The general public tends to live vicariously through the exploits of their favorite celebrities. This makes it especially jarring when famous faces get struck down in their prime. If the cause of death doesn't add up or if the circumstances seem random, rumors start circulating to try to make sense of the tragedy. Here are 15 well-documented and mysterious celebrity deaths that captured the public imagination.
Rebel Without A Cause star Natalie Wood drowned in 1981 during a weekend trip to California's Santa Catalina Island. She was traveling on a Yacht with her husband, Robert Wagner (pictured above), fellow actor Christopher Walken, and boat captain Dennis Davern. No one saw the actress enter the water—Wagner claims to have gone to bed without Wood after a heated argument between the two. Questions of whether or not the death was truly accidental have swirled around Wood’s death since it was reported. Suspicions have typically leaned toward Wagner, though he and Walken have dismissed these claims. Last month the Los Angeles County coroner’s office re-examined the case and changed their diagnosis from “accidental drowning” to "drowning and other undetermined factors."
Legendary rapper Tupac Shakur was murdered in a Las Vegas drive-by shooting in 1996. Since his death, the question of who perpetrated the murder has remained a mystery. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chuck Phillips published his own theory. The report,“Who Killed Tupac,” was printed in The Los Angeles Times in 2002. Phillips' evidence attributed the assassination to the Compton Crips as led by Orlando “Baby Face” Anderson, a person of interest who brawled with Shakur shortly before the shooting. Many also believe the shooting stemmed from Shakur’s rivalry with East Coast rapper Biggie Smalls, who according to Phillips theory provided the gun.
Photo: Ken McCoy/WENN.com
Biggie Smalls (pictured above in Notorious B.I.G.: Rhyme & Reason) denied involvement in Tupac’s shooting and produced evidence and alibis to prove he could not have perpetrated the act. Then in March 1997 the East Coast rapper was also murdered in a drive-by shooting, one that also remains unsolved. Connections between Tupac and Biggie’s murders were made in Randal Sullivan’s book LAbyrinth, which accuses Death Row Records founder Marion “Suge” Knight of organizing Smalls’ drive-by with the LAPD cop David Mack. The theory would be the basis for Nick Broomfield’s documentary Biggie & Tupac.
After a pre-production meeting in 1973, Bruce Lee attempted to treat a headache with analgesic painkiller and Equagesic muscle relaxer. His body apparently suffered an unexpected allergic reaction to the muscle relaxer, which caused his brain to swell in his sleep. He died at the age of 32. It is worth noting that Lee had been suffering from seizures and headaches before he took the Equagesic. Though it was officially ruled as a “death by misadventure,” Lee’s demise has been theorized by some who believe it was caused by the Chinese Triads or (for the especially superstitious) a curse on his family.
In 1992, Brandon Lee, son of the late Bruce, garnered a breakout starring role in Alex Proyas’ comic adaptation The Crow. During filming Brandon was tragically struck down when a blank cartridge was fired from a gun barrel in which a real bullet was already lodged. The error propelled the real bullet toward Lee, effectively gunning him down. He died on March 31st, 1993 at the age of 28. Though the death was an on-set accident, it helped stir further superstitious rumors of a curse on the Lee family and The Crow franchise (which coincidentally revolves around themes of death and loss).
Marilyn Monroe was discovered dead in 1962. The Los Angeles coroner’s department reported her death was caused by an "acute barbiturate poisoning" in a “possible suicide.” Despite Monroe’s history and manic behavior, many believe the actress did not commit suicide but was instead murdered. The CIA, the Mafia, and the Kennedy Family are all organizations that conspiracy theorists mark as possible suspects.
Photo: Dmitri Halkidis/WENN.com
On December 20th, 2009, the Los Angeles Fire Department found Brittany Murphy collapsed on the floor of her home's bathroom. They attempted to resuscitate the actress before taking her Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where she was deemed dead on arrival. Autopsies report the actress had died due to pneumonia, but attributed secondary factors of anemia and drug intoxication. (Murphy had apparently been trying to treat a cold with a mixture of over-the-counter and prescription drugs). Despite the autopsy, the Los Angeles County Department of Health considered the existence of toxic mold within the house as a cause for the pneumonia. This was dismissed by the coroner due to a lack of evidence. Eerily enough, Murphy’s husband, screenwriter Simon Monjack, died of the same symptoms Murphy carried in 2010. His passing has given credence to the toxic mold theory that was shot down, giving Murphy’s mother, Sharon, cause to carry out further litigation about the matter.
In 1984 Taxi star Andy Kaufman (pictured front center) died of kidney failure due to complications from lung cancer. Given the comedian’s button-pushing sense of humor and his secrecy about the illness, many fans believed Kaufman had faked his death. Though his partner Bob Zmuda admitted Andy had often toyed with the idea in the past, he has expressed his belief that Kaufman is indeed deceased.
Guitarist and Rolling Stones co-founder Brian Jones was found dead in 1969 at the bottom of his pool. While coroners believe the musician overdosed on drugs and alcohol, conspiracy theories began surfacing that suggested he was murdered. In 1993, reports pinned the crime on Jones' friend Frank Thorogood, who may have killed the guitarist in a fight. This theory also suggests that the murder was covered up by the police who found him. Despite further investigation by Sussex police, the cause of death remains “by misadventure.”
Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was found dead in April of 1994 from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The grunge rock icon had been struggling with depression and addiction to heroin. After fleeing a detox program in California, Cobain was found dead in his Lake Washington home. His corpse was accompanied by a suicide note addressed to his childhood imaginary friend “Boddah.” Despite the fact that the suicide appeared cleared cut, rumors began circulating that his wife, Hole front woman Courtney Love, in fact murdered Cobain and staged the suicide. The theory has served as the basis for the documentary Kurt & Courtney and the books Who Killed Kurt Cobain? and Love and Death: The Murder of Kurt Cobain.
The “King of Rock ‘N Roll,” Elvis Presley, was found dead on the floor of his bathroom on August 16, 1977. It is believed the superstar’s drug dependencies and obesity brought on a case of cardiac arrhythmia, though there has been a lot of speculation over the accuracy of the diagnosis. The musician’s longtime doctor, George “Nick” Nichopoulos, has stated his belief that the King was killed by a chronic case of constipation. Some fans do not even believe Elvis is dead. Numerous sightings, death certificate flaws and rumors of a wax dummy being placed in Presley’s coffin give many devotees hope that the singer faked his death to retire in peace.
Jimi Hendrix was found dead due to a drug overdose in 1970, suffering from asphyxia on his own vomit. While coroners found no evidence of suicide or foul play, evidence emerged in 2009 that suggested Hendrix was murdered by manager Mike Jeffrey. Jeffrey took out a $2 million dollar life insurance policy out on Hendrix before his death. James “Tappy” Wright, a former roadie, gave his account of Hendrix’s supposed murder in his tell-all book Rock Roadie. Wright claims Jeffrey hired a gang to pull a hit on Hendrix, asphyxiating him on sleeping pills and wine. John Bannister, a medical examiner who tried to save Hendrix’s life, has corroborated the report, claiming the rock star was literally drowned in red wine.
"Macho Man" Randy Savage
Former WWE and WCW legend Randy “Macho Man” Savage suffered a massive heart attack while driving, crashing his Jeep into a tree. Coroners later found Savage had an enlarged heart and was suffering from a coronary artery disease. Remarkably, there was no evidence suggesting the 58 year old wrestler was aware of the illness and doctors could not determine whether the death stemmed from a blockage or lack of oxygen to the heart. The death was ruled as a rare, out-of-nowhere occurrence of “atherosclerotic heart disease."
George Reeves, television’s original Superman, died from a gunshot wound to the head in June of 1959. Those present at the time of his death included fiancé Leonore Lemmon, actor William Bliss, writer Richard Condon, and neighbor Carol Van Ronkel. The group heard the gunshot following Reeves’ heated conflict because of the group’s impromptu party in his home. Reeves is believed to have shot himself, possibly to due to his ailing career. However, no gunpowder was found in the actor’s hand following the gunshot, leading many to believe the actor was indeed murdered. This scenario is the basis for the book Hollywood Kryptonite and the Ben Affleck vehicle Hollywoodland.
John F. Kennedy
The November 22nd, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald may be the most mysterious celebrity death in history. Though Oswald claimed to be a patsy, he was murdered by Texas entrepreneur Jacky Ruby before he could be convicted or tried. President Lyndon Johnson created The Warren Commission to investigate the murder. Their probings would find Oswald the sole perpetrator. However, Kennedy’s death has been the subject of a multitude of believable conspiracy theories involving everyone from Fidel Castro to the Mafia to President Johnson himself. In 2004, Fox News took a poll that reported 66% of Americans believed there was a conspiracy involved, while 74% bought into the idea of a cover-up.