13 Late Actors Who Were Revived Onscreen With Very Mixed Results

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Photo: Photos by Paramount Pictures, Lionsgate, Tristar Pictures

Furious 7, the early front-runner for Best Picture, was just over halfway done with its primary shoot when Paul Walker died in a car crash in November 2013. Replacing Walker, one of the two major faces of the franchise (along with Vin Diesel), and reshooting half of the film would have been inconceivably vulgar, as well as vulgarly expensive; so, according to The Hollywood Reporter, director James Wan summoned Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital to complete the arduous task of bringing Walker back to believable life. The masters of digital wizardry conjured a hybrid avatar of Walker, amalgamating computer imagery, practical effects, and stock footage of Walker and his two brothers, who both bear an uncanny semblance to the late actor. While you can occasionally discern when Walker’s avatar is being used in the film, the unprecedented attention to detail and advanced technology make the actor feel jarringly alive, and could spur a new revolution of digital filmmaking. But Furious 7 isn’t the first film posed with this difficult situation, though arguably it has handled it the best. Late actors have been haunting the screen for decades, like so many ghosts with contractual obligations to finish.

Here are 13 examples of late actors being revived on the big screen.

Shemp Howard in the Three Stooges’ Rumpus in the Harem, Hot Stuff, Scheming Schemers, and Commotion on the Ocean (1956)
The progenitor of the term Fake Shemp, Howard died abruptly of a heart attack while the Stooges still had four short films to deliver to Columbia Pictures. Owing to the trio’s waning popularity and diminishing cult of personality, they had been dealing with budget cuts for several years, necessitating a burgeoning use of stock footage that must’ve felt like a real slap to the face. Between stock footage, fill-in Joe Besser, and a variety of Stooge-like gimmicks to guise Shemp’s absence (long tendrils of spaghetti covering the Fake Shemp’s head; an inexplicable note on his bed explaining his absence, etc.), Moe and Larry limped and staggered their way through their final four films. However, the term Fake Shemp didn’t actually enter the public parlance until Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, the seminal horror film helmed by students and endowed with a thread-bare budget. Because of the long, often literally painful production, which required actresses to wear homemade contact lenses to achieve the proper ghoulish effect, actors came and went, leaving Raimi, Joel Coen (of the Coen Brothers), and star Bruce Campbell to step in as body doubles and triples. Their efforts were far more effective than the next film on this list.

Bela Lugosi in Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
Former Broadway star and big-screen legend (as well as sex icon, believe it or not) Bela Lugosi had one of the most notorious collapses in Hollywood history. The man who helped usher in the Universal Monster Movie phenomenon couldn’t escape the umbrage of his iconic character, and spent the last years of his life in an odious, drug-steeped hell, abhorring the universally beloved Boris Karloff for stealing Bela’s thunder (Bela was not a very nice guy). At his nadir, the actor befriended Ed Wood, who was a nice guy, as well as a huge fan of Bela’s work. Wood, the best worst filmmaker ever, offered Bela small parts in his gimcrack films. Wood shot some impromptu, nonsensical footage of the sickly actor. When Bela died, Wood worked the footage into his legendary disaster Plan 9 From Outer Space, a film whose alien invasion/zombie ascension plot is more inept than Rick Scott’s grasp of science. Wood then hired his wife’s chiropractor, noticeably slimmer and taller than Bela, to fill in, using his cape as a shroud to (poorly) hide his face. The lazy effort is so stupidly awful, one almost wishes Sam Raimi had coined the term Fake Bela instead.

Bruce Lee in Game of Death (1978)
Five years after Bruce Lee’s death, Robert Clouse, who directed Lee’s Enter the Dragon, was hired to finish the 1972 film Game of Death, for which Lee had shot around 100 minutes of footage before putting production on pause. Clouse flensed most of the scenes and spliced shots of Lee into new scenes, creating a bizarre bastard of a movie that makes no sense. Ultimately, less than 12 minutes of Lee’s original footage remain, and while Clouse was an esteemed filmmaker and the cast included several Oscar nominees; the inane efforts to have stunt doubles play Lee are painful to watch. The worst instance involves a cardboard cutout of Lee’s face being taped to a mirror while a double sits in front of the mirror, hiding behind the static mask. It would be hilarious if it wasn’t hideous.

Peter Sellers in Trail of the Pink Panther (1981)
One of the most tasteless times a producer elected to revive a dead actor for a quick cash grab, Trail of the Pink Panther contains no original footage of Sellers as Inspector Clouseau whatsoever. Produced 18 months after Sellers died — he didn’t even die mid-production — the hodgepodge of regurgitated jokes comprised unused footage from The Pink Panther Strikes Again. Some claim a double wrapped in gauze to conceal his unequivocally not–Peter Sellers face was used, but that never actually happened — it’s clearly Sellers in the bandages, as is evident by Sellers being the person whose face appears when Clouseau removes the bandages. When they ran out of unused footage, they had characters share fond memories of Clouseau, essentially turning the second half of the film into a clip episode. As brilliant a comedian as Sellers was, his method involved trying a lot of ideas and keeping the ones that worked, so the scraps and refuge of his films are not very good — they were discarded for a reason. The film, directed by Blake Edwards (who should have known better), also features David Niven reprising his role from the original 1963 Pink Panther, though he suffered from ALS and couldn’t loop his own dialogue; Rich Little dubbed his voice during post-production. Lynne Frederick, Sellers’s fourth wife, successfully sued the makers of the film for $1.475 million, claiming the film insulted the memory of her husband.

Natalie Wood in Brainstorm (1983)
Helmed by Douglas Trumball, the special-effects guru whose innovative use of miniature and film speed helped turn 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner into cultural touchstones, Brainstorm was essentially crafted as a glorified showcase for Trumball’s newest F/X ideas, the Showscan 60-frames-per-second 70mm process. That the film turned out to be an occasionally brilliant, if tremendously silly sci-fi headtrip seemed almost extraneous. Unfortunately, the most notable name in the film, Natalie Wood, drowned in a boating accident on a production break (details about her death remain opaque), and the financiers’ feet turned cold. A financial kerfuffle ensued, and the film’s future looked bleak. Eventually Lloyd’s of London, an unexpected ally, stepped in and helped Trumball complete the film. Wood only had a few scenes left, and Trumball elected to use body doubles to finish the film.

Brandon Lee in The Crow (1994)
Arguably the most famous example on this list, Brandon Lee’s death inadvertently helped usher in a new era of computer technology. Lee, son of Bruce, died after the film’s prop master misused a gun that was loaded with real bullets purged of powder (blanks were too expensive, and a lot of bullets are fired in The Crow). People had predicted that The Crow would catapult Lee to stardom, but no one could have guessed that he would die tragically, or that his death, and resurrection, would end up being the defining aspect of the film. Lee plays a character who, along with his new wife, gets murdered by vicious thugs. A year later he rises from the dead, puts on face paint, and kills the thugs with histrionic flair and a head-banging rock soundtrack. While the film hasn’t aged so gracefully, Dream Quest’s then-ground-breaking use of CGI to finish Lee’s scenes remains impressive: At a cost of $8 million and somewhere between 550-650 hours of work for around 30 seconds of film, the Lee stand-in is difficult to spot, even in 2015. That same year, Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump featured extensive blue screen, Rotoscoping, chroma key, and image warping to bring back Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, and [shudder] Richard Nixon. 

John Candy in Wagon’s East! (1994)
Though it was released before Canadian Bacon, Peter Markle’s atrocious Western comedy was the last film beloved funny man John Candy filmed. Candy plays a grizzled, alcoholic wagon master with a penchant for crude jokes. Most of the scenes that Candy had left to shoot were either scrapped, re-written to exclude him, or filmed with body doubles and then scrapped or re-written to exclude him. One exception, and the scene for which the film is now unfondly remembered, features a lazy cut-and-pasted shot of Candy from an earlier scene now superimposed over a new background. It makes no sense and looks awful, and it’s not even the worst scene from the movie.

Oliver Reed in Gladiator (2000)
The most oft-cited example of a dead actor being brought back to cinematic life, Oliver Reed died with only a few scenes left to film in Ridley Scott’s bloated epic. But Scott, for his shortcomings as a crafter of narrative, has always been a techno-whiz and lover of spectacle, and he employed U.K. company the Mill to finish Reed’s scenes. It cost approximately $3.2 million for around two minutes of footage. Scott’s use of blocking, light, shadows, and dust is almost seamless, and sort of unsettling.

Laurence Olivier in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
15 years after his death, the Shakespearian thespian portrayed the film’s villain, Doctor Totenkopf, who had been dead in the film’s world for 20 years, and appeared to Jude Law and his cohort as a hologram. Using old BBC archival footage, director Kerry Conran managed to add one more film to the late actor’s résumé. The effect is actually awesome (in the Kantian sense), and not at all insensitive. It also inspired the next film on this list … 

Marlon Brando in Superman Returns (2006)
Marlon Brando, notoriously overpaid and underproductive in his role as Superman’s father in Richard Donner’s 1978 classic, reprised the role, in death, as a CGI phantom, appearing in the reflections of so many gleaming shards in the Fortress of Solitude. Superman’s father was dead in the film’s world, too, so the use of a ghostly Brando made sense. The actor was purportedly much easier to work with this time.

Heath Ledger in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
Moviegoers did not turn out in droves for Heath Ledger’s final film. Terry Gilliam’s kaleidoscopic fantasy earned a modest $60 million on a $30 million budget, whereas The Dark Knight earned several bazillion dollars the previous year. Maybe everyone just wanted to pretend Ledger’s mesmerizing turn as the Joker was his Swan Song — it’s a much more romantic notion. Regardless, Ledger had only completed a third of his scenes when he died in January of 2008, so Gilliam rewrote the script to have Ledger’s character take on various forms, going through transformations for each of them. Three of Ledger’s sexy contemporaries — Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law — stepped in to play the later forms. The technique works, since the movie is barely coherent anyway. But its visual splendor, and all of the actors’ fine performances, more than make up for its shortcomings.

Roy Scheider in Iron Cross (2009)
One of the most singular onscreen presences of New Hollyood, Roy Scheider seemed to inhabit his characters rather than portray them. While he’s best known for his role as Chief Brody in Jaws — a perfect performance in a film full of perfect performances — Scheider brought his unique style of corporal anxiety to Sorcerer (initially a bomb, now a revered pseudo-classic), Marathon Man, and All That Jazz. Unfortunately, his final film was the generically titled, quickly forgotten Iron Cross (no, not the Sam Peckinpah film, or the PC game). Scheider gives a determined performance as a cop hunting Nazis in a hackneyed thriller that lazily lifts from much better, much older films. Director Josh Newton used a latex mask and CGI to finish one scene after Scheider died. It’s a barely noticeable moment in a barely noticeable film.

River Phoenix in Dark Blood (1993/2012)
The older brother of Joaquin, River Phoenix’s fatal overdose outside of Johnny Depp’s Viper Club has become one of the infamous deaths in Hollywood history. The 23-year-old actor began his career as a Teen Sensation, stealing scenes in Stand By Me (1986), earning an Oscar nomination for Running on Empty (1988), formidably channeling a young Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and nabbing an Independent Spirit Award for My Own Private Idaho (1991). His tragically early death impelled comparisons to James Dean. Phoenix had a multitude of projects lined up, all of which were (obviously) recast or canceled altogether. Phoenix still had several weeks of shooting left on Dark Blood, the highly anticipated film by Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer, who had found international renown with his 1988 slow-burn mystery The Vanishing (Spoorloos). Dark Blood didn’t see the light of day for 19 years, when Sluizer, nearing the end of his life, decided to finish it by filling the synapse of unfinished scenes with voice-over narration, and subsequently screened it for private audiences at Netherlands Film Festival before screening out of competition at Berlinale. The film has been called fragmentary and strange, though Sluizer’s voice-over work allegedly keeps things almost coherent. It earned comparisons to Polanski and Ford, with Phoenix tapping the hysteria of Klaus Kinski. (Perhaps comparisons were all critics were comfortable making, given the controversy catalyzed by Sluizer’s decision to screen it at all; Phoenix’s family wanted no part of it.) But for the vast majority of people, the trailer — exquisitely shot, with almost corporeal tension manifest in the scenery and acting —  is the only part of Dark Blood that will ever be seen: Sluizer died in 2014, and there appears to be no plans for any further screenings or home media distribution.