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4 Actors' Deaths More Shocking Than a Movie
Some of Hollywood's truly tragic tales.
By Joe Oesterle
October 12, 2009
Noted Irish poet, Oscar Wilde once said, “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
Perhaps that quote exemplifies why so many celebrities often seem to live such tragic lives. What classifies as tragic to Kate Gosselin, however, may seem to others as just desserts. Below you will find some of Hollywood’s truly tragic tales. Men who worked hard to achieve success in their chosen fields, only to have their lives bizarrely cut short in the process.
4. Bob Crane. The Kinky Colonel
The victim had been callously murdered while he slept in his two-bedroom apartment. There was no evidence of a break-in, despite the fact the fatally injured party was known to double lock his door at all times. An unspecified blunt instrument crushed his exposed and vulnerable skull in two fatal blows. The freshly cut video camera electrical cord wound tightly around the target’s throat was unnecessary. The man was dead after the second violent smash to his cranium. The cord was either precautionary overkill, or the assassin was sending a message. No money was missing from the deceased’s wallet, and police quickly ruled out robbery.
Actress, Victoria Berry was the first to discover the body of her friend and co-worker - a body so badly brutalized she first assumed the dark red liquid that formed a puddle on the mattress behind the dead man’s head was the long auburn hair of a woman. It wasn’t until Berry noticed the distinctive wristwatch on the man’s left hand did it dawn on her she was looking at the corpse of Bob Crane.
If the thought of one of television’s most charming comedic actors lying lifeless in a pool of his own blood wasn’t jarring enough for the American public to imagine, the revelation of his kinky sexual escapades took almost everybody else by shock.
Best known as Colonel Hogan on the unlikely television hit about WWII Prisoners of war, 60’s sitcom, Hogan’s Heroes, the married Crane had certainly not been the first actor to go from harmless flirt, to full-blown womanizer on his climb to fortune and fame. In 1978 his second marriage dissolved amid rumors of numerous casual encounters. Word around the studios was Crane had developed a king-sized appetite for all sorts of sex, the more bizarre the better. Outlandish erotic behavior was nothing new in Hollywood, but one of Crane ‘s stronger kinks was photographing and videotaping his sexual conquests. This practice was a well-known secret throughout the industry, and not always shared with his sexual partners.
Crane’s behavior worried TV executives. He had become consumed with this desire to record his dalliances. The nation believed Crane was the handsome wholesome wisecracking All-American man, and nobody in the industry wanted to be in the position to explain away his penchant for autobiographical pornography should Crane’s private life become exposed to the pubic.
One of Crane’s constant companions was an electronics expert named John Henry Carpenter. Carpenter was more than happy to provide Crane with state of the art video cameras, since it often meant Carpenter would be first in line for Crane’s sexual spill-over. Group sex with beautiful women always seemed to be an option, and if Crane was only able to pick up one willing lady, sometimes Carpenter drove home alone, and other times he participated. The pair would often view the titillating videos and photos together.
By 1978, the 49 year-old actor had tired of Carpenter’s company. On the night before the murder, the two men were visiting a favorite local watering hole, but their discussion was described by witnesses to be anything but light-hearted. “Tense” was the word their cocktail waitress used to describe the pair’s interaction. Crane suspected Carpenter had become jealous of the former TV star’s ability to attract women. Crane also may have felt Carpenter’s friendly affections were becoming increasingly sexual in nature. Whatever the reason, Bob Crane made a call to John Carpenter. People in the know believe Crane informed his long-time cohort he was dissolving their friendship. The next day, Bob Crane’s dead body was found on his bed in Scottsdale Arizona.
Police records indicate Carpenter called Crane’s apartment from Los Angeles a number of times the following day. Carpenter had taken an 11 am flight from Arizona to L.A. the morning after their “tense” discussion. Investigators noted Carpenter didn’t seem surprised when he was informed the police were there.
Carpenter’s rental car was examined and tiny spots of dried blood and what may have been brain tissue were discovered on the passenger door. DNA tests were not available at the time, but the bloodstains were type B. Only ten percent of the world’s population is type B, and Bob Crane was among that minority.
Despite what seemed like reasonable cause the Scottsdale D.A. refused to file charges, and case remained dormant until 1992. Fourteen years after Crane’s death, the case was reopened and Carpenter was subsequently arrested. After the trial Carpenter was acquitted of all charges and maintained his innocence until his death in 1998.
Did John Henry Carpenter beat a murder rap, or was the killer a jealous husband, a hired thug or a scorned lover? It’s likely the murder of Bob Crane will remain just another of Hollywood’s sensational unsolved murders.
3. Karl Dane. The Sad Danish Clown
Danish born comedian Karl Dane enjoyed a fair amount of accomplishment during the silent film era. He was a blue-collar worker by trade when he auditioned for a bit part in a two-reel comedy short. He got the gig, and his career as a comedic actor was on its way up. His entertainer’s salary afforded him the luxury of a very comfortably in a Hollywood Hills mansion All over the country, people found themselves amused by his comic antics, and his giant grinning face. The former machinist quickly became accustomed to the perks of fame.
Throughout the Twenties, Dane worked with some of the biggest stars of his time; Buster Keaton, Lillian Gish and Rudolph Valentino all shared the screen with the gangly, happy-go-lucky comic. During this period, MGM studios paired up Dane with Scottish actor, George K. Arthur. The duo starred in a series of low-budget comedy shorts, which proved both popular and profitable.
Profits are the bottom-line in every business, and silent era Hollywood was no exception. While some had been experimenting with combining a soundtrack to movies since the invention of motion pictures, “talkies” were seen as an expensive undertaking and a technological nightmare to most insiders. Even after the box-office success of 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the studios did not make the immediate leap to sound. Before the Thirties rolled in however, it was clear the days of big screen pantomime was nearing its end.
It became just as clear to studio execs and performers alike that not all would be making a smooth transition. While the advent of sound helped to establish the movie-making business as THE industry in Hollywood, it also cost a good number of careers. Karl Dane was among the sadder casualties.
While Dane was able rely on quiet slapstick and goofy faces to elicit laughter from the ticket-buying public, his thick Danish accent was said to sound too guttural and harsh to be employed for comic effect when sound became the future of film. Dane managed a few small non-speaking roles in talking pictures, thanks in large part to his friendship with Buster Keaton, but by 1933, he had given up hope of making a comeback.
After brief stints as a carpenter and a mechanic, Dane suffered his final humiliation. In an effort to simply make ends meet, he was forced to accept a job as a hotdog vendor outside the gates of MGM. The cruel reversal of fortune was too much for the proud Dane to endure. In 1934, a mere nine years after his film debut in MGM’s smash hit, The Big Parade, Karl Dane spread his reviews and newspaper articles on the floor at his Miracle Mile apartment. Sitting down on a chair in the middle of the room, he raised his pistol to his head, and pulled the trigger.
2. Russ Columbo. Freak Accident
Smoldering good looks coupled with a silky smooth baritone quickly earned Russ Columbo the nickname, “The Romeo of Song.” By 1934 Columbo had already been a veteran of the ballroom circuit, traveling the country with an orchestra, which included Gene Krupa and Benny Goodman. His NBC radio program, broadcast from the Hollywood Roosevelt, was a hit with audiences, his records became the musical standard of the decade, and Universal had signed him to a lucrative movie contract. His only professional rivals were Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee. Not bad for a 26 year old kid from New Jersey. Russ Columbo would never reach the age of 27.
Respected portrait photographer, Lansing Brown Jr. had been Columbo’s best friend for over a decade, so naturally Brown was invited to the movie premiere of Wake Up and Dream. It was the first time Columbo had ever received top billing for a picture. Columbo’s date for the evening was actress, Carole Lombard. As the film ended, the singing star and the beautiful blonde were whisked away by studio handlers from party to party and celebrated the night in a style befitting a new leading man. But in all the merrymaking, Columbo was never able to ask his good friend what he had thought of the film.
The next day, Carole Lombard, fatigued from the revelry of the night before, and her own hectic schedule, drove to the mountains of Lake Arrowhead for a well-deserved vacation. Columbo was to meet up with her in a couple days, but decided to drop by Brown’s Los Angeles bungalow to find out if his old pal enjoyed his performance.
Columbo arrived at the Brown household in the afternoon, and was warmly greeted by the parents of his dear friend. After exchanging pleasantries, Columbo excused himself, and headed into the library, where he and Brown often sat and talked. A pair of antique dueling pistols were displayed on the desk of the library. The two friends had “played” with the handguns many times in the past; what happened next was no game.
Picking up a matchstick in his right hand, Brown casually lifted the gun with his left. Nonchalantly, Brown swept the match head against the wooden stock of the weapon, the sparks inadvertently set off a pinch of 50-year old residual gunpowder. He first heard the blast of the pistol, but was shocked to his core in the next instant to hear the bloodcurdling screams of his confidant.
Unbeknownst to Brown, the idle gun still contained enough explosive sulfur to ignite and launch a vintage Minié ball bullet still left in the chamber. The projectile ricocheted off a mahogany desk and entered Columbo’s left eye, lodging deep in the back of the crooner’s brain.
Columbo was rushed to surgery, but there was nothing the doctors could do, and the multi-talented performer was declared dead 6 hours later. At the funeral Brown was inconsolable, weeping from his knees during the entire service.
Brown was put on trial for the murder of his friend. As he took the stand on his own behalf a grieving Brown recounted, "We were friends ... he was my best friend ... I didn't know there was powder and a slug in it ... there was a noise ... and Russ was slumped in the chair ... I put ice on his head ... he couldn't speak to me." The jury, believing the slaying to be an accident and moved by Brown’s sincere grief, exonerated him of all charges.
The strange tale of a career that might have been doesn’t end there though. Columbo’s elderly mother, Julia, was blind and in poor health. Family and friends feared the tragic news of the death of her beloved son would be too much for the old woman’s already weakened constitution to handle. In the best interest of their matriarch, the family concocted a story.
Carole Lombard once told an interviewer, "(Russ’ mother) was told that Russ and I flew to New York suddenly, to avoid publicity, and we had been married. When I went East, his family arranged wires signed 'Russ and Carole.' Presumably from New York we sailed to England on our honeymoon. Cables from London are currently being sent signed with our names."
Monthly checks were also sent to Columbo’s mother. The woman was told the checks were from her son, but in reality they were dividends from his life insurance policy. The sympathetic deception went on for a full decade before Julia Columbo peacefully passed away her own bed in 1944.
1. David Strickland. Bizarre Suicide
It’s not unusual to spot low-end prostitutes plying their trade in the wee hours of the night in a section of Las Vegas Boulevard that boasts room rentals by the hour. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to notice a drug deal going down, as you try to avoid the pathetic but frightening junkies and winos you might happen across, walking by the Oasis Motel after nightfall. What would seem unlikely is for a prime-time television star, at the height of his fame, to squander any time at all at this less than posh lodging establishment, but it is at this location that Hollywood actor, 29 year-old David Strickland, spent his final living hours.
In 1999, Strickland was well into his 3rd season playing Todd, the affable if somewhat goofy music critic on NBC’s sit-com “Suddenly Susan.” The show, while not a hit with the critics, was doing well enough in the ratings, thanks in part to recognizable names like Brooke Shields, Judd Nelson, and relative TV newcomer, Kathy Griffin. Strickland, who had been working as an actor in guest roles on such shows as “Roseanne” and “Mad About You” prior to landing the “Suddenly Susan” gig, was just getting noticed for film work and it seemed as if his career was heading for even bigger and better things.
Strickland had a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and was arrested in 1998 for possession of cocaine. A charge he pleaded no contest to, and was sentenced to 36 months of probation, and ordered into rehab. On Monday, March 22, 1999, the day David Strickland was due in court for a progress report, a cleaning woman for the Oasis Motel found Strickland hung to death, his neck tied with a bed sheet, which he apparently had slung over a ceiling beam.
Strickland had been diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, but according to some, he decided to stop taking his lithium, and instead went on a 3-day alcohol and drug binge with another NBC sitcom star, Andy Dick.
What makes a talented, attractive, successful young man take his own life in a run-down motor lodge? Some accounts have stated that Strickland was depressed that he was unable to kick his vices, and was beside himself with worry that his girlfriend, actress Tiffani-Amber-Thiessen would break up with the him if the beautiful starlet found out he was using again.
Police say the actor checked into room 20 of the Oasis late Sunday night after having a twenty-minute conversation with a hooker, who purportedly told Strickland, “Important changes are going to happen in your life.” Some accounts have a” very tired, hung-over” looking Strickland talking to topless dancers at the Glitter Gulch after midnight.
The next morning around 10:30 AM, management placed a call to his room… there was no answer. A maid walked in to tidy up the room, and was horrified to see the lifeless corpse of the young celebrity, dangling from the very bed linens the woman assumed she would be changing. While time of death can never be absolutely determined, authorities have placed the actor’s demise around 4 A.M., Monday, the 22nd.
A night-time worker of the motel who preferred not to be named claims, “I didn’t work here at the time, but I have heard, and people have told me, that they hear, ‘Help me!’” coming from the area Strickland took his life. “It’s like a man crying, but no one is there.”
“I am a religious man, and I didn’t believe in ghosts, but it happens around 1 in the morning, ‘til 4 in the morning. It doesn’t scare me anymore, but I think it could be him.”
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Joe Oesterle is an award-winning writer and illustrator, but what he often fails to mention is that many of those awards were won on a New Jersey boardwalk. Pick up his latest books "Weird California" and "Weird Las Vegas" in any Barnes and Noble near you, and look for his next book, "Weird Hollywood," due out soon. Here’s his official website and be sure to check out his weekly animated rant.