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Actors who died on set

Unless you're lucky enough to really enjoy what you do for a living, it'd be pretty terrible to die at work. The thought of being in the office literally at the time of death is kind of an unappealing one. However, if you're a creative type, like an actor or a performer, then work doesn't always really feel like work —  it's a calling, and every day lived in pursuit of it is a joy. To get to create entertainment up until the bitter end would seem to make the bitter end not so bitter. 

In fact, there have been a few times in entertainment history when performers have actually died doing what they loved: hanging out on movie or TV sets, waiting for the crew to set up the next shot…or while actually filming a take…or while doing their thing on a live TV broadcast. Here's a list of some stars who kept on working up to and until the their last breaths — they never got a chance to retire, because they died while working on a movie or television show.

Redd Foxx

On his classic 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son, Redd Foxx often did a memorable bit where he'd end a conversation or get his way by faking a heart attack. "This is the big one, Elizabeth," Foxx, as his character, Fred Sanford, would shout to the screaming laughter of the studio audience, calling out to his long-deceased wife that he was about to join her. 

Foxx brought the bit out of retirement when he returned to television in 1991 with a sitcom called The Royal Family. He portrayed a soon-to-retire mailman opposite Della Reese as his wife, whose quiet life gets turned upside down when their daughter and her kids move into their home. Okay, well Foxx didn't bring the "big one" routine into the show, per se; he just did something similar on the set one day during a rehearsal. According to production spokeswoman Rachel McCallister, Foxx and his co-stars were "clowning around, and Redd was sort of breaking people up when he collapsed. … They all thought he was joking at first." 

He wasn't. Foxx didn't move, and somebody called paramedics. Four hours later, he died at age 68 of a heart attack at Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center.

Jon-Erik Hexum

You know that gesture people make when they're so bored that they form a gun shape with their thumb and forefinger, put it up to their temple, and pretend to blow their brains out? At least one person has died from doing the finger gun thing with a prop weapon on the set of a TV show. 

Twenty-six-year-old actor Jon-Erik Hexum starred in Cover Up, a CBS action show in which he played an elite military operative/spy/male model. One filming day in October 1984 was fraught with shooting delays. When Hexum was informed that the delays would continue, he grabbed a prop gun and quipped, "Can you believe this crap?" Then he pulled the trigger. While prop guns don't fire real bullets, they do release a great deal of force; Hexum's goof drove a bone fragment into his brain, leading to severe hemorrhaging. The actor was rushed to Beverly Hills Medical Center, where he endured five hours of unsuccessful brain surgery. After a coma and pronounced brain death, Hexum died six days later.

John Ritter

While he had a successful film career with roles in movies like Sling Blade and Bad Santa, John Ritter will forever rank among our most beloved and successful TV actors. His extreme likability and physical comedy gifts helped elevate Three's Company (1977–1984) from titillating cheese to classic sitcom, and his big return to TV in 2002 as the star of 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter was one of the biggest entertainment stories of the year. Ritter played a suburban dad uneasy with his children growing up. ABC renewed it for a second season, and production was underway in September 2003 when Ritter suddenly fell ill on the set, feeling woozy and nauseated while complaining of chest pains. Ritter checked in to Burbank's Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, where doctors treated him for what they initially thought was a heart attack. But after standard treatments didn't improve Ritter's condition, further tests and examination revealed a previously undiagnosed aortic dissection. That can be a fatal issue if blood flow is interrupted to the coronary arteries or if one of those arteries rupture. And that's what happened to Ritter, who was just 54 years old.

Steve Irwin

Steve Irwin was billed as "The Crocodile Hunter," and the enthusiastic, Australian-accented nature show host was as much Johnny Knoxville as Jack Hanna, boldly traipsing into hostile, untamed environments to teach viewers about dangerous and exotic creatures — often by grabbing them, yanking at them, or wrestling with them. In September 2006, Irwin and crew were filming a documentary about the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Irwin and cameraman Justin Lyons were in a small raft in shallow water when they encountered an eight-foot-wide stingray. Irwin got the boat close and wanted a shot of the stingray swimming away, but instead of moving along, the stingray attacked Irwin, likely mistaking the man's shadow for one of its natural predators, such as a tiger shark. Stingrays don't just lash out once and that's it — Lyons said the creature delivered "hundreds of strikes in a few seconds," delivering a fatal dose of venom and a two-inch-wide gash over Irwin's heart. The Crocodile Hunter was 44 years old.

Tommy Cooper

Tommy Cooper was a British entertainer who combined corny jokes, prop comedy, and magic for an act that was beloved throughout the U.K. for decades. In April 1984, Cooper appeared on Live from Her Majesty's, a variety show originating from London's Her Majesty's Theatre which was, unfortunately, broadcast live to viewers. Cooper's performance began with the comedian doing an old chestnut: his "magic cloak skit," which involved him wearing a huge gown from which he'd produce increasingly larger objects that were passed to him through a curtain. According to Live from Her Majesty's Host Jimmy Tarbuck, the bit was supposed to conclude with Tarbuck popping out from the curtain and handing a ladder to Cooper because it was too big to go through the dress. 

It actually ended with a bit more finality. Tarbuck, and many viewers as it stands to reason, thought Cooper was improvising when after a female "lovely assistant" came onto the stage, he fell hard onto the ground. He wasn't comically overwhelmed with lust — he'd suffered a heart attack on TV. The show's director cut to a commercial, preventing the home audience from seeing Cooper's lifeless body pulled backstage. Cooper was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead at age 63. 

Ken Steadman

Sliders was a cult hit about dimension hoppers that starred the unlikely combo of Jerry O'Connell from Stand by Me and Jonathan Rhys-Davies of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In September 1996, a 27-year-old actor named Ken Steadman landed a small guest-starring role on a second-season episode, another entry on a résumé that consisted largely of parts on oh-so-'90s television shows such as Baywatch and NYPD Blue. While portraying a tough guy named Cutter, Steadman was required to drive himself and another actor on a dune buggy across El Mirage Dry Lake outside San Bernardino, California. (The episode was set on a desert planet.) While the vehicle was equipped with seatbelts, neither Steadman nor the other actor (unidentified in press reports) had used them, which was very unfortunate when Steadman lost control of the dune buggy and it flipped over. While the other actor sustained little more than cuts and bruises, Steadman was seriously injured in the crash. He was airlifted by helicopter to the San Bernardino Medical Center, but his injuries were so severe that he was pronounced dead not long after arrival.

Martha Mansfield

You've probably never heard of early film actress Martha Mansfield. She never evolved into the huge star she could very well have become…because her bizarre, premature death doomed her to lists like this one. On Thanksgiving Day 1923, 23-year-old Mansfield filmed her last scenes for The Warrens of Virginia, a Civil War-set romance about a Union soldier who falls in love with a southern woman. (Wilfred Lytell played the soldier; Mansfield the southerner.) She celebrated the end of the shoot by hanging out in a car on the set with some friends and co-workers. One member of her party lit a match, and the flame immediately found its way to the flimsy fabric of Mansfield's costume. It instantly engulfed her in fire, but Lytell jumped into action, throwing his overcoat onto Mansfield, which put out the fire (and limited the burns) on her neck and face. The coat wasn't enough to put out the fire entirely. She was rushed to a nearby hospital, but the damage was done. Mansfield died from the result of severe burns over much of her body.

Tyrone Power

Tyrone Power enjoyed a meteoric rise to superstardom in the 1930s. His breakthrough role in Lloyd's of London came in 1936 when he was just 22 years old. Within the year, he'd laid his handprints in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and by the end of the decade he was the second-biggest male draw in Hollywood with two of 1939's biggest hits: Jesse James and The Rains Came. In the 1940s and 1950s, Power established himself as an extremely versatile actor, skilled at everything from film noir (Nightmare Alley) to courtroom dramas (Witness for the Prosecution), but he was most often cast in swashbuckling adventure movies such as The Mask of Zorro, The Black Swan, and Blood and Sand. In 1958, Power won one of the title roles in the Bible-based romantic/adventure/epic Solomon and Sheba. The film shot in Spain, and on November 11, 1958, Power shot the eighth take of a complicated and physically demanding sword fighting scene with actor George Sanders. Then he took a pause — he'd started to shake, and he said he suddenly felt chilly and achy. Power died on the way to a Madrid hospital. The actor had suffered a fatal heart attack at age 44.