For most performers, the idea that an actor must always keep going, is so deeply ingrained that it becomes a reflex response. For many professionals, the thought of stopping mid-performance, for any reason, seems unthinkable.
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While this may, ordinarily, be an admirable sentiment, it can cause performers to keep going when they know they are unwell, or prevent others from calling for help, if they think that a colleague is in difficulty. And while death is usually something that usually interrupts the normal activities of those who witness it, and rightly so, many performers will carry on regardless even if death occurs in front of them, not out of callous disregard, but because of the unbreakable doctrine of ‘the show must go on’
Here are 10 performers for whom the show went on too long.
In 1986, Edith Webster was performing in The Drunkard in a community theater in Maryland. She had played the role for 8 years, and had just finished singing her big number, ‘Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone’, when she collapsed on the stage.
As her character was supposed to die during the musical comedy, the 200 strong audience roared with laughter and burst into applause. Even when other cast members called for someone to phone emergency services, they still believed that what they were watching was part of the play.
Webster had previously suffered a heart attack while performing and had on that occasion carried on with the show, and perhaps she thought she could make it through again. Unfortunately, she didn’t, and when the emergency services arrived and the curtain was brought down, the audience finally began to realize that she was dead.
9 Tommy Cooper
Tommy Cooper was a comedian and magician who specialized in messing up his magic tricks. In 1984, he was at the pinnacle of his career and he headlined a variety show, which, on that night, was also being broadcast on live TV. The theater was packed.
As any magician might, Cooper began pulling objects from beneath his cloak (although his objects were being, very obviously, passed to him by the other acts waiting in the wings), when he suddenly fell to the floor, gasping for air.
The audience laughed uproariously, believing the comedian to be faking a heart attack as part of his act. Those in the wings, however, realized that something was wrong, and tried to pull him back through the curtain. While the TV broadcast went to an unscheduled break, the audience in the theater were left wondering what was going on.
They were probably a little reassured when the variety programme continued, though without its headline act.
While the other acts joked around on the stage, emergency services were working behind the curtain to try to save him. Despite their efforts, however, he could not be revived, and, during a second commercial break, he was taken from the stage and was officially pronounced dead on his arrival at the hospital.
In May 1999 thousands of people were packed into a stadium in St Louis, and millions more were watching on live TV, to watch Raw is War, the World Wrestling Federation’s massive pay-per-view extravaganza.
As Owen Hart was preparing to make his entrance onto the stage from a catwalk near the roof of the stadium, 78 feet above the ring, the quick release catch on his harness accidentally opened and he fell, hitting the ropes, before landing in the ring. While many audience members thought that it was part of the show, the announcer was forced to tell the cheering audience, that an accident had occurred.
They cut to a video while Hart was stretchered from the stage, but the show went on, with wrestlers having to fight on the blood-stained mat on which their friend had just lost his life. Official reports estimated that Owen Hart had died within minutes of hitting the ring, which severed his aorta and caused his lungs to fill with blood.
The show proceeded as planned, and the live audience, reassured, continued to cheer and yell and enjoy themselves through successive matches. They were only informed at the end of the night, after the last match, that Hart had, in fact, died within minutes of the fall.
7 Redd Foxx
Redd Foxx was a comedian and actor, best known for his portrayal of the grumpy junkyard owner in Sandford and Son. He was rehearsing a new show, The Royal Family, at Paramount Studios, when, in 1991, he suddenly collapsed.
Although there was no audience present at the rehearsal, cast and crew initially thought that Foxx, who had been clowning around on the set, was faking, and it was some time before they realized he was in trouble, and called paramedics for assistance.
Although Redd Foxx was still alive when he arrived at the hospital, he died a few hours later.
He had already recorded 7 episodes of The Royal Family, and, after taking a short break, the producers tried to carry on, introducing a new character to replace him. However, the show was not the same without him and was soon cancelled.
6Renato Di Paolo
Renato Di Paolo was probably pleased when he was given the part of Judas Iscariot in a traditional Passion Play. After all, Judas was an interesting, complex, character, who betrays Jesus with a kiss for 30 pieces of silver, before hanging himself in remorse when he realizes what he has done.
The play was being performed outdoors, in a small village near Rome, and the natural features of the village were used as part of the set. The play had already been performed several times without incident, but on Easter Saturday, when Di Paolo put the noose around his neck and stepped over the rock placed beneath it, the noose unexpectedly began to tighten, and he was hanged.
Unfortunately, as this was entirely in accordance with the script, no one noticed. The play continued for another 30 minutes before another actor realized Di Paolo wasn’t breathing. The audience, which included Di Paolo’s parents, began to scream, but the cameraman kept on rolling, and the entire production was broadcast, as planned, across Italy on Easter Sunday.
Incredibly, Renato Di Paolo is not the only actor to die playing Judas Iscariot. In 2012, Tiago Klimeck, died while playing the disgraced apostle, in Brazil. He, too, was hanged, after the safety harness he was wearing malfunctioned. Despite being placed in a medically induced coma for several weeks, the extent of Klimeck’s brain injuries were so great that, after two weeks, his life support was turned off.
5 Dick Shawn
Dick Shawn was an actor and stand-up comedian who was known for his manic and unpredictable physical comedy. He often pranked his audience, and would hide beneath what looked like a pile of brick as the audience filed into the theater, only to leap out, yelling, and frighten the life out of them. And during the interval he would often do it again.
On April 17, 1987, he addressed his audience as if they were the only survivors of a nuclear war. “We could re-create civilization, right here in this room, and I will be your leader,” he said. Then Shawn dropped down on one knee, in a dramatic fashion, before falling silently to the floor.
A stage hand came out several times, looked at Shawn, did nothing, and went away again, and the giggling audience thought that it was part of the act. It was 5 full minutes before a doctor in the audience dared to check that he was actually breathing.
Even after he was found to have no pulse, and the audience were asked to leave, many believed that they were being pranked and hung around waiting for Shawn to leap up from the scrum of people now delivering CPR on the stage.
Unfortunately, they were disappointed. Instead, he had died of a massive heart attack right in front of them.
In 1958, a series called Armchair Theater was broadcast on live British TV. It consisted of a number of individual plays. Most of the plays were fairly forgettable, but the broadcast of 30th November 1958, entitled Underground, is unlikely to be forgotten by those who were there.
Gareth Jones was a moderately successful British actor, who had already appeared in several Armchair Theater productions, when he agreed to appear in Underground, the story of a group of people trapped in a subway after an explosion. His character was that of man with a weak heart, which, appears to have been somewhat prophetic.
The actors had had several rehearsals before the live broadcast, and another actor reported that Jones did not look well as transmission time approached, but that he appeared to be concentrating on his lines.
Part way through the show, Jones mentioned to a make-up girl, during a quick change, that he was feeling sick. He then collapsed into her makeup station, and, while the other actors were continuing with the play, his body was carried across the set to a waiting doctor.
The other actors, not knowing what had happened, ad-libbed around the lines that Gareth Jones was meant to deliver. During the interval for an ad-break, the director was informed that Jones was dead. He chose not to mention this to the cast, who went on with the performance, under the impression that Jones had merely been taken ill.
The cast ad-libbed like mad, and the camera shots that had previously laid down were abandoned and redone on the fly, while the writers tried to re-assign the rest of Jones’ lines and somehow pass it on to the actors on the stage.
The performance had been watched by Jones’ fiance at home, and she was puzzled at his sudden disappearance from the screen. She, like the cast, was only informed of his death after the play had ended.
3 César Cuauhtémoc González Barrón
César Cuauhtémoc González Barrón was a lucha libre wrestler (a kind of free style wrestling) who fought under the name Silver King. He was also known for playing the bad guy in the film Nacho Libre. In May 2019, Silver King was scheduled to fight, and win, a match against Youth Warrior (aka Juventud Guerrera), in London.
When Youth Warrior managed to knock Silver King to the floor, the referee was left in a quandary. Knowing that Silver King was meant to win the match, instead of counting him out, he spent 30 seconds urging him to get up, which he eventually did.
Youth Warrior, unaware that his opponent was in trouble, kicked him again. Silver King fell face forwards onto the mat and Youth Warrior spent some time trying to turn him over before finally pinning him and holding his leg, while the referee reluctantly, and very slowly, counted him out.
César Barrón was, at this point, completely unconscious, but it was several more minutes before medical attention was sought. Eventually, other wrestlers came out and started to deliver CPR while Barrón was still wearing his Silver King mask.
It was only then that the ring announcer dimmed the lights, and some minutes later told the audience that the show was cancelled and asked them to leave.
There were still no medical professionals in the ring. By the time an ambulance was arrived, César Barrón was pronounced dead at the scene. The cause of death was a suspected heart attack.
2 Alexander Woollcott
Alexander Woollcott was not an actor, but a drama critic of some renown in the years between the two World Wars. Some of his reviews were so vicious that he was banned by some Broadway theaters.
Not only did his reviews appear in print, but Woollcott also became something of a radio star, for his broadcast reviews and participation in discussion programmes. In 1943, he appeared on a radio panel show, The People’s Platform. The topic for discussion was Hitler, and the question of the night was, ‘Is Germany Incurable?’
The format of the programme was as a dinner party, with the guests seated around a dining table, with a microphone, rather than a plate, in front of them. Each panelist made an opening statement, and then contributed to the ongoing discussion.
Woollcott managed to make his opening statement, “The German people are just as responsible for Hitler as the people of Chicago are for the Chicago Tribune,” and he sounded his usual self, although some panelists later stated that he had seemed to be in physical distress. Ten minutes later, he made another contribution, saying “It’s a fallacy to think that Hitler was the cause of the world’s present woes,” and adding that he wasn’t feeling too good.
It was his last contribution to that, or any, discussion. He is reported to have written the words ‘I am sick’ on a napkin and shown it to the producer, and the discussion continued without him.
However, it was some time before he could be taken from the room, and the radio audience were left wondering why the opinionated Mr Woollcott was suddenly so very quiet.
He died of a cerebral hemorrhage a few hours later.
Sid James was a very popular British actor and comedian. He had starred in the successful series of Carry On comedy films, and had worked with Tony Hancock on Hancock’s Half Hour, before Hancock him fired for being too funny.
James had already had a severe heart attack in 1967, after which he tried to clean up his lifestyle. He ate better, lost weight, gave up smoking and cut down on his drinking. He did not give up his womanizing, for which he was famous, despite his, shall we say, lived-in appearance.
In 1976, he was touring in The Mating Season and was on stage when his co-star, Olga Lowe, said her line, and James didn’t respond. His head had slumped to one side, and his eyes rolled up into his head, but, because he was known as a prankster, Lowe did not suspect anything was wrong. She carried on the performance, ad-libbing for several minutes, before finally realizing that something was wrong, and calling for the curtain to be brought down.
The show’s producer stepped out onto the stage and asked if there was a doctor in the house, whereupon the audience began to laugh. Even the doctor who raised his hand and was led backstage, thought it was a gag.
Unfortunately, it was not.
Sid James had lapsed into a coma, and he died on his way to hospital.
About The Author: Ward Hazell is a freelance writer, travel writer and a PhD student of English Literature.