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7 Tragic SNL Deaths

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Ten years ago today, Saturday Night Live alum Phil Hartman was murdered by his wife. Due to the tragic nature of his death, as well as other high-profile deaths of former SNL cast members, the media was abuzz with talk of an SNL curse. In 31 seasons, 118 cast members have appeared on the show and seven of them have died. That's only a five-percent fatality rate. While there probably isn't a curse, here is a chronological look at the deaths of seven former cast members.

John Belushi

belushi.jpgEasily one of the best-known cast members of all time, original player John Belushi also became a wildly successful film actor. On his thirtieth birthday in 1979, Belushi had the number one album (The Blues Brothers: Briefcase Full of Blues), the number one movie (Animal House) and was the star of the highest-rated late night television show (SNL). Of course, Belushi was equally well known for his drug and alcohol indulgences. In a sketch called "Don't Look Back in Anger," which aired in 1978, John Belushi plays an elderly version of himself, visiting the graves of his fellow cast members. ''They all thought I'd be the first to go,'' he gloats. ''I was one of those live-fast, die-young, leave-a-good-looking-corpse types, you know. But I guess they were wrong.'' Belushi died of a drug overdose at the famous Chateau Marmont hotel. The lethal dose of cocaine and heroin was given to him by backup singer and notorious groupie Cathy Smith. Years later, Smith would serve prison time for her involvement in his death, among other crimes.


In one of his final television appearances, Belushi was filmed dead and face down in a swimming pool for the opening sequence of the show Police Squad. The footage was part of a running gag during the opening credits, where the episodes' guest-star would meet an untimely demise before the show even started. Due to his untimely death, the sequence never aired.

Gilda Radner

Original cast member Gilda Radner, known for her vibrant characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna and Baba Wawa, became the second cast member to pass away. She died in 1989 at the age of 42 after a second battle with ovarian cancer. For Radner, the true tragedy was that her cancer had been misdiagnosed several times, and though it was treated and went into remission, its return struck too quickly to cure. She was re-diagnosed with cancer in early May and died within the month. She had been scheduled to host an episode of SNL between her bouts of cancer but a writers' strike ended the season prematurely. She died on a Saturday, just before a new episode of SNL was to air. A tearful Steve Martin introduced a clip of a skit featuring Radner and himself dancing.

Her widower, Gene Wilder, created an ovarian cancer detection center and testified before Congress about ovarian cancer awareness. Radner once said that "Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I'd rather not belong to" and in 1991, a support group to raise awareness of cancer called Gilda's Club was founded.

Danitra Vance

danitra-vance.jpgVance joined the SNL cast for the historically disappointing 1985 season and became the first African-American female repertory player. She received little screen time and was often blatantly typecast. One of her more famous recurring characters was Cabrini Green Jackson, a professional teenage mother who gave advice on pregnancy. Frustrated by her demeaning characters, Vance left at the end of her first season. The majority of the rest of the cast was fired shortly after she left due to poor ratings. Four years after she left the show, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She went into remission and created a skit based on her experiences. Unfortunately, the cancer returned and she died in 1993 at the age of 35.

Michael O'Donoghue

O'Donoghue was never as famous as Farley or Hartman, but he was an integral part of the original SNL cast as the head writer. He appeared in many sketches, memorably in the opening of the first show as an English-language teacher instructing John Belushi in such phrases as "I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines. We are out of badgers." Later in his tenure, O'Donoghue cultivated the persona of the grim "Mr. Mike" who told "Least-Loved Bedtime Stories" such as "The Little Engine that Died." The sketch had the line "I think I can! I think I can! Heart attack! Heart attack! Ohmygodthepain! Ohmygodthepain!" which turned out to be strangely similar to O'Donoghue's own last words. On the morning of November 8, 1994, O'Donoghue awoke to what he thought was a migraine, an affliction he often suffered. He took some medication and went back to bed. He later woke up a second time in immense pain and exclaimed "Oh, my God!" He was rushed to the hospital but he never regained consciousness after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage.

Chris Farley

Farley made himself a household name with his hilarious physical comedy. Struggling with his success and pigeon-holed with big, awkward and dim-witted characters, Farley turned to alcohol and drug abuse. His struggle landed him in rehab facilities 31 times in his short life, but sadly the treatments did not keep him sober. He died at the age of 33 after a speedball overdose, the same drug cocktail that killed John Belushi at the exact same age.

During Hartman's final show, he cradled Farley (who was dressed as his wildly popular Matt Foley character) and he sang "So Long, Farewell"; the two died within six months of each other. At the time of his death, Farley had recorded vocal tracks for the title character in Shrek and was rumored to be starting work on Ghostbusters 3 and Blues Brothers 2000.

Phil Hartman

When he left SNL in 1994, Phil Hartman was the show's longest serving cast member, appearing in eight seasons as dozens of beloved characters. He earned a reputation as one of the nicest and most genuine castmembers to ever grace the stage of studio 8H. Following his departure from SNL, Hartman continued to serve as a voice actor for The Simpsons and joined the cast of the NBC sitcom NewsRadio. But Hartman wasn't just a smooth voiced comedian; he was also a graphic designer and created the logo for Crosby, Stills and Nash and designed three album covers for America.

Hartman was killed in his sleep by his intoxicated wife, Brynn, who killed herself just hours later. Family members attribute the act to the prescription drug Zoloft and sued the drug's manufacturer and the doctor who prescribed the medication. Several sources have stated that Brynn was jealous of Hartman's career, but friends stated that they always appeared to be a happy couple. Oddly enough, his NewsRadio character, Bill McNeal, claims to have numerous enemies and stalkers and often mentions a girlfriend who is unstable and tries to kill him.

Charles Rocket

charles+rocket.jpgFollowing the departure of the original cast and Lorne Michaels before the 1980-81 season, temporary replacement producer Jean Doumanian hand picked Charles Rocket to be the breakout star of the new Saturday Night Live. Billed as a combination of Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, Rocket appeared in more sketches than any other male cast member that season and even hosted Weekend Update. During a sketch in the middle of the season, Rocket said the most notorious obscenity on live television and soon was fired, as was Doumanian and the bulk of the unpopular cast.


While he had a steady stream of acting work after the abrupt end of his SNL career, Rocket was found in a field near his home with a slit throat in October of 2005. His unexpected and tragic death was ruled a suicide; a motive was never determined.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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