Looking Back at the Nine ‘SNL’ Players Who Left Us Too Soon

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When Jan Hooks – SNL cast member from 1986-1991 – died at the age of 57 last month, the show truly lost one of its stealthy greats. Like frequent sketch costar Phil Hartman, Hooks’s incredible talent didn’t need to call attention to itself, so it’s only now, in hindsight and reruns, that the full measure of her brilliance is beginning to be calculated. Since SNL debuted in 1975, over 140 players have been in the cast, and nine have passed away from illness, drugs, or violence. Whether they leave us as beloved superstars with promising careers ahead of them or underappreciated and semi-forgotten talents with few recent onscreen credits, all nine of SNL’s deceased alums have produced groundbreaking work that can make for some very bittersweet viewing. Before this column comes to an end, here’s a look at those nine performers whose many comedy contributions continue to entertain and inspire fans both old and new.

John Belushi

Born: January 24, 1949

Died: March 5, 1982 (age 33)

Before Belushi left SNL with Aykroyd in 1979 to make the Blues Brothers film, he had already skyrocketed to fame with his big-screen starring debut in the John Landis-directed Animal House alongside many of his Second City collaborators the year before. Thanks to the film, Belushi was anointed an iconic and literal poster boy for the wild, toga-partying, whiskey-guzzling, worm-dancing college frat culture across America, and though critical reviews were mixed, Animal House pulled in enormous profits for Universal and ranks on countless published lists of the best and funniest films ever made. It also gave Belushi the honorable distinction of simultaneously starring in the #1 box office film, #1 TV show, and #1 album on the Billboard charts with the Blues Brothers’ debut album Briefcase Full of Blues. (Read More)

Gilda Radner

Born: June 28, 1946

Died: May 20, 1989 (age 42)

Like Candice Bergen said, “Everybody bonded with Gilda…she was irresistible.” Without Gilda — her poof of wavy brown hair, her girlish voice, and her daring willingness to take on even the darkest and most disgusting characters — the path for future female comedians might not have been cleared so early on, and SNL might have been too closed off in its own hipness. But with Gilda, audiences had a fragile, funny, but still courageous figure to guide them through the party. (Read More)

Danitra Vance

Born: July 13, 1954

Died: August 21, 1994 (age 40)

In 1991, Vance was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer. She channeled her battles with the illness into a one-woman play The Radical Girl’s Guide to Mastectomy, which ran Off-Broadway the same year. Her last film credit came with her supporting role in 1992’s Jumpin’ at the Boneyard, and in 1993 she did another solo show and revived her Harriet Hetero character, this time pulling off her shirt to expose her scarred torso to the audience. “This wasn’t something I wanted to do,” she told The New Yorker, “but I had to show, for other women, that this body is still O.K. I think my scar is beautiful.” (Read More)

Michael O’Donoghue

Born: January 5, 1940

Died: November 8, 1994 (age 54)

Late in his life, O’Donoghue and breakout director Quentin Tarantino had been talking about the idea of collaborating on a film together, but on November 8, 1994 — after a long history with painful migraines — O’Donoghue died in Manhattan from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 54. The wake held for O’Donoghue in his Chelsea apartment was called “the hippest party in New York” by New York magazine, and Bill Murray made a cameo during that week’s SNL to dedicate a moment to the man that “the writers, actors, and even the producer feared.” (Read More)

Chris Farley

Born: February 15, 1964

Died: December 18, 1997 (age 33)

Despite Farley’s sad and tragic death, his lesser-known reputation as a kind, religious, compassionate, and approval-driven sweetheart has only grown since his passing. His funeral reportedly had over 500 friends, family members, and comedy collaborators in attendance, and his SNL legacy has yet to be matched for wild do-anything-for-a-laugh recklessness. In Live from New York, writer Tim Herlihy calls him “a great weapon in the writers’ arsenal” and admits to using him as a device to save his sketches: “If you were writing a sketch and you got to page six and nothing was happening, you would just say, okay, ‘Farley enters.’ I did that so many times in so many sketches. It was a trick that always worked and never failed, especially in read-through.” (Read More)

Phil Hartman

Born: September 24, 1948

Died: May 28, 1998 (age 49)

Whether he played a smooth-talking Hollywood type from the past, a smarmy presidential figure, or a moaning Frankenstein on a daytime talk show, Hartman brought a trademark jerky element to his characters (he called them “the weasel parade”), and his supportive reputation both on and off-camera gained him the nickname “The Glue” during his eight-year run on SNL. (Read More)

Charles Rocket

Born: August 24, 1949

Died: October 7, 2005 (age 56)

One of the few truly “dangerous” moments of the infamous Jean Doumanian SNL run from 1980-1981 came from a louche, too-handsome 30-year-old comedian named Charlie Rocket, and it caused the whole cast to be fired, and Jean too. She packaged Rocket as the new Murray/Chase hybrid handsome guy — confident, a little clueless, and able to pratfall one second and deliver straight-faced news the next — but instead Rocket found his style overshadowed by the surprise success of the much more streetwise Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy. (Read More)

Tom Davis

Born: August 13, 1952

Died: July 19, 2012 (age 59)

“It is odd to have so much time to orchestrate the process of my own death. I’m improvising. I’ve never done this before, so far as I know. Ironically, I probably will outlive one or two people to whom I’ve already said goodbye. My life has been rife with irony; why stop now?” (Read More)

Jan Hooks

Born: April 23, 1957

Died: October 9, 2014 (age 57)

Michaels hired Jan Hooks — who had auditioned the year before but was passed over in favor of Joan Cusack — alongside newcomers Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Victoria Jackson, and Kevin Nealon, and NBC renewed the show for only thirteen weeks instead of a full season — a first in SNL history — and it was up to the new cast to pull the show out of its ratings funk and bring it back into the spotlight. While all the men in this cast would go on to bigger fame, the women remain largely unappreciated, and for a player whose range stretched from British royalty to presidential wives to trailer-trash waitresses, Jan Hooks deserves way more respect. (Read More)