6 Insane Attempts to Make Movies Starring Dead Movie Stars
The entertainment industry is willing to overlook a lot when it comes to its stars. Substance abuse, violent outbursts and subsequent arrests... and sometimes even the fact that the actor in question is no longer alive.
Hey, you can't let something like a little death get in the way. There's money to be made.
Bruce Lee in Game of Death
In 1973, Bruce Lee burst onto the scene with Enter the Dragon and was on track to become a major Hollywood star, or at least he would have if he hadn't died three months before the movie's release in the U.S. But the producers weren't about to let the minor issue of Lee's mysterious demise ruin a promising young career, so they set about making a blockbuster follow-up in the face of all logic and reason.
"Of course we want to honor his memory. Shove a stick in his ass and call some puppeteers."
Before making Enter the Dragon, Lee had been working on his own movie, The Game of Death, but had only managed to finish filming part of the climatic action scene. The sequence featured him fighting the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar while encased in a yellow track suit that proved his skills at martial arts did not extend to costume design.
The director of Enter the Dragon took these unfinished scraps and tried to cobble together a finished film using new footage featuring several stand-ins who, aside from also being Asian guys who knew how to kick and punch, didn't resemble Bruce Lee in any way.
To explain this, the producers inserted footage of Bruce Lee's real-life funeral to suggest that the main character had faked his own death, thus allowing Bruce Lee's fill-ins to spend the rest of the movie wearing fake beards and other wacky disguises without disrupting the narrative. We don't like to judge, but when you're including shots of your star's actual dead body lying in his actual casket, anything less than the biggest box office receipts of all time would land you the worst haunting in the history of the universe.
Of course this death fakery plot needed some sort of set-up, so early on in the film they had to shoot around the impostors using shadows, giant sunglasses, incredibly awkward editing and gluing a cardboard cutout of Bruce Lee to a mirror.
You read that right.
By the end of the movie all bets are off, and absolutely no attempt is made to disguise the new actor's appearance.
"Screw it, they all look the same anyway."
Inexplicably, the producers also saw fit to make Game of Death 2 three years later, splicing together even more unused footage of the martial arts legend. Bruce Lee's character is actually killed off early in this movie, but you sure as hell wouldn't know it from the trailer.
Tony Soprano's Mom
During The Sopranos glory years, Tony's mother Livia was probably the second most fascinating character on the show. She could shift gears from senile old widow to terrifying, cunning sociopath with frightening speed. You couldn't watch the first two seasons of the show without coming to the conclusion that you'd feel safer turning your back on Tony.
Nancy Marchand, the actress who played her, unfortunately passed away after the second season. Surely The Sopranos, one of the most critically acclaimed shows in the history of television, would have the dignity to just have her die peacefully off screen. Surely.
But, you know by now that would be too much to ask. After all, this is the 21st century, when we can use CGI to insert dead pitch men into our commercials. So, by patching together some existing footage and using CG to crop her into a new setting, we got one final dramatic scene between Tony Soprano and the digital ghost of a dead actress. Her side of the conversation is made up of out-of-context audio clips that plays like the wacky sound boards morning show DJ's use to make prank calls.
The bizarre exchange comes off as exactly what it is--two actors who no longer inhabit the same mortal realm:
Tony: Hey, Ma!
Livia: Look who calls!
Tony: Well, actually I'm standing here in front of you.
Tony: I brought you some books on tape since you say you can't concentrate to read.
Livia: I wish the lord would take me now!
What? Who is she talking to? After that, Tony tells her which books he brought, which inexplicably prompts her to lean forward in alarm and say, "WHY? WHAT'S WRONG?!?" Nothing fits, and everything is punctuated by a handful of tics and mumbles with some nonsensical gesturing.
Visually, the scene is all kinds of creepy, with Tony's mom looking oddly washed-out and otherworldly. The effect makes it seem like she's already dead and Tony is yelling at one of The Frighteners.
We guess we understand that you'd hate to give such a great character an off-screen death, so really they didn't have a choice... oh, wait. In in the very next scene we're informed she died off camera anyway.
John Candy's Last Role
Wagon's East was a forgettable comedy about a bunch of whiny pioneers who talk like characters on a C-grade Seinfeld clone. Well, it would be forgettable if it didn't turn out to be comedy giant John Candy's last role. Candy died during production, and the producers swore up and down that Candy had wrapped shooting before he passed away. This was clearly a load of bullshit.
Even though he was the top billed star, Candy probably ranks third or fourth in terms of total screen time. OK, big deal, that happens in a lot of movies. But then you notice that usually all you see are reaction shots of Candy silently nodding or staring blankly into space just so you won't forget he's there.
Then, at one point it's revealed that he was the wagon master of the Donner Party, and the depressed Candy rides away and is simply missing for most of the rest of the movie. Nobody seems to care that he's gone, and no mention is made of his dabbling in cannibalism once he comes back. And then, it gets stupider.
A sharp eye, or even a casual eye watching the movie over a magazine, will catch scenes where they actually reused certain shots, awkwardly superimposing them over new footage. For instance, the key turning point in the character's story is when he resolves to clean up and stop drinking.
Then, later in the film, he does it again. Only this time, digitally inserted over a new backdrop:
Here's the scene on YouTube, in case you're doubting that a major studio would use a cheap trick that never even occurred to Ed Wood. But, hey, at least they didn't throw in footage from John Candy's funeral.
Laurence Olivier in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow began life as a teaser trailer produced by a guy in his living room, which impressed movie producers so much they gave him a giant stack of money to make a feature length film that ended up looking like a blurry $80 million Xbox game.
"Captain, open the bay doors and dump this money into the Atlantic. Make sure it's on fire first."
The movie's plot revolves almost entirely around the main characters discovering the identity of the mysterious Dr. Totenkopf, whose name is mentioned approximately every 30 seconds, usually in hushed dread-laced tones.
So after over 90 minutes of build-up we finally come face to face with Dr. Totenkopf, who ends up being Zordon from the Power Rangers as played by... a long-dead Laurence Olivier.
"Sadly, nobody in the theater knows who the hell I am."
The conversation they have with him is bizarre and stilted, which is to be expected when you try to write dialogue for an actor that matches old archival footage they had laying around.
They just manipulated old BBC footage of Olivier when he was young, then used a lot of glitches in the "hologram" to cover the rough spots. Why? Who knows?
We get that the film was supposed to mimic the look of old-time serials, but why they felt like this required them to resurrect a man 15 years in his grave (when the rest of the film starred recognizable, modern actors) is a mystery that will likely never be solved. Meanwhile, Hollywood promptly deposited the director back into his living room after the monumental failure of Sky Captain, and he hasn't made another movie since.
The Three Stooges
In 1959, Shemp Howard, aka The Fourth Stooge after Larry, Moe and Curly, died after having a massive stroke. Hollywood, being exactly as respectful of the dead 50 years ago as they are now, saw fit to hold the remaining Stooges to their original contract. That required them to deliver four more shorts featuring Shemp--or Shemp's corpse--by the end of that year.
So Larry and Moe did the best they could, and inadvertently created some of the saddest pieces of slapstick comedy in human history.
Even worse than the stuff they shot with Curly's severed head.
Right away, you can see Moe and Larry spend a lot of time scratching their heads wondering where the hell Shemp is, usually after finding some lame note or something setting up his conspicuous absence. When Shemp finally makes it on screen, they've patched together the little bit of recent material they had with some older stuff from the archives. The difference between old and new footage is obvious and tragic--Shemp was in dramatically poor health towards the end of his life, so he bounces back and forth between "hatchet-faced" and "nightmare beast" on a scene to scene basis.
When they had to shoot new Shemp scenes, they used the infamous "Fake Shemp," a stand-in actor named Joe Palma. For the most part, Palma was only shown from the back (even though the back of his skull didn't look much like Shemp either), which came off as particularly awkward in an act built entirely around physical comedy.
Things get really jarring in scenes where Shemp is the focal point of attention, which the Stooges fumble through by clumsily hiding Palma's face while still trying to keep him in the center of the gags.
So essentially, the real life Stooges were even more inept than their celluloid counterparts. We would find that funny if we weren't so depressed by the whole thing.
Peter Sellers in Trail of the Pink Panther
Trail of the Pink Panther makes the above-referenced Three Stooges shorts look freaking seamless in comparison.
This was the last movie in the long-running series to star Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, and he had been dead for over two years when the movie came out. And, where at least in the Bruce Lee example they were pulling clips from a single movie he was in fact trying to make, Trail of the Pink Panther is a Frankensteinian creation built out of shit they found on the cutting room floor from across Sellers's career.
The result is characters miraculously changing age from scene to scene and frequently driving cars, using phones and sporting fashions sometimes two decades out of date.
This is totally 1982 and not 1962 in any way.
At one point, Clouseau has to fly to England for no good reason other than to make use of a deleted scene filmed in England from one of the previous films that the producers wanted to use. One problem: They had no pre-existing footage of Clouseau on a plane. That's fine, the producers just had to make some using bona fide movie magic!
Yes, they had Clouseau wrap himself up in bandages and a cast for the plane ride, a move the film makes almost no effort whatsoever to explain. The few glimpses you do get of the guy behind the bandages looks more like Saddam Hussein than Peter Sellers.
When the scene ends, Clouseau's cast and most of his bandages magically vanish as the director cuts back to old footage. After about 45 more minutes of this crap, the film's editor apparently shot himself in the face out of sheer embarrassment, and so Clouseau "dies" off screen in a plane crash and the rest of the movie becomes a straight-up clip show.
In the midst of replaying favorite moments from the past Pink Panther films, the second half of Trail of the Pink Panther somehow manages to forget that it's supposed to be a comedy and instead centers around a plucky lady reporter trying to locate the missing Clouseau. Predictably, her pluck proves to be no match for Sellers being stone fucking dead, and the movie just ends with Clouseau never found. No resolution at all.
By the way, an entire additional movie, Curse of the Pink Panther, continued the "Search for Clouseau" storyline, and when the inspector is finally found he's played by Roger Moore with a bucket on his head.
Not pictured: comedy, dignity.
Sellers's widow actually filed a lawsuit against the film's producers, claiming that the movie was a cheap insult to her husband's memory, and she wound up winning a $1.5 million settlement. So essentially, Trail of the Pink Panther was so shitty that those responsible had to be brought to justice.
Nathan Birch also writes the dead celebrity-free webcomic Zoology.
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Find out which dead celebs may be making future big screen appearances, in Where Aren't They Now? 13 Overlooked Deaths of 2009. And learn how Hollywood makes all this incredible magic happen, in CGI Boobs: 7 Special Effects The Stars Want to Keep Secret.
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