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Top 10 Famous People Who Tragically Died While Performing

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Script written by Sean Harris These people died doing what they loved, and were loved for. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we're counting down our picks for the top 10 famous people who tragically died while performing. For this list, we've looked at well-known personalities who unfortunately passed away while doing what made them famous, or because of an accident or problem suffered during their performance. Special thanks to our users Henners250 or submitting the idea using our interactive suggestion tool at WatchMojo.comsuggest
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Script written by Sean Harris

Top 10 Famous People Who Tragically Died While Performing


These people died doing what they loved, and were loved for. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 famous people who tragically died while performing.

For this list, we’ve looked at well-known personalities who unfortunately passed away while doing what made them famous, or because of an accident or problem suffered during their performance. We’ll be excluding famed escapologist Harry Houdini, as his death has been linked to a backstage assault with the consequences only setting in once he was on stage. 

#10: Jon-Erik Hexum

Jon-Erik Hexum was just 26 when he died fooling around on the set of CBS TV series, “Cover Up”. An actor and model with a promising career ahead, Hexum decided to play Russian roulette in between takes with a gun used in a previous scene, which was loaded with blanks. The actor was unaware that firing blanks at close range could have disastrous effects, put the gun to his temple, pulled the trigger, fractured his skull, and caused massive hemorrhaging. He was declared brain dead after six days of surgery, and his mother gave permission to switch off life support and donated Hexum’s organs. The series paid tribute to the fallen actor in the following episode. 

#9: Karl Wallenda

A high wire artist and founder of the internationally acclaimed daredevil group, the Flying Wallendas, Karl Wallenda certainly lived life on the edge. The mind behind a hair-raising human pyramid in which seven acrobats formed three tiers and cycled across a wire, Wallenda made one walk too many in 1978. The then 73-year old fell 10 storeys during a stunt between the two towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Wallenda had famously described being on the wire as “life,” and the “rest is waiting,” but it was a balancing act that eventually, horribly proved the death of him.

#8: J. I. Rodale

Jerome Irving Rodale’s death came with particularly dark irony. The writer, magazine editor and health food guru for America passed away on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971. Although technically not a performance, he’d just finished his interview and was sitting to one side while another interviewee, columnist Pete Hamill, spoke to the show’s host. During Rodale’s earlier section, the health enthusiast had been discussing the benefits of a natural diet and lifestyle – reportedly quipping that he had “decided to live to a hundred” and that he’d “never felt better.” Just a few minutes later, he suffered a heart attack and was dead at 72.

#7: Leslie ‘Les’ Harvey

As guitarist for the ‘70s blues-rock group, Stone the Crows, Les Harvey’s career was just taking off when he died on stage at a show in Swansea, Wales. Stone the Crows, who were managed by Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant, were fresh off of their third album, “Teenage Licks” when Harvey was doing a sound check before a gig in May 1972. On a rain soaked stage, Harvey touched what turned out to be an un-grounded microphone and was electrocuted on the spot. The band never truly recovered, although a fourth album was released, and Harvey is forever listed as part of the famous “27 club.”

#6: Victor ‘Vic’ Morrow

The American actor Vic Morrow was killed with two child actors, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, while shooting a scene for 1983’s “Twilight Zone: The Movie.” The trio died when pyrotechnics caused a low flying helicopter to crash on top of them – and Morrow was decapitated by the rotor. The incident brought unprecedented legal action against the film crew, as director of the sequence John Landis and others were tried on charges of manslaughter, but acquitted. It also resulted in stronger, safer film safety standards finally being introduced.

#5: Brandon Lee

As the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee was busy following in his father’s footsteps when a freak on-set accident took his life in 1993. While filming the last scenes of the Alex Proyas movie, “The Crow,” Lee was unintentionally shot by a faulty prop .44 Magnum, after an improperly-deactivated cartridge became lodged in the barrel. Fellow actor, Michael Massee, unknowingly fired the shot, during a scene in which Lee’s character walks in on his fiancée being beaten by thugs. The movie, which was days from completion when tragedy struck, was finished with the support of Lee’s family, and with Chad Stahelski stepping in as Lee’s double.

#4: Owen Hart

Professional wrestlers face risks every time they enter the ring. Owen Hart was one of the WWF’s top talents heading into Over the Edge, a pay-per-view event, on May 23, 1999. Hart, performing as The Blue Blazer at the time, was being lowered into the ring, superhero-style, when a quick release mechanism malfunctioned and he fell 78 feet, landing chest-first on the top rope. Several attempts were made to revive him, but he was killed by blunt force trauma. Controversially, the show continued, although the actual incident was not aired. While Owen received treatment, it was commentator Jim Ross who had the unenviable task of assuring viewers at home Hart's accident was not an act.

#3: Tommy Cooper

As one of Britain’s best loved and respected comedians and magicians, Tommy Cooper was an icon of his time. Known for his red fez and his “just like that” tagline, he was a gifted showman; but just like that, he was gone. Millions of TV viewers watched in April 1984, when Cooper collapsed midway through his act on the variety show, “Live from Her Majesty’s.” Given his penchant for slapstick, the audience roared with laughter, thinking Cooper's very real heart attack was all part of the show. But as those backstage realized what had happened, and the curtain was drawn on Tommy one last time.

#2: Steve Irwin

An Australian treasure and an international star, Steve Irwin boldly went where most wouldn’t dare, to bring the world’s most dangerous animals to our TV screens. Known as the Crocodile Hunter, he got up close and personal with crocs, dragons, lizards, snakes, sharks… Pretty much everything! But Steve’s last subject was a 6.5-foot stingray, which he was filming just off the coast of Port Douglas, Queensland. The animal unexpectedly turned on Irwin during the shot, and stabbed its barb wildly into his chest. Irwin initially suspected a punctured lung, but the attack had pierced his heart, and he died of blood loss before the crew could return to land.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

- Johnny Ace
- Mark Sandman
- Redd Foxx
- Tiny Tim

#1: Dimebag Darrell

We’ve seen sudden deaths, accidental deaths and accidental killings; but Dimebag Darrell was murdered while performing. Damageplan was just moments into their set when ex-marine Nathan Gale shot Darrell Abbott three times in the head with a 9mm pistol, before killing four more people, and taking a hostage. The carnage only ended when a police officer came from backstage, and shot Gale dead. Theories on Gale’s motive include anger at how Dimebag’s former band, Pantera, had broken up, and claims that Pantera had stolen some of Gale’s songs. However, police never officially recognized a reason for Dimebag’s senseless killing.

Do you agree with our list? Whose death did we miss? For more tragic top 10s published daily, be sure to subscribe to WatchMojo.com.
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