As a one-time professional singer, I understand how grueling live performances can be. But, unlike all of the entries on this list, I survived my years in the spotlight. This list looks at twelve people who died in the midst of a performance.
Johnny Ace was a rhythm and blues musician, active from 1949 to 1954. Born in Tennessee in 1929 as John Marshall Alexander Jnr., he served his country in the Navy during the Korean War before becoming a musician. On Christmas 1954, Ace was performing in Houston, Texas, when, during a break in the set, he began playing with a .22 cal Revolver – as band members often did, shooting at road signs etc. It is widely reported that Ace was either playing Russian roulette during the break, or bragging about how the gun wasn’t loaded, when in fact it was. It’s reported he had been drinking, and was warned to “Be careful” as he waved his pistol around, before stating “it’s okay, gun isn’t loaded see?” while putting it to his head and pulling the trigger.
Edith Webster was an actress who performed on stage in theaters. She was performing in Baltimore, and, while singing her swan song “Please don’t talk about me when I’m gone”, collapsed and died, both in the play, and in real life. She had suffered a heart attack at the exact moment her character was meant to collapse and die. Obviously, the audience thought it was part of the act and applauded, unknowingly, at both her death, and the stagehands call for help, thinking it was part of the play.
Real name Jerome Irving Rodale, was a playwright, editor, author and publisher, born in 1898. During his life he published various Organic Farming magazines. While not technically a performer, he died while appearing as a guest on the Dick Cavett show in 1971. Having finished his interview, but still being on-stage, Cavett brought out his second guest, Pete Hamill – a columnist for the New York Post. It was during this interview that Rodale let out a “snoring sound”, which got laughs from the audience, before the camera zoomed in on his face and Hamill said jokingly, “This looks bad”. Still, the audience laughed, although Cavett wasn’t – he says he ‘knew’ Rodale was dead. Two interns rushed on to stage to try and revive him, but couldn’t. Ironically, during his interview, he said “I’m in such good health that I fell down a long flight of stairs yesterday and I laughed all the way”, “I’ve decided to live to be a hundred”, as well as “I never felt better in my life!” He had also previously bragged that “I’m going to live to be 100, unless I’m run down by some sugar-crazed taxi driver.”
Stunt pilots live on the edge of life and death all the time, but Paul Mantz managed to survive a long career as a stunt pilot and racing pilot champion. It was during the filming of ‘The Flight of the Phoenix’, in 1965, that Mantz died, while attempting a very low flight over a desert site in Arizona. According to reports, Mantz’s plane struck a small hillock and he lost control. After trying to save the aircraft, it split in two and nosed into the ground, killing him instantly. Officials have blamed alcohol consumption before the stunt as the reason his judgment and efficiency were not as they should have been. The final credit in The Flight of the Phoenix says, “It should be remembered… that Paul Mantz, a fine man and a brilliant flier, gave his life in the making of this film…”
Karl Wallenda was a German daredevil born in 1905, and the founder of ‘The Flying Wallendas’ – an international dare devil circus act. He was most famed for his wire walks, which he would perform between two very high structures without a safety net, particularly in his later years. In 1978, at age 73, he died while attempting to cross between two towers of a ten story hotel in Puerto Rico. While crossing the gap, winds of around 30 miles per hour were enough to cause Wallenda to lose his balance and fall 121 feet to his death. He was quoted as saying, “Life is being on the wire; everything else is just waiting.”
Leslie Harvey, born in 1945, was a Scottish guitarist for many bands during the 1960s and 1970s, most notably Stone the Crows. Before their formation in 1969, however, Harvey played with the band ‘Cartoone’ as they toured the United States supporting Led Zeppelin. On 3 May 1972, while performing with Stone the Crows at the Swansea Top Rank Ballroom in Wales, he touched an unearthed microphone with wet hands and was electrocuted. The shock killed him.
John Eric Bartholomew, OBE was an English comedian who, together with Ernie Wise, formed the award-winning comedy duo ‘Morecambe and Wise’. He took his stage name from the seaside town of Morecombe, in which he grew up. He became a famed presenter and comedian throughout the years, co-hosting the hugely popular ‘The Morecambe and Wise Show’, which hit a record 28 million viewers on one of their Christmas Specials. Throughout his career he suffered 2 heart attacks, before succumbing to the third on 28 May, 1984. He was appearing at a comedy show at the Roses Theater in Tewkesbury, and, due to his huge popularity, returned to the stage six times after the end of his show. After his sixth return he announced “That’s your lot!” before leaving the stage. After walking off-stage, he joked “Thank goodness that’s over”, before collapsing. He was pronounced dead at 4am the next morning. He was 58.
Jon-Eric Hexum was an actor and model, born in the 50’s in New Jersey. He played various roles in American television programs before landing his big lead role in the series ‘Cover Up’ in 1984, in which he played a model turned weapons expert and CIA agent. As with most shows that include guns, the prop .44 Magnum was loaded with blanks, however, it is reported that Hexum was unaware that this prop gun would still shoot out paper wadding which was used to seal gun powder in the shell. During the shooting of a scene where he was to empty the gun of real bullets and load it with blanks, a technical problem meant the scene was delayed, and Hexum fell asleep. Upon waking he realized the scene still wasn’t done and began playing with the gun. It is reported he was playing Russian roulette with the gun, which was loading with 3 empty cartridges and 2 blanks. He put it to his head and said “Let’s see if I’ve got one for me” before pulling the trigger. While the paper wadding didn’t penetrate his skull, it hit with enough force to dislodge a quarter-size piece of skull and propel it into his brain. The accident happened on 12 October, 1984, and, despite 5 hours of surgery, Hexum died 6 days later – he was declared brain dead due to the massive bleeding in his brain. His mother flew his body to San Francisco to be harvested for organ transplants before he was buried.
Brandon Bruce Lee was the son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, and was born in 1965. During his relatively short career, he walked in his father’s footsteps and starred in many kung fu and action films throughout the 80’s and 90’s. In 1992, he landed the starring role in ‘The Crow’ – a film based on an underground comic book about an undead musician. On March 31, 1993, the crew were filming a scene in which Lee’s character, Eric Draven, finds his girlfriend being beaten and raped by thugs. As he walked onto set, an actor playing one of the thugs was supposed to shoot at Lee with a gun loaded with blanks. Because of various tamperings with the gun, and the blanks being used (the extent of which is still not fully understood), the gun was left with enough primer to push the bullet cartridge out of the gun. Although at a speed much slower than a proper bullet, from close range, it could still prove dangerous. The malfunction went unnoticed and Lee was hit in the abdomen as the bullet traveled through his body and lodged in his spine. The scene was immediately cut and an ambulance called, though it is believed his heart stopped beating on the way to the hospital. Despite a six-hour operation, and 60 pints of blood transfusions, Brandon Lee died at 1:04pm. He was just 28 years old. He was buried next to his father in Washington.
Dimebag Darrell (real name Darrell Lance Abbott) was an American guitarist famous for being a founding member of the metal bands Pantera and Damageplan. Born in 1966, throughout his music career he was praised and widely regarded as “one of the most influential stylists in modern metal”. He was killed on stage while performing with Damageplan, on December 8th 2004, by an ex-marine called Nathan Gale. Gale shot Abbott 5 times, including once in the head, before turning on others and shooting a further 10 shots. He killed 3 more people, including an employee of the arena, and Damageplan’s head of security – both of whom tried to wrestle the hand gun from his hands, and an audience member as he tried to perform CPR on Abbott. He also wounded 7 others. He was killed by a policeman who approached him from behind, as he had a hostage in a headlock, and he was shot in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun. A nurse tried to revive Darrell but he was dead by the time paramedics arrived.
The reasons for Gale’s attack have been debated. An initial motive that was theorized was that Gale was angry at the breakup of Pantera and blamed Abbott for this, or that, apparently, Pantera had stolen a song written by Gale. Another theory suggested Gale was a paranoid schizophrenic and was convinced Damageplan members were reading his mind and stealing his thoughts. Darrell Abbott was buried in a KISS casket, with Eddie Van Halen’s Charvel Hybrid VH2 guitar.
Owen James Hart was a Canadian wrestler, born in 1965, who won multiple titles during his career, most notably during his time at the WCW, and the WWF. He started his wrestling life in Japan, wrestling for the NJPW (new Japan pro wrestling) circuit, and gained popularity throughout his time in America. He was most memorable for his relationship with his brother, Bret, and his feud with Jerry Lawler, as well as winning his tag team title with Yokozuna. Hart died on May 23rd, 1999, during his arrival to the ring for an Intercontinental Championship match with The Godfather, during the Over-The-Edge pay-per-view event. He was supposed to be lowered into the ring on a harness, where he would be dropped a meter or so from the surface for comedic effect. Tragically, his harness malfunctioned and released Hart too early. He fell 78 feet (24 meters) into the ring and landed chest first on the top rope before being propelled into the middle of the ring. He was able to sit up for a short while after the accident, before losing consciousness. He was rushed to hospital, but pronounced dead on arrival. Hart had died from internal bleeding, due to a severed aorta.
Tommy Cooper was a welsh-born, British prop comedian and magician, famous for the red fez he always wore, and the persona he crafted of a magician whose tricks always go wrong. Cooper died on April 15, 1984, as he performed live on television for a variety show entitled “Live from her Majesty’s”. During a sketch in which he was to pull numerous objects from a gown, just after his assistant helped him put the gown on, Copper collapsed and sat against the curtain while the audience and his assistant laughed, thinking it was an impromptu part of his act. He then fell backwards onto his back, creating more laughs. However, as the minutes passed, it was apparent that something had actually gone wrong, and it wasn’t part of his act. Another curtain was closed to hide where he had fallen, and other acts carried on on the front of the stage. People backstage tried to resuscitate him but couldn’t. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Westminster hospital, from a heart attack. He was 63 years old. Controversy later arose from the fact the video of him collapsing was posted on YouTube. It can be found by searching ‘Tommy Cooper death’.