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Dover Post
  • Get Reel: Actors and actresses who died too young

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  • Smart lad, to slip betimes away From fields where glory does not stay, And early though the laurel grows It withers quicker than the rose.
    So wrote A.E. Houseman in "To An Athlete Dying Young." Yes, fame can fleet faster than a speeding tweet, and A.E. may have a point about the "advantages" of not overstaying your welcome on this mortal coil.
    For example, if Marilyn Monroe had lived longer, would she have gone from a platinum blonde to a platinum blimp? And James Dean, had he lived longer, would he have kept starring in only superb films or would he have sold out and starred in sappy remakes? "West of Eden," anyone?
    On the other hand, had Monroe lived, she may have retained her beauty and, more importantly, made more memorable movies. And Dean could have enjoyed a storied career like James Earl Jones and Robert Duvall, who like Dean, were born in 1931.
    The recent death of Philip Seymour Hoffman started me thinking of other great actors and actresses who died too young. Of course, it’s sad when anyone dies, no matter what the age, but from a purely selfish perspective, the death of a young gifted performer deprives the world of a talent that could have for entertained us for decades longer.
    I should note that others have waxed poetic about premature demises. The Who’s Peter Townshend once wrote, "I hope I die before I get old." He’s now 68.
    For this column, we’ll focus only on American actors and actresses who died young and set the age limit at under 50. Sure, what constitutes young is relative, but we have to have some kind of guideline. And for space reasons, we’ll limit the number of thespians to 10. To qualify, in addition to being American and dying before the age of 50, the actor or actress has to have built a resume of critically praised films. The thespians are listed in alphabetical order:
    JOHN BELUSHI – Arguably the greatest comedian to exhibit his skills on TV’s "Saturday Night Live," Belushi made a hilarious film debut as John "Bluto" Blutarsky in "National Lampoon’s Animal House," which is unarguably one of the funniest movies ever made. He later teamed up with fellow "SNL" alum Dan Aykroyd for "The Blues Brothers" to prove he could sing, dance and make ‘em laugh. Then in "Continental Divide," he demonstrated he could act in a film that wasn’t a comedy. He died at 33 from a drug overdose.
    I should note that silent film aficionados would likely nominate Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, a brilliant comic actor whose career was cut short by scandal. He died of a heart attack at 46.
    JOHN CAZALE – What actor appeared in only five films, yet all five were nominated by the Academy Awards for best picture? If you guessed Rob Schneider, you’re wrong. It’s Cazale. The films are "The Godfather," "The Conversation," "The Godfather Part II," "Dog Day Afternoon" and "The Deer Hunter." And he was superb in all five of them, serving as the ideal foil for such volatile actors as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Gene Hackman.
    Page 2 of 4 - The scene in "Godfather Part II" when Pacino’s Michael Corleone confronts Cazale’s Fredo after discovering his betrayal is a classic. "I know it was you, Fredo," says Michael after planting on Fredo the kiss of death. "You broke my heart. You broke my heart." Fredo wipes his mouth and retreats, but we know he’s a dead man walking. And he knows it, too.
    Few actors could convey vulnerability as well as the Revere-born Cazale. He was one of the screen’s greatest character actors, yet incredibly was never nominated for an Oscar. Maybe he made everything look too effortless. He died of cancer at 42. His romantic partner at the time was Meryl Streep.
    DOROTHY DANDRIDGE – Had she been born in 1962, instead of 1922, Dandridge might have enjoyed a career as successful as Halle Berry’s. Like Berry, Dandridge was black, beautiful and talented. Unlike Berry, she lived during a time when the racial climate wasn’t exactly warm for actresses of color. It only seems appropriate that Berry would portray Dandridge, winning an Emmy for the TV movie "Introducing Dorothy Dandridge."
    Interestingly, Dandridge was the first African-American woman to receive an Academy Award nomination for best actress, earning the nod for "Carmen Jones" in 1954. Grace Kelly took the top prize that year for "Country Girl." Forty-seven years later, Berry became the first African-American woman to win the Academy Award, doing so for "Monster’s Ball."
    Dandridge could not only act. She could sing, but roles that could showcase her talents were few and far between. "Porgy and Bess" would be her last critically acclaimed film, garnering her a Golden Globe nomination. But the film flopped at the box office. A turbulent social life didn’t help matters. She died of a barbiturate overdose at 42.
    JAMES DEAN – Dean starred in only three films: "Rebel Without a Cause," "East of Eden" and "Giant," yet like Cazale, he made an indelible impression in each one, earning two posthumous Oscar nominations and shining a row of klieg lights on teenage angst. Let’s just say not everyone in the 1950s grew up with Ozzie and Harriet as parents.
    Dean turned disillusionment into an art form, and one can only wonder what this actor who liked to experiment would have done in the 1960s where experimentation was de rigueur. He died in a car crash at 24.
    Two other stars of "Rebel Without a Cause" also died young: Natalie Wood in a boating accident at 43 and Sal Mineo in a stabbing incident at 37.
    JUDY GARLAND – In a previous column, I sang the praises of Ms. Garland, whom I believe is the greatest entertainer in the history of showbiz when you consider her ability to sing, dance and act at the highest level, coupled with the quality of her work.
    Page 3 of 4 - She transitioned from child star in such classics as "The Wizard of Oz" to an adult star in such gems as "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "A Star is Born." She could act outside of musicals, too, earning an Oscar nomination for the courtroom drama "Judgment of Nuremberg."
    If only her social life were as successful as her life as a singer and an actress. In addition to making dubious matrimonial choices, Judy had a few issues. She died from a barbiturate overdose at 47.
    JEAN HARLOW – Before there was Marilyn Monroe, there was Harlow, the original blonde bombshell. While she certainly had no trouble demonstrating her sex appeal, she proved adept at comedy, especially in "Dinner at Eight." The conversation between her and Marie Dressler in one scene is priceless. Harlow almost bowls over Dressler by saying she’s reading a book, and goes on to say that the author believes that machinery is going to take over every profession. To which Dressler responds, "Oh my dear, that’s something you never need worry about."
    Harlow starred in six films with Clark Garble, arguably the best being "Red Dust." It would have been interesting to see how her career would have fared after the Motion Picture Production Code began cracking down on matters of a risqué nature. Harlow, who reportedly never wore underwear, was not subtle in her seductive overtures. "Would you be shocked if I changed into something more comfortable?" she asks in "Hell’s Angels."
    Like Garland, Harlow’s social life was a mess and her health was fragile, too. She died from cerebral edema, brought on by renal failure, at 26.
    BRUCE LEE – Fans of martial arts film can thank Mr. Lee for helping to popularize the genre in the United States. He was influential, inspirational and he could really kick butt. For Asian actors, his heroic exploits represent a marked improvement from the detective Charlie Chan, who was played by a Swede (Warner Oland) and then an American (Sidney Toler).
    Lee could not only shred his foes like bok choy, he could act and he staged the combats in such landmark films as "Enter the Dragon." He was the ultimate action star.
    Lee died from a cerebral edema caused by an allergic reaction to a pain medication at 32.
    Tragedy followed the Lee family as his son, Brandon, died from a gunshot wound after an accidental shooting on the set of "The Crow." He was 28.
    CAROLE LOMBARD – One of the fabulous screwball comedic actresses of all time, even better than Paris Hilton. Just checking to see if you were paying attention.
    For "My Man Godfrey" alone Lombard deserves a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was equally wondrous in "Twentieth Century" and "To Be Or Not to Be."
    Page 4 of 4 - If you want to play six degrees of separation, William Powell, Lombard’s co-star in "My Man Godfrey" was married to Harlow and Lombard. And Gable, who starred in movies with Harlow, was later married to Lombard.
    The actress died in an aircraft crash while returning from a World War II war bond tour. She was 33.
    MARILYN MONROE – Icon of icons. She certainly wasn’t the greatest actress of her generation, but she definitely was the most famous. Yes, she parlayed her beauty into a career, but she was much more than a dumb blonde. She could act and sing – a little – and when you consider her less than ideal childhood, it’s amazing she rose as far as she did.
    "Bus Stop," "The Seven Year Itch" and "Some Like It Hot" make for an impressive resume, and all you have to do is hear Elton John’s "Goodbye, Norma Jean," to feel the attraction that went beyond bra size and the sense of loss experienced by the faithful for a woman more sinned against than sinning, to borrow another line from Bill Shakespeare.
    She died of a barbiturate overdose at 36.
    RIVER PHOENIX – When you’re as charismatic at 16 as Phoenix was for "Stand By Me," you have It. And Phoenix had It. His acting talent was boundless, as he displayed in such movies as "Running on Empty" and "My Private Idaho."
    It boggles the mind to imagine River and his brother Joaquin, who also has IT, starring in films together. The Barrymores would have had competition.
    River Phoenix died of drug-induced heart failure at 23.
    Contact Bob at 508-626-4409 or at rtremblay@wickedlocal.com.

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