Celebrities who died at the peak of their fame

It's a tragedy when anybody is taken before their time, but when the departed is a celebrity, the sorrow is perhaps amplified by the juxtaposition of their seemingly accomplished lives. For the stars on this list, they left behind everything from Oscar-winning performances, to record-shattering album sales, to landmark career moves that paved the way for even bigger stars to come after them. 

For example, did you know that both Jennifer Lopez and Leonardo DiCaprio's breakout roles can essentially be traced back to the deaths of Selena and River Phoenix, respectively? Or how about the fact that when Tupac Shakur and Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace died, they left behind three of only seven rap albums to ever go diamond-certified, according to Forbes. So yeah, to merely say that these stars left us just as their lights shone the brightest is somewhat of an understatement. These are some celebrities who died at the peak of their fame.

Chris Farley

On Dec. 18, 1997, just two years after the end of his his star-making run on Saturday Night Live, Chris Farley died at age 33 from an overdose of cocaine and morphine, according to The New York Times. His notorious drug-use mirrored his larger than life persona, both of which reportedly masked his insecurities as a comedic performer. Attempting rehab an astounding 17 times, Farley couldn't beat back his personal demons.

At the time of his death, Farley had successfully transitioned from TV to film. Even the critically panned Beverly Hills Ninja brought in box office figures on par with his well-received earlier efforts in Tommy Boy and Black Sheep. In short, fans were still there for him, even if the critics weren't. In addition, Rolling Stone reported that Farley was earning around $6 million per movie. He was also supposedly considering tackling a dramatic role in a biopic about comic legend Fatty Arbuckle. That's a testament to the star power he, sadly, never saw in himself. 

Phil Hartman

Saturday Night Live legend Phil Hartman died at age 49 at the hand of his own wife in a horrific murder-suicide. According to the Chicago Tribune, Hartman "appeared to be at the height of his career" when he was gunned down by his spouse in their San Fernando Valley, Calif. home. Even Hartman acknowledged just a few years prior that he'd reached a pinnacle in his career: "I've succeeded beyond my wildest dreams — financially and the amount of fun I have in my life."

Beloved by co-stars and fans alike, Hartman dominated the TV comedy world with impressions, voicework, and acting, from SNL to News Radio to The Simpsons. There was nothing he couldn't do, including movies, in which he stole any scene he was in, like his bizarre Alcatraz prison guard character from So I Married an Axe Murderer.or in his role opposite Arnold Schwarzenegger in Jingle All the Way. There is no doubt we would have seen Hartman stealing the show for years on screens both big and small.

Heath Ledger

Posthumously earning an Oscar has to be the biggest indicator that an actor died at the exact apex of his or her career. Granted, we believe Heath Ledger would have continued churning out fantastic performances had he not overdosed on prescription drugs in 2008 at age 28, but nobody can argue that his Joker in The Dark Knight would have been the game changer for his craft. In fact, he was planning to return to the franchise in The Dark Knight Rises.

Unfortunately, Ledger passed away long before that film began production in 2011. Director Terry Gilliam, who helmed The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – the film Ledger was in the middle of shooting at the time of his death — had nothing but praise for the actor. "It still rankles with me that he's dead because he would have been streets ahead of anyone else in his generation," Gilliam wrote in an essay for the New York Post. "[Ledger] just kept getting better and better. He was fearless."

River Phoenix

At the age of 23, River Phoenix already had already received an Oscar nomination, played Young Indy in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and starred in the classic Stand by Me. The director of the latter, Rob Reiner, told Entertainment Weekly that Phoenix could have "become one of the greatest screen actors of all time." By many accounts, Phoenix was poised to be the next leading man when he fatally overdosed on morphine and cocaine in 1993, outside The Viper Room — Johnny Depp's famous rock club in Hollywood.

And just as an exercise in gauging Phoenix's actual level of fame, consider these coveted roles he was planning to play at the time of his death: Christian Slater snagged Phoenix's slot in the smash hit Interview with the Vampire, an up-and-coming Leonardo DiCaprio earned praise for his "bust-out star performance" in The Basketball Diaries. Phoenix was reportedly so eager to star in the latter that he reportedly carried around a paperback of the novel from which it was based. Put it this way: River Phoenix as Jay Gatsby? Admit it, you can see it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

Already established as a veteran actor who could tackle comedy or drama with the performance reliability of a Volvo, Philip Seymour Hoffman died at the point in his career where just lending his name to a project gave it credibility. The Hunger Games, anyone?

According to CNN, Hoffman succumbed to "acute mixed drug intoxication, including heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamine" and died at 46-years-old on Feb. 2, 2014. He left behind performances in films such as God's Pocket and The Master, both of which demonstrated his powerful ability to woo the audience toward even the most despicable characters.

Hoffman was not only starring in the highest grossing franchise of his career at the time of his passing (the aforementioned Hunger Games), but he'd also just completed a critically-acclaimed run on Broadway as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, a classic play in which Theater Mania praised his performance as "award-worthy" and "of infinite depth and breadth." This man was a modern classic.

Tupac Shakur

Undoubtedly one of the most successful rappers of all time, Tupac Shakur represented west coast hip hop despite being born and raised in Harlem, N.Y. He died in 1996 at the age of 25 in a high-profile Las Vegas drive-by shooting, speculated to be related to the East Coast-West Coast hip hop feud. Shakur previously beefed with East Coast rival Biggie Smalls both inside and outside the recording booth.

Despite the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death, Shakur was so dominant in the rap game that he topped the Billboard charts while serving a prison sentence and released so many posthumous albums that he was still making money years after his death. According to Forbes, "Shakur's estate banked $9 million" in 2007, which was "more than Eminem or 50 Cent made" the previous year. And those guys are, you know, alive. Forbes also reported that by 2011, Shakur had racked up "11 platinum albums," seven of which came from beyond the grave. So yes, to say he was only getting started when his life was cut short would be an obvious understatement.

The Notorious B.I.G.

Like Tupac Shakur, Rapper Christopher "Biggie Smalls" Wallace died violently in a drive-by shooting, which was also widely attributed to hip hop's East Coast-West Coast beef. According to People, investigations later suggested both shootings were a result of gang affiliations. Wallace died in early 1997 at age 24, just before the release of his aptly titled double album, Life After Death, which skyrocketed to the top of the charts and became one of only ten "diamond-certified" albums in the rap genre, according to Southpawer. (Two of Tupac Shakur's albums made that list, by the way.) 

Wallace was clearly on the very cusp of an already influential career, which Indie magazine credited as having "changed hip hop forever." Leaving us with such a small catalog to enjoy, as well as jump-starting Diddy's solo career, B.I.G.'s death left behind a wave of disappointment. Seriously, folks, remember when Diddy was just the guy reminding Biggie about his flight times? Those were the good ol' days.

Lisa 'Left Eye' Lopes

It's not always drugs or violence that claim the life of a celebrity. Car accidents can happen to anyone, and a particularly bad one in Honduras left Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes dead at the age of 30 on April 25, 2002. The feisty, rapping component of TLC had traveled to the Central American country, where she kept a condo, to shoot "a documentary about [her] 'spiritual journey,'" according to The New York Times.

MTV reported that at the time of her death, Lopes (pictured, center) was in a somewhat tumultuous phase of her career marked by a beef over the release of her first solo album and a move to sign with controversial producer and record label mogul Suge Knight. However, turmoil was par for the course for Lopes, who famously feuded with her TLC crew as well. None of that seemed to matter to fans.

When Lopes died, TLC was set to release a fourth studio album to follow its legendary CrazySexyCool and FanMail (the album that features "No Scrubs" — that song that still gets radio play more than two decades later.) With millions of albums sold and an impressive nine Top 10 hits (four of those reached No. 1) on Billboard's Hot 100,  TLC was the female R&B group to beat until it lost "Left Eye."

Aaliyah

The list of stars who have the juice to operate under a one-name moniker isn't long, but Aaliyah was clearly on it. The R&B star died Aug. 25, 2001 at 22-years-old in a plane crash after shooting a music video for what would become the hit single, "Rock the Boat." She had also just completed the horror movie Queen of the Damned, a questionable pile-on to the early 2000s vampire craze, but a starring role nonetheless. 

Reacting to her death, Aaliyah's contemporaries lavished her with praise, according to MTV. "Beyond the music, she was a brilliant person, the [most special] person I ever met," mega-producer Timbaland said. "Her time was coming; [she] was just about to explode," producer-turned-mogul Diddy lamented. A true triple threat, Aaliyah had the presence, voice, and acting chops to follow in the famous footsteps of other successful singer-turned-actresses, including Whitney Houston, Cher, and Madonna, to name a few.

Selena

Selena Gomez was still in Pampers when her namesake songstress had a career on the verge of superstardom. Selena Quintanilla Perez was a huge star in Latin pop markets when she was shot and killed in 1995 by — of all people — the president of her fan club. According to CNN, the "Tejano music" sensation had just won a Grammy, and was set to release her first English-language album when her life was cut short.

The titular hit song from that album, Dreaming of You, went straight to the top of the Billboard 200 Chart. The album helped Selena realize her dream of crossover stardom, albeit posthumously, according to The Washington Post, who reported that its first-day sales of "175,000 copies" made it "the fastest-selling album by a female artist in pop history."

Selena was so popular in both America and Mexico that NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw dubbed her the "Mexican Madonna." (She was born in Texas, by the way.) Need more proof that Selena was the breakout star of her time when she died? Try this: According to Elle, just playing her in the movie about her life was considered the thing that "signaled" the "arrival" on the Hollywood scene of the actress who landed the role — Jennifer Lopez. Ever heard of her?

Brandon Lee

Brandon Lee was the son of marital arts and screen legend Bruce Lee. His life ended in March 1993 after a freak accident on the set of the cult classic film The Crow. A co-star fired an improperly prepared prop gun at Brandon, causing a real bullet fragment to "puncture the stem of [his] aorta," reported The Telegraph. He died the next day. Lee's role in The Crow was not only a star-making moment for Lee — The Telegraph wrote that "everyone thought it would make Lee a household name" — but it was also the the highest grossing film of his brief career. Just how big of an action star was he poised to be?

According to MovieHole (via the Blaster blog), Brandon's follow-up to The Crow was supposedly an action-thriller "about a law-enforcer who is sent on a wild goose chase by a villain with a penchant for playing games." If that sounds familiar, it's because after Lee's death, that film, tentatively titled Simon Says, was recycled into the plot of the blockbuster hit Die Hard With a Vengeance. Yippee ki yay — you're welcome, Bruce Willis.

​Cory Monteith

Cory Monteith became a superstar thanks to his career-defining role as Finn Hudson on Glee. According to Today, after his fatal overdose on heroin and alcohol on July 13, 2013, he was written off the show in a loving tribute, but Glee was just a springboard for the promising young star. In fact, the 31-year-old Monteith had just completed a stint in rehab and was already embarking on a burgeoning film career at the time of his death. 

Actor David Morse, who co-starred with Monteith in McCanick, in which the late actor "played a drug dealer recently released from prison," told the Los Angeles Times that Monteith "could be something special." 

In perhaps a somewhat macabre testament to Monteith's star power, Glee creator Ryan Murphy told Entertainment Weekly that losing the actor "was like losing a child," noting that the show was never the same again. "What started off as being such a great celebration of love and acceptance ultimately became about darkness and death." 

Paul Walker

It's undeniable that Paul Walker was at the peak of his fame when he died in a gruesome car accident on Nov. 30, 2013. It was a hauntingly ironic demise for the star of the Fast & Furious franchise, which heavily features increasingly outlandish stunts involving cars. Walker died before production was finished on Furious 7, which grossed more than $353 million in the United States —  a box office record at the time not only for the series but also for Walker's career.

Though the Furious franchise earned Walker and several co-stars spots on Forbes' list of top-grossing actors for 2013, The Telegraph suggested that at the time of his death, Walker was putting in "probably his best performances' in side projects such as Brick Mansions and Hours. In addition to experiencing profound professional growth, Walker was also beloved by fans, to wit: a reported 5,000 mourners showed up for his public memorial at the site of his fatal crash.  

​Anton Yelchin

Anton Yelchin may never have achieved the mainstream name recognition of his Star Trek reboot co-stars Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, but he was well on his way toward just that when he died tragically in a freak accident on June 19, 2016. According to TMZ, the 27-year-old star was "pinned between his car and a brick mailbox pillar."  

Before that cruel twist of fate, Yelchin was seemingly moving up from his successful career as an endearing supporting player. At one point in 2010, Entertainment Weekly tossed his name into the ring as the perfect choice to take up the mantle of Peter Parker (aka. Spider-Man), writing that he was "physically perfect, comedically spot on" and "can actually act." (Oof, sorry Tobey Maguire.)

Yelchin's director on one of his last projects, Thoroughbreds, seemed to concur with that sentiment. "I thought [Yelchin] had such a lovely, off-kilter leading-man energy," he told the New York Post. "He always just jumped off the screen for me."

John Candy

Comedic actor John Candy was a household name when he succumbed to a heart attack on the set of the western send-up Wagons East! in 1994. Before his death, Candy was appearing in what seemed to be on an unstoppable string of hits. According to Biography, his success marked a career resurgence that included Uncle Buck, a fantastic cameo in Home Alone, Only the Lonely, and Cool Runnings

Just a few years before his untimely passing, Candy had even tested (and proven) his acting chops with a dramatic turn in Oliver Stone's JFK, which Collider praised as one of many "standout performances" in the film. IGN agreed, writing, "and boy did John Candy nail the persona of Dean Andrews [a cagey New Orleans lawyer]." Had Candy lived, he might have garnered the type of Oscar-winning success of fellow funnyman-turned-dramatic actor Robin Williams. All signs point to that certainly being a possibility.