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  • Heath Ledger was a critical darling during his lifetime, but the general public mostly knew him as "the guy from Brokeback Mountain". That all changed when he died unexpectedly of an accidental drug overdose in 2008. His death wound up having a tremendous impact on the hype for The Dark Knight (his last fully completed role) and it became the second-highest-grossing film of all time in America (not adjusted for inflation), and the fourth to surpass $1 billion worldwide. Ledger won a lot of posthumous awards, including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, a first for a superhero movie. Even though Ledger's actual final movie, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, received mixed reviews and only a moderate gross, his status as a Hollywood legend was fully cemented.
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  • In the same vein as Ledger's death, Christopher Reeve's paralysis later in life made him a living martyr and ensured his Superman movies (well, the first two at least) would be considered untouchable and quintessential, though Superman and his world from the DC Comics have long evolved past their depiction in the films. This made it frustrating for modern comics fans when the first Superman film in decades was a slavish super-homage to a retro version instead of depicting the contemporary one they're used to.
  • Brandon Lee's final movie, The Crow, received a huge boost due to his death and has become a Cult Classic. He died from a gunshot wound accidentally sustained on the set.
  • Brittany Murphy's career had shrunk to small roles and voice acting (most notably, her role on King of the Hill) by the time of her death, which became a media sensation.
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  • Hong Kong actor Leslie Cheung was hugely popular in his lifetime, but the sheer number of eulogies and overwrought tributes after his sudden suicide was unprecedented.
  • James Dean starred in only three movies before his death at the age of twenty-four from a car accident: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant, plus a handful of TV performances. Only East of Eden was released when he was still alive and it was a huge sensation, but Rebel (which reached theaters after his death) made him a legend. James Dean was considered by the American Film Institute to be one of twenty-five greatest actors of all time — this occurred partly because of the remarkable promise he showed at such a young age, as well as the fact these three films were considered stone-cold classics in their own right. Prior to the assassination of JFK, the day of Dean's death was the benchmark for the "Where were you when you heard..." question, and the level of fan/critical response to Dean's death for an actor would not be equaled until the death of Heath Ledger a half-century later.
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  • Bruce Lee's premature and mysterious death greatly contributed to the box office success of his films and all the Bruceploitation films it spawned.
  • Despite being — to quote The New York Times — "the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation," Philip Seymour Hoffman's death made him a household name in the eyes of the average moviegoer. For example, he finally got his own page here only after his death.
  • Robin Williams reached some impressive heights of popularity during his lifetime but didn't have the same reputation as, say, Will Smith or Johnny Depp. He'd also spent most of the 21st century in a rut after a number of ill-considered projects in the late 90s, with his last film to do well critically and financially being 2009's World's Greatest Dad. His death in 2014 triggered a worldwide media sensation almost comparable to those of Princess Diana and Michael Jackson. It also brought a renewed focus on mental health issues, given Williams grappled with them throughout his lifetime, as well as spotlighting Lewy Body Dementia.
  • Paul Walker, known for starring in the The Fast and the Furious series, as well as a few other roles, was killed in a car crash in November 2013. Although the Fast and Furious films were massive hits, Walker wasn't well-known outside of those movies and his popularity was very low compared to co-star Vin Diesel. Since then, a new legion of teenage fans who had previously never heard of him now worship him insanely. The greatest moment of Walker's posthumous legacy came in 2015, when then-fading rapper Wiz Khalifa recorded a song in tribute of him, "See You Again", for the next Furious movie. The song was an enormous hit — spending twelve weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100, selling nearly 500,000 copies the week it first hit #1 and becoming its own separate entity from its parent film, as well as propelling featured artist and songwriter Charlie Puth to stardom. Think about it — had Walker's reputation remained where it was when he was alive, "See You Again" would have likely done next to nothing on the charts — and of course, it's also likely the song wouldn't have been made if Walker was still alive. It should also be noted that he beat Vin Diesel for a Teen Choice Award that same year.
  • Director Ed Wood is known today as the patron saint of bad movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space or Glen or Glenda, but in his lifetime he was virtually unknown and died nearly broke.
  • Carole Lombard was a very successful actress in the 1930s, but it wasn't until after her tragic death at age 33 in a plane crash that she became one of the great icons of screwball comedy, with some calling her the greatest and most influential comedic actress of all time. Even Lucille Ball decided to do I Love Lucy after she dreamed Lombard told her to do it.
  • After a string of flops in the '80s, Gene Wilder had retired from acting, with the public mostly remembering him for playing the title role in the classic 1971 movie musical Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, based on Roald Dahl's classic novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His death in August 2016 not only helped sustain Wonka's great legacy, but also raised the profile of his other films such as The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein and everyone began citing him as one of the greatest comedic actors of all time. On a related note, while Tim Burton's 2005 film version of Charlie, starring Johnny Depp as Wonka, had faced intense Hype Backlash for over a decade for what was being increasingly seen as a butchered remake of the original film as opposed to a Truer to the Text adaptation of Dahl's original book, Wilder's death firmly solidified the '71 film as the definitive adaptation of the book.
  • Rock Hudson fell off the Hollywood A-list in the late-1960s, and within 15 years found himself in supporting roles on TV series such as Dynasty. However, he revealed in 1985 that he was dying of AIDS, which was followed a few months later by his untimely passing. This ensured Hudson's status as a beloved Hollywood actor, in large part because his death gave the public a greater awareness of AIDS than ever before. In addition, Hudson came out as gay in a posthumously-released memoir, which finally allowed the public to see Hollywood's unfortunate treatment of homosexual actors in the 1950s and 1960s.
  • Carrie Fisher was very well known for playing Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, but she had no real profile beyond Star Wars and wasn't nearly as iconic as her co-star Harrison Ford. Her shocking death at the end of 2016, capping off a year of a surprisingly high number of high-profile celebrity deaths, truly made the world fall in love with her all over again, and Princess Leia was appropriated into a feminist symbol at the Women's March a month later. On a related note, Debbie Reynolds, Fisher's mother, died a day after her daughter. Reynolds was a star from the '50s who was relatively obscure at the time of her death, but the fact that she died just one day after Fisher gave her passing a lot more attention than it would have gotten otherwise.
  • Roger Moore wasn't the most popular of the James Bonds, mostly due to the campiness associated with his tenure in the role, but he was still fairly well-liked. When he died in May 2017, a lot of his films' biggest critics (namely Connery fans) began to look at his films in a more positive light.
  • The actor Antonio De Curtis, known as Totò, well known in his country of Italy, once said: It's going to be really beautiful at my funeral, there will be praises, words, big words, they will find out I'm a great actor: because this is a wonderful country, where to be recognized in anything, however, you have to die. He was right about his future fame.
  • Anton Yelchin starred as Ensign Pavel Chekov in the Star Trek (2009) films, which many Trek fans have been divided over. In June 2016, only a month before the release of Star Trek Beyond, Anton was killed in an auto accident at age 27, and the entire Trek franchise united to pay tribute to him.
  • Sharon Tate acted during the latter part of the 1960s getting a lot of hype when she was alive, but she was often dismissed as just a Ms. Fanservice (not helping matters by her breakout role Valley of the Dolls being critically trashed but still a Box Office hit). However, her shocking and brutal murder at the hands of the Manson Family ensured her place in pop culture history. Some of her films, notably Eye of the Devil, were re-released after her death and grossed much more than they had on their first runs. It got to the point that in 2019, the fiftieth anniversary of her death, three films about her were produced. These days she's considered a big part of the New Hollywood.
  • Anna May Wong had faded by the '50s and '60s after being a star in the '20s and '30s. Hollywood's insistence on casting her only in stereotypical Chinese parts forced her overseas. Her sudden death just before she was to star in Flower Drum Song happened right before a broad-based emergence of Asian-American talent in Hollywood materialized. This lead Nancy Kwan (who she would have starred alongside in Flower Drum Song) to call Wong a pioneering Hollywood Asian actress. These days she's recognized as the first major Chinese-American movie star and a trailblazer for minorities in the movie industry.
  • Marilyn Monroe achieved iconic status after she died. While she was a huge star when she was alive, her popularity has endured over the years and she's acquired the image of a tragic cautionary tale that almost certainly wouldn't have happened if she had lived longer.
  • Jean Harlow was growing in popularity in the 1930s as one of America's favourite blonde bombshells but was despised by critics as a bland Ms. Fanservice. However, her sudden death at the age of 26 caused a worldwide sensation — including a national day of mourning in the UK (where her films were rarely exported). Her all too brief career caused her to become a legendary figure, and a major precursor of Marilyn Monroe (who was considered her Spiritual Successor). It helps that some of the few films she starred in — Hell's Angels, The Public Enemy, Red Dust, Dinner at Eight — have endured as classics. You can also thank her for the term 'platinum blonde', as she starred in a film with that title referencing her hair colour. The buzz around her death was so large that instead of recasting her part in Saratoga (which she'd filmed half of before she died), they used Fake Shemps and released it as her final performance.
  • Jack Wild had long fallen into obscurity as a Former Child Star from the '60s and '70s by the time of his death from throat cancer in 2006. He's nostalgically remembered for his iconic role as the Artful Dodger in Oliver! and his own TV series H.R. Pufnstuf. A posthumous biography was even released in 2016, a full ten years after his death.

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