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Published: Tuesday, 1/29/2008

Movie afterlife keeps actors' work alive

BY BARBARA VANCHERI
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

It would be heartless and cold to talk about the fate of The Dark Knight when a man's life has been lost - a movie franchise is far less important than a son, a brother, a dad, an Oscar nominee, a young actor who connected with moviegoers on the other side of the divide.

Behind closed doors, however, it would be safe to assume Warner Bros. is talking about what Heath Ledger's death last week means for the scheduled July 18 release of the Batman movie. The Dark Knight will go into the history books as the film Ledger had finished when he was found dead, possibly of an overdose of prescription pills.

The 28-year-old actor from Australia plays The Joker, and his character takes the makeup and madness deeper into the darkness than Jack Nicholson ever dreamed about in 1989's Batman with Michael Keaton. For some moviegoers, Ledger's performance might stoke curiosity or lend gruesome intrigue to the sequel. For others, it might be a distraction or sad reminder of a talent lost, while others may decide to avoid the film based on his participation.

In addition to Dark Knight, Ledger was working on Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in London. The fantasy, about pacts with the devil over immortality and youth, was scheduled for a 2009 release, but less is known about its fate.

Ledger isn't the first actor who died during the making of a movie or whose final performance lends a poignancy or peculiarity to a film.

In the 1960s, Spencer Tracy was so ill during Guess Who's Coming to Dinner that no insurance company would cover him. Director Stanley Kramer and actress Katharine Hepburn put their salaries into escrow as collateral. Tracy died 17 days after filming was completed in 1967, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner became, at that time, the highest-grossing film in the history of Columbia Pictures.

Other instances of movie life and death colliding:

•British actor Oliver Reed died of a heart attack in May, 1999, before the epic Gladiator was completed. The Web site imdb.com reports that some of his sequences were re-edited and a double, photographed in the shadows and with a 3-D CGI mask of Reed's face, was used as a stand-in.•In March, 1994, John Candy succumbed to a heart attack in

Mexico, where he was filming the movie Wagons East! Most of his scenes had been completed, and if doubles were used for later footage, it wasn't apparent when the movie was released in August, 1994.

It was a lame comic Western in which Candy played a hapless wagon master, hired to lead a band of failed settlers back to St. Louis in the 1870s. He had one more movie in the can, Michael Moore's Canadian Bacon, which played a few cities, then went to video.

•Like Ledger, River Phoenix was a performer with talent and promise far beyond his 23 years. In October, 1993, he collapsed outside a Los Angeles nightclub and died of a drug overdose. He was making a movie called Dark Blood, which was never completed.

•With three days of filming left on The Crow, actor Brandon Lee was shot with a bullet accidentally lodged in a prop gun. He died on March 31, 1993.

After his death, his family gave the go-ahead for the movie to be completed, and it was, thanks to editing, doubles and digital images. But given the subject matter - a rock musician is murdered but returns to seek revenge - and tragic history, The Crow wrapped moviegoers in an eerie cloak when it arrived in May, 1994.

Brandon Lee's death came two decades after the death of his famous father, Bruce Lee, at age 32 from a mysterious swelling of his brain just weeks before the American debut of Enter the Dragon and before the completion of Game of Death, finished years later with doubles and a reassembled cast.

•In a horrific accident, Vic Morrow and two children were killed on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie in July, 1982. A helicopter was hit by debris, crashed and killed the veteran actor, a 6-year-old girl, and a 7-year-old boy.

The 1983 movie will be remembered for two things: the accident and subsequent lawsuit against director John Landis and four associates. In May, 1987, they were found innocent of involuntary manslaughter.

•When Natalie Wood drowned in the Pacific Ocean on Nov. 29, 1981, she had several more weeks of work on Brainstorm to complete. The movie was finished and released in 1983 to disappointing results.

•When 24-year-old James Dean died in a car accident on Sept. 30, 1955, he was elevated to pop-culture-icon status. Only one of his movies, East of Eden, had been released. Rebel Without a Cause came out a month later, and Giant was still in production, although Dean had finished his part.

Dean was nominated posthumously for Best Actor Oscars for East of Eden and Giant, although Ernest Borgnine and Yul Brynner took the prizes those years.

•In 1937, Jean Harlow became sick while shooting the race-track comedy Saratoga with Clark Gable. She was hospitalized for uremic poisoning and died at age 26.

The project was completed with doubles wearing floppy hats and photographed from afar, and a vocal stand-in who feigned a cold and cough to account for the change in speech.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Barbara Vancheri is the movie editor for the Post-Gazette.

Contact her at: bvancheri@post-gazette.com



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