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Gone Too Soon: 6 Famous Funerals of Megastars Under 50

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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