Long part of the canon of contemporary lore is the tale of an unfortunate actor who expires on stage, his adoring audience unaware of his sudden deceasement because they think his collapse part of the show — while they clap and cheer at the brilliance of his death scene performance, unknown to them he is gasping his last.
What follows is a quick romp through a growing list of those who died in the blaze of the footlights or on camera, or who were rumored to have met the Grim Reaper while treading the boards. At least one thespian death actually does match the legend (see if you can find it).
Sports figures are not included in this compilation, even though a great many of them have expired while doing their thing as the public watched.
Moliere (died 21 February 1673)
This French playwright and actor-manager collapsed during the fourth performance of his newly penned Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac). Overwhelmed by a coughing fit, he was carried to his home in the Rue de Richelieu, Paris, where he died.
Felix Mottl (died 2 July 1911)
This Austrian conductor died in Munich at the age of 55 while conducting Act II of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.
Alexander Woolcott (died 23 January 1943)
During a radio show (a round table discussion with four others on Hitlerism), Woolcott suffered a heart attack at 7:15 p.m. and died in hospital four hours later. Hundreds of people tuned into the show were unaware anything was amiss. Indeed, listeners reported that the writer, known for his incisive and sometimes stinging comments, seemed to have taken less than his usual part in the broadcast.
Johnny Ace (died 25 December 1954)
Rhythm and blues recording star Johnny Ace died during a show he was giving in Houston, but did so offstage. During a five minute break, the singer was amusing himself with a game of Russian Roulette (one bullet in the chamber). He lost.
Tyrone Power (died 15 November 1958)
Tyrone Power suffered a heart attack during the filming of a fencing scene in Solomon and Sheba in Madrid, Spain. He died only minutes after being loaded into an ambulance.
Harry Einstein (died 24 November 1958)
As famed comedian Parkyakarkus, Harry Einstein expired while performing at a Friars Club roast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He collapsed onto Milton Berle’s shoulder.
Eduard van Beinum (died 13 April 1959)
Chief conductor at the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, van Beinum was taken ill after rehearsing the first two movements of a Brahms symphony, and died immediately after stepping off the podium aged 58.
Leonard Warren (died 4 March 1960)
Just after he completed his second-act aria in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny) at the New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Warren plunged face-forward onto the stage. The curtain was rung down, and it was announced a half hour later the singer had died of a massive stroke.
Paul Mantz (died 8 July 1965)
This aviation pioneer and legendary movie stunt pilot died in Yuma, Arizona, during the filming of The Flight Of The Phoenix. As three motion picture cameras ground away, his plane hit a small sand dune, overturned and disintegrated. Though semi-retired from stunt work, Mantz was covering for his partner, Frank Tallman, who’d six weeks earlier broken his leg pushing his son’s go-cart.
Nelson Eddy (died 6 March 1967)
This famous actor and singer suffered a fatal stroke while performing onstage at the Doral Country Club in Miami at age 65. He died in hospital the next day.
Joseph Keilberth (died 20 July 1968)
This 60-year-old conductor died at the National Theatre in Munich while leading Tristan and Isolde.
George Ostroska (died January 1970)
While playing the lead in Macbeth at the Crawford Livingston Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, Ostroska dropped dead of a heart attack at the beginning of the second act. He was 32.
David Burns (died March 12 1971)
Jerome Rodale (died 5 June 1971)
In a New York Times Magazine interview, this 72-year-old longevity guru announced, “I’m going to live to be 100, unless I’m run down by a sugar-crazed taxi driver.” A guest on the Dick Cavett Show the next day, while Cavett was discussing politics with journalist Pete Hamill, Rodale’s head dropped to his chest and he was heard to let out what sounded like a snore. “Are we boring you, Mr. Rodale?” asked Cavett. There was no response — Rodale was dead. The show was never broadcast.
Leslie Harvey (died 3 May 1972)
The lead guitarist of the Glasgow band Stone the Crows died after being electrocuted onstage at Swansea’s Top Rank Ballroom.
Irene Ryan (died 26 April 1973)
Best known as “Granny” on TV’s Beverly Hillbillies, this spritely 71-year-old suffered a stroke while performing in the Broadway musical Pippin and died six weeks later.
Carl Barnett (died 23 April 1974)
This 59-year-old expired of a heart attack while conducting Bach’s Come, Sweet Death at the Will Rogers High School in Tulsa. It was his first and last performance of that piece.
Chris Chubbuck (died 15 July 1974)
After surprisingly opening her morning community affairs talk show with a newscast, this 30-year-old reporter announced, “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first — attempted suicide.” She then drew a revolver and shot herself in the head. Chubbuck expired 14 hours later in a hospital.
Sid James (died 26 April 1976)
Best known for his Carry On roles, the grand old man of dirty laughter collapsed onstage at the Sunderland Empire during a performance of The Mating Game and died in hospital shortly thereafter. He’d suffered a heart attack.
Cyril Ritchard (died 19 December 1977)
This 83-year-old actor suffered a heart attack during a 25 November 1977 performance in Chicago of the musical Side By Side, causing him to slip into a coma from which he never recovered.
Karl Wallenda (died 22 March 1978)
This famed aerialist died at age 73 while attempting to walk a wire suspended 123 feet in the air between two hotels in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Bill Stewart (died 20 June 1979)
While attempting to film war destruction in Nicaragua, this ABC television news correspondent and his interpreter, Juan Espinosa, were executed by a National Guard soldier. Surviving members of the ABC crew managed to catch the murder on tape, and the footage was later shown on news broadcasts.
Arnold Soboloff (died 28 October 1979)
This 48-year-old actor suffered a heart attack during a New York City performance of Peter Pan.
Vic Morrow (died 23 July 1982)
In Hollywood’s most infamous on-set tragedy, Vic Morrow and two child actors in Twilight Zone, The Movie were killed when struck by a helicopter during the late-night filming of a mock Vietnam battle scene in Valencia, California. All exposed film was immediately seized, but some eventually made its way into the 1992 compilation film Death Scenes 2.
Jackie Wilson (died 23 January 1984)
Eight years after collapsing on stage during a performance and slipping into a coma, this singer died. He’d been felled in Cherry Hill, N.J. on 25 September 1975 while touring with Dick Clark’s touring rock-‘n’-roll revival. Though Wilson emerged from the coma a year later, treatment in medical facilities failed to restore his health.
Tommy Cooper (died 15 April 1984)
Known as the fez-wearing magician whose tricks always seemed to go wrong, this British comedian suffered a heart attack during a televised performance. Given the usual nature of his act, the audience took some time to realize that this really wasn’t part of it. He died later in hospital.
Eric Morecambe (died 29 May 1984)
This half of Britain’s Morecambe and Wise comedy team died in hospital the day after suffering a heart attack during a curtain call of a performance in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. He was 58 years old.
Jon-Erik Hexum (died 12 October 1984)
Hexum died of a gunshot wound after he accidentally shot himself in the head with a .44-caliber magnum pistol loaded with blanks while on the set of the TV series Cover-Up. Wadding from the blank cartridge had been driven into his skull. Hexum was replaced in the series by Antony Hamilton, but the show didn’t last all that long, running only from 22 September 1984 to 6 July 1985 before being canceled.
Yoshiuki Takada (died 10 September 1985)
The Sankai Juku Dance Company of Toyko had been performing The Dance Of Birth And Death on the side of Seattle’s Mutual Life building when Takada’s rope broke and he plunged six stories to his death. The film of his demise was shown on the nightly news.
Jane Dornacker (died 22 October 1986)
Millions heard the final broadcast of this traffic reporter for WNBC radio in New York City as the helicopter she was in crashed into the Hudson River. She died on the way to the hospital. The pilot survived. This was Dornacker’s second helicopter crash that year.
Edith Webster (died 22 November 1986)
After singing several choruses of “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” during a performance of The Drunkard, this 60-year-old actress collapsed on stage for her scripted death scene and suffered an unscripted fatal heart attack. She was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Nancy McCormick (died 25 November 1986)
This Cincinnati reporter for radio station WKRC was killed along with the pilot in the crash of the station’s helicopter. She was not broadcasting at the time.
R. Budd Dwyer (died 22 January 1987)
This Pennsylvania state treasurer staged the best-known televised suicide. About to be sentenced on charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, perjury, and racketeering for taking a $300,000 kickback on a state computer contract, Dwyer convened a press conference in his office. While the film rolled, he handed out a twenty-page press statement, made a few remarks, then placed the barrel of a .357 revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger. The tape was shown on the nightly news.
Dick Shawn (died 18 April 1987)
While giving a comedy performance at the UC San Diego campus, Shawn fell and struck his head on the stage. The comedian lay there for nearly five minutes before the audience realized it was not part of his act and an ambulance was called. He died forty-five minutes later in hospital, apparently of a heart attack.
Warne Marsh (died 18 December 1987)
This jazz saxophonist died of heart attack after collapsing onstage while giving a performance at Donte’s in North Hollywood. According to another member of the quartet, Marsh “just slipped off his stool.” He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Brian Jewell (died 20 October 1990)
Thrill seekers on “haunted hayride” in New Jersey got more of a thrill than they’d bargained for when it was discovered the teen playing the part of the hanged man was the real thing. The stunt had gone fatally wrong.
William Anthony Odom (died 26 October 1990)
This North Carolina 15-year-old who’d been staging a gallows scene at a Halloween party accidentally hanged himself when the noose somehow tightened.
Joseph Burrus (died 30 October 1990)
An amateur magician and resident of Fresno, California, Burrus came up with an escape stunt that would have done his idol Houdini proud — he’d be bound, confined in a plastic coffin, then buried under seven tons of soil and concrete. Handcuffed and chained, he was lowered into the hole. Assistants shoveled three feet of soil onto the casket, then a truck poured concrete into the hole. As they were topping up the cement, the level suddenly dropped eighteen inches. Fifteen minutes of excavating later, rescuers reached Burrus, but it was too late — he’d been crushed.
Redd Foxx (died 11 October 1991)
Actor/comedian Redd Foxx underwent a heart attack on the set of The Royal Family, a new sitcom he was to appear in. Best known for his curmudgeonly role in Sanford and Son, this time it really was the big one, Elizabeth.
Brandon Lee (died 31 March 1993)
A stunt gone wrong during the filming of The Crow cost the son of Bruce Lee his life. A blank fired from a .44 magnum revolver felled him. He died hours later in hospital. The metal tip of one of the dummy bullets had somehow pulled loose from its brass casing. When the dummies were unloaded and replaced with blanks, the metal tip remained behind in the gun’s cylinder. As soon as the blank went off, its explosive force propelled the dummy tip through the gun barrel — and into Lee’s body.
Rumor to the contrary, footage of Lee’s fatal accident is not included in The Crow.
Tip Tipping (died 6 February 1993)
While filming a segment for BBC’s 999 (a show which dramatically reconstructs real-life narrow escapes), this veteran stuntman died when his main parachute and two reserves failed to open.
Jack Spector (died 8 March 1994)
This popular radio host suffered a fatal heart attack while broadcasting popular music on WHLI in Garden City, Long Island. Though he was rushed to the hospital, he was pronounced dead on arrival. The song playing at the time of his heart attack was I’m in the Mood For Love.
Crash Morgan (died 6 October 1995)
This drummer for the group Big Sugar died mid-number while performing in Waterloo, Iowa. He was 36.
Daniel McLain (died 8 November 1995)
Better known as Country Dick Montana of the underground rock band The Beat Farmers, McLain expired on stage of a heart attack during a sold out performance at the Longhorn Saloon in Whistler, B.C.
Rob Harris (died 14 December 1995)
During the filming of a Mountain Dew commercial, this sky surfer’s parachute failed to open and he plunged to his death. Despite rumors to the contrary, though the finished commercial contains some footage of Harris, none comes from his final jump.
Richard Versalle (died 5 January 1996)
This 63-year-old tenor died onstage at New York’s Metropolitan Opera immediately after delivering the line: “Too bad you can only live so long” in Janacek’s The Makropulos Case. It was the first performance and Versalle, who was playing the legal clerk Vitek alongside Jessye Norman, climbed a 20 ft ladder to file a legal brief, but had a heart attack and plunged to the ground. Janacek’s opera is about the secret of eternal life.
Johnny “Guitar” Watson (died 17 May 1996)
While performing at Yokohama’s Blues Cafe, this 61-year-old rhythm and blues legend suffered a heart attack. He was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
Herbert Khaury aka “Tiny Tim” (died 30 November 1996)
Performing at a Minneapolis fund raiser, Tiny Tim cut short his rendition of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips.” Turning to leave the stage, he was felled by a heart attack and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.
Gordon Williams (died 25 April 1997)
This 63-year-old British magician died on stage during a charity show in Sheffield, Yorks.
Antony Wheeler (died 17 August 1997)
Playing Judas in a Greek production of Jesus Christ Superstar, Wheeler’s performance was supposed to conclude with Judas hanging himself, a stunt he’d successfully negotiated 20 previous times. This time he forgot to fasten the rope to his safety harness.
Antario Teodoro Filho (died 2 January 1998)
During a live show, this Brazilian radio presenter and local politician was shot dead by a gunman who burst into the studio. He was hit by 10 bullets fired from two revolvers.
Owen Hart (died 23 May 1999)
This professional wrestler lost his life when he fell from a height of 90 feet as he was being lowered into the ring for the “Over the Edge” sports entertainment event in Kansas City, Missouri.
Mark Sandman (died 5 July 1999)
Lead singer of the Boston-based rock band Morphine, 47-year-old Mark Sandman collapsed on stage during a concert in Rome. He had suffered a heart attack and was pronounced dead in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Grover Washington Jr. (died 17 December 1999)
This jazz saxophonist and composer suffered a heart attack and collapsed after taping four songs that Friday evening for The Saturday Early Show on CBS. He died in hospital in New York City.
Ron Watson (died 17 March 2000)
While putting on a magic show for a group of hospital patients at Tokoroa Hospital in New Zealand, “Uncle Ron the Magician” collapsed and was pronounced dead 45 minutes later. The patients at first believed his crumpling onstage was part of the act.
Renato Di Paolo (died 22 April 2000)
Another actor playing Judas mistakenly hanged himself in Camerata Nuova, a town 45 miles from Rome. Di Paolo’s death was captured on film by someone shooting a video of the outdoor play.
James Tuozzolo (died 31 December 2000)
This principal trumpet player with the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra collapsed of a heart attack on stage just after performing a solo and died in hospital.
Giuseppe Sinopoli (died 20 April 2001)
This 54-year-old conductor collapsed and died of a heart attack in Berlin while conducting perhaps the most emotionally charged scene in Verdi’s Aida.
John Ritter (died 11 September 2003)
During the taping of the TV sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, the 54-year-old actor was stricken by a previously undiagnosed heart problem. He died in hospital later that night.
Darrell Abbott (died 9 December 2004)
‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott, formerly of the metal act Pantera, was shot by a jilted fan while performing with his new group, Damageplan.