Memorialized in Movies


This past summer I took my group of camp kids—first and second graders—on a field trip to the movie theater. We were seeing Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the final film in the series. After escorting the children to the bathroom countless times, I finally got a moment to sit down, relax, and enjoy the movie—just in time for the final scene. With the magic tablet moved to London, the Natural History Museum’s beloved exhibits no longer have a way to come alive each evening. In turn, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller)—the trilogy’s protagonist and History Museum’s night guard—makes his final rounds and says farewell to each major character, from Jedidiah the pint-sized cowboy to Dexter the capuchin monkey.

Then he gets to Robin Williams’ Teddy Roosevelt. The send-off put a lump in my throat.

Williams, a legendary actor and comedian took his own life in August 2014, just after director Shawn Levy finished the first cut of the threequel. Levy kept the film largely intact, with only two seemingly foreshadowing sentences being cut from Williams’ dialogue.

It’s not always so seamless. In cases where actors have died before finishing filming, directors have been forced to rework films and devise creative solutions so the movie doesn’t die with them.

Body doubles

In November of 2013, Paul Walker—the handsome star of the Fast and Furious franchise—died in a car accident while on break from filming Furious 7. The tragedy was unsettling for many, especially considering Walker’s role racing cars in the Fast and Furious films. According to the producers, Walker’s dramatic scenes were finished, but there were some unfinished action sequences. Production was put on hold until April the next year, when Walker’s brothers Cody and Caleb stepped in as body doubles.

The Hunger Games franchise faced a similar issue in 2014 when Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away from an overdose, with seven days left in Lionsgate’s simultaneous shooting schedule for Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2. Hoffman first appeared in Catching Fire as Plutarch Heavensbee—game maker and rebellion mastermind. While he was a supporting role, Hoffman’s character became more important in the back end of the franchise and was scripted for more screen time.

Unlike with Fast and Furious 7, Lionsgate kept on schedule for the intended release dates. In an interview with Empire Magazine, director Francis Lawrence revealed that Hoffman had two substantial scenes left, which they rewrote and gave to other actors. Most notable, was a key moment between Plutarch and Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, the face-to-face interaction was reworked into a note.

For more minor scenes a body double was used—a surreal experience for the cast.

“This was just a few days after [Hoffman] died," said Jennifer Lawrence. "Nobody could look at [the stunt double]. I kept thinking it was Phil, it was a constant reminder that Phil was gone. I went up to him at the end of the day and just apologized because I couldn't imagine how awful that was.”


Audiences are used to seeing computer generated images on the big screen—including fake explosions in action flicks, Harry Potter’s patronus, and every dinosaur in Jurassic World.

The technology has also been used to resurrect the dead. While Furious 7 did include body doubles, Paul Walker’s face was digitally animated on top of theirs. This technique is most noticeable in the ending of film, which was originally written to set up further installments of the franchise but was later reworked into a tribute—a combination of Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again,” past Fast and Furious scenes, and Walker and Vin Diesel’s characters taking one last ride together.

Cut actor

In more extreme cases, deceased actors have been dumped all together in order to salvage a film.

It’s hard to think that Mike Myer’s wasn’t Dreamworks’ first choice for the giant, grumpy, and Scottish ogre now known as Shrek. But in reality, the part was first given to actor and comedian Chris Farley. He had finished recording almost all of his dialogue before dying of an overdose in 1997.

But Dreamworks wanted a series, so instead of reworking lines and performing bits of vocal trickery the studio gave the part to Mike Myers.

Kill the film

In worst case scenarios, the film remains unfinished forever. River Phoenix—Joaquin Phoenix’s older brother, who is also an actor—died in 1993 from a drug overdose. He was about 80 percent through the production of Dark Blood.

Convinced there was no cost effective way to finish the film, the insurance company canceled the project and paid out the investors.

In 1999, Director George Sluizer rescued the film, which was locked up in storage and about to be destroyed. And when in 2007 he suffered a near death experience, Sluizer decided to complete the film—using voiceover narration to gloss over unfinished scenes. Dark Blood premiered at a Netherlands film festival in 2012, Lionsgate later purchased the film’s American distribution rights and released it via on-demand

Still, Phoenix’s final film never got it’s silver screen moment.

A powerful memorial

As I sat in that movie theater last summer, watching Teddy Roosevelt—aka Robin Williams—utter his last line in Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.,the lump in my throat only grew. “Smile my boy, it’s sunrise,” he said, before staring off in the distance.

Movies—posthumous or not—memorialize actors, giving them the ability to live on through their work.

The credits role.

And for Robin Williams, magic never ends.

Cue the waterworks.