Collectively, we become so enamored with our celebrities, the artists and charismatic figures who make TV, movies, music, and sports so transcendently captivating, that we want to know everything about them — how they grew up, who they’re dating, who made the clothes they’re wearing, and even how they’re coping during a personal struggle. The insatiable but pleasurable desire to flesh them out and make them feel like whole people we know personally blurs the lines between public and private, and fact and fiction.
Probably none of these journeys into the off-screen or off-the-record lives of celebrities is more personal, more exceedingly intimate than when their autopsies are entered into the public record, the curious and often sordid factors of their surprising or early deaths laid out for all the world to see. They aren’t a fun read, but it is interesting (and also heartbreaking) to learn how those seemingly immortal larger-than-life figures shuffled off that proverbial mortal coil. Here are some recent celebrity deaths that shocked the world, until the surprising details of their autopsies stunned even more.
This article contains reverences to substance abuse and suicide. If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit theSubstance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration websiteor contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The music world, and music fans around the world, mourned deeply when Prince died suddenly in April 2016. A talent for the ages, Prince ruled the ’80s and ’90s with his hard-to-pigeonhole combination of R&B, pop, soul, funk, and rock, and he was among the very best to ever sing, play guitar, write music, or dance. Among the classic tunes for which Prince is responsible: “Purple Rain,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “When Doves Cry.”
According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, two employees discovered the body of Prince in an elevator at his Paisley Park home and recording complex; the musician had died at least six hours earlier. According to the Associated Press, an autopsy released six weeks after Prince’s death cited the cause of death as an accidental overdose of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, a clinical and extremely potent painkiller. (Prince had suffered from, and had surgery on, a hip made weak by years of acrobatic and adventurous dancing and performing.)
In 2018, the AP published the toxicology report from that autopsy, which listed in intricate detail just how much drugs had been in Prince’s system when he died at age 57. According to the report, fentanyl was present in the musician’s blood at a rate of 67.8 micrograms per liter; fatal doses of 3 to 58 micrograms have been previously recorded. The concentration of the drug in Prince’s liver registered at 450 micrograms per kilogram; experts believe a level of 70 micrograms per kilogram is almost certainly deadly.
Almost as shocking as the death of 31-year-old actor Cory Monteith was the nature of how he died — it was so utterly counter to his public persona and the character for which he was best known, sweet jock-turned-singer (and lunkheaded boyfriend) Finn Hudson on Fox’s mega-popular teen musical dramedy “Glee.”
In July 2013, according to CNN, Monteith’s body was discovered in his room at the Pacific Rim Hotel in Vancouver. His death came just a few months after he entered a rehabilitation facility for not the first time to treat substance abuse issues, which he’d told Parade two years earlier, began when he was 13, when he’d cut classes to drink and smoke marijuana. Monteith attempted to parlay his struggles into his art, convincing director Josh C. Waller to cast him as a drug-addicted character in the indie drama “McCanick.” “He was like, ‘I can do this character. I know this character. I was this character. I have lived elements of this,'” Waller told People.
According to a coroner’s report (via People), Monteith had been dead for hours by the time he was discovered. Authorities also recovered paraphernalia including a “spoon with drug residue and a used hypodermic needle” and two empty champagne bottles, consistent with the ruling that the actor died of a mixture of alcohol and heroin.
Due to an abundance of caution and protocol, fatal accidents on big movie productions are exceedingly rare. That makes it all the more tragic when someone does lose their life while making a film. By 1993, Brandon Lee was one of the fastest-rising stars in Hollywood. The son of late martial arts and movie legend Bruce Lee, the 28-year-old actor had starred in a couple of action movies and was primed to break out big with “The Crow,” Alex Proyas’ film adaptation of the dark, violent, cult classic comic series about deceased rock star Eric Draven who becomes an avenging angel, killing the thugs and criminals who murdered him and his girlfriend.
According to the New York Post, one scene in “The Crow” called for actor Michael Massee, portraying the film’s chief villain, to shoot Draven/Lee from a close distance. Unbeknownst to Massee, a fragment from a previously used projectile had stuck in the barrel of the prop gun. When the actor fired, the gunpowder inside of the blank cartridge sent the fragment into Lee. The actor died after six hours of surgery proved futile.
According to the Los Angeles Times, medical examiners found a .44-caliber bullet lodged in Lee’s spine, and believe that part of it tore into the actor’s abdomen, raising questions about weapons procedure on movie sets. The real bullet had apparently been used for a close-up shot, and not properly discarded.
A celebrated author, memoirist, and screenwriter, Carrie Fisher achieved pop culture immortality in her early twenties when she portrayed Princess Leia Organa in the original “Star Wars” and many of its sequels. The franchise’s countless fans went into deep mourning in December 2016 when the 60-year-old, according to People, went into cardiac arrest on a flight from London to Los Angeles. As soon as the plane touched down, Fisher was rushed to an L.A. hospital, where she died soon thereafter.
Fisher’s use of illicit substances was well-known and well documented, particularly in her own books and one-person shows. “I would tell you, from my perspective, that there’s certainly no news that Carrie did drugs,” Fisher’s brother, Todd Fisher, told Entertainment Tonight. “If you want to know what killed her, it’s all of it,” he added, referring to the results of his sister’s autopsy, made public in June 2017.
According to the Los Angeles Times, a toxicology review found evidence of methadone, cocaine, alcohol, MDMA (better known as the party drug ecstasy), and opiates, including an “exposure to heroin,” in Fisher’s body. However, medical examiners listed Fisher’s official cause of death as sleep apnea, per The Guardian.
Whether it was his frenetic, seemingly improvised stand-up gigs in the ’70s, or his performance as wild alien Mork on “Mork and Mindy,” or starring in a hit comedy like “Mrs. Doubtfire,” or acting in a drama like “Good Will Hunting” and winning an Academy Award for his troubles, tens of millions of people absolutely adored Robin Williams, one of the most popular and definitive entertainers of the late 20th century.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, police responded to a 911 call from Williams’ home in Tiburon, California, on August 11, 2014, and discovered the actor dead, initially pinpointing the cause of death to be suicide by asphyxiation. His publicist reported that Williams had been suffering from depression, while a medical history intake (via THR) found he’d endured an increase in episodes of paranoia and that he’d been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive and debilitating neurological condition. An autopsy officially ruled the cause of Williams’ death to be suicide while a toxicology procedure found antidepressants and a Parkinson’s drug in Williams’ system.
However, an autopsy revealed that Williams didn’t actually have Parkinson’s disease — he had Lewy body disease, a relatively rare condition whose symptoms are so similar to Parkinson’s that doctors may confuse the two.
After a white-hot career in the mid-1990s and early 2000s with big roles in “Clueless,” “Girl, Interrupted,” and “8 Mile,” Brittany Murphy’s career cooled off considerably. At the same time, she became a tabloid fixture for her personal life, particularly after she married fringe movie industry figure Simon Monjack, who friends of Murphy said in the 2021 documentary “What Happened, Brittany Murphy?” (via Today) was responsible for his wife’s rapid weight loss.
Murphy died at age 32 in December 2009, according to The Guardian. What’s shocking was what killed Murphy was something relatively mundane and often preventable: pneumonia. In February 2010, according to Today, a coroner’s report cited menstrual flow that triggered a serious case of anemia (an iron deficiency), which left Murphy in such a weak and immunocompromised state that her body wasn’t able to fight off the viral infection. “This was not something that she just got a day or so before,” retired medical examiner Dr. Lisa Scheinin said in “What Happened, Brittany Murphy?” (via Us Weekly).”She was walking around with this for some time.”
Four years after Murphy’s death, her father, Angelo Bertolotti asked for a lab report to be conducted on his daughter’s remains. Technicians discovered an abnormally high presence of heavy metals in a hair sample, according to ABC News. “I have a feeling that there was a definite murder situation here,” Bertolotti worked out on “Good Morning America.” “It’s poison, yes, I know that.”
In a cruel and heartbreakingly ironic twist of fate, the man who made the car-racing-oriented “Fast and Furious” movies an international blockbuster sensation, died in a sports car, the victim of a terrible vehicular accident. In 2013, according to the tabloid The Daily Mail, Paul Walker was riding as a passenger in a Porsche Carrera GT when driver Roger Rodas lost control at speeds of around 100 mph. The car crashed and reportedly broke almost in half before bursting into flames. Rodas died in the tragedy, and his autopsy showed that his skull had endured so much damage that it left his brain exposed. The details of Walker’s death are equally lurid and disturbing.
According to the Los Angeles County Coroner Walker’s body was discovered in a “pugilistic stance,” meaning the 40-year-old actor died with his arms up, instinctively trying to shield his head and face from impact. Authorities listed the official cause of death as “combined effects of traumatic and thermal injuries,” although Walker also suffered a broken jaw, collarbone, and pelvis. The autopsy suggested that Walker died moments after the crash, as bits of soot were discovered in his trachea, inhaled with his final breath. The fire was particularly devastating — Walker’s body was so badly burned that none of his organs were deemed suitable for donation.
In June 2009, Michael Jackson was rehearsing for a series of comeback shows he thought might restore him to his status as The King of Pop, a designation earned in the ’80s and ’90s for huge sales of albums like “Thriller” and “Bad.” It wasn’t meant to be — on June 25, 2009, his personal physician Conrad Murray found Jackson, 50, not breathing in his bed, according to The Sun.
Murray would later be convicted of involuntary manslaughter for his role in Jackson’s death. According to People, Jackson paid Murray $150,000 a month to treat the singer’s ailments, including insomnia, delivering a nightly dose of propofol — not a sleeping aid but a powerful surgical anesthetic. That wasn’t the only drug found in Jackson’s system after his death — examiners also identified midazolam, diazepam, lidocaine, and ephedrine, serious prescription narcotics drugs that “have no place in an unmonitored setting or in unskilled hands,” a physician told CNN. Another revelation: “There was no indication from the autopsy that there was anything anatomically wrong with him that would lead to premature death,” Dr. Christopher Rogers reported to CNN. He did, however, note some cosmetic alterations to Jackson’s appearance, including lips that had been tattooed pink and a portion of the singer’s scalp tattooed black to make wigs blend in more naturally with his hairline, according to CNN.
Heather O’Rourke sadly didn’t live long enough to compile a lengthy resume of movie and TV appearances, but she nevertheless made a major and memorable impact on mainstream horror films. O’Rourke made her big-screen debut in the 1982 scary classic “Poltergeist” as Carol Ann Freeling, the towheaded child who gets sucked into another dimension (via a TV) by angry spirits. She also delivered the film’s creepy, iconic line, “They’re heeeeeere,” and reprised her role in two “Poltergeist” sequels. The final leg of the trilogy hit theaters on June 10, 1988, four months after O’Rourke died, mere weeks after her 12th birthday.
According to the Los Angeles Times, O’Rourke experienced abdominal pain so severe that she was urgently taken to Children’s Hospital of San Diego. She died during an emergency surgery, and a hospital spokesperson told reporters that the cause of death was related to intestinal stenosis, an extremely serious bowel obstruction that O’Rourke had been unknowingly suffering for her entire life. The stenosis brought on an infection, which in turn caused septic shock, triggering cardiac and pulmonary arrest.
Perhaps the quintessential “video vixen” in the 1980s, the era where hard rock and hair metal bands performed songs about overwhelming feelings of love, lust, and affection, and needed a real-live woman to embody the women of which they sang, a scantily-clad Tawny Kitaen (according to CNN) starred in many music videos, notably “Here I Go Again” and “Is this Love” by the band Whitesnake, whose frontman, David Coverdale, she’d marry and divorce. Kitaen’s other notable work includes the Ratt video “Back for More,” the 1984 Tom Hanks movie “Bachelor Party,” and the early 1990s reboot of “WKRP in Cincinnati.” In more recent years, Kitaen’s highest-profile appearance was a stint on the second season of “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” in 2008, in which she sought treatment for her addictions to cocaine and prescription painkillers.
In May 2021, per a notice from the Orange County Coroner’s Office, Kitaen died at her home in Newport Beach, California, at age 59. Five months later, that same government agency released the findings of an autopsy performed on the late actor. According to the Times of San Diego, officials ruled her death to be the result of natural causes, specifically dilated cardiomyopathy, or an enlarged heart that can’t effectively pump blood. Mild coronary atherosclerosis, a buildup of cholesterol and fatty deposits in the arteries, contributed to the heart malfunction. Additionally, medical examiners found small amounts of prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications in Kitaen’s system.
A member of the Carradine family — his father was character actor John Carradine, and his brothers include Keith Carradine and Robert Carradine — David Carradine served in the Army before going into the family business. He found his breakout role as Kwai Chang Caine on the cult 1970s TV action show “Kung Fu,” and enjoyed a major career resurgence when he starred as the titular, ominous villain in Quentin Tarantino’s two-part “Kill Bill” saga in the early 2000s.
Carradine wouldn’t get to enjoy his comeback for long — in June 2009, according to Reuters, the 72-year-old actor was found dead in a Bangkok hotel room. Initially, police in Thailand reported that Carradine had died of asphyxiation by hanging, as crime scene photos (per ABC News) depicted a rope around his neck. According to Metro, Carradine didn’t leave a note, and with all other things considered, authorities didn’t believe any foul play took place but also didn’t immediately rule out suicide. Other bits of evidence from the scene, such as how the rope was wrapped around Carradine’s genitals, and that he was wearing a wig and fishnet stockings, suggested that the actor died as the result of a sex act gone awry. “The cause of death was asphyxiation, an inability to breathe,” forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden said. “He didn’t die of natural causes, and he didn’t die of suicidal causes from the nature of the ligatures around the body, so that leaves some kind of accidental death.”
In the early 2000s, rising star Johnny Lewis landed big roles on “Malcolm in the Middle,” “Boston Public,” “American Dreams,” “Smallville,” and “The O.C.” Around this time, he also dated Katy Perry for a year, according to Us Weekly, and played Half-Sack on “Sons of Anarchy,” until he quit; per Los Angeles Magazine, he’d tired of the show’s violent storylines.
After leaving the FX biker drama, Lewis endured a number of personal and legal challenges. According to E! News, he went-through a hard-fought custody battle and was arrested for assault on more than one occasion. When Lewis was released from prison in 2012, the actor’s father rented him a room at the Writers’ Villa, a mansion operated as a retreat for creatives owned by wealthy arts patron Cathy Davis. After receiving a report of a woman screaming (per E! News) police arrived at the villa and found Lewis dead in the driveway; he had either fallen or jumped off of the building and sustained fatal injuries to his skull. Police then made another grisly discovery: the body of Davis, 81, who, according to a coroner’s report, died of strangulation and blunt-force trauma. Detectives believe that Lewis beat Davis (and her cat) to death.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Lewis had a history of drug abuse, and it was assumed that narcotics had something to do with his behavior on the night he died. However, an autopsy uncovered no indication of intoxication.
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