Death under the Limelight

by L-Johnson

John Ritter, shown here with the cast of Three's Company, died while rehearsing for 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter

Urban legend tells the tale of the performer who dies onstage during a performance, the audience unaware of the trauma before them thinking it to be part of the show. They clap and cheer at the realistic death performance, without realizing the performer is gasping for his last breath. This tale has more truth than most urban legends; several performers have tragically been killed while performing, whether it’s under the spotlight on stage or being filmed on camera in a studio. Here are some performers who died in the public eye, doing what they love best.

Chung Ling Soo (d. 1918) – Chung Ling Soo was an American magician whose most famous illusion involved appearing to catch a bullet with his teeth. (I bet you can guess where this is going!)  The trick was done by using a rigged gun that seemed to fire, but the bullets never actually left the chamber. The illusion went tragically wrong during a performance in London when a build up of gunpowder residue caused the gun to fire the bullet as normal, shooting Chung in the chest.

Johnny Ace (d. 1954) – During a break between sets, famed blues singer Johnny Ace was backstage playing around with a revolver that he thought was unloaded. When someone told him to be careful with it, he said “It’s ok, gun’s not loaded, see?” and then preceded to point the loaded gun at his smiling face and pull the trigger.

Harry Einstein (d. 1958) – Famed comedian Einstein, stage name Parkyakarkus, died while performing at a Friars Club roast for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. He collapsed onto Milton Berle’s shoulder.

Paul Mantz (d. 1965) – This aviation pioneer and legendary movie stunt pilot died during the filming of The Flight of The Pheonix. The plane, which was built for the film, struck a sand dune. As Mantz tried to recover the plane, it broke in two and nose dived into the ground.

Christine Chubbuck (d. 1974) – Christine was a news reporter for TV-40 in Sarasota, Florida. She was reporting live on-air, and unexpectedly said “In keeping with Channel 40′s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts, and in living color, you are going to see another first—attempted suicide.”, and proceeded to shoot herself in the head. She had been suffering depression but didn’t inform anybody of her intent to commit suicide.

Karl Wallenda (d. 1978) – The German tightrope walker attempted to walk between two towers in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Wallenda lost his balance and fell ten stories to the pavement below.

Vic Morrow (d. 1982) – Vic Morrow and two child actors were filming a Vietnam battle scene in Twilight Zone: The Movie when pyrotechnic explosions hit a helicopter, causing it to crash down on top of them.

Tommy Cooper (d. 1984) – British magician and comedian who suffered a heart attack live on TV while performing at Her Majesty’s Theater in London. He was known for getting his illusions comically wrong as part of his act, so for a few minutes the audience didn’t realized his sudden collapse was unplanned.

Yoshikiuki Takada (d. 1985) – Yoshiuki was performing with an artistic dance troupe suspended on the side of the Mutual Life building in Seattle. His rope broke, and he fell six stories to his death. Many in the audience thought a hidden safety harness would save him, and some thought it was part of the act with a mannequin in his place. Their hopes were soon turned to grief.

Jane Dornacker (d. 1985) – Jane was a radio traffic reporter for WNBC in New York City. During a live, on-air report, the helicopter plunged into the Hudson River. The pilot survived, but Jane died on the way to the hospital.

Joseph W. Burrus (d. 1990) – Joe Burrus was an amateur musician who was performing a trick where he lay in a coffin and buried underground beneath seven tons of soil and concrete. The idea was that he would escape the coffin and swim his way to the top. On the surface, the level of the soil suddenly dropped, and by the time the rescuers reached Burrus he had been crushed.

Redd Foxx (d. 1991) – During a break from rehearsals for The Royal Family, he suffered a heart attack on set. Foxx’s character on Sanford and Sons in the 70′s had a funny routine where he would fake a heart attack shouting “I’m coming home, Elizabeth!” For a moment when Foxx grabbed a chair and fell to the floor, the other cast members thought he was doing his classic comedy bit. He died that evening in the hospital.

Brandon Lee (d. 1993) – During the filming of The Crow, the son of Bruce Lee was accidentally shot by a .44 magnum and died hours later in the hospital. The gun contained blanks but had a bullet lodged in the chamber which released when the blank was fired.

Tiny Tim (d. 1996) – Actual name Herbert Khaury, Tiny Tim was performing at a Minneapolis fund raiser, cut short his rendition of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips” due to a heart attack and was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Owen Hart (d. 1999) – Owen was a Canadian WWF wrestler who died during a pay-per-view event while performing a stunt. He was meant to come down from the rafters in a ‘superhero-like fashion’ but the safety harness wasn’t properly latched. He dropped 78 feet (24 m) bouncing chest first off the top rope.

John Ritter (d. 2003) – During the taping of the sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, the 54-year old actor was suddenly stricken by a previously undiagnosed heart problem. He died in hospital later that night.

‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbott (d. 2004) – Former Pantera guitarist, was murdered by a gunman while performing with his new group, Damageplan in Columbus, Ohio.

Steve Irwin (d. 2006) – The Australian naturalist was stung and killed by a stingray while filming a documentary titled Ocean’s Deadliest.

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