The Last Time Film Icons Were Seen On Camera Before They Died

The following article contains references to suicide.

It can be very tough on fans when we lose our favorite actors. In 2021 alone, we've lost icons like Christopher Plummer, Cloris Leachman, Cicely Tyson, and more, deaths which prompted huge outcries of mourning. The Guardian notes that devoted fans may have the same emotional reaction to a celebrity death as they would someone close to them, adding that many fans turn to social media to publicly grieve stars.

However, thanks to the power of photography and cinema, actors live on even after death. French critic André Bazin likens the effect to mummification, with the camera and film functioning in similar ways to the Egyptian preservation of bodies, writing that "death is but the victory of time." He adds that cinema captures life better than any other art form, including photography, thereby rescuing people from the "victory of time."

This is often comforting to fans. In addition to actors' final film roles, it can be interesting to look back at the last time they were caught on camera, outside of the fiction, and living their lives as themselves in addition to who they were on screen. Read on to explore the final time film icons were preserved on camera.

Heath Ledger's last role was completed by other actors

Though his iconic, Oscar-winning role as The Joker in "The Dark Knight" was released posthumously, "Brokeback Mountain" star Heath Ledger was filming Terry Gilliam's whimsical film "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus" when he died in January 2008 from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. The storyline was reworked, and other actors stepped in to play the same part, including Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell, each assuming the role of Ledger's character as he enters the magical worlds of the titular Imaginarium. In its review of the film, The New York Times notes how Ledger's death "haunts the movie."

Before he died, Ledger's final public appearances were a series of filmed press junket interviews for "I'm Not There," a biopic of Bob Dylan, conducted mere weeks before his death. Eerily enough, "I'm Not There" used a similar method of casting to the eventual final form of "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," with Ledger just one of multiple actors who played the iconic musician.

In one of his final questions, critic Brett Martin asks Ledger what his own biopic would be titled, if he had other actors stepping in to play him. Ledger seems both bemused and confused by the question, and then he gives his answer, revealing that he'd want a film about his life to be called "I Wish I'd Done That."

Marlon Brando paid tribute to Michael Jackson

In his early career, in films like "A Streetcar Named Desire," Marlon Brando was one of the hunkiest actors in Hollywood. Later in life, he had put on what The Guardian called "fearsome weight," and with it came a whole host of health problems. Brando died in 2004 of pulmonary fibrosis, per his New York Times obituary. His final on-screen role was in "The Score," a heist film that teamed him with Robert De Niro, who had played a younger version of Brando's character in "The Godfather Part II." Brando was reportedly so difficult to work with at the end of his life that he supposedly refused to smile in what would ultimately be his final scene ever on camera — the smile was later added digitally (via "Secrets of Screen Acting").

Weeks before his death, Brando reprised his role in "The Godfather" for a video game adaptation of the iconic film, fittingly delivering his last lines for a character on his death bed.

Filmed roles aside, one of Brando's final public appearances was in 2001, a few years before his death, at a celebration of Michael Jackson. The King of Pop reportedly personally paid Brando a million dollars for his participation. Brando's long speech, which was rambling and borderline incomprehensible, was ultimately cut from the television broadcast of the event; fans in surviving footage can be heard booing and shouting, "Come on, let's go!" An unfortunate end to a legendary career.

River Phoenix's last footage surfaced decades later

"My Own Private Idaho" star River Phoenix was only 23 years old when he died, after collapsing outside iconic Los Angeles nightclub The Viper Room, reportedly after unknowingly being given a "speedball" to drink by a friend. His brother, actor Joaquin Phoenix, was the one who called 9-1-1 for help.

Phoenix was filming a Western called "Dark Blood" at the time of his death. Years later, footage from the unfinished film found its way online as part of a crowd-funding campaign from director George Sluizer to raise the money necessary to finish the movie. The footage shows Phoenix as a handsome drifter of sorts, romancing a character played by Judy Davis while avoiding the ferocious attention of Jonathan Pryce. The director explained that the insurance company had wanted to destroy the footage, as the half-done film would not be able to be released, but he had personally retrieved it and saved it.

After the crowd-funding campaign, various versions of the film have screened in incomplete form, including at the Berlinale film festival (via Indiewire). The Guardian notes that although Phoenix's performance is "fragmentary and uneven," his star presence and energy are undeniable.

Elizabeth Taylor was an activist 'til the end

Rarely in Hollywood history has one celebrity contained so many multitudes. Elizabeth Taylor: child star. Elizabeth Taylor: tabloid fixture. Elizabeth Taylor: respected actor. Elizabeth Taylor: trailblazing activist.

Her iconic acting career included roles in classic films like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," and devoted fans followed the ups and downs of her tumultuous personal life through eight marriages and more than 100 hospitalizations (per Vanity Fair).Taylor was one of the first stars to acknowledge the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and she became one of the hardest-working celebrity activists helping to seek a cure. After the death of her close friend Rock Hudson, she helped found amfAR, the leading advocacy and research organization for those living with the disease. She kept it all up in her later years, performing for one final time on stage in 2007, in a charity performance of the play "Love Letters" to benefit AIDS research. Columnist Liz Smith wrote in Variety of her performance, noting how the crowd "roared" when Taylor appeared.

The actor became somewhat of a recluse in her final years, kept to her home thanks to recurring health issues. On one of her last red carpet appearances, Taylor was asked if she'd ever get married again. To the endless amusement of pop culture commentators like Joel McHale on "The Soup," she let out a howled "Noooooooo!" Iconic until the end.

Paul Walker was caught on video moments before his death

"The Fast and the Furious" actor Paul Walker was filming the seventh installment in the mega-successful franchise when he died in a car crash on his way to a charity event. The VFX team was able to finish the film without him. His brothers stood in as body doubles, and a CGI composite of Walker's face was mapped onto theirs thanks to archive footage, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "A lot of people are going to remember Paul by this movie, and I want it to be worthy," Walker's brother Cody told E! News. He further reflected, "It was a bit of a rollercoaster being part of that, but I got to do it with [other brother] Caleb ... that made it an easier process."

Footage that appears to have been taken from a security camera later surfaced online, depicting Walker checking the Porsche Carrera GT he would ultimately die in. The car belonged to a friend of his named Roger Radas, per the Daily Mirror. The video reportedly shows Walker a mere 10 minutes before the crash. According to a friend who was there, moments before the fateful drive that would see the car hit a tree and burst into flames, Walker had told Radas, "Hey, let's go for a drive." 

James Dean filmed a safe-driving PSA

His too-cool image has come to represent a certain era of Americana, symbolizing both the rebelliousness of youth and the eternal beauty of youth lost too soon, but when James Dean died at the age of 24, the iconic actor wasn't really famous yet. His starring role in "East of Eden" was the only film that had been released when he passed away in a fateful car crash on a lonely stretch of California highway. "Rebel Without a Cause," his most iconic film, was still a month away from hitting theaters.

Dean had just finished filming the generation-spanning Texas oil epic "Giant" at the time of his death. In the film, he plays an oil tycoon at war with the local family he used to work for, played by Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. While shooting the movie for which he would be nominated for his second posthumous Oscar, Dean appeared in a safe-driving PSA alongside actor Gig Young. As recounted in a book about the making of "Giant," Dean — who had a much-publicized racing hobby — cautioned youngsters about the dangers of speeding on the highways. Instead of parroting the national slogan popular in the '50s — "Drive safely: the life you save might be your own" — Dean ad-libbed. He instead eerily warned viewers, "Take it easy driving ... the life you might save ... might be mine." Less than two weeks later, he would be dead.

Whitney Houston performed days before she died

Whitney Houston is a music legend, known around the world as "The Voice" for her heavenly vocals and infectious pop songs. But it shouldn't be forgotten that she was a film icon as well, having starred in classics like "The Bodyguard" and "Waiting to Exhale," not to mention her incredibly fun performance in the 1997 adaptation of "Cinderella."

Houston died on Grammy weekend in 2012 due to accidental drowning. The final video of the star shows her joining fellow singer Kelly Price on stage to perform "Jesus Loves Me" just two days before her death. After the song ends, she stands on stage for a moment, beaming out over the crowd, basking in the love of her fans, and then is led offscreen.

Her final film role was in "Sparkle," opposite Jordin Sparks, which was released several months after she died. Houston played Sparks' mother in a remake of the classic '70s film, and she told that she had a hand in updating the story so that the main characters sang gospel music. She also told the site that she did not feel the role — her first in 15 years — was a comeback. "I think of it as a gift God gave me to contribute to a cast of people who are working as hard — if not harder — than I," she said. Sparks told Billboard that Houston's death was heavy, "but at the same time, [the film is] such a celebration of her."

Marilyn Monroe was fired from her last movie

No actor in Hollywood history exemplifies both the glamour of Tinseltown and its dark underbelly quite like Marilyn Monroe. The blonde bombshell led classic films like "Some Like It Hot" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and a certain subway-grate-and-white-dress set photograph from "The Seven Year Itch" is one of the most iconic images in all of cinema.

Monroe had a dark side, including a difficult upbringing, an addiction to pills, and a famously troubled love life. Monroe's last completed film was "The Misfits," one of her signature roles. Behind-the-scenes photos from the set show an actress coping with her addictions and her depression, via Financial Times. In 1962, Monroe struggled during the filming of "Something's Got to Give" — per The Independent, a documentary about the troubled set claimed Monroe "drift[ed] through her scenes in a depressed and drug-induced haze." She was ultimately fired from the film, in part because director George Cukor was angry about her now-infamous sultry performance of "Happy Birthday Mr. President" for then-President John F. Kennedy. She would be dead within three months. Footage from the film depicting Monroe in a swimming pool was released years later and has since become iconic in its own right, referenced often.

However, "Something's Got to Give" wasn't Monroe's final time on camera. She was captured on a fan's home video mere weeks before her death during a beach photoshoot with photographer George Barris, posing for some of the most intimate photos of her life.

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).

Alan Rickman inhaled helium with Jimmy Fallon

Alan Rickman rocketed to fame when he was cast as Hans Gruber, the villainous German who holds Nakatomi Plaza hostage in "Die Hard." He followed it up with roles in films as varied as "Galaxy Quest" and "Love, Actually," and perhaps most iconically, he played the sinister Potions professor Severus Snape in the "Harry Potter" films. Rickman died in 2016 from cancer, per his BBC obituary.

A few months before he died, what would be Rickman's final on-camera interview took place on "The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon." Rickman and Fallon memorably inhaled helium from balloons together, playing on the fact that one of Rickman's most recognizable qualities was his deep, resonant voice. The way he delivers the name "Harry Potter" in a high-pitched helium-voice perfectly encapsulates the actor's sense of humor despite his dour on-screen role in the fantasy series.

His final live-action performance was for war drama "Eye in the Sky," a film about the ethics of drone warfare. A behind-the-scenes interview was released after Rickman's death, giving fans one final look at the actor himself and not just his character. In the interview, he expresses his relief at taking a role based in reality, explaining, "You're looking at your own life as well as other people's." 

Brittany Murphy wanted to have a child

Brittany Murphy won fans in the '90s thanks to her spunky role as Tai in "Clueless," in which she famously called Alicia Silverstone's Cher Horowitz "a virgin who can't drive." Roles in films like "8 Mile" and "Girl, Interrupted" followed. She unfortunately passed away unexpectedly in 2009 from pneumonia, though, as E! Online notes, questions have persisted about the role that prescription drugs and, possibly, mold may have played in her untimely passing.

Though her final on-screen performance was in a thriller called "Something Wicked," which was released years after her death, Murphy's last time on camera was just a few weeks before she died. She attended an event at a clothing store popup in Hollywood and spoke with Access Hollywood, giving an interview that seemed charming at the time but now comes across as haunting. She told the outlet, "As far as New Years' Resolutions, I'd love to have a child next year." Murphy was married to a screenwriter named Simon Monjack at the time of her death. Eerily, Monjack died several months after his wife of similar causes. In a 2021 documentary called "What Happened, Brittany Murphy?," actress and co-star Kathy Najimy blames Monjack for the fact that Murphy's "judgment was muddled" later in her life.

At that same clothing store event, the last time she was seen in public, Murphy told Fox News, "I feel very blessed for everything I have in my life."

Paul Newman kept racing in his final years

Though he had roles in classic films like "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and "The Long, Hot Summer," legendary film star Paul Newman didn't win a competitive Oscar until 1986's "The Color of Money." He was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1994, in part because 100% of the proceeds from his mega-successful Newman's Own salad dressing empire still go to charity.

Newman's once-prolific career slowed down in his later years. His final live-action film role was in 2002's "Road to Perdition," which netted him one final Oscar nomination. He formally retired from acting in a 2007 interview with Barbara Walters, telling her (via Reuters), "I'm not able to work anymore as an actor at the level that I would want to." However, the actor was still his charming, active self – footage from the interview shows him giving Walters a ride in his race car. Like his one-time friend James Dean, Newman had a love of racing.

His final on-camera interview, six months before he died of lung cancer, was with the Fine Living Network. Newman could be seen coughing as he reflected on trying to keep healthy as he aged, telling author Renée Loux that he was "working on my body at the moment." Loux reflected to Inside Edition, "His presence [was] at once overwhelming, and his eyes really are that blue."

Robin Williams attended an art gallery

Film legend Robin Williams, star of "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Jumanji," and too many other classics to name, died from suicide in 2014. The actor was misdiagnosed with Parkinson's Disease shortly before his death, and after he died, it was revealed that he actually had Lewy Body Dementia (via the Parkinson's Foundation). "Robin is and will always be a larger-than-life spirit who was inside the body of a normal man with a human brain. He just happened to be that 1 in 6 who is affected by brain disease," wrote his wife Susan Schneider Williams after his death.

The funnyman's final on-screen role was in "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb" as Teddy Roosevelt. The 2020 documentary "Robin's Wish" chronicles the actor's last days, including behind-the-scenes footage of his work on "Night at the Museum." That film's director, Shawn Levy, reveals, "It was clear to all of us on that set that something was going on with Robin." 

A few days before his death, he attended an art gallery show in the Bay Area, showing work by a local artist named Mark Jaeger who had become a friend. The final photos taken of the star show him in a black suit, speaking with the other attendees. "I guess this is it," Ben Stiller's character tells Robin-as-Roosevelt at the end of "Secret of the Tomb." After one last laugh, with their eyes shining with tears, Williams tells Stiller, "Smile, my boy. It's sunrise."

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

Carrie Fisher's last words on film were fitting

Carrie Fisher lived quite the life. The daughter of Hollywood royalty Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, she shot to superstardom in her own right when she played Princess Leia in the original "Star Wars" trilogy. Fisher continued to work throughout her life both in front of and behind the camera, acting in films like "The Blues Brothers" and helping write screenplays for movies such as the semi-autobiographical "Postcards from the Edge."

In the 2010s, Fisher enjoyed a bit of a career revival as the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy hit theaters. She reprised her role as Leia — now a general — in both "The Force Awakens" and "The Last Jedi." Unfortunately, before the release of the latter film, Fisher died from a heart attack suffered while on a plane (per her New York Times obituary). Fisher had shared photos of herself on social media days earlier, posing with her dog Gary Fisher alongside "Catastrophe" co-star Sharon Horgan.

Her last filmed role was in fact U.K. sitcom "Catastrophe." (Fisher would later appear in 2019's "The Rise of Skywalker," the final film in the "Star Wars" sequel trilogy, but her performance was crafted through a combination of archive footage and CGI). The "Catastrophe" episode aired months after her death, and critics in publications like IndieWire noted that her final on-screen lines were a fitting sendoff. "It's great TV," she said.

Fisher's mother, Debbie Reynolds, died one day after her daughter.

Chadwick Boseman's appearance concerned fans

Chadwick Boseman rose to fame portraying iconic baseball player Jackie Robinson in "42," and Variety critic Scott Foundas noted the actor's commanding presence and unforgettable smile. He would go on to use those talents as he played other heroes of African American history, including James Brown (in "Get On Up") and Thurgood Marshall (in "Marshall"), but it was his role as a fictional hero that would bring Boseman his greatest fame: T'Challa — the Black Panther — in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Fans were shocked when Boseman died in 2020, his death making public a cancer diagnosis that the actor had hidden from nearly everyone. Shortly before he died, Boseman had posted a social media video promoting Operation 42, a charity inspired by Jackie Robinson to raise funds for personal protective equipment at hospitals servicing African American communities. The video, in which Boseman appeared thinner than his muscular Marvel figure, prompted concerns from fans about his health, questions that were answered when he ultimately passed away.

Boseman's final role on camera was in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," released months after his death, a part for which he was nominated for a posthumous Oscar. At the ceremony, his co-star Viola Davis told E! News, "He was authenticity on steroids ... This person, this human being, this artist, did not mistake his presence for the event." A hero until the end.