One of the first deaths that shook Hollywood came in 1921 involving Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The talented comedian of the silent movie era was at a party with bit player Virginia Rappe, who turned up at a sanitarium a few days later deathly ill. Rappe had become intoxicated at the party, and an area madam accused Arbuckle of raping the actress while she was in an inebriated state. Rappe’s manager elaborated and stated that Arbuckle had used a piece of ice to cause the injuries, which would lead to Rappe’s death. Evidence against Arbuckle was scant, and he was eventually acquitted, but not before a promising career had derailed. For a long time, his films were banned outright. He would eventually win a new contract with Warner Brothers to do a feature film, but on the same day he signed it in 1933, Fatty Arbuckle dropped dead of a heart attack.
As Tinseltown controversies go, George Reeves is one of the more baffling because of the numerous conflicting stories from those who were at his house when the Superman actor allegedly shot himself while sitting on the bed in his room. Some reports have blamed Toni Mannix, a former showgirl, and her husband Eddie Mannix, then MGM general manager. Reeves and Toni were having an affair. Meanwhile, Reeves was engaged to Leonore Lemmon, who in some accounts, was upstairs at the time of the gunshot that took Reeves’ life. Some stories claim Lemmon ran down the stairs yelling to the guests, “Tell them [police] I was down here, tell them I was down here!” Officially, Reeves’ death was ruled a suicide brought on by depression at not getting the parts he desired. All three scenarios were dramatized in the Ben Affleck joint Hollywoodland.
By most accounts, Johnny Stompanato was a POS criminal with a bad temper and a penchant for beating women. Sort of the Chris Brown of his time, you might say, except that he was more mobster and less singer. The fact anyone would want to stab Stompanato to death, especially with rumors persisting that he was beating on his wife, the beloved actress Lana Turner, wouldn’t normally be cause for alarm. But when you consider the perpetrator of the crime was Turner’s teenage daughter Cheryl Crane, the murder is a little more surprising. Not surprising was the reason she did it. “Johnny Stomp” was sparring with Turner when the young girl finally had enough and put a knife in him.
For years, the accidental death of Natalie Wood has been questioned by conspiracy theorists and law enforcement officials alike. Recently, Los Angeles County rescue boat captain accused Wood’s husband Robert Wagner of ignoring Wood’s screams for help and allowing her to drown. Of course, he made those comments to The National Enquirer, so instantly you’ve got to question the authenticity of his claims. Nevertheless, the mystery stands and likely will live on well beyond the deaths of those who were on the boat the night Wood fell overboard and slipped into her watery grave.
Perhaps the biggest cover-up in Hollywood history — rumored, anyway — is the death of Thomas Ince. If you believe the legend, he was just an unlucky schmuck, who got between the gun of media magnate William Randolph Hearst and actor Charlie Chaplin. (Chaplin was apparently sleeping with Hearst’s wife, presumably while on the same boat. Talk about nuts. Officially, Ince’s death was ruled a heart attack, but keep in mind that Hearst pretty much controlled the national media in those days, and it’s easy to see how such a betrayal could push one into crime of passion territory. Perhaps the shock of accidentally killing Ince instead made Hearst forget about his rage long enough to concoct the heart attack angle. We’ll never know. What we do know is that the initial reports were that Ince was shot, though the exact circumstances were kept mum. The story was later revised to heart attack. Or so the scandal says.
The last thing anyone wants when they die is for their demise to be used as an illustration for terms like “auto-erotic asphyxiation.” Alas, that’s the burden David Carradine’s entry in this list of Hollywood deaths must carry. While the usual conspiracy theories are unavoidable in a case like this — Carradine was found alone apparently choked to death while, ahem, pleasuring himself — two former wives agreed that he had an affinity for self bondage and “dark” behavior. In an earlier divorce filing, ex-wife Marina Anderson said, “it was the continuation of abhorrent and deviant sexual behavior which was potentially deadly,” that led her to file.
Brandon Lee’s shooting death on the set of The Crow is one of the biggest tragedies in Hollywood history. Scandal grew naturally from that with the question of how an actor could be killed in a scene with a firearm in the late 20th Century, but that’s exactly what happened. Lee’s uber-healthy dad Bruce Lee also puzzled fans when he died at the age of 32 from an apparent cerebral edema, but for Brandon to have been gunned down while shooting a scene in a movie — well, the curse proponents certainly had something to work with. The Crow was a huge commercial success, in part because people wanted to see if they could spot the scene; but mostly, it did well because it’s a great movie with a terrific final performance from its lead star.
The death of actor Vic Morrow while filming a scene for Twilight Zone: The Movie was one of the most gut-wrenching ever, made worse by the fact that two small children were also victims of the helicopter accident that claimed Morrow’s life. On the morning of July 23, 1982, director John Landis made the unconscionable decision to film a scene that required a low-flying helicopter in turbulent weather conditions. The helicopter pilot lost control and the machine crashed down on the three actors. Unfortunately, video footage for Morrow’s death still exists. While you won’t find any clean copies of the carnage itself — the propeller decapitated Morrow and one of the children — what you will find is disturbing enough. Which Hollywood deaths did you find the most shocking?