Gone Too Soon: 6 Famous Funerals of Megastars Under 50

Just 48 when she died, Whitney Houston will be laid to rest today, her “private” funeral webcast live to millions of mourners. Let's take a look back at past funerals for stars who died too young, and the glorious chaos they left in their wake.

1. Rudolph Valentino, 31 (1926)

© Bettmann/CORBIS

One of the earliest superstars of the silver screen, Rudolph Valentino died suddenly of a ruptured ulcer in 1926. During his first funeral procession in New York City, around 100,000 fans swarmed the streets, and several small riots had to be quelled by the police. The funeral home director in charge of the affair had apparently hired four actors to impersonate an Italian honor guard “sent by Benito Mussolini,” and later revealed that he had also paid the riotous New Yorkers to exaggerate their grief. At Valentino’s second funeral in Hollywood, a small plane (still something of a novelty at the time) dropped thousands of rose petals over the procession…but the lack of police action made the affair seem rather tame.

2. Elvis Presley, 42 (1977)

© Bettmann/CORBIS

Despite what some hardcore fans believe, Elvis did die of a heart attack in 1977. And, yes, he was found in the bathroom. President Carter called out 300 troops to control the area around Elvis’ Graceland mansion, where as many as 80,000 fans assembled to show their respects. A fleet of white Cadillac limousines carried Elvis’ 900-lb copper-lined coffin to the cemetery to be buried next to his mother, who was herself buried in a nearly identical copper-lined coffin. But after four people threatened to steal Elvis’ body, he and his mother were reinterred on the Graceland grounds.

3. John Lennon, 40 (1980)

Beloved former Beatle John Lennon was shot by a crazed fair-weather fan, Mark David Chapman, on December 8, 1980. His wife, artist Yoko Ono, opted to cremate her husband alone without a funeral, asking people around the world to “pray for his soul” at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Dec. 14, 1980. Fans around the world gathered in public squares and observed 10 minutes of silence, including more than 100,000 people assembled in Central Park alone, where Yoko later scattered Lennon’s ashes. NYPD was called out to keep the peace, but then they remembered: these are John Lennon fans. No violence occurred.

4. Gram Parsons, 26 (1973)

Two months short of his 27th birthday, singer/songwriter Gram Parsons died of drug-related complications in Joshua Tree National Park, California. A few months before, he and his good friend Phil Kaufman had made a pact: when one of them died, the other would make sure his ashes were scattered on Cap Rock, at Joshua Tree. In order to honor his friend’s last wishes, Kaufman had to disguise himself as an undertaker and intercept Parsons’ body at the airport, where it was due to fly to New Orleans on order of Parsons’ stepfather. Kaufman and another friend drove the body to Joshua Tree in a red 1953 hot-rod Pontiac hearse, and cremated him, coffin and all, before the cops saw the flames and chased the mourners from the grave. The pair were fined $300 each, plus $750 for the coffin, and held a Gram Parsons Funeral Party to defer the costs of what they called “Gram Theft Parsons.”

5. The Notorious B.I.G., 25 (1997)

© Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis

Known to his mother as Christopher J. Wallace, rapper Biggie Smalls was slain in a 1997 drive-by shooting. Thousands of fans lined up for his funeral procession, on the sidewalks of “Do or Die” Bed-Stuy, Biggie’s childhood neighborhood in New York. After some passionate fans began climbing atop of cars, the cops began arresting people, including—accidentally—a freelance reporter for the New York Times. Mayor Giuliani defended the police action, but Big Poppa managed to mess with the po-lice once last time.

6. Graham Chapman, 48 (1989)

British comedian Graham Chapman lost his battle with throat and spinal cancer in 1989. At his funeral, fellow Monty Python mate John Cleese gave a fittingly irreverent eulogy, beginning by repeating a monologue from the famous “Dead Parrot” sketch, which he and Chapman had co-written, replacing the parrot with Chapman himself: “He has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it…and gone to meet the great Head of Light Entertainment in the Sky.” Cleese then went on to explain that Chapman was so proud of being the first person to say “s***” on British television, he would be the first to have the word “f***” spoken at his funeral. The crowd tittered. Eric Idle then led the mourners in a rousing rendition of “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life,” from the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

Honorable Mention: Hunter S. Thompson (2005)

The late, great gonzo journalist always thought he’d die young, and gave it his best shot. Literally. Through the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, he lived among Hell’s Angels, carried a gun, and subsided primarily on hard drugs and liquor. Finally, at age 67, he left a suicide note of sorts, entitled “Football Season is Over,” which included the phrase “67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring.” He shot himself in the head soon after, leaving a directive for his elaborate funeral, which was carried out a few months later with financial assistance from his friend Johnny Depp. Accompanied by red, white, and blue fireworks and strains of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Thompson’s ashes were fired out of a cannon, which in turn sat atop a tower decorated to look like a double-thumbed fist clutching a peyote button. Numerous guests were high on drugs throughout, and a few had to be taken away by ambulance.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Warner Bros.
19 Shadowy Facts About Tim Burton's Batman
Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Superhero movies are bigger than they’ve ever been before, but we arguably wouldn’t be here at all without 1989’s Batman. Produced at a time before comic book movies were considered big business, Tim Burton’s dark look at a superhero then best known for a goofy TV show is a pop culture landmark, and the story of how it was made is almost as interesting as the film itself. So, to celebrate Batman—which was released on this day in 1989—here are 19 facts about how it came to the screen.

1. AN EARLY MOVIE IDEA RELIED ON THE CAMPINESS OF THE CHARACTER.

As development of a Batman movie began, studio executives were still very tied to the campiness embodied by the Batman television series of the 1960s. According to executive producer Michael Uslan, when he first began attempting to get the rights to make a film, he was told that the only studio who’d expressed interest was CBS, and only if they could do a Batman In Outer Space film.

2. IT TOOK 10 YEARS TO MAKE.

Uslan lobbied hard for the rights to Batman, and finally landed them in 1979. At that point, the fight to convince a studio to make the film ensued, and everyone from Columbia Pictures to Universal Pictures turned it down. When Warner Bros. finally agreed to back the film, the issue of developing the right script had to be settled, and that took even more time. In 1989, after years of battling, Batman was finally released, and Uslan has been involved in some form in every Batman film since.

3. AN EARLY SCRIPT FEATURED BOTH THE PENGUIN AND ROBIN.

When Uslan finally got the chance to develop the film, he drafted legendary screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz, who had been a consultant on Superman, to write the script. The Mankiewicz script included The Joker, corrupt politician Rupert Thorne, a much greater focus on Bruce Wayne’s origin story, The Penguin, and the arrival of Robin late in the film. The script was ultimately scrapped, but you can see certain elements of it in Batman Returns.

4. TIM BURTON WASN’T THE FIRST POTENTIAL DIRECTOR.

Though Warner Bros. ultimately chose Tim Burton to helm Batman, over the course of the film’s development a number of other choices emerged. At various points on the road to Batman, everyone from Gremlins director Joe Dante to Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman was in line for the gig.

5. MANY STARS OF THE TIME WERE CONSIDERED FOR BATMAN.

The casting process for Batman was a long one, and involved a number of major stars of the day. Among the contenders for the title role were Mel Gibson, Bill Murray (yes, really), Kevin Costner, Willem Dafoe, Tom Selleck, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, Ray Liotta, and Pierce Brosnan, who later regretted turning down the role.

6. TIM BURTON HAD TO FIGHT TO CAST MICHAEL KEATON.

At the time, Michael Keaton was best known for his comedic roles in films like Mr. Mom and Night Shift, so the thought of casting him as a vigilante of the night seemed odd to many. Michael Uslan remembers thinking a prank was being played on him when he heard Keaton’s name pop up. Burton, who’d already worked with Keaton on Beetlejuice, was convinced that Keaton was right for the role, not just because he could portray the obsessive nature of the character, but because he also felt that Keaton was the kind of actor who would need to dress up as a bat in order to scare criminals, while a typical action star would just garner “unintentional laughs” in the suit. Burton ultimately won the argument, and Keaton got an iconic role for two films.

7. JACK NICHOLSON WAS THE FIRST CHOICE FOR THE JOKER, BUT HE WASN’T THE ONLY CHOICE.

From the beginning, Uslan concluded that Jack Nicholson was the perfect choice to play The Joker, and was “walking on air” when the production finally cast him. He certainly wasn’t the only actor considered, though. Among Burton’s considerations were Willem Dafoe, James Woods, Brad Dourif, David Bowie, and Robin Williams (who really wanted the part).

8. TIM BURTON WON JACK NICHOLSON OVER WITH HORSEBACK RIDING.

When Nicholson was asked to discuss playing The Joker, he invited Burton and producer Peter Guber to visit him in Aspen for some horseback riding. When Burton learned that was what they’d be doing, he told Guber “I don’t ride,” to which Guber replied “You do today!” So, a “terrified” Burton got on a horse and rode alongside Nicholson, and the star ultimately agreed to play the Clown Prince of Crime.

9. EDDIE MURPHY WAS ONCE CONSIDERED TO PLAY ROBIN.

Though the character of Robin was ultimately scrapped because it simply didn’t feel like there was room for him in the film, he did appear in early drafts of the script, and at one point producers considered casting Eddie Murphy—who, you must remember, was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1980s—for the role. 

10. SEAN YOUNG WAS THE ORIGINAL VICKI VALE.

Burton initially cast Blade Runner star Sean Young as acclaimed photographer Vicki Vale, who would become Bruce Wayne’s love interest. Young was part of the pre-production process on Batman for several weeks until, while practicing horseback riding for a scene that was ultimately cut, she fell from her horse and was seriously injured. With just a week to go until shooting, producers had to act fast to find a replacement, and decided on Kim Basinger, who essentially joined the production overnight.

11. TIM BURTON WASN’T OFFICIALLY HIRED UNTIL BEETLEJUICE BECAME A HIT.

Though he was basically already a part of the production, Burton wasn’t officially the director of Batman right away. Warner Bros. showed interest in him working on the film after the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, but according to Burton they only officially hired him after the first weekend grosses for Beetlejuice came in.

“They were just waiting to see how Beetlejuice did,” Burton said. “They didn’t want to give me that movie unless Beetlejuice was going to be okay. They wouldn’t say that, but that was really the way it was.”

12. DANNY ELFMAN THOUGHT HE WAS GOING TO BE FIRED UNTIL HE PLAYED THE MAIN THEME.

Danny Elfman is now considered one of our great movie composers, but at the time Batman was released he didn’t have any blockbuster credits to his name. He recalls meeting with Burton (with whom he had worked on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) and producer Jon Peters to go over some of the music he’d already written for the film, and feeling “a lot of skepticism” over whether he should be the composer for Batman. It wasn’t until Burton said “Play the march,” and Elfman went into what would become the opening credits theme for the film, that he won Peters over.

“Jon jumped out of his chair, really just almost started dancing around the room,” Elfman said.

13. THE JOKER WASN’T ALWAYS GOING TO KILL BATMAN’S PARENTS.

In the final film, The Joker (then named Jack Napier) is revealed to be the gangster who guns down Bruce Wayne’s parents in the streets of Gotham City. It’s a twist that some comic book fans still dislike, and according to screenwriter Sam Hamm, it definitely wasn’t his fault.

“That was something that Tim had wanted from early on, and I had a bunch of arguments with him and wound up talking him out of it for as long as I was on the script. But, once the script went into production, there was a writer’s strike underway, and so I wasn’t able to be with the production as it was shooting over in London, and they brought in other people.”

Hamm also emphasizes that it was also not his idea to show Alfred letting Vicki Vale into the Batcave.

14. THE CLIMACTIC SCENE WAS WRITTEN MIDWAY THROUGH SHOOTING.

Though much of the film is still derived from Hamm’s script, rewrites continued to happen during shooting, and one of them involved the final confrontation between Batman and The Joker in a Gotham City clock tower. According to co-star Robert Wuhl, the climax was inspired by Jack Nicholson and Jon Peters, who went to see a production of The Phantom of the Opera midway through filming and watched as the Phantom made his final stand in a tower. Together, they somehow determined that a final fight in the tower was what Batman needed.

“The next day, they started writing that scene … the whole ending in the tower,” Wuhl said.

15. MICHAEL KEATON’S BATMAN MOVEMENTS WERE INSPIRED BY THE RESTRICTIONS OF THE COSTUME.

Batman fans still love to make jokes about the original costume, and Michael Keaton’s inability to turn his head (there’s even a dig at that in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight), but the restrictions of the costume actually inspired how Keaton performed as the Dark Knight. In 2014, Keaton revealed that his performance as Batman was heavily influenced by a moment when, while trying to actually turn his head in the suit, he ended up ripping it.

“It really came out of the first time I had to react to something, and this thing was stuck to my face and somebody says something to Batman and I go like this [turning his head] and the whole thing goes, [rriipp]! There was a big f***ing hole over here,” he said. “So I go, well, I've got to get around that, because we've got to shoot this son of a bitch, so I go, 'You know what, Tim [Burton]? He moves like this [like a statue]!’”

“I'm feeling really scared, and then it hit me—I thought, 'Oh, this is perfect! This is perfect.' I mean, this is, like, designed for this kind of really unusual dude, the Bruce Wayne guy, the guy who has this other personality that's really dark and really alone, and really kind of depressed. This is it.”

16. GOTHAM CITY WAS REAL, AND IT WAS EXPENSIVE.

Production designer Anton Furst put a lot of work into the incredibly influential designs for the film’s version of Gotham City, and the production was committed to making them pay off. The production ultimately spent more than $5 million to transform the backlot of London’s Pinewood Studios into Gotham City, and you can see the dedication to practical effects work in the final film.

17. PRINCE WAS PART OF THE PRODUCTION EVEN BEFORE HE JOINED IT.

Batman famously features original songs by Prince, who wrote so much new material for the production that he basically produced a full album. Even before the Purple One was drafted to write for the film, though, he was influencing it. Burton played Prince songs on set during the parade sequence and the Joker’s rampage through the museum.

18. THE FILM’S MARKETING WAS SO EFFECTIVE THAT IT INSPIRED CRIMES.

By the time Batman was actually on its way to release, it was becoming a phenomenon, and the marketing for the film was inspiring a frenzy among fans. People were buying tickets to other films just to see the first trailer, and selling bootleg copies of the early footage. The poster, featuring the iconic logo, was so popular that, according to Uslan, people were breaking into bus stations just to steal it.

19. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE LANDMARK.

Though studio executives resisted the idea of a “dark” Batman movie for years, the film ultimately set a new standard for box office success. It was the first film to ever hit $100 million in 10 days, the biggest film in Warner Bros.’ history at the time, and the box office’s biggest earner of 1989—and that’s not even counting the massive toy and merchandising sales it generated.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Scott Olson, Getty Images
Underwhelmed Tourists
Scott Olson, Getty Images
Scott Olson, Getty Images

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios