Sunday’s Academy Awards will be an emotional night. Not only because of the excitement of Hollywood being gathered together again — but because one nominee won’t be around to celebrate.
Chadwick Boseman, who’s nominated and expected to win Oscar 2021’s Best Actor for his role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” died of colon cancer in August at age 43. When the “Black Panther” star won the Golden Globe in February, his widow, Taylor Simone Ledward, accepted it for him, saying, “I don’t have his words, but we have to take all the moments to celebrate those we love.”
Many beloved nominees — actors, screenwriters, directors, composers and more — have died before their Oscars ceremony, and 16 have won. Should Boseman’s name be called, he’ll become only the third actor to win posthumously.
Here are a few other Oscar nominees and winners who died before Hollywood’s biggest night.
Peter Finch, 1977
He was mad as hell, and he was not going to take it anymore! The first actor to ever win an Oscar posthumous was the brilliant Australian Peter Finch, who played the unhinged TV personality Howard Beale in 1976’s “Network.”
Finch had a distinguished career alongside entertainment royalty. His mentor was Laurence Olivier, and he starred in “Othello” opposite Orson Welles.
He also led a sometimes-scandalous life. In addition to his three marriages, he had an affair with singer Shirley Bassey.
One night while promoting “Network,” Finch went on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson.” Afterward, he headed to the the Beverly Hills Hotel, where he dropped dead of a heart attack in the lobby. He was 60.
The Best Actor category in 1977 was stacked with talent: Robert De Niro in “Taxi Driver,” William Holden in “Network” and Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky.” When Finch’s name was announced, Stallone looked flabbergasted, going as far as to not applaud the win, put off that his breakout role didn’t net him an award. Finch’s widow, Eletha, accepted the prize and said that her husband primarily would’ve thanked her: “And most of all, thanks to you, darling, for sending the right vibes in the right way.”
Heath Ledger, 2009
Heath Ledger is the youngest posthumous Academy Award winner and one of just two to win an acting prize. He died at just 28 years old of a drug overdose at home in Soho in 2008.
Ledger, who won for his demented portrayal of the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” had been an actor on the rise. He turned from comedies such as “10 Things I Hate About You” to acclaimed dramas like “Monster’s Ball” and “Brokeback Mountain,” which got him his first Oscar nomination in 2006.
He had a daughter, Matilda, with Michelle Williams, whom he broke up with in the months before his death.
When he won for “The Dark Knight,” which he didn’t live to see, his family accepted the award on his behalf.
“Heath was such a compassionate and generous soul, who added so much excitement and inspiration to our lives,” said his mother, Sally. “Tonight we are choosing to celebrate and be happy for what he has achieved.”
Howard Ashman, 1992
You might not know the name Howard Ashman, but you definitely know the songs he wrote the lyrics for: “Part of Your World,” “Under the Sea” and “Beauty and the Beast” — the tune that won him an Oscar after he died in 1991.
Ashman and writing partner Alan Menken started out as off-Broadway rabble-rousers, writing the scores for a little-known musical called “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater” and a very well-known one called “Little Shop of Horrors.” The latter got them in the door at Disney, where together they penned the songs for “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin.”
It was after they’d won Oscars for “Little Mermaid” in 1990 that Ashman revealed to Menken that he had HIV.
But the two continued to write, turning a hit out of “Beauty and the Beast” — the first animated film to score a Best Picture nod.
As his condition worsened, the pair worked on “Aladdin” from the witty Ashman’s room at Saint Vincent’s hospital in the West Village. They wrote the song “Prince Ali” from there, often while the lyricist wore his “Beauty and the Beast” sweatshirt.
He died on March 3, 1991, at age 40. Accepting the Best Original Song award was his longtime partner, Bill Lauch, who said that the win was “bittersweet.”
“This is the first Academy Award given to someone we’ve lost to AIDS,” he said. “For Howard, I thank you.”
James Dean, 1956 and 1957
It’s rare enough for an actor to be nominated for an Oscar after they die — James Dean was nominated for two. He’s the only performer to ever achieve that feat.
Dean hit it big in 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause” — which came out a month after he died in a car crash in California at age 24. The actor then scored two acting nods: for “East of Eden” in 1956 and “Giant” in 1957.
He lost both, but the heartthrob cemented his place in Hollywood history.
Jeanne Eagels, 1930
The first deceased person to be nominated for an Oscar — for the academy’s second annual awards — was Jeanne Eagels, who died tragically at 39 years old. She was a Kansas-born Ziegfeld girl who hit it big in New York in the 1910s and ‘20s, making her name as the lead in Somerset Maugham’s Broadway play “The Letter.”
She was hailed for her acting, but Eagels’ meteoric rise to fame also led to her downfall. Some said she would drink during performances, though Eagels denied this. According to the book “Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed,” her ex-husband once accused her of holing up in a train car with “six bottles of whiskey.”
Eagels made a film version of “The Letter” and died months later, on Oct. 3, 1929 — three weeks before the stock market crash plunged America into the Great Depression.
The publication Liberty reported that during an autopsy, doctors attributed her death to an overdose of the sedative chloral hydrate — a substance also found in Marilyn Monroe’s body. Others said it was caused purely by alcoholism.
Eagels was nominated for “The Letter” in 1930, but Mary Pickford won for “Coquette.” Beyond her films, the quality of her acting was honored in a movie she never appeared in, “All About Eve.” In that film, the critic Addison DeWitt (George Sanders) tells Margo Channing (Bette Davis): “Once in a great while, I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray. You were one. Jeanne Eagels another.”
Larry Russell, 1973
The composer Larry Russell won one of the most bizarre Oscars ever — him being dead only added to its oddity. You see, when Russell won Best Original Score for “Limelight,” along with co-writers Charlie Chaplin and Raymond Rasch, the man had already been dead for 18 years.
And the film itself was first released 21 years before the out-of-nowhere win in 1973.
How’d that happen?
After “Limelight” opened to generally positive reviews in New York in 1952, Chaplin left the US to promote the film, only to be denied re-entry due to his supposed communist sympathies. Thanks to anti-commie fervor, most theaters outside of a few on the East Coast refused to play the film. In order to be nominated for an Oscar, a movie must play in the Los Angeles area for at least seven days. That finally happened when the movie got its wide release in 1972, and Academy Award nods along with it.
Nearly two decades after he passed, Russell became an Oscar winner.