They died with their boots on...
Monday 27 May 1996
Like his father Bruce, Brandon Lee (pictured, top) died young (28) and in mysterious circumstances. He was accidentally shot during filming of the martial arts thriller The Crow in Wilmington, North Carolina on 31 March, 1993, and died 12 hours later. A .44 calibre bullet had found its way into a pistol supposedly loaded with blanks. In what was to have been his breakthrough Hollywood movie, Lee was cast as a rock musician who returns from the dead to exact gruesome revenge on his drug baron killers, quoting Edgar Allan Poe as he goes. It was reported that, as he collapsed, the film crew applauded his realistic performance.
Sid James (pictured, middle), the grand old man of dirty laughter and king of Carry On, collapsed and died on stage at the Sunderland Empire after suffering a heart attack in 1976. It's what he would have wanted, chorused his friends. According to his biographer, Cliff Goodwin, it was his unrequited love for Barbara Windsor, who refused to marry him, that really did for him. His self-destructive alcohol binges involved a bottle of Scotch a day.
The most famous onstage death of recent times is that of funnyman Tommy Cooper (pictured, bottom). Millions of viewers watched him collapse during the ITV show Live From Her Majesty's on 15 April, 1984. Cooper, 62, suffered a heart attack, but had been so convincing throughout his life as the unpredictable buffoon that, for a moment, theatre audience and nation were united in laughter. He was rushed to hospital, where he died shortly afterwards.
A similar fate befell the French playwright and actor-manager Moliere, who collapsed during the fourth performance of his newly penned Le Malade Imaginaire (The Hypochondriac) on 21 February, 1673. Overwhelmed by a coughing fit, Moliere - who was playing the lead - was carried to his home in the Rue de Richelieu, Paris, where he died. As there was not enough time to give him the sacraments or for him to renounce the acting profession formally, he was buried without ceremony after sunset. His comedy lampoons a man who constantly fears death.
Moliere's friend and occasional collaborator, the Italian-born French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully was even less fortunate. In January 1687 he injured his foot during his Te Deum (celebrating Louis XIV's recovery from illness) with the point of the cane he was using as a conductor's baton. Gangrene set in and within three months, he was dead. His tragedie lyrique, Achille et Polyxene, was left unfinished.
Richard Versalle, 63-year-old tenor, died onstage on 5 January this year at New York's Metropolitan Opera immediately after delivering the line: "Too bad you can only live so long" in Janacek's The Makropulos Case. It was the first performance and Versalle, who was playing the legal clerk Vitek alongside Jessye Norman, climbed a 20ft ladder to file a legal brief, but had a heart attack and plunged to the ground. Janacek's opera is about the secret of eternal life.
Leslie Harvey, the lead guitarist of the Glasgow band Stone the Crows, died after being electrocuted onstage at Swansea's Top Rank Ballroom on 3 May, 1972. The band had just begun to show signs of success with their album Teenage Licks and although they carried on to produce a fourth album, their subsquent split in 1973 was attributed to Harvey's demise.
The great Post-Impressionist painter Paul Cezanne shut himself away in Aix-en-Provence during his final years, continuing to paint. Out with his brush in the fields one day, he caught a severe chill and died on 22 October, 1906.
Edmund Kean, one of England's greatest tragic actors, lived to perform and died acting. The prelude to his demise was his collapse on 25 March, 1833, at Covent Garden, playing Othello to his son's Iago. He was confined to his house in Richmond, where he died two months later, on 15 May, after springing from his couch to shout: "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!"
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