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10 Lesser-Known People Who Tragically Died During a Performance

by Marcus Lowth
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Most of us have heard that the comedian Tommy Cooper collapsed and died during a performance on stage. Most of us know about Brandon Lee and the tragic accident that saw him shot to death while filming The Crow. However, the fact is that multiple people have died during or as a result of a performance. And they stretch back over the centuries.

From people who have simply had heart attacks to being mauled by lions and even being shot by crazed fans as they performed blissfully unaware of such danger, all are morbidly intriguing. And all are a reminder that the curtain call of life could happen at any moment.

Related: 10 Sporting Events That Ended in Tragic Deaths of Athletes

10 “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott

The Tragic Murder Of Dimebag Darrell Explained

Without a doubt, one of the most horrific deaths to occur during a performance was that of heavy metal guitarist “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott. Less than two minutes into a show with the band Damageplan in Columbus, Ohio, on December 8, 2004, Abbott was fatally shot in the head by a crazed “fan,” Nathan Gale.

Gale had entered the building through a side door and went straight to the stage, where he fired directly at the guitarist. In the mayhem that followed, a member of the road crew, an employee of the club, and a fan in the audience were also killed by Gale.

A police officer was soon at the scene and ultimately shot Gale dead when he raised his weapon to the head of a hostage he had taken on the stage. It would come to light that Gale had a history of mental problems. He had even written that the band had “stolen his songs.”[1]

9 Colonel Bruce Hampton

Colonel Bruce Hampton dies after collapsing onstage at Fox Theatre in Atlanta

Although his death was not as bloodthirsty as the one above, the death of Colonel Bruce Hampton was equally as harrowing for those in the audience who witnessed it. The show in question was a 70th birthday celebration for Hampton himself at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta on the evening of April 30, 2017.

Perhaps what made the situation even worse is that when Hampton “toppled over” while playing the song “Turn on Your Lovelight,” the rest of the musicians on stage continued to play. They would later reveal that they believed it was a stunt for the audience’s amusement. Many even laughed. However, when Hampton stopped moving and didn’t get up to continue to play, they realized something had gone tragically wrong. It would come to light that a massive heart attack had struck the veteran musician.

One person in attendance, photographer Michael Weintrob, would later state that “at first everyone thought he was messing around. But he was dying while everyone else was playing.”[2]

8 Jon Erik-Hexum

What REALLY Happened?! Unraveling the Actor’s Heartbreaking Last Hours on the Set of “Cover Up”

The death of actor Jon Erik-Hexum is perhaps particularly distressing as not only was it a tragic accident, but it also ultimately arose out of boredom on set. The actor—only 26 years old—was shooting a scene for a CBS show, Cover Up, in 1984. As part of the scene, he had a .44 Magnum loaded with one blank bullet.

Due to delays with the filming, Hexum quickly grew bored and began spinning the chamber around in the gun—as if playing Russian roulette. Although he spun the chamber, the only blank bullet was not ready to fire. Unbeknown to Hexum, though, a “wad of paper” was. When he placed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger, the paper smashed through his skull. This, in turn, sent a coin-sized piece of bone fragment directly into his brain. He was ultimately kept alive on life-support but was officially declared “brain dead” less than a week later.[3]

7 Joe E. Ross

Life and Times of Comedian Joe E Ross Mini-Reel #1

Joe E. Ross is perhaps best known for his role in Car 54, Where Are You?—a popular TV show in the early 1960s. However, it would be while performing a low-key show at a clubhouse in the apartment building where he lived in the Van Nuys suburb of Los Angeles that he would collapse and suffer a fatal heart attack during the performance in August 1982. By the time the 67-year-old had been removed from the stage and taken to hospital for treatment, he was pronounced dead.

Although he had remained active on television throughout the years, he had become a regular on the club scene in the years before his death. Despite his age, he was thought to be in relatively good health, which only served to make his death that much more shocking for his family and friends, many of whom were in attendance.[4]

6 Karl Wallenda

March 22, 1978: Legendary daredevil performer Karl Wallenda dies while performing a stunt

As an acrobatic tightrope walker, Karl Wallenda’s death was not only filmed by a local news film crew in San Juan, Puerto Rico, but was also witnessed by 200 people at the scene. During an attempt to walk a tightrope over 120 feet (60 meters) from the ground between two of the towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel in 1978, the 73-year-old lost his balance and tumbled to his death. He would hit a parked taxi on his way to the ground, which is thought to have been the fatal blow. In reality, though, he would likely have met the same fate if he had landed squarely on the ground.

It is thought that the wires were incorrectly secured. This, combined with particularly high winds on the afternoon of the stunt attempt, caused the veteran acrobat to lose his balance. Although the footage filmed did not circulate widely among the world’s media, it was shown on several media outlets and is particularly disturbing to watch.[5]

5 Leonard Warren

Leonard Warren “Morir! Tremenda cosa” La Forza del Destino

What perhaps made the sudden death of opera star Leonard Warren all the more grim is the line he was singing in the moments before his death. While performing La Forza Del Destino—an Italian opera by Giuseppe Verdi—in March 1960, Warren sang the line “… to die, a momentous thing.” He was then supposed to continue with the rest of the performance along with the other cast members.

Some cast members would claim that the opera star began to say, “Help me, help me!” before he collapsed on the stage of the sold-out performance. Others, however, state that he remained silent aside from a gasping sound as he tried to catch his breath.

Cast members quickly went to administer aid when they realized something was wrong. Warren, however, was already dead. It was eventually revealed he had suffered a fatal heart attack. Incidentally, he had been cast in performances for several years, something which caused numerous problems for those who had to recast for their respective shows.[6]

4 Gilbert Genesta

This is why Genesta Drowned in the Milk Can Escape

All magicians and illusionists accept the risk of death during their performances. However, when considering the sheer number of such shows over the years, this is a rare occurrence. However, in November 1930, American escape artist Gilbert Genesta attempted to perform an escape from a water-filled barrel. And it would go tragically wrong. He had witnessed the great Houdini perform the stunt and wished to do so himself.

By the time he was performing the stunt in Frankfort, Kentucky, he had already successfully escaped on numerous occasions. However, unbeknown to the performer, the barrel he was using on this night (a metal milk barrel that contained milk instead of water) had a small dent in it. This was more than enough to limit the escape artist’s movements, meaning he failed to escape in time.

When stage assistants realized something was wrong, they quickly rushed on stage and dropped the curtain in front of the audience. When they pulled Genesta out, he was unconscious but still barely alive. However, despite an initial successful revival, he died a short time later. Perhaps ironically, his death only served to make such escape tricks more popular with both audiences and performers.[7]

3 Thomas Macarte

Most AMAZING Lion Tamers In The World!

Rightly or wrongly, there might be many people who have little sympathy regarding the death of Thomas Macarte. In January 1872, he was doing what he did best: lion taming. On this occasion, in Bolton in the United Kingdom, he was inside a cage with five large lions. There were approximately 500 people in attendance. All were horrified when not one but each of the lions in the cage suddenly turned on the veteran lion tamer and ultimately mauled him to death.

It is thought, according to Macarte’s wife, that one of the lions had bitten his hand several days previously. He had allegedly confessed to his wife that he was “afraid” of this lion despite his ample experience. It is also thought that before the show, he had consumed several alcoholic drinks in order to settle his nerves because of this. Whether this contributed to his death or whether the lions in question merely “snapped” after years of such treatment is open to debate.[8]

2 Molière

Four centuries after Molière’s birth: The legacy of France’s most successful playwright

Perhaps the earliest person who died while performing on our list goes back to the seventeenth century when Molière (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), the French writer and actor, died while onstage in February 1673.

In fact, Molière actually collapsed twice on the night in question. He would insist after his coughing fits and breathlessness that he continue with the play. However, a short time later, he would collapse again, this time with severe bleeding. He was accompanied home, where he passed away shortly after. He was waiting to receive the last rites at the time of his death. However, while two priests had arrived at this home, a third hadn’t, prompting the first two priests to insist they must wait. By the time the late priest arrived, the Frenchman was dead.

Incidentally, Molière was wearing green at the time of his fatal performance. It is said that the belief that the color is bad luck for actors stems from his death.[9]

1 “Mr. Cummins”

Although there is little known about the person himself or the aftermath, the 1817 death of an actor known only as “Mr. Cummins” at Leeds Theatre in Hunslet is still spoken of today. At least by actors in the United Kingdom theatre scene.

The play in question was named The Tragedy of Jane Shore. The plot of the play revolves around a husband (played by Cummins) who forgives his wife of a life of sin following her repentance. However, after he had shouted out his last line of the performance, the unfortunate actor simply fell to the stage and died. It is thought he died from heart failure.

Whether the heart attack was a sudden one or whether he had felt unwell before and during the performance is not known. However, Cummins, like actors since the beginning of the craft, was very much a believer in the “show must go on.”[10]

fact checked by Jamie Frater
Marcus Lowth

Marcus Lowth is a writer with a passion for anything interesting, be it UFOs, the Ancient Astronaut Theory, the paranormal or conspiracies. He also has a liking for the NFL, film and music.

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