Heartbreaking Deaths Of These Old Hollywood Stars

In the movie "Knock on Any Door," starring Humphrey Bogart, the character played by John Derek says that his life's motto is, "Live fast, die young ... and have a good-looking corpse." In the decades since that movie's release, according to This Day in Quotes, the quote has often been incorrectly attributed to James Dean, the rebellious young actor who died in a car crash at the age of 24. It's provided the title of several Dean biographies and even the subtitle to a biopic. Though he never said it, some sources suggest he may have adopted it as a personal motto; regardless, the quote certainly seems like it could apply to him, and to many of the stars on this list. 

These stars lived large, made incredible impacts on stage and screen, and were taken from fans before their time. Their legacies were cemented by their deaths, in some cases going on to inspire fans in a different way, and in some cases bringing their former fame to new generations. Read on for a look back at the heartbreaking deaths of these Old Hollywood stars, all gone far too soon. 

The studio made Judy Garland take pills

Triple-threat singer-actor-dancer Judy Garland first captivated the hearts of audiences everywhere thanks to her collaborations with Mickey Rooney. In 1939, it was her turn in "The Wizard of Oz" that brought Garland her most recognizable role, playing Dorothy in the legendary technicolor musical. She would go on to star in classics like "Meet Me in St. Louis," "A Star Is Born," and "Easter Parade," her brassy voice an undeniably iconic part of Old Hollywood.

Unfortunately, Garland had a lifelong struggle with alcoholism and drug addiction. According to Biography, the studio had her on pills to lose weight by the time she starred in "The Wizard of Oz" when she was a teenager, and she dealt with the fallout for the rest of her life. "They'd give us pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they'd take us to the studio hospital and knock us out with sleeping pills," she later recalled, according to The Independent. "... Then after four hours they'd wake us up and give us the pep pills again so we could work 72 hours in a row. Half of the time we were hanging from the ceiling but it was a way of life for us."

In 1969, she passed away from a drug overdose, according to The Guardian. "This is quite clearly an accidental circumstance to a person who was accustomed to taking barbiturates over a very long time," the coroner concluded.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

James Dean died in a car crash

On the evening of September 30, 1955, the Porsche driven by up-and-coming actor James Dean collided with a Ford sedan headed in the opposite direction. The actor, who was only 24, was killed in the crash. At the time, few people actually knew who James Dean was. His only released movie to date was Elia Kazan's adaptation of "East of Eden," and while the film was a hit, audiences were only just starting to learn about the man who would become the legendary Hollywood rebel. His most iconic role, in fact, "Rebel Without a Cause," was released a month after his death. His final role, in "Giant," came out a year later. He picked up two posthumous Oscar nominations for his last two films, which made him a star whose image has endured ever since.

Dean had been making a name for himself in Hollywood thanks to his difficult on-set behavior and his love of sports cars. He purchased the Porsche Spyder he would die in shortly before his death, and he even received a warning about the car being dangerous. While having dinner with future "Star Wars" star Alec Guinness, the veteran actor experienced a premonition. "Some strange thing came over me," he recalled years later. "I said look ... 'Please do not get into that car, because if you do ... if you get into this car at all, it's now Thursday ... 10:00 at night ... and by 10:00 at night next Thursday, you'll be dead.'"

Jean Harlow: the original blonde bombshell

1930s star Jean Harlow was the original blonde bombshell, an actor who starred in classics like "Hell's Angels" and, fittingly, "Platinum Blonde." Her hair was a sensation when she became famous; according to her official website, housewives across America rushed out to buy peroxide in order to color their hair blonde like hers. According to Pageant, people even founded "Platinum Blonde Clubs" around the country to celebrate the hot new trend. She was considered one of the first on-screen sex goddesses, and frequent collaborator Clark Gable was a friend and admirer. "Probably this outburst puts me in the class of her fans," he told Hollywood Magazine. "I am. And I think you'll find that everyone who really knows Jean feels just the same way."

Unfortunately, two years after Gable spoke those words, Harlow's health declined rapidly. The Guardian reported at the time that she received multiple blood transfusions and was even put in an oxygen tent, but she did not bounce back. Her official cause of death was labeled as "uremic poisoning," which we now call kidney failure. She was 26.

In the years since her death, many have wondered whether Harlow's infamous hair may have been responsible. She used actual bleach on her head, according to The Atlantic, and may have spent years inhaling poisonous gases that affect the kidneys. However, she also had health problems since she was a teenager, so at this point, it's hard to say.

Jayne Mansfield died young

Jayne Mansfield, buxom star of films like "The Girl Can't Help It," sold herself as an even-more-sexualized Marilyn Monroe ... and she refused to apologize. "I am merely influenced by Marilyn!" she told Lawrence Quirk, a fan magazine writer. "Artists in all fields have original influences, then they go on to put their own individual stamp on what they are offering their public!" Her counterpart apparently hated her. "All she does is imitate me — but her imitations are an insult to her as well as to myself," Monroe told Quirk, adding that she wished she could have sued Mansfield. Like Monroe, Mansfield reportedly also had an affair with John F. Kennedy, explicitly because the "Some Like It Hot" star did first. When Monroe was found dead, Mansfield worried she would be killed too. "Maybe I'll be next!" she reportedly said.

Unfortunately, Jayne Mansfield did die young. She was killed in a car crash several years after Monroe's death, when the car she was in smashed into the back of a tractor-trailer, shearing off the top. The horrific accident caused changes in truck design, and crash bars on the back of tractor-trailers are still known as Mansfield bars, according to Motor Trend.

Mansfield's 3-year-old daughter was in the car at the time of her death: "Law & Order: SVU" star Mariska Hargitay. She told People, "Someone once said about [remembering] my mother: 'All you have to do is look in the mirror.' She's with me still."

Linda Darnell died in a fire

Linda Darnell was once known as "the girl with the perfect face" (per TCM). She was discovered in Dallas at the age of 14 and sent to Hollywood for screen tests, according to Esquire, where she was told that she needed to wait a few years. By 19, she was a star. "Before I came to Hollywood, I dreamed that movie people led lives of ease and luxury, that their wants were filled before they could mention them, and that life was simply a smooth succession of pleasures," she told the magazine. "What did I find? ... I've never worked so hard in my life."

She worked throughout the '40s and '50s, starring in classic films noir like "Fallen Angel" and "No Way Out" as well as B-movies like "Island of Desire," opposite a young Tab Hunter. In his memoir "Tab Hunter Confidential," he recalled being nervous about kissing her on camera (via The Gazette). "Relax," she told him. "I'm good luck for newcomers."

Unfortunately, Darnell's luck ran out. In 1965, she was watching one of her old films on television while smoking. As she dozed off, her cigarette sparked a fire that engulfed the home she was in. According to The Madera Tribune, she was taken to the hospital with severe burns. She never recovered and passed away several days later. Her last interview, published posthumously in The National Enquirer, is chilling. She'd said, "I hope my life won't end in tragedy."

Montgomery Clift's car crash changed him

Montgomery Clift starred in classic films like "Red River" and "From Here to Eternity." He was renowned for his acting as well as what one biographer (according to The Advocate) called "a face of impenetrable beauty."

He was friends with Elizabeth Taylor, with whom he worked several times. In 1956, Clift was leaving a party at Taylor's house when he drifted off the road and crashed into a telephone pole. By many accounts (via People), Taylor was alerted to the accident and raced to the scene, where she herself crawled into the wreckage, pulled Clift out of the car, and used her fingers to scrape out teeth that had become lodged in his throat. His recovery from the crash involved extensive plastic surgery, altering his iconic beauty.

Thus began what his acting coach (via BFI) called "the longest suicide in Hollywood history;" he spent the following decade with alcoholism and an addiction to painkillers. Taylor stayed friends with the actor even through his rough patches, getting him cast in "Raintree County" and "Suddenly Last Summer" with her. Many biographers point to the fact that he was gay as a contributing factor, though biographer Amy Lawrence disagrees. "I would be hesitant ... to cast Clift as a ... 'self-loathing homosexual,'" she told The Advocate. "... By the time Clift's drinking became full-blown alcoholism, it was impossible to disentangle from his devastating car accident." He passed away in 1966, at only 45 years old (via the Los Angeles Times).

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Veronica Lake was Hollywood's peek-a-boo girl

Veronica Lake was the enchanting star of films like "Sullivan's Travels" and "I Married a Witch." According to TCM, she was called "the Peek-a-boo blonde" because of her iconic hairstyle that carefully placed one curl over her right eye; in 1947, Esquire wrote that the look was extremely popular among teen girls and young women. The style was such a big deal, in fact, that it was a matter of national security. During World War II, the government recruited Lake to change up her 'do and star in a Public Service Announcement about ways to style your hair that are less dangerous while working in factories, which many women did to replace the men who were soldiers and away fighting. 

Unfortunately, she experienced a steep decline in fame. She did sporadic television work in the early '50s and occasionally returned to the screen over the following few decades. By the time she passed away in 1973 from hepatitis, according to the LA Times, she had been working for a while as a cocktail waitress. Several years earlier, trying to promote an autobiography, she'd told an interviewer, "I'm out of it now — well out of it. I knew back then that I wasn't cut out for all the con that goes along with working here."

According to Today, Lake was cremated and her ashes were reportedly scattered. However, decades later, they were rediscovered in an antiques shop in New York. The New York Times reported that the town held lookalike contests in Lake's honor, making her famous once more.

Conspiracy theories around Marilyn Monroe's death

Marilyn Monroe, the iconic blonde bombshell star of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and "Some Like It Hot," died at 36 of an apparent suicide, per History. She was found in bed with a telephone in one hand, suggesting she might have been about to call for help, but the LAPD concluded her death was "caused by a self-administered overdose of sedative drugs and that the mode of death is probable suicide." History notes that Monroe had depression and that she spent much of her last year at home.

There are conspiracy theories surrounding her death, such as the idea that she may have been murdered because of her alleged affair with John F. Kennedy. Netflix documentary "The Mystery of Marilyn Monroe: The Unheard Tapes" suggested as much, including an interview with a senior FBI agent named Jim Doyle. "[The FBI] came on the scene immediately," he said. "Before anybody even realized what happened. It had to be instructions from someone high up, higher than [former FBI director J Edgar Hoover]. The [attorney] general or the president" (via Radio Times).

While none of that is substantiated, her obituary in the Los Angeles Times included interviews with a number of friends who didn't believe she would have intentionally died by suicide. "This must have been an accident. Marilyn was in perfect physical condition and was feeling great," her friend Pat Newcomb said. "We had made plans for today. We were going to the movies this afternoon."

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Peg Entwistle leapt to her death from an iconic landmark

In the early 1900s, a young actor named Peg Entwistle moved to the United States with her father to get into acting. She soon found success onstage; so talented was she, in fact, that she inspired a certain young girl to follow in her footsteps. According to the biography "The Girl Who Walked Home Alone," after Bette Davis saw Entwistle perform onstage in a production of "The Wild Duck" in Boston, she told her mother, "I am going to be an actress just like Peg Entwistle."

She enjoyed a thriving theatrical career, but she wanted to get into movies, so she moved to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, her fame didn't follow, and she struggled to book roles. A little more than a year after she arrived in Hollywood, she told the uncle she was staying with that she was going out to meet a friend. Instead, the police soon received a call from a hiker. "Near the Hollywoodland sign I found a woman's shoe, jacket, and purse. In the purse I found a suicide note. I looked down the mountain and saw a body," the anonymous caller reported. Peg Entwistle had climbed to the top of the H in the sign and had leapt to her death.

Her death serves as a symbol for all the lost souls who come to Hollywood for fame but find only pain. According to Hollywood lore, had Entwistle waited just one more day, she would have received a letter offering her a role.

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Ramon Novarro, Hollywood's Latin lover

Ramon Novarro was born in Mexico in 1899, according to TCM. Known as "the Latin Lover" onscreen, the silent film star became a sensation shortly after the shocking death of Rudolph Valentino. He starred in films like "Mata Hari" and the original version of "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ." In addition to being a sex symbol, Novarro was also a well-respected actor. His co-star Alice Terry told "Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro" author Allan R. Ellenberger, "Ramon would attempt anything — comedy, drama, crazy scenes, anything, and he could do it. I always thought he was capable of doing better than almost anyone possibly besides [John] Barrymore, who I think had the same thing."

By 1967, his star had faded, and he was appearing in mostly one-off television appearances. He remarked to the Associated Press (via the Nevada Daily Mail), "It is too bad there is no glamor left in movies any more. They're not trying in the studios anymore; everything is in too much of a hurry." In his personal life, Novarro was gay and in the closet throughout his career. On the day before Halloween in 1968, according to Out, two brothers named Paul and Tom Ferguson went over Novarro's house for sex. By the time they left, after ransacking the building for money that the silent film star was rumored to have hidden, Novarro was dead. He had been beaten with what police later said was a silver-tipped cane.

Rock Hudson's death brought attention to AIDS

Rock Hudson was once one of Hollywood's hunkiest leading men. He was the star of massive hits like "Giant" and "All That Heaven Allows," but Hudson had a secret: he was gay. According to Vanity Fair, Hudson was in an arranged marriage with his agent's secretary.

Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s, per The History Channel, and was the first celebrity to go public. Ronald Reagan had thus far refused to say "AIDS," according to Smithsonian Magazine, and though Hudson was friends with First Lady Nancy Reagan, she declined his request for help being treated in France. Instead, Hudson focused on getting the word out. He released a statement for an AIDS fundraiser, according to the LA Times. "I am not happy that I am sick," he said. "I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can, at least, know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth."

Hudson was friends with Elizabeth Taylor for decades, ever since they starred in "Giant," and she visited him in the hospital, per People. His death inspired Taylor to co-found amFAR, according to her website, and she was an AIDS activist until her own passing, decades later. Randy Shilts wrote in "And The Band Played On" that Hudson going public brought immeasurable attention to an epidemic that was being ignored. "There was AIDS before Rock Hudson and there was AIDS after."

Natalie Wood died by drowning

Natalie Wood was the rare child star who grew up to be a well-respected adult actor. She starred in "West Side Story," "Rebel Without a Cause," "Miracle on 34th Street," and many other classics, receiving Oscar nominations for "Rebel" as well as "Splendor in the Grass" and "Love with the Proper Stranger." 

In what seems in retrospect like a bad omen, Wood was terrified of water her entire life, stemming from an incident where she was forced to film in water, presumably on the 1952 film "The Star." In a rediscovered interview (via E! News), she recalled, "I was terrified. I was petrified, because we were in the open ocean." According to her sister Lana, Natalie's mother also reportedly prophesied that she would "die in dark water," Lana said in an interview with TMZ.

Wood did, indeed, die in the water. She drowned at the age of 43 off the waters of Catalina Island in what many have since called mysterious circumstances. As Today has reported, questions have persisted about whether her drowning was accidental or whether her husband Robert Wagner and guest Christopher Walken may have had something to do with her death. The case was still being actively investigated as late as 2020, with investigators saying they wanted to speak to Wagner once more. Suzanne Finstad wrote in her book, "Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography," "Natalie Wood's drowning was not an accident." Intentional or otherwise, the death of Natalie Wood remains heartbreaking.

Sal Mineo was murdered

All three young stars of "Rebel Without a Cause" died too young, including Sal Mineo, who played Plato in that film. The role garnered him an Oscar nomination at only 16 years old; he would go on to be nominated again five years later for his work in "Exodus," opposite Paul Newman. In a remarkably candid 1972 interview, he discussed his "Rebel" character and how he identified with the part, given that he too wasn't straight — a big thing for an actor to admit in the '70s! "He was, in a way, the first gay teenager in films. You watch it now, you know he had the hots for James Dean," Mineo admitted. 

In 1976, at only 37 years old, Mineo was murdered outside his West Hollywood apartment. According to The History Channel, the police speculated that his sexuality had something to do with the murder, and that he may have been killed by a hookup. Crime writer James Ellroy's reconstruction of the investigation for The Hollywood Reporter shows the cops chasing down leads relating to Mineo's time spent at local gay bars. However, it turned out to have been a random murder, a robbery gone wrong. The New York Times reported when Lionel Williams, a pizza deliveryman, was sentenced to at least 50 years in jail for Mineo's murder as well as a string of local robberies. "The defendant should be committed to state prison for as long as the law allows," the judge said.

Sharon Tate's death is infamous

Sharon Tate's murder at the hands of Charles Manson's Family is one of the most shocking deaths in Hollywood history. She was an actor, though, not just a victim of the Hollywood madman. She studied at the Actors Studio in New York with legendary teacher Lee Strasburg, and she starred in films like "The Fearless Vampire Killers" and "Valley of the Dolls," often collaborating with her husband, "Rosemary's Baby" director Roman Polanski. In a behind-the-scenes interview from the set of "Valley of the Dolls," Tate denied Marilyn Monroe comparisons, even though she was quickly emerging as a screen beauty in her own right. "I want to remain as much myself as possible, and do what I feel like doing," she said.

On the night of August 8, 1969, four members of Charles Manson's cult arrived at the home where Polanski was staying, according to Biography. Tex Watson, Linda Kasabian, and Susan Atkins went inside, while Linda Kasabian stayed with the car. Inside, they brutally murdered the pregnant Tate along with three of her friends, leaving the crime scene a horrific mess. Manson was ultimately convicted, too, even though he wasn't physically present.

In "Sharon Tate Recollection," according to The Independent, Polanski said, "I shall remain faithful to her till the day I die." He has been in exile in Europe since the 1970s, having fled the United States to avoid imprisonment after pleading guilty to sex with a minor, per AP.