25 tragic deaths of actresses

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In Hollywood’s long and illustrious history, thousands of young starlets have arrived with big dreams and plans. Some make it, establishing successful careers that last so long we’re duped into believing they’ll be with us forever. Who didn’t believe Betty White would make it to 100? How many of us were stunned when she died 18 days before that landmark birthday? Sadly, some don’t get that many years, and stun the world when they die suddenly at the height of their fame. Then there are those who die young and tragically when their careers have just begun, and are remembered more for their manners of death than their work. In more than 100 years of Hollywood history, there have been several deaths that have made the headlines.

One of the earliest Hollywood scandals involved the sudden death of a young actress. In 1921, 26-year-old Virginia Rappe died from a ruptured bladder and secondary peritonitis after attending a Labor Day party in Fatty Arbuckle‘s hotel suite. Arbuckle was accused of violently raping Rappe (with very little evidence to support this), leading to two mistrials, and a third trial in which he was found not guilty. However, by that point his career was ruined by the scandal. A decade later, 24-year-old Peg Entwistle infamously jumped to her death from atop the “H” in the “Hollywoodland” sign after performing in just one movie.

Over the years, some of the tragic deaths have led to an awareness of victims’ rights. In 1982, a stalker stabbed actress Theresa Saldana ten times, nearly killing her. The assailant had hired a detective to find the unlisted phone number of Saldana’s mother, who he then called and tricked into revealing the actress’ address. Seven years later, his method inspired the man who stalked and murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer.  Saldana founded the Victims for Victims advocacy group, which was influential in bringing about anti-stalking laws and the Driver’s Privacy Protection Act of 1994.

Similarly, years after actress Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Manson Family cult in 1969, her family began efforts to have her murderers denied parole. In 1982, her mother Doris found out Leslie Van Houton had acquired 900 signatures on a petition supporting her right to receive parole. Tate started a petition to oppose the parole, and obtained 350,000 signatures. She became active in several victim’s rights organizations, and was influential in the passing of Proposition 8, the Victim’s Right Bill, in 1982, which allows the presentation of victim impact statements during sentencing of violent attackers, as well at their parole hearings. Following her death 1992, Tate’s other daughters took up the fight, establishing the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau in 1993; a member of Sharon’s family has attended every parole hearing for her murderers.

Not all tragic deaths are due to violence. Actresses get caught up in the lifestyle and pressures of the business, succumbing to substance abuse. Some, like Judy Garland, have died from an accidental overdose; for others, such as Carrie Fisher, years of abuse lead to health issues that eventually contribute to a younger death.

Some deaths spark conspiracy theories surrounding the events, with speculation that an accident or suicide was actually a murder, keeping these tragic events in the headlines for years. Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood and Brittany Murphy are talked about just as much for their controversial deaths as they are for their bodies of work. Thelma Todd died under suspicious circumstances in 1935; almost 100 years later, people continue to speculate about what really happened to the young actress.

Tour our photo gallery featuring actresses whose deaths stunned the world, making headlines many times over. Fortunately for us, several left behind bodies of work destined to be enjoyed by generations; sadly, some weren’t given the chance to reach their full potentials and we’ll never know what they might have accomplished. Be on the lookout for our article on actors who died suddenly.

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