10 Actors Who Played a Movie Character Until They Died

By  · Published on September 5th, 2015

Warner Bros.

With Hollywood so sick with franchise fever, it’s hard for a lot of actors to quit a continuing movie series. The studios certainly want to hold on to Robert Downey Jr., Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig, etc. while their respective properties continue to make big money just the way they are. And the actors often want to hold on to those moneymakers for the security and the pay raises when contracts are renewed.

But it’s not often that someone plays a character their whole life, as in up until he or she dies (on screen, that is; voice actors very often do so). Last year, Jackman said he needed to find a way to play Wolverine until the day he died, but now he’s actually retiring from the X-Men franchise role after his next solo venture as the character. This week Chris Evans was quoted saying he’ll play Captain America for as long as Marvel wants him, though of course Marvel couldn’t go so far as to have him play an elderly Steve Rogers, so he’ll eventually be replaced.

The following 10 stars, however, did play characters through to their own ends, never truly being replaced in the parts except in some instances posthumously. Of course, in many of the cases it’s because the actor or single actress on the list died suddenly, usually much too young. Still, it’s hard to separate them from these characters because they remained attached at death. Some even after.

Note: to qualify for this list, the performer had to have played the character in at least two movies before their death and had to have died shortly after or while still working on the character to some degree. No one who retired from a character before their demise counts.

Leonard Nimoy: Mr. Spock

Paramount Pictures

Nimoy, who died earlier this year at the age of 83, was so iconically linked to the role of Mr. Spock in the Star Trek franchise that even when the movies rebooted with a new cast he still played the part as the original version of the character, from another timeline. Star Trek Into Darkness was his final movie, and at least at one point he was supposed to return for the upcoming Star Trek Beyond but died before that could happen.

Richard Harris: Albus Dumbledore

Warner Bros.

It’s hard to believe that Harris only played the Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore in two Harry Potter movies, but indeed he sadly died a couple weeks before the premiere of the second installment, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Michael Gambon took over for the remaining six movies, yet for many of us Harris will always be the primary face of the character.

Paul Walker: Brian O’Conner

Universal Pictures

Walker not only died tragically mid franchise (and as it continued to rise in popularity), but he hadn’t even completed his performance in the latest installment before being killed in a car crash two years ago. Furious 7, his sixth movie as Brian (he skipped part 3), had to be finished with some special effects and working around his absence and was released in his honor with a tearjerking tribute within the sequel’s narrative. The character was not killed off, but he will not be recast, either.

Heather O’Rourke: Carol Ann Freeling


Cursed movie franchise or not, the loss of child actress Heather O’Rourke in part to a medical error was a huge loss to the world, not just for the Poltergeist movies that made her famous. She died at age 12 due to a misdiagnosis, a few months before the release of Poltergeist III. She actually sort of reprised the role of Carol Ann 20 years later thanks to a DirecTV commercial, which many fans criticized yet which O’Rourke’s mother intended to be a tribute.

Peter Sellers: Inspector Jacques Clouseau

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

Sellers appeared in a few memorable films after his final authorized appearance as the famous bumbling police detective from the Pink Panther franchise, including an Oscar-nominated performance in Being There. Yet when he died he was still attached to Clouseau, a character he’d actually quit after only two installments. He returned for the third sequel (Alan Arkin played Clouseau in the second one) and then officially did two more.

When he succumbed to a heart attack a couple years later, he was working on a script for another, titled Romance of the Pink Panther. It was never completed, but Sellers did play Clousau once more, posthumously, in Trail of the Pink Panther. It was achieved using outtakes from his earlier performances, and while director Blake Edwards considered it a tribute, Sellers’s widow, Lynne Frederick sued (and won more than $1m) because it hurt his reputation.

Bela Lugosi: Count Dracula

Universal Pictures

It’s hard enough separating Lugosi from his role as the famous vampire from Bram Stoker’s novel just based on his iconic portrayal in the 1931 movie of Dracula — a character he’d actually already played on the stage four years prior. It took 17 years before he donned the cape and teeth again for Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, after which he also made some TV appearances in character and then starred in another stage production of Dracula.

A couple years later, Ed Wood found the actor almost destitute and addicted to drugs and got him to dress up as Dracula one more time – well, not officially, but looking enough like the part he’d immortalized decades earlier – before he died in 1956. He appears posthumously as a Dracula-esque character in Plan 9 from Outer Space and has had archival footage of him in the role worked into other works ever since. Lugosi was also buried in this Dracula cape, literally taking the role to the grave.

Golden Cloud: Trigger

Republic Pictures

At four years old, the palomino stallion born as Golden Cloud was cast as Maid Marian’s horse in 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. After that, he became the official “Trigger,” the horse of Roy Rogers, until his death in 1965. While he’d long been done appearing in his owner’s movies and TV show and wasn’t always the sole horse playing the part, he made a few late small-screen appearances and then was posthumously taxidermied to keep him at least physically portraying Trigger another 50 years and beyond (he was last sold in 2010 for use in a new Western museum).

Chris the St. Bernard: Beethoven

Universal Pictures

When not portrayed using animatronics or a guy in a St. Bernard suit, the title character of 1992’s Beethoven was played by a dog called Chris, owned by famous Hollywood animal trainer Karl Lewis Miller. Chris reprised the role the following year for Beethoven’s 2nd but then apparently died soon after, long before a number of direct-to-video sequels continued the franchise.

Desmond Llewelyn: Q (aka Major Boothroyd)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

He wasn’t the first Q (that’d be Dr. No’s Peter Burton), but beginning with his takeover of the role in the second official EON-produced James Bond movie, From Russia With Love, Llewelyn played the part of the MI6 Quartermaster through 17 movies and 36 years, until his death from a car crash a few weeks following the release of 1999’s The World is Not Enough. Sadly, he had actually just stated in an interview that he was happy to play the part, so long as the producers wanted him, for the rest of his life.

The only 007 installments Llewelyn missed during his time as Q were Live and Let Die (which doesn’t feature the character) and the non-EON Never Say Never (where he’s played by Alec McCowen). Before his demise, he did get to pass the torch to John Cleese, who played his assistant in The World is Not Enough before being promoted to the Q role for just Die Another Day. Following two installments without a Q, Ben Whishaw was introduced as the new incarnation in Skyfall and will again play the part in this year’s Spectre.

Philip Seymour Hoffman: Plutarch Heavensbee


Another character we’ll be seeing again this fall is Plutarch Heavensbee of the Hunger Games franchise. Hoffman took on the gamemaker role starting with the second installment, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and then he unfortunately died taking a lethal combination of drugs less than three months after that movie’s release. He had already shot the next one, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, and part of the conclusion, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, so he continues to appear as the character posthumously. The latter sequel, out in November, will mark his final movie released in theaters.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.