Highlander, Dorian Gray, Interview with a Vampire… There are plenty of movies that feature themes of eternal youth or everlasting life but unfortunately they’re fantasy. People are born, they live and then they die. Although we can extend the middle part of that previous sentence through medicine, we can’t remove the final part altogether. While many of us will live to reach a ripe old age, grumpily hating the world that has left us behind, sadly some people die in their prime. In this week’s Six of the Best I’m looking at six of the best actors who died too young. Although these actors died in their heyday or at the peak of their careers, their death has in many cases bought them an almost everlasting, close to immortal status which their names may have lacked had they lived to grow old, thus granting eternal youth. So here are Six of the Best… Actors Who Died Too Young. Let me know who you would have included.
1. Rudolph Vantentino. (Died in 1926 – aged 31)
The world has largely forgotten cinema’s first male sex symbol. The Italian born actor appeared in close to forty films between 1914 and 1926 including The Sheik and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in 1921. His death at the age of thirty-one caused mass hysteria among his female fans to whom he was affectionately known as the ‘Latin Lover’. Valentino’s life has been the subject of several films but his popularity has been overshadowed by those whose careers continued on into the late 20s and early sound era.
2. Jean Harlow. (Died 1937 – aged 26)
Harlow’s striking platinum blonde hair and sex appeal helped her to become a leading sex symbol of the 1930s. Her acting talents are now somewhat overshadowed by her looks but she was voted amongst the greatest movie stars of all time by the AFI in 1999. In 1931 Harlow stared alongside James Cagney in The Public Enemy and later became a superstar under contract with MGM. During the Great Depression, Harlow’s movies helped MGM avoid ruin and her comic talents were utilised in films such as Red-Headed Woman (1932). Harlow died at just twenty-six from kidney failure.
There are few movie stars who are more easily recognisable worldwide than Bruce Lee. Lee began his acting career as a child but came to worldwide attention in the early 1970s thanks to films such as Fists of Fury and his final film, Enter the Dragon. Like others on this list he is a pop culture icon and he also helped to change that way that Asians were viewed in the west. Forty years after his death he is still the most celebrated martial artist of all time and is featured in new documentaries and video games on an almost yearly basis.
4. John Cazale (Died 1978 – aged 42)
Cazale was the oldest actor on this list and the only one who you can’t really call a star or leading man but Cazale has a filmography which would make any actor jealous. Cazale appeared in just six films, five between 1972-78 and one posthumously in 1990. All six films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and include classics such as The Godfather trilogy, The Conversation and Dog Day Afternoon. Cazale didn’t simply just act in these films though, he excelled in them and who knows how many more great performances he could have produced had he not died of cancer during the shooting of The Deer Hunter in 1978.
5. James Dean (Died 1955 – aged 24)
No one optimises the idea of rebellious youth and teenage disillusionment quite like James Dean. The defining image of the post war young, Dean starred in just three films and his continued status as a cultural icon is testament to his iconic looks, demeanour and screen presence. In 1955 he became the first actor to be posthumously nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in East of Eden and followed that with a second posthumous nomination the year later with Giant. Like many pop culture icons of the last century, James Dean died young and on his way up but in a cruel twist of fate, his death sealed his fame.
This list contains several pop culture icons but none are as recognisable or revered today as Marilyn Munroe. The epitome of sex on screen, Munroe began her screen career in the late 1940s but came to the public’s attention in the early 50s in films such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monkey Business and All About Eve, the multi award winning drama in which her beauty dazzled alongside the established stars Bette Davis and Anne Baxter. Munroe was and is as famous for her love affairs as she is for her acting but was a movie star in the truest sense of the word. Her untimely death in 1962 is still the subject of debate and conspiracy theory over fifty years on.