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Famous People Who Died While Performing

I have worked in education and entertainment and am also an historian and businessman and currently studying at the Open University.

Steve Irwin



A man who wrestled crocodiles, provoked king cobras and faced down Komodo dragons; Steve Irwin's insurance premiums probably would've made Evel Knievel wince. His untimely death to many seemed inevitable.

Growing up in Australia's Queensland, Irwin was surrounded by deadly creatures. His parents were keen wildlife experts who owned a reptile park where Steve learnt all about herpetology, the study of reptiles. A natural showman, Irwin's bold hands-on approach won him admirers across the world, introducing people to the natural world in a unique and dramatic way.

Despite his reputation for recklessness, (most famously a notorious incident when he fed a saltwater crocodile while holding his baby son), Irwin was more than just a man who annoyed dangerous animals for the cameras. His conservation work earned him numerous awards including the Centenary Medal in 2001 and he famously discovered a new species of turtle which was named after him, along with a species of snail. He was praised by the likes of David Attenborough and David Bellamy and bought up huge areas of land in the South Pacific, turning them into conservation areas.

In 2006, whilst filming a new series, "Ocean's Deadliest", Irwin was stabbed through the heart by the barb of a stingray. In the weeks following his death, several stingrays were found on Australian beaches "killed in revenge" for Irwin, proving that despite being fans, some people hadn't actually learned anything from him. Irwin's daughter Bindi has since gone on to become a TV star and conservationist, as well as a singer and dancer. An asteroid, discovered in 2001, has been named 57567 Crikey, in honour of Irwin's famous catchphrase.

Tommy Cooper

"Glass, bottle... bottle, glass..."

"Glass, bottle... bottle, glass..."

Famous for his magic tricks that (deliberately) went wrong, his trademark fez and his catchphrase "Jus' like that...", Cooper was a British national treasure who had the rare attribute of appealing to audiences of all ages.

There is an argument over Cooper's nationality. Though born in Caerphilly, Wales to a Welsh father and English mother, the family moved to Exeter, England when he was three. Both Wales and England claim him as their own.

Cooper served in World War II, claiming he once got away with being caught sleeping on guard duty by mumbling "In the name of the father, the son and the holy ghost, Amen" before sitting up straight. He joined the entertainment corps, and after demob, he developed his act and performed around the country before becoming a TV star and a household name.

Like many comedy geniuses, Cooper was a flawed personality. A heavy smoker and drinker, his tightness with money was legendary. For example, he would often pay for a taxi ride, then slip something into the driver's pocket saying ,"Have a drink on me", which turned out to be a tea-bag.

Eventually Cooper's alcoholism affected his professionalism. In 1979 he appeared on Michael Parkinson's talk show, and performed the guillotine trick on Parkinson himself, forgetting to set the safety catch on the guillotine. Only the intervention of a floor manger saved the host's life.

Cooper suffered a first heart attack during a show in Rome in 1977 but continued drinking heavily. After his death, it came out that he had been having an affair with his PA for eighteen years though never ended up leaving his wife.

A huge inspiration to many British comedians, Tommy Cooper slumped to the stage floor from a massive heart attack in front of millions of viewers on the UK TV show "Live From Her Majesty's" in 1984. Most viewers and live audience believed it was part of the act. The scene has since been uploaded to Youtube, despite much criticism. In 2008, a statue of Tommy Cooper was unveiled outside Caerphilly Castle by Sir Anthony Hopkins who is patron of the Tommy Cooper Society and also does an excellent impersonation of him.


"The trees that are the slowest to grow bear the best fruit..."

"The trees that are the slowest to grow bear the best fruit..."

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Probably France's greatest playwright, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was born into a wealthy family and was known as "Le Nez" as a child due to his large nose as a baby. After studying briefly as a lawyer, he set up "Illustre Theatre" with three associates. However, the troupe ran up huge debts and Moliere found himself briefly in a debtors' prison. It was around this time he began using the name he became famous as, supposedly to spare his father the embarrassment of having an actor (an extremely disreputable profession) in the family.

After touring with several companies, Moliere formed his own and began writing plays, incorporating commedia del 'arte into his work, though he actually preferred performing tragedy. Best known for his farces such as "Tartuffe", "The School For Wives" and "The Misanthrope", Moliere satirised the social conventions of the day as well as the hypocrisy of the Catholic church. This unsurprisingly made him many powerful enemies, and several of his plays were banned. However, he never attacked the monarchy, and as a favourite of Louis XIV and under the patronage of the king's brother, Moliere had the protection of the crown.

Moliere collaborated on several works with the great conductor, Jean-Baptiste Lully, most famously on their work "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme". By then, Moliere was seriously ill with pulmonary tuberculosis, and in 1673, he collapsed onstage while performing in his last play, ironically entitled "The Hypochondriac". He managed to get through the rest of the performance but collapsed again soon after and passed away that evening aged 51. The actors' superstition that green is unlucky onstage stems from this, as it was the colour of Moliere's costume for the performance.

Sid James



A British national treasure, Sid James was known for his womanising on and off-screen. Despite his cockney persona, James, whose real name was Solomon Cohen, actually spent the first 32 years of his life in South Africa, where he became a ladies hairdresser. He joined a rep company, but with the outbreak of World War II. James joined the entertainment corps of the South African Army and after the war, moved to the UK, appearing in several films such as "The Lavender Hill Mob" with Alec Guinness.

Part of Tony Hancock's radio ensemble, when the show transferred to TV, James was the only main player who wasn't dropped from the show. As such, he became a household name, and he and Hancock became known as a double act. Despite their success, Hancock eventually dropped James along with his writers before eventually committing suicide in Australia in 1968.

James joined the Carry On team, becoming famous for his lecherous wise-cracking cockney characters that mirrored his own persona. Married three times, he had a ten year affair with co-star Barbara Windsor. Her then husband, gangster Ronnie Knight was rumoured to have had James's flat broken into and the furniture re-arranged as a warning.

In the early 70's James appeared in two TV sitcoms, most famously "Bless This House" opposite Diana Coupland. However, during a 1976 theatre tour of "The Mating Season", James suffered a huge heart attack on stage at the Sunderland Playhouse. Initially the cast thought James was playing a practical joke and the request for a doctor to the audience brought laughter. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital aged 62.

Tiny Tim

...Tiptoe thru the tulips with meeee-eee!

...Tiptoe thru the tulips with meeee-eee!

Tiny Tim, nee Herbert Khaury, was the son of a Lebanese Christian and an Eastern European rabbi's daughter and grew up in New York City. Despite being known as a ukelele player, he was actually a talented multi-instrumentalist, proficient on the guitar, violin and mandolin.

Tiny Tim developed the emo look long before it became known as such. Performing in clubs in New York in his trademark falsetto singing voice, he was cast in several experimental films before appearing on Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, at the time one of America's biggest comedy variety shows. This led to an album, "God Bless Tiny Tim", which featured his signature tune, "Tiptoe Through The Tulips". Despite his initial success, Tim was seen as a novelty act and by the 70's his star began to fade.

During that decade he made several lucrative appearances on the Las Vegas circuit and also starred in the 80's horror film "Blood Harvest". In 1996 he suffered a heart attack onstage in Massachusetts. Though warned not to perform again for health reasons; heart problems and diabetes, he ignored the doctors advice and two month later at a benefit gig in Minneapolis, suffered another heart attack during a rendition of "Tiptoe Through The Tulips". As he was leaving the stage he collapsed, never to regain consciousness.

Brandon Lee

Like father, like son...

Like father, like son...

The only son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, who also died young, Brandon Lee was also a martial artist and also made his career in action films.

After growing up in Hong Kong and California, he attended college in Boston, then trained at the Lee Strasberg theatre school in New York, where he also learnt martial arts from two of his father's friends and sparring partners, Richard Bustillo and Dan Inosanto.

After appearing in the TV film, Kung Fu, The Movie, a spin-off of the popular TV series that his father had originally been shortlisted for, Lee starred in the Hong Kong action film Legacy of Rage before returning to Hollywood and signing to 20th Century Fox, where he made several action films.

Lee's best known role was also to be his last. On the set of The Crow in 1993, Michael Massee had to fire a prop gun at Lee. The gun had been improperly prepared and a dummy bullet tip had lodged in the barrel that hit Lee in the abdomen with the force of a live round. Despite six hours of surgery, doctors were unable to save him. He was just 28. The Crow went on to become a cult classic, ironically becoming Lee's most successful movie. Though the shooting was ruled accidental, Michael Massee refused to watch the film and took a year off acting due to the trauma.

The band on the Titanic

The band that played on...

The band that played on...

Though only seven are pictured above, there were actually eight musicians in all. Thanks to survivor reports, David Cameron's "Titanic" and the earlier 1958 Kenneth More film, "A Night To Remember", as well as several documentaries, the legend of the band that played on in order to calm the passengers during history's most famous maritime tragedy is justly famous.

The musicians were from England, Scotland, Belgium and France and were aged from 20 to 33 years old. They had never played together prior to the night of the disaster.

The bandleader and eldest musician, violinist Wallace Hartley had been a bank clerk before turning professional and performed on several ships before the Titanic, including the Lusitania, a passenger ship which would be controversially torpedoed by a German U Boat during the First World War. His body was discovered two weeks after the disaster and thousands lined the route of his funeral procession in his native Colne, Lancashire, England. A bust of him stands in the town centre.

The youngest member of the band and the one who isn't in the picture above, Roger Bricoux, was a cellist who grew up in Monaco before studying music in Italy. He performed with orchestras in Britain and France before playing on several ships. He and English pianist Theodore Brailey had performed together before they joined the Titanic onboard the RMS Carpathia, which ironically is famous for rescuing the survivors of the disaster. A keen aviator, Brailey had associations with Freshfield Aerodrome in Southport, Lancashire (now Merseyside), England. Neither body was recovered. A year later Bricoux was declared a deserter by the French Army and was not declared dead in France until 2000.

Double bassist, John Frederick Preston Clarke grew up in Liverpool where he originally became an insurance agent but went on to play with orchestras including the Liverpool Philharmonic, before joining the band on the Titanic. Sources disagree on his age, which has been put between 28 and 32, but it is known that his body was recovered and he was buried in Halifax in Yorkshire, England.

Cellist John George (Wesley) Woodward grew up in Oxford and was a keen amateur photographer. He became a professional musician, playing on several ships before joining the Titanic's band. He was engaged just prior to the Titanic's voyage and intended it to be his last trip, at least for the forseeable future. His body was never recovered.

Violinist John (Jock) Hume grew up in Scotland and died not knowing he was about to become a father. Two weeks after the disaster, Hume's father received a bill from the agency the musicians were represented by for their percentage. This naturally caused an uproar when it became public knowledge and Hume senior refused to pay. Hume's body was found a month later and buried in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Violinist Georges Krins was Belgian and studied in Liege. He became first violinist at Paris's Le Trianon Lyrique before moving to London, playing at the Ritz Hotel. After performing in London he was recruited to join the band on the Titanic. His body was never discovered.

Cellist (and also pianist) Percy Cornelius Taylor grew up in Hackney, East London and was married to a recently widowed actress and music hall artiste Clara Davis. However, his marriage certificate describes him as an accountant and his musical life is rather vague. The story goes that his marriage was unhappy and he was looking to start again in New York when the Titanic docked. Taylor's body was also never found.


Liz Westwood from UK on November 24, 2018:

Sid James and Tommy Cooper were the ones I thought of. Appearing on stage must be a high stress, physical experience so the risk of a heart attack, when in compromised health is probably high.

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