me on some of his classic ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketches (long before the show became the bloated bore-fest that it is now). Some of those include the “Samurai Delicatessen” and “Cheesebuger Cheeseburger Cheeseburger…” Google them if you haven’t seen them. ‘SNL’ was a lot funnier when it wasn’t trying so hard.

Later in life, I got to know ‘The Blues Brothers‘ and ‘Animal House‘. The guy was fantastic! His early death not only left a void in a solid career, but left us with his brother Jim. *shudder*

Junie Ray

Hollywood has had plenty of blonde bombshells that died too young, such as Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield. (Some might even include Anna Nicole Smith.) But Jean Harlow, who was just 26 when she died, intrigues me the most. I think she had the greatest depth of acting potential that we missed out on.

One of my favorites of hers was ‘Dinner at Eight’, where she plays a status-grubbing terror of a woman. It would be easy to dismiss this crass hussy of a character, but Harlow brought a sparkling vulnerability and humanity to the character that allowed you to find humor, pity and relatability. ‘Dinner at Eight’ also features one of the best closing lines of all time. Just in case you thought women calling other women whores at the dinner table started with Jackie Collin’s trashy novel ‘Hollywood Wives’, this is how they did it in 1933:

Kitty (Harlow): “I was reading a book the other day.”
Carlotta: “Reading a book!”
Kitty: “Yes. It’s all about civilization or something, a nutty kind of a book. Do you know that the guy said that machinery is going to take the place of every profession?”
Carlotta: “Oh, my dear, that’s something you need never worry about.”

Josh Zyber

The name Solveig Dommartin may not leap immediately to the minds of many of this blog’s readers, but the actress was the radiant beauty at the heart of Wim Wenders’ masterpiece ‘Wings of Desire‘. She became romantically linked with the director, and later co-wrote and starred in his ambitious, flawed sci-fi road movie ‘Until the End of the World’ (which was kind of a mess in its 1991 theatrical cut, but plays much better in a five-hour miniseries version only available on home video in a DVD from Italy). When the relationship ended a couple years later, so did her film career for the most part.

An obituary in The Guardian describes the actress as “a veritable bundle of energy, a boisterous and extrovert young woman who was always the last to leave the hotel bar.” She died of a heart attack in 2007, at the age of either 45 or 47. (Her actual birth date is in some dispute.)

Already a very melancholy film, it breaks my heart to watch ‘Wings of Desire’ and be reminded of the loss of Dommartin’s talent.

How much have you been affected by the death of a favorite actor or actress? Tell us in the Comments.


  1. Chris Bennett

    Chris Farley, such a funny and talented comedic actor. For awhile I was convinced that Tommy Boy was the funniest movie ever made. Not to mention the countless memorable sketches from his SNL days. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone jokingly claim they “live in a van down by the river”.

    Patrick Swayze, although he was no longer in what many would consider the “prime” of his career, he left us far too soon. He kicked ass in Roadhouse, made for a complex villain in Point Break and even moved us to tears in Ghost.

    Steve McQueen, when I was a kid and happened to stay home from school because I was sick, there was always one movie I would put on; an old, scratchy copy of The Great Escape that my grandfather (a WW2 veteran himself) had recorded off of TV some years before. McQueen’s effortlessly cool portrayal of captain Hilts always made me smile.Not to mention, Bullit or The Getaway with the incredibly beautiful Ali Macgraw. I think of how many great movies we missed out on because of his passing…

  2. NJScorpio

    Frankly, I feel Leslie Nielsen died before his time.

    But, younger than 84? I’d go with Brandon Lee (already mentioned).

  3. David Duprey

    The actors I miss the most, because of what might-have been, are the previously mentioned Brandon Lee (Crow, Rapid Fire, & Showdown in Little Tokyo), River Phoenix (Indiana Jones- He could have relaunched the franchise twenty years ago and we wouldn’t have gotten Crystal Skull, Sneakers, etc.), and others.

    The one name that also comes to mind is Heath Ledger, who played THE best Joker, since Nicholson’s, in Dark Knight. But, he also did great work in 10 Things I Hate about You (Teen Flick), A Knight’s Tale (Rock Twist on Renaissance), Ned Kelly (Billy the Kid down under), and to his earliest appearance in the TV Show “Roar”. He was finally starting to come into his own and branching out into different roles, not the usual teen-heartthrob led films.

    Also, I’d like to mention the child actor Jonathan Brandis, who was also just starting to appear in non-child films before his suicide. Most famous for “Seaquest” and Ladybugs.

    And last, but not least an actor who made his mark with his first appearance outside his home country, Andy Whifield from Starz’ Spartacus! He could have been the next big action star.

  4. Paul J Anderson

    I have to go with Montgomery Clift. His career was on the same trajectory as Brando (and Dean as well until his untimely demise), but a tragic car accident, at the age of 35, sent him spiraling into what many consider to be the “longest suicide in Hollywood history” (He would finally succumb at the age of 45). The physical scars and subsequent rehab and recovery left him addicted to painkillers and alcohol. The emotional scars ran even deeper. I am still astonished by his fantastic work. He was more than capable of holding his own against The Duke in his first film, Red River. So looking forward to the Criterion release of that! A Place in the Sun is another favorite and also forged a lasting friendship with his costar, Liz Taylor, that remained strong until his death. Then there is his last great role in the tragic film, The Misfits, that also served as the last film ever for Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. The tragic backstory to that film is one of Hollywood lore. Clift would have been one of the greats, if not the greatest, and I am not alone in that regard. Sadly missed…

  5. Brittany Murphy was a big shocker for me and also Brad Renfro was another. Correct me if I’m wrong but when the Oscars did their ” In Memoriam”, I feel like they left him out. Just because he wasn’t in the A list at the time ( i think his career was on a down and he had drug problems) but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t of been remembered. He was a fine child actor and potentially a great adult actor.

  6. Bill Williams

    For me it would have to be the death of Christopher Reeve in 2004 at the age of 52 that hit me hardest. For anyone in my generation he completely defined the portrayal of Superman in such a way that anyone and everyone who has followed in his footsteps on film and TV have had a hard time escaping the comparison. Even Zack Snyder recently admitted that his blockbuster remake “Man of Steel” had a hard time comparing to the Reeve movies of the 1970s and 1980s because of the upbeat, optimistic view of life the movies conveyed. As a boy I couldn’t help but look up to Reeve because he was everything I wanted to be when I grew up. And his tragic accident in 1995, compounded by his fighting spirit in wanting to walk again, only redefined and made more poignant his larger than life portrayal of an iconic Superman for the ages. It’s still hard to believe it’s been ten years now since we lost him. They just don’t make ’em like they used to.

    • Chris B

      Totally agree, Superman II is by far the best Superman movie ever made and Reeve will always be the definitive actor for that role…I miss him too.

      • Agree to disagree, after knowing how Superman II was ripped from Donner’s hands after already working on it, I have to say that Superman is the best one. While Superman II is a good film in it’s own right I can’t help but wish that Donner had been able to make the movie he wanted. The Donner cut of Superman II gives an idea of what he wanted to do but since it was never finished by Donner it only hints at how good the movie could have been. In Comparison other than aging Special effects and being a product of the late 70’s (My god the cars and clothes) is is a pretty timeless work.

        • Chris B

          I always thought the second one took everything good about the first one and just improved on it. The villains are more interesting, the script is leaner and meaner,those cheesy scenes on the farm when Clark is just discovering his powers are nowhere to be seen, the climactic battle in Metropolis against Zod and his cronies trumps the whole timer reversal gimmick in the first one etc. I’m not sure how much different the movie would have been even if Donner had been allowed to finish it, his cut doesn’t deviate all that much from the widely released version from what I recall…The one great thing the first one has over the second is Brando.

  7. So far, everybody mentioned has been actors. I thought I’d add a couple that weren’t.

    Howard Ashman. The gay lyricist that completely revived the Disney musical through his work on The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Obviously, he wasn’t solely responsible for the Disney renaissance , but he was such an important part of it, that I don’t it can be overstated. He died of AIDS in 1991, only 40 years old.

    Joe Ranft, writer/animator/storyboard artist/voice artist at Disney and Pixar. He worked on all of Pixars movies up to Cars. Killed in a car accident in 2005, 45 years old.

    Both artists died at the top of their careers, and there’s no doubt that they’d have continued to make great contributions to both Disney and Pixar’s movies for many, many years, had they not died at such young ages.

    • I love the dedication Disney gave to Ashman at the end of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (he died before completion of the movie): “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul”.

      Brilliant lyricist.

  8. Max Ferguson

    John Cazale did not play the part of “Pacino’s pre-transgender lover in ‘Dog Day Afternoon‘.” That was Chris Sarandon.
    Cazale played “Sal,” Pacino’s dim-witted accomplice.

    • Peter

      I’m glad you mentioned this. I immediately knew Daniel Hirschleifer was wrong in his statement but double checked on Wilipedia anyway. I assume Daniel didn’t get the actor wrong (thinking Chris Sarandon was dead), just got the story of Dog Day Afternoon wrong.

  9. Phil Hartman is one of very few talents that was lost far too soon and due to the actions of somebody else too so I always feel a bit sad when his name comes up. He was a funny guy and a brilliant voice artist. His Troy McClure character in the simpsons always made me chuckle.

  10. PJ Schatz

    Maybe not the best actor around, but I have to say I was really shocked at the death of Paul Walker last year as I imagine a lot of people were.
    He’s still here thankfully and doing well, but when we lose Clint Eastwood it’ll be like losing an old friend for me.

  11. OmarF

    I have to say, when I opened this page and saw River’s picture at the top, it got to me. Of all those who died too young, his death was the one that hit me the hardest. I was just a couple of years older than him when he died. That gut-wrenching 911 call will forever haunt my memory, and Halloween has never been the same, since.

    • Peter

      River Phoenix is the person who immediately popped to mind for me when I saw the theme of this Weekend Roundtable. Really a great actor and would have given many great performances had he lived longer. If you haven’t seeen “Running on Empty” I highly highly recommend it – great movie with River and Judd Hirsh.

  12. Chris B

    Although this is a bit of a cheat because he wasn’t actually an actor, Bill Hicks. It was 20 years ago in February the brilliant stand-up comedian died of cancer at only 32 years old…he was one of the greats.

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