We Hardly Knew Ye: Three Movie Stars Who Died in Their Prime

We Hardly Knew Ye: Three Movie Stars Who Died in Their Prime

This morning news spread of the sudden death of actress Brittany Murphy, who suffered a cardiac episode at just 32 years of age. Murphy was a unique comedic talent who sadly never really had a chance to reach her full potential in the entertainment industry. Anyone who may have disregarded her abilities thanks to middling studio movies like Just Married obviously missed her 12-year stint on Mike Judge's much beloved animated program King of the Hill as Luanne Platter. In a kinder world, Brittany Murphy could have wrangled a TV deal in the next few years that would have showcased her strengths, but now the opportunity has passed. Whenever a talented, young performer leaves us too soon it's a reminder of all the others who didn't get to do all they seemed to meant to do. While the names on this list are just a few great actors who deserved more time than they got, I hope they can serve as a reminder of all the others.

River Phoenix

After his standout performance in new classics like The Explorers and Stand By Me, River Phoenix made that oh-so-difficult transition from child actor to successful adult performer with unparalleled grace. His credits list, including 15 films (14 of which were released) and 9 TV shows in less than ten years, is both tragically short and a testament to his dedication to the art. All the same, Phoenix's career is studded with awards and high critical praise. His most memorable role is that of Mike Waters, a narcoleptic street hustler in Gus Van Sant's uniquely strange 1991 film My Own Private Idaho. River Phoenix's flare for a mix of vulnerability and barely-contained intensity drew early comparisons to Marlon Brando, but his death at the age of 23 from a drug overdose in 1993 likened him more unto James Dean.


Heath Ledger

Early in 2008, the entertainment world was rocked by the sudden, inexplicable death of Heath Ledger, an actor who was nothing short of brilliant in his final four roles and was otherwise always a welcome presence wherever else he appeared. Ledger began as a hunky TV actor in his native Australia most famous for his leading role in Roar. When he came to big screen in the States at the end of the 1990's he lent his mix of intensity and charm to a wide variety of fun popcorn flicks like the underrated A Knight's Tale and prestige pictures like The Patriot and Four Feathers. It wasn't until his Oscar-nominated turn in Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain that audiences got to see the A-list Heath Ledger who seemed destined to be one of his generation's greats. Ledger died several months before his startling reinvention of The Joker in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, for which he was posthumously awarded the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He was in the middle of filming The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus with Terry Gilliam when he suffered an accidental overdose of prescription medication. The film was released worldwide in November 2009.


Marylin Monroe

If one were to take all of iconic starlet Marylin Monroe's work and place it on a scale, the majority of the weight would come from screwball comedies and other inconsequential fare. Such was the fate of an actress who deserved a more progressive era, in addition to a longer life. The last role she ever filmed was in such a flighty, tossed-off picture, the unfinished comedy Something's Gotta Give with Dean Martin. Now that title belongs to a forgettable Jack Nicholson vehicle from 2003 and Monroe's true final film is the excellent road movie The Misfits. Try as the parade of studio execs and big screen directors did to reduce Monroe to a platinum-haired sexpot, the long-suffering intellect of Norma Jean Baker always found a way to shine through and out-perform everybody else in frame. That's why it's so thrilling to see her go toe-to-toe with Clark Gable's tragic cowboy in The Misfits, also Gable's last film. Marylin Monroe died in 1962 under mysterious circumstances ruled a likely suicide.


The entertainment industry has a tendency to chew performers up and spit them out with little ceremony or regard. That's why it's important to remember that great talents deserve recognition and preservation. We never know if that stunning performance is really a swan song.