With Tony Scott taking his own life recently, we’re reminded that Hollywood has a long history of tragedy. And often it is the most creative and most brilliant members of that community that suffer the most. Here are the 12 most shocking Hollywood suicides.
12. Freddie Prinze
Freddie Prinze, the father of Freddie Prinze Jr., got his start at a standup comedian. He had been born Frederick Karl Pruetzel but changed his last name to Prinze because he decided he was going to become the prince of comedy (he originally wanted to be king, but Alan King already had the name). He was the first comedian to asked to have a sit-down chat with Johnny Carson on his first Tonight Show appearance. Being asked for a sit-down chat by Carson was considered the Holy Grail of honors by comedians. He is best known for his role as Chico in the hit television series Chico and the Man.
Prinze suffered from depression and a drug addiction. January 28, 1977, after talking to his estranged wife on the telephone, he shot himself in the head with a semi-automatic pistol. There are some who believe this was an accident due to Prinze’s penchant for playing Russian roulette to freak out his friends. But his death was ruled a suicide. He was only 22 years old.
11. Lupe Velez
Lupe Velez was one of the first Mexican actresses to achieve success in Hollywood. She first rose to prominence in silent films including her first starring role opposite Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho. She worked with legendary directors such as Cecil B. Demille and D.W. Griffith. Her characters were usually feisty and sensual earning her the vaguely racist nicknames “The Mexican Spitfire” and “The Hot Pepper.” She went on to have famous affairs with Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Erich Maria Remarque, and Errol Flynn.
In the mid-1940s she became pregnant with Harald Maresch’s child, but he refused to marry her. This is the reason she gave for taking her own life with 80 Seconal pills. Her note read:
To Harald: May God forgive you and forgive me, too; but I prefer to take my life away and our baby’s, before I bring him with shame, or killin’ [sic] him. Lupe.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding Velez’s death. People note that she was something of an iconoclast and likely wouldn’t have killed herself over the illegitimacy of her baby. The reason for her suicide is often attributed to her own impulsive behavior and a suspected undiagnosed case of bipolar disorder by those who do not believe her suicide note.
There is also controversy about how she was found. One account claims she was found on her bed, completely composed, and surrounded by flowers exactly as she had planned it. The other account is that she was found with her head in the toilet, likely because of of a bad reaction to the Seconal pills causing her to head to the toilet to vomit. These accounts maintain that she drowned in the toilet.
10. Dana Plato
Dana Plato is known mostly for her role as Kimberly on Diff’rent Strokes and for her troubled life. Dana Plato began working in the industry from a very early age, and by the time she got to Diff’rent Strokes at age 14 was already abusing alcohol and hard drugs. She was dismissed from Diff’rent Strokes in 1984 for an unplanned pregnancy. After Diff’rent Strokes, Plato hit hard times. She got breast implants and posed in playboy and could only find work in B-movies. Then she couldn’t even get those and wound up working in a dry cleaners and robbed a video store at gun point. After that she began working in softcore porn.
A day before her death she went on the Howard Stern Show and talked about how she was clean and working to come back. The next day she OD’d on painkillers in her and her fiance’s RV, parked outside her fiance’s mother’s house. That was in 1999. In May 2010, her son committed suicide as well.
9. Anton Furst
Anton Furst was an Academy Award winning production designer who designed the sets for Full Metal Jacket in which he created a convincing Vietnam in England and Tim Burton’s Batman for which he earned his Oscar.
He killed himself by jumping from the eighth floor of a parking structure in Los Angeles in 1991. He was 47 years old.
8. George Sanders
George Sanders was known for his brilliant mind, his wit, and his booming voice. The voice was the reason he was often cast in villainous roles such as Shere Khan in The Jungle Book and Addison DeWitt in All About Eve. He also guested as a villain on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and as Mr. Freeze in the Batman TV series.
Sanders married Zsa Zsa Gabor and then later married her older sister Magda. In his later years, his health deteriorated which depressed and frustrated him and drove him to drink. What destroyed him even more was the deterioration of his mental faculties which was the source of his greatest pride and joy. He was prone to fits of rage and delirium as his wits left him and we began wandering. It was in this stage of his life, at a hotel in Barcelona and taking a drug called Nembutal that he decided to take his life. He was found dead, 10 miles away from his hotel. It was ruled a suicide after authorities found his suicide note which has to be one of the most fascinating suicide notes of all time.
Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck.
7. Charles Boyer
Charles Boyer’s surprising legacy is as the inspiration of Pepe le Pew. The french actor was known as a great on-screen Lothario. Even with his short stature, pre-mature balding, and paunch he became a sex symbol, wooing the greatest leading ladies of the day. Except off-screen he wasn’t like that at all. He was bookish and shy. He married his wife in 1934 and stayed faithful for 44 years until his wife died.
Boyer had a son, Michael, with his wife who committed suicide at age 21 (1965) by playing Russian roulette after separating from his girlfriend.
Then in 1978, his wife, Pat Paterson, passed away due to cancer. Two days later Boyer took his own life with an overdose of Seconal.
6. Andrew Koenig
Andrew Koenig, son of actor Walter Koenig, is best known for his role of “Boner” on Growing Pains. He didn’t act much after leaving Growing Pains, but he did get very involved with human right activism. His activism mostly focused on the oppression of the Burmese people which involved visiting refugee camps in Thailand and protesting the Chinese government. The latter of which led to an arrest during the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In February 2010, Koenig went to Canada to watch the Olympics. On February 14th, his family reported him missing. His body was later found hanging from a tree in a densely wooded area of Vancouver’s Stanley Park. The family confirmed that Koenig had been depressed and took his own life.
5. Spalding Gray
Spalding Gray is an American icon. He was a writer and actor, known mostly for his minimalist autobiographical monologues, the most famous of which is probably Swimming to Cambodia which started its life as a play and was then turned into a movie. He was known for being neurotic, funny, and moving. His monologues were considered searingly self-exposed and brave.
Gray struggled with depression and bipolar disorder for his entire life. Then in 2001, he suffered a car accident that immobilized his left leg and injured his brain. He began suffering deeper bouts of depression, likely because of the injuries. Then in 2004 he went missing. When his body was later found in the East River, it was concluded that he had jumped off the Staten Island Ferry.
4. Margaret Sullavan
Margaret Sullavan was born with a muscular disorder that prevented her from walking. As a child she overcame this and became a tomboy to the disapproval of her parents. She also had a hearing defect called otosclerosis which was the cause of her unique, throaty voice. She was known for her rebellious spirit and chose her scripts carefully. She only made 16 films, four of them opposite Jimmy Stewart who was head-over-heels for her.
Sullavan’s first marriage was to Henry Fonda, but it was her third husband, Leland Hayward that touched her the most. They divorced when Sullavan found he was cheating on her with Nancy “Slim” Keith. Their three children stayed with their mother, but over time, the lavish gifts from their father convinced them to stay with him full time prompting Sullavan to have a nervous breakdown.
From then on Sullavan became increasingly depressed, unable to sleep until she took her own life by overdosing on barbiturates in 1960. Her daughter Bridget took her own life through suicide nine months later and her son Bill committed suicide in 2008.
3. Richard Jeni
Richard Jeni was a famous stand-up comedian who was known for his stand-up specials (one of which is credited with creating the phrase “Thank you, Captain Obvious) and his appearances in The Mask and The Aristocrats. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest comedians of all time.
In 2007, Jeni shot himself in the face and was rushed to the hospital where he died. Jeni had recently been diagnosed with “severe clinical depression, coupled with fits of psychotic paranoia” and his girlfriend reported hearing him talking to himself a week earlier saying “just squeeze the trigger.” His girlfriend was in the apartment at the time of the shots. They had just discussed his next career move when she went to the kitchen to cook breakfast at his request, when she heard gunshots.
2. Jonathan Brandis
Jonathan Brandis was a 90s teen idol thanks to his starring role in the TV show SeaQuest. But he had actually been working since he was five years old. In fact, audiences already knew him from The NeverEnding Story II, It, and Ladybugs. At the peak of his popularity Brandis received as many as 4,000 fan letters a week and needed three studio guards to escort him through the mob of female fans onto the SeaQuest set.
In November 2003 Brandis hanged himself. He was rushed to the hospital and died the next day. Friends speculated that Brandis was depressed about his career, but no one really knows why he took his own life.
1. Peg Entwistle
Peg Entwistle’s death is particularly shocking and tragic because it is more memorable and notable than her film career. Entwistle was born in the UK in 1908 and dreamed of the bright lights of Hollywood. She had a successful Broadway career before moving out west where she only had one film credit to her name. She played a small supporting role in a movie called Thirteen Women.
When the film received bad reviews and her role was greatly reduced she decided to take her own life and did so in a dramatic fashion. She climbed to the top of the “H” in the famed Hollywood sign and jumped off. Her suicide note is also famed as it states:
I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.
She was only 24.
In this context it’s easy to see the tragedy of Tony Scott’s death as a continuation of a long line of bewildering suicides among both great and small in Hollywood. Perhaps all this says something about the cost of creativity or the depravity of the entertainment industry, but mostly it just makes me sad.