Had she lived, Natalie Wood would have been 75 years old this Saturday.
“Had she lived” is, sadly, an unavoidable qualifier when discussing the star of such well-loved films as West Side Story and Splendor in the Grass. Only 43 when she died, Wood’s unexpected and premature demise has since become as well known as the films she made.
Why the controversy? In 1981, Wood’s death was judged an accidental drowning. She was full of pills and alcohol, and death seemed to arrive through misadventure during a weekend boat excursion with husband Robert Wagner and actor Christopher Walken. However, in recent years, the “accidental” nature of Wood’s death has come into question. Wood was found with bruises on her body, and evidently there were alcohol-fueled arguments on the boat the night before her disappearance. This past January, a revised coroner’s report reintroduced the possibility that Wood’s death may have been “non-volitional.”
Whether there was foul play involved in Natalie Wood’s death or not, its inconclusive and possibly sordid nature has ensured that her death has become as dramatic as any of the roles she played on screen.
Natalie Wood is only one of many Hollywood celebrities who have had mysterious or bizarre deaths. A birthday may be a strange day to remember someone’s death, but for this select group of celebrities, it’s almost unavoidable. Today Bio.com looks back at five other Hollywood-related celebrities whose deaths have become as important a part of their story as their lives.
Like Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo was a child actor. He had graduated to playing teenagers by the time he co-starred with Wood in Rebel Without a Cause, the film that made James Dean a star. Rebel Without a Cause also made Sal Mineo a star; he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Plato, the troubled teenager who idolizes Dean’s character in the film.
Mineo’s success in Rebel Without a Cause was both a blessing and a curse. He was so effective on-screen as a troubled teen that he found it more difficult to attract suitable parts as he aged. An open declaration of his homosexuality also had a chilling effect on his career. By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he was reduced to doing occasional TV work and playing a talking ape in a Planet of the Apes sequel.
Mineo’s career seemed to be on an upswing by 1975; his role in a new play was warmly received, and his sexuality had ceased to be an issue. However, a career renaissance was not in the cards. On February 12, 1976, after returning home from a rehearsal, Mineo was stabbed to death by an unknown assailant after parking his car behind his apartment building. Some speculated that this may have been an assignation gone wrong, and that Mineo’s lifestyle was to blame. Others wondered if Mineo’s activist work for prison reform had put him in league with unsavory characters.
Three years later, the murderer was identified as a pizza deliveryman named Lionel Williams, who had been trying to rob the actor and did not know who he was. Williams realized later, and he bragged about it to friends. Arrested on a different charge, he was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Although one Williams was responsible for Sal Mineo’s death, another Williams was responsible for the launch of his career: Tennessee Williams. The Rose Tattoo provided Mineo with his first role on stage. (Natalie Wood was no stranger to Williams, either. She starred with Robert Redford in This Property Is Condemned, a Williams adaptation from 1966, as well as in a TV version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with her husband Robert Wagner in 1976.)
Of course, appearing in a Tennessee Williams play in the latter half of the 20th Century was certainly not unusual. Williams dominated the theater scene of the period, and he remains one of the most popular and respected playwrights in American letters, 30 years after his death. Active as a writer from the ‘30s until the ‘80s, he produced dozens of plays, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize, and many of which were made into successful Hollywood films: The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, Sweet Bird of Youth, and The Night of the Iguana among them. Despite often controversial themes, the films made from Williams’ plays were popular hits and featured some of the biggest stars of the day, including Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, and Elizabeth Taylor.
Despite his success, Williams’ life was troubled and unstable. After the death of his long-time partner Frank Merlo in 1963, Williams became dependent on prescription drugs and sleeping pills. Alcohol abuse added to his woes, and his mental health declined. On February 25, 1983, Williams was discovered dead in his New York hotel suite. Drugs were involved, to no one’s surprise, but the actual cause of death was asphyxiation. One theory is that Williams was attempting to swallow some barbiturates, and he accidentally dropped a cap from an eye drops bottle that he was using as a pill holder down his throat. Another is that Williams was holding the cap in his mouth as he put in eye drops and somehow swallowed it. Whatever happened, Williams could not have scripted a more absurd or hapless end for one of his own characters.
Nothing as seemingly harmless as a bottle of eye drops ended Bob Crane’s life. Bob Crane, star of the popular TV series Hogan’s Heroes, was found on June 29, 1978, bludgeoned to death, an electrical cord tied around his neck. Thirty-five years later, who killed Crane remains a mystery.
There are various theories, most of them related to a hobby that Crane developed fairly early in his career. Popular as a disc jockey in the Los Angeles area, Crane met plenty of young women. Once he made the transition into acting (one of his first TV appearances was on The Twilight Zone playing—what else—a DJ), he met even more. Crane’s particular interest was to seduce these women and then make films of his tête-à-têtes. Once Hogan’s Heroes was a hit, Crane’s private film production went into overdrive.
Close to Crane during this period was a man named John Carpenter, who worked for Sony and traded hi-tech equipment to Crane for access to Crane’s swinging lifestyle. Shortly before Crane’s death, the two fell out, and although police suspected Carpenter, they had no firm evidence. In the early ‘90s, an investigator reopened the case, feeling that there was enough new evidence to convict Carpenter, and he was arrested. However, he was found not guilty in court and maintained his innocence until his death in 1998.
Since Crane may have inspired any amount of bad feeling once his subjects found out that they had been videotaped, other theories assert that an angry husband or even the subject of one of his films was responsible for Crane’s death. Some even speculate that his grisly death showed the fingerprint of the mafia. The case remains officially unsolved. Auto Focus, a film made about Crane’s life and death, was released in 2002.
Modern audiences tend to look back upon movie stars of an earlier age as somehow simpler and more innocent, untainted by the temptations and setbacks that visit contemporary celebrities. Anyone who investigates the back pages of an earlier Hollywood is sure to find that this isn’t the case. Take the story of Marie Prevost.
Born in Canada, Mary Bickford Dunn moved to L.A. and made her movie debut in 1916. A couple of years later, she was signed on as one of Mack Sennett’s “Bathing Beauties.” No doubt dismayed by the similarity of her given name to one of the biggest stars in Hollywood (Mary Pickford), the comedy of Svengali renamed her Marie Prevost, “The Exotic French Girl.” The rechristened beauty moved on to many starring roles as the ‘20s quintessential brazen and independent female, the flapper. She appeared in a series of romantic comedies made by some of the biggest directors of the time, including Cecil B. DeMille and Ernst Lubitsch, and her career seemed to be on an upward trajectory.
Circumstances halted the rising star, however. Her marriage to leading man Kenneth Harlan began to fail, and her mother was killed in a car crash. Prevost began to drink, and her slim flapper body lost its shape. The industry’s transition to sound affected almost every actor who had been a star in the silent era, and Prevost was lumped into this group of former silent stars. Her drinking increased, and by the early 30s, she was lucky to play bit parts.
Desperate to recover some of her former glamor, Prevost began to diet dangerously. This, combined with her ongoing alcohol problem, could only lead to disaster. On January 23, 1937, neighbors irritated by the barking of a dog in Prevost’s apartment called the police. What the police found shocked them: the malnutritioned corpse of Marie Prevost, her legs and arms chewed up by her traumatized dog. Years later, pop singer Nick Lowe would somewhat indelicately memorialize this discovery in his song “Marie Provost.” The final indignity for the forgotten Marie? The misspelling of her name in the title.
Some Hollywood deaths are bizarre because of tragic circumstances. Others are bizarre because of unfortunate accidents. Sometimes, it’s a combination of the two. The death of George Sanders is a different story altogether.
Born in Russia to British parents, George Henry Sanders’ family returned to England at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution. After attending college, Sanders made the move into acting. He appeared in several British films before making the trip to Hollywood in the mid-‘30s. Sanders’ suave manners and plummy speaking voice made him an instant go-to choice for directors seeking either a classy gent or a charming villain, and he appeared in a number of now-classic films including Rebecca, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and All About Eve, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1950.
Professionally successful, Sanders’ personal life was more checkered. He married multiple times, most of the time unhappily, and most famously to Hungarian sexpot Zsa Zsa Gabor. Sanders developed a drinking problem, and as he entered his 60s, his health began to deteriorate. Dogged by awareness of his increasing infirmity, enfeebled by a stroke, and losing his taste for life, Sanders checked into a hotel in Spain, where he overdosed on barbiturates—five bottles of them—and dashed off one of the most famous suicide notes in history: “Dear World, I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.” A second note to his sister observed “Don’t be sad. I have only anticipated the inevitable by a few years.”
A man who had four colorful wives, a successful Hollywood career, a bestselling autobiography, and an Academy Award dies from boredom? George Sanders either had the most bizarre Hollywood death of all—or the most typical.