"We were heartsick that she wasn't there, and yet we knew the character had to be."
The unexpected passing of a loved one is a tragic and emotional situation, but when they were also in the middle of filming a major motion picture, it adds a whole other level of complication. Not only are their friends and family dealing with their untimely death but their cast, crew and fans around the world are also in mourning.
On top of that, their family is left with major decisions about how things will move forward. Will they allow filming to continue? Will someone else step in to take their role or will CGI help fill their void? For the families of actors like Paul Walker and Carrie Fisher, these were the questions that needed answering in the midst of their grieving process. And although it must have been heart wrenching to discuss their loved one’s final projects during such a difficult time, for some it helped provide closure and the commemorative moment they needed.
Find out which celebrities passed away while filming and how their projects got finished...
Paul Walker was in the middle of filming “Furious 7” when he tragically passed away in a car accident unrelated to the movie. Although he had filmed many of his scenes before his death, his absence changed the trajectory of the series. With Paul unable to take part in any future movies, much of the film had to be rewritten.
After suspending production in order to give the cast and crew time to grieve, filming reconvened with the help of Paul’s brothers, who acted as stand-ins. Meanwhile, editors poured over every bit of footage they had of Paul to help visual effects artists create an accurate CGI rendering to complete the film. Although the film was delayed by a year, it brought in over $1.5 billion when it was finally released.
“There’s no one like Paul Walker. There was only one Paul Walker. It is a very tricky task for an actor to both mourn...and also have to pretend that the person’s still there. It made the experience that much more arduous...It was the hardest film I’ve ever done,” Vin Diesel told Extra.
Heath Ledger passed away after suffering an accidental overdose while he was in the middle of filming “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.” Although director Terry Gilliam originally thought that production on the movie would have to stop, he came up with a concept to account for Heath’s absence.
Since the flick involved Heath’s character taking people through a magical mirror into a dream world, he decided that Heath’s character could change appearances every time he entered the world. He recruited Heath’s friends Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell to fill the roles and filming was able to continue.
“Three of us had been asked to complete a task that had been set in motion by a man we greatly liked and respected as both a person and an artist. Being part of this film was never about filling Heath’s shoes as much as seeing them across the finish line. How I wish he had brought the film to its completion himself...It was this spirit of grieving the loss of Heath, that Johnny and Jude and I joined. But there was also a sense of dogged insistence. Insistence that Heath’s last piece of work should not be kept in the shadow of the light of day,” Johnny said in a statement.
Carrie Fisher suffered from sudden cardiac arrest during a flight in December of 2016 and unfortunately passed away soon after. Although Carrie had finished filming “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” before her death, she was set to have a large role in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” With the permission of Carrie’s brother Todd and her daughter Billie Lourd, director J.J. Abrams tirelessly worked to include Carrie in the film.
“Before we started writing, we knew that Leia had to be part of the story—you couldn't tell the end of the Skywalker saga without Leia. We weren't going to recast, we couldn't do a CG character. We looked at the footage we had not used in ‘The Force Awakens,’ and we realized we had a number of shots that we could actually use. It was a bit like having a dozen pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and then having to make other pieces around it and paint a cohesive image from these separate pieces...Obviously we all loved her and were heartsick that she wasn't there, and yet we knew the character had to be,” J.J. told Vanity Fair.
“Glee” star Cory Monteith suffered a drug overdose and passed away during a hiatus between the show’s fourth and fifth seasons. Co-creator Ryan Murphy says he struggled to make a decision about continuing the show but concluded it would be best for everyone to keep the series going. Since Cory had already wrapped the most recent season, his sudden death was able to be written into the show’s fifth season. The cast paid tribute to Cory in an episode that centered on the impact his character’s death had on his classmates.
“When you’re faced with something so sad and so shocking, what do you do? Do we cancel the show? Do we start shooting in January? What do we do? Ultimately, we decided the best thing for everyone is to get back to work and be around people who knew him and loved him so that everyone can grieve together,” Ryan told THR.
5. Chris Farley
Many “Shrek” fans may not know that Chris Farley was originally hired to be the voice of the green ogre. Unfortunately, Chris passed away following a drug overdose in the middle of the film’s production. Although he had completed almost 90% of Shrek’s lines, the studio decided to recast the role instead of completing the film with Chris’ existing audio. His “Saturday Night Live” co-star Mike Myers took over, a decision which Chris’ brother Kevin says he understood.
“I understand why [they replaced him]. They probably wanted to make Shrek 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, so…The studio needed to do what they needed to do. It was a bad time, bad timing … a tragedy. Mike did a great job with Shrek. He knocked it out of the park,” Kevin told Yahoo.
Don Rickles had signed on to reprise his role as Mr. Potato Head in “Toy Story 4” but sadly passed away before he was able to record any audio. Director Josh Cooley says that Don’s family reached out to the “Toy Story” team to ask if there was any way he could still be included in the film by using the recordings they had. The team enthusiastically agreed and went on to shift through 25 years of audio to piece his part together.
“Of course we loved Don obviously...Unfortunately we did not get a chance to record him for the film. But we went through, jeez, 25 years of everything we didn’t use for “Toy Story 1,” “2,” “3,” the theme parks, the ice capades, the video games — everything that he’s recorded for Mr. Potato Head. And we were able to do that. And so I’m very honored that they asked us to do that, and I’m very honored that he’s in the film. Nobody can replace him,” Don told EW
In 2014, Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away following a drug overdose in the middle of filming “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1.” While Philip had worked on part of the movie, he had not filmed a majority of his scenes. Director Francis Lawrence decided that instead of using CGI, he would simply scale back Philip’s role. That meant important moments, like an emotional scene with Jennifer Lawrence’s character, had to be recorded differently than planned.
"It was about as horrible a thing that can happen. It was just completely tragic. It threw us all. There were two substantial scenes that he had left, scenes with dialogue. All the other scenes he had were appearances in scenes where he had no dialogue. We decided to rewrite the scenes and give his dialogue to other [actors]. There's a scene in 'Mockingjay Part 1' that Elizabeth Banks took over for, and there's a scene in 'Mockingjay Part 2' that Woody Harrelson took over for. It was a really tough, emotional time and tough getting back into work and trying to find a groove again,” Francis told Vulture.
River Phoenix was in the middle of working on his movie “Dark Blood” when he passed away following a drug overdose in 1993. Although the film only had a few weeks of shooting left until it was completed, director George Sluizer didn’t do anything with the footage for 14 years. In 2007, George was told he didn’t have much time left to live, so he decided to finally complete the film, much to the disdain of River’s family.
In response to the film’s release, the Phoenix family released one statement, saying, “Joaquin Phoenix and his family have not been in communication with the director nor will they participate in any way.” River’s mother Heart is also said to have sent a letter to George, asking him to abandon the project.
In 2012, George released the film anyway, telling THR, “No one seems to understand that an artist wants to finish his art, just like a painter would want to finish his unfinished painting. The family’s response is understandable, but it’s an immature point of view.”
John Ritter unexpectedly passed from a heart condition while filming the second season of “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.” ABC executive Lloyd Braun says their initial instinct was to cancel the show as “John is clearly irreplaceable” but after speaking with the cast, crew, and John’s wife, they decided to continue the series. The network aired the episodes John filmed prior to his passing, with the rest of the season focusing on John’s television family dealing with his loss.
The show continued for one more season, introducing several new actors to the cast including David Spade and James Garner.
Bruce Lee sadly passed away in 1973, while he was in the midst of filming “Game of Death.” He had originally begun working on the movie in 1972, until he was offered a role in “Enter the Dragon”and “Game of Death” was put on hold. Upon completion of “Enter the Dragon,” Bruce was discussing the possibility of resuming “Game of Death,” but passed away before he had the chance.
While the producers of “Game of Death” sought the help of a director to finish the film, it took until 1978 to bring someone on board. Robert Clouse was hired and he enlisted two stand-ins to play Bruce’s role, even though they looked nothing like him. They spent much of the film wearing disguises and were spliced in with archival fight footage of Bruce. One scene even included actual footage of Bruce in his coffin at his funeral.