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When the Star Dies Suddenly
I wrote an earlier Hollywood R> post, When the Star Gets Fired. When a high-profile firing happens, it’s bad, it’s a big deal, but it’s rarely much of a surprise. Studios have a much tougher time dealing with unexpected situations where the pink slip of termination has been abruptly sent by the Almighty Himself, with a total lack of regard for the almighty production schedule. When it happens to a star in the middle of making a movie, a studio has to make some very hard, unpleasant financial choices, and quickly.
If the movie is nearly finished, some tricks and cuts will usually get them to the finish line. With a film that’s more like 70% complete, it might be possible, using real filmmaking ingenuity. On the other hand, if the movie has barely started filming, the easy, sensible call is to bail out now, shut down production, file an insurance claim, and absorb some losses. It’s the cases in-between that are tough judgment calls. Costs are accruing at a rate of millions of dollars per week, whether the cameras roll or not. An expensive picture that’s only 40% complete is agony to walk away from, but you have no real choice, even if it contains Marilyn Monroe’s one, never-to-be-seen-till-now nude scene, in sparkling color and glorious CinemaScope.
The sudden death of an actor, however sad for the family and friends of the deceased, is obviously not as tricky a management problem if it happens between films, or between episodes of a TV show. If the actor was elderly, like Nancy Marchand on The Sopranos, a discreet off-camera death for the character is possible. It’s harder to deal with when for some reason or another the death is notorious: NewsRadio’s Phil Hartman, murdered; Freddie Prinze, suicide; Jon-Erik Hexum, reckless use of firearms.
A TV show has options: recast the same role, or introduce a new character who essentially absorbs the old one’s place in the cast. This is especially true of secondary characters. A popular film series can survive the recasting of Dumbledore, provided it happens between films. Losing the star in the middle of a major film production is a disaster.
Motion picture production relies on insurance, including something called a completion bond, essentially a high deductible specialized insurance policy, tailored to each film. Since that bonding company is potentially on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars, they are empowered to do medical exams and drug tests, even ones that are much more rigorous and intrusive than a studio could demand directly. These little-known, third-party companies are secretive and seldom have to explain themselves. If a movie can’t get “bonded” for any reason, it doesn’t get made.
When something catastrophic happens to a movie in production, it’s not unlike a covered auto accident; the insurance company takes possession of the wreck and has broad legal powers to “total it”, paying the claim in full, or it can try to salvage what it can. It’s much the same in Hollywood. The insurers may eat the loss (even the insurers have layers of re-insurance), or they may elect to live up to the meaning of the words “completion bond,” spending money to finish the film and turn it over to a distributor. It depends on the specific deal.
One of the most well-known cases of a film’s actor dying before completion was Giant, a 1956 epic of Texas history, starring Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean, who had a brief, dazzling career. When Dean was killed in a car accident in September, 1955, his part in the main filming of Giant was complete, but respected director George Stevens (D Day to Berlin, Shane, The Greatest Story Ever Told) had expected a few retakes, and some routine dubbing was needed to replace unclear sound. Stevens worked with the editors to find shots of James Dean where they could overlay the voice of actor Nick Adams, a friend of Dean’s with a similar-sounding voice.
The ill-fated Marilyn Monroe picture referred to earlier was 1962’s Something’s Got to Give, a remake of 1940’s My Favorite Wife, a screwball comedy starring Irene Dunne and Cary Grant. Something’s Got to Give was a doomed film shoot. Zonked-out Marilyn erratically staggered through it, and sensitive “women’s director” George Cukor struggled through it, until Monroe died of an overdose of sleeping pills. After shutting down production, the studio wisely shelved the project.
The script was quickly reworked for Doris Day and James Garner under the new title of Move Over, Darling. On YouTube, you can compare three actors playing the same lawyer role in a courtroom comedy scene—Cary Grant, Dean Martin, and James Garner. 20th Century Fox would later rework some of the footage of the abandoned film into a glossy theatrical documentary about Monroe’s career, though the infamous nude scene, teased by still photos in Playboy, was held back for many years.
Natalie Wood was the star of MGM’s Brainstorm, special effects wizard Doug Trumbull’s brash, imaginative bid for directorial greatness. At the end of November 1981, during a weekend break from filming, a little more than midway through production, she drowned under still-unclear circumstances. The office of the district attorney had one set of questions about Natalie Wood’s death to work through. Director Trumbull had his own complex, thorny judgment calls to make. His film and his career were at stake.
Was it possible to complete the film? An interesting public split emerged. MGM believed Brainstorm wasn’t going to be a sure winner even if completed, and welcomed the opportunity to recover the $11 million spent to date as an insurance claim. But the insurer, Lloyds of London, said “Not so fast.” They were won over by Doug Trumbull’s presentation, and insisted that MGM permit them to finance the finishing of Brainstorm. In this unique deal, instead of making a payout of $11 million, the insurance company put in $6 million of completion money and became MGM’s partner.
Now it was all up to Trumbull to deliver somehow. This was 1982 by now. Computer generated imagery was still in its infancy. Despite Trumbull’s tech reputation, there wasn’t much that early Eighties technology could do to bring Natalie Wood back to life. It was up to the editors.
Some of Wood’s unfilmed scenes could be dispensed with, or altered so she was no longer in them. Others were stitched together from bits and pieces of other scenes that had already been shot. Natalie Wood’s sister Lana stood in for her in some long shots and side shots, and read lines of dialog that would be used as voiceover for a montage of shots of Natalie. Trumbull did the sensible thing of using a dramatically effective shot of Wood to help make the ending feel like a satisfying conclusion. But the audience senses that it’s a stretch, even if it doesn’t know why, and Brainstorm’s box office, though no disaster was unimpressive.
Nearly twenty years later, Oliver Reed died during the making of Gladiator. The filmmakers’ situation wasn’t as dire as Doug Trumbull’s jigsaw puzzle completing Brainstorm, though it also wasn’t as relatively easy as the simple dubbing and editing job that confronted the crew of Giant. Reed still had scenes to shoot. Ridley Scott was able to get around having him in a couple of them. Only two “hard points” of exposition remained to be covered.
One of them used old school editing technique. Instead of explaining something, Reed’s character now listened impassively, “reacting” to what someone else is telling him. I put “reacting” in quotes because it’s actually a leftover shot of the actor from a different scene. Simple.
But the second key missing scene was tougher; it needed Oliver Reed and it couldn’t be gotten around. Fortunately, the Nineties had brought CGI to a high level; Gladiator’s spectacular aerial views of Rome couldn’t have been done otherwise. In 2000, though, it hadn’t yet been used much on realistic-looking human faces. Digitally pasting Reed’s face on a different actor was still new technique a quarter century ago, and Scott was careful not to push his luck. Reed’s character is seen through iron bars, a subtle trick that helps literally obscure the limits of turn-of-the-century digital visual magic.
In the 21st century, filmmakers have continuously perfected these new creative tools. When Paul Walker died in 2013 during the filming of Furious 7, the producers used the complete suite of special visual effects created during and since Gladiator to finish the film with facial CGI and body doubles. The magic worked, and in the years to come it’ll no doubt work better still.
Only a fool would bet against the progress of special effects. But in the movies, as everywhere else, one thing won’t change: death never takes a holiday.
Or will it? For decades before it was even remotely possible, Hollywood futurists have debated the possibility of Synthespians, completely believable recreations of deceased actors. This goes beyond the impressive de-aging and re-animating processes that have become commonplace. It could mean that Harrison Ford, for example, would never need to leave the screen. Long after shuffling off, “he” could continue to act in films for centuries to come, co-starring with any actor of any time period.
For the foreseeable future though, as long as matinees have idols and idols are mortal, film producers midway through big projects will still dread a 4 am call from the hospital, reminding them that Someone far above the studio chiefs still, as always, retains the right to Final Cut.Published in General
Interesting stuff, Gary.
I assume if they had paid the insurance claim, they would have immediately sold off the Marilyn footage to offset the loss. Is this the poolside stuff?
See the movie Looker. Albert Finney and Susan Dey. There’s a scene where she’s being scanned in support of building the “model”, with grid markers that seem hilarious now, as they clearly wouldn’t provide a level of resolution anywhere close to what would be needed to do what they are claiming. (And in the digital remastering, you can clearly see her naked, where before she was modestly shadowed. Another way the effects have changed.)
The poolside stuff goes right into the pool. The color photos were out there from the beginning, but in those days Playboy was frequently given a chance to go on film sets to pose topless photos (for example, of Paula Prentiss in What’s New Pussycat) that did not represent scenes actually in the film. The surprise is that this time it was real, even though there would not have been a hootin’ chance in hell that the film could have been released in America that way. There was also no one they could have sold the footage to in 1962-63.
There were already plenty of topless scenes in European films; maybe they intended them only for overseas.
Speaking as a former teenage film student, those were six of the most beautiful words in the English language:
“you can clearly see her naked”.
John Candy in Wagons East.
I still mourn the loss of Phil Hartman.
Thanks for the post, Gary. This was very interesting.
I recall seeing Jay Leno, unable to keep it together, collapse in tears and pitifully wave the producers to a commercial. Hartman was the kind of guy whose childhood seemed to snicker and wink at you through every line.
Few miserable untimely deaths of public figures have hit as hard as Hartman’s. I would put Dean Barnett up there. Chowdah!
Great and interesting post.
If dead stars are going to continue to be in new films, as you suggest with Harrison Ford, that would suggest all kinds of legal knots to sort out. Will they have agents? How will the estates be involved? For how long will estates be involved before passing to public domain?
Like hiring your chiropractor to stand in for the late star. Sure, he’s noticeably taller but there’s no time for quibbles when you’re on track to making “The Worst Movie of All-Time.”
If Obama could find a way to shelve the pesky Constitution, he’d be Digital-President-for-Life.
Interesting. I never thought about the insurance. The movie, The Stunt Man, addresses the death of a stunt man. I thought it was a great movie.
I vote to keep on making John Wayne movies, then.
Before the pandemic it was announced that James Dean would star in a Vietnam war drama Finding Jack. The rights to his likeness was purchased from the estate and the plan was to find a vocal soundalike. The movie was eventually cancelled. The announcement generated a ton of coverage (most of it negative) and the cancellation caused barely a blip on the radar.
They have resurrected the dead in short bursts. John Wayne hawked Coors and Bing Crosby a UK department store.
Digital representations and more importantly the data collected to create them are valuable property. Anyone with any kind of a decent agent would insist that they are owned by the talent, not the studio.
I know that the data are subject to very high standards of information security.
Whenever I read about completion bonds, I think about All That Jazz. The main character, modeled after Bob Fosse and played by Roy Scheider, is in the hospital after a heart attack. The producers and the insurers are reviewing the costs and the coverage and conclude “If he dies now you could be the first Broadway production to make money without opening.”
They already do. Thanks to the Celebrity Rights Act of 1985 in California.
In 1979 Bela Lugosi’s family lost a suit against Universal Pictures that had continued to license Lugosi’s image as Dracula and that led the California legislature to pass a law allowing heirs and estates to control images and likeness like it was a copyright.
That led to agencies such as CMG Worldwide that represents everyone from Clark Gable to Roberto Clemente to Neil Armstrong.
Another wonderful post. So interesting. With the talk of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, I kept thinking of Monty Python’s skit. “We have James Dean in it. In a box.”
I don’t think we’ll see many digital recreations of dead actors. The families that inherit the rights will regard it as a ghoulish thing, a prison made for a ghost, and there’s no amount of money that will persuade them otherwise.
Spoiler: Post is not about type II supernovae.
Yup. Bela´s son was the lawyer who brought the case if I recall correctly.
Nor is it about the continuing death spiral of American newspapers.
As usual Clavius has authoritative, correct information! One thing mentioned in the earlier post is actors own the scans of their own face and body. So if someone was body scanned for motion control, that data can’t be sold or transferred without the actor’s permission.
In most contexts, studios are tough competitors, not accustomed to granting favors to their rivals. But a partial truce is tacitly declared if a studio is in this kind of force majeure situation; if the stricken filmmakers need previous unseen or unused footage of the deceased actor from other films, there’s usually no problem getting cooperation. They’ll issue a public statement about how Hollywood is one big family that works together. But the reason is more basic: everyone knows it could happen to them next time.
Excellent post! There’s no one who could fill your shoes if you weren’t here, Gary.
What do you want me to fill Gary’s shoes with? Mashed potatoes? Is this some sort of practical joke?
Thanks, fellas! As you can see from the comments above, I have a friendly relationship with Ricochet’s senior staff. Randy got me a contributor’s badge, and EJ puts up with my semi-informed remarks about broadcasting history.
On a more personal level, I’m grateful that EJ’s graphic arts skills created an insightful portrait of, uh, me, not just as who I am, but of, I dare to say, an entire class of baby boomer conservatives:
The one death that springs to mind for me, is Brandon Lee’s accidental death on the set of “The Crow” in 1993.
In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when there were only two large bonding agencies, suddenly they silently stopped approving gay actors, even though they tested negative for AIDS.
Don’t forget, a motion picture completion bond isn’t a life insurance policy. It pays off to the company, not the actor’s survivors. Since AIDS is a slow killer, not a fast and sudden one, this made little legal sense for denying HIV-negative men what amounted to a three-month job insurance policy. The legal uproar threatened the secure, profitable, vaguely defined niche the insurers occupied in the film industry, so the completion bond companies hastily backed down.
The fight, never played up outside of the industry, was complicated for liberals by the fact that the head of the leading completion bond company, Bette Smith, is black, and for many years almost the only black woman with real power in Hollywood. She was not slow to use her political connections. So a simple, if arcane case of insurance regulation ended up pitting two local interest groups against each other.
Right. I mean, if Gary were not here but his shoes were, then it would be trivial.
But early in the epidemic, they had no idea what the transmission vector(s) might be: Gay men, intravenous drug users, and (for cryin’ out loud) Haitians. Insurance companies aren’t set up to deal with the unknown with any grace. They aren’t set up to deal with anything with any grace, but the unknown plays hell with the actuarial tables.
Right. We were all supposed to be terrified. In school we were told about the large segment of our classmates who would be erased by this terrible plague that slaughtered indiscriminately.