Loretta Barnard

Dial M for Murder: Hollywood’s celebrity victims

While Hollywood digs a good murder story, it pales in comparison to the love felt when it happens for real. What a town.

 

 

Murder in the movies is a sure-fire recipe for box-office success. There’s a stack of gripping murder mystery movies out there, all made to frighten, challenge and dare I say, entertain us. But what about when an actor is murdered? For real?

Today we’re going all Hollywood Babylon, indulging in some populist tabloid-style fascination with celebrity murders. Celebrity is a strange beast: one the one hand a celebrity is a total stranger, someone we’ll never ever meet, not in our wildest dreams; on the other, sometimes we feel very close to a celebrity, feel that they’re part of our everyday lives. It’s why we grieve when our favourite actors, musicians or artists die.

It’s surprising and somehow disturbing to discover that a number of Hollywood actors have been murder victims. Everyone’s familiar with the horribly gruesome deaths of actress Sharon Tate and four of her friends at the hands of the psychopathic Manson Family. There are others too whose famous lives were also prematurely snuffed out, among them actor and musician Sal Mineo, who played opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). In 1976, he was stabbed in the heart, aged 37. Forty-year-old actress Lana Clarkson was shot dead in 2003 by prominent record producer Phil Spector. Dominique Dunne, who played the daughter in Poltergeist (1982) was just 23 when her ex-boyfriend strangled her.

Why celebrity deaths continue to intrigue us is no doubt a meaty topic for psychologists. We’re endlessly curious about motives and means, and murdered celebrities acquire an added air of mystery. Here are three famous Hollywood murder victims.

 

Haing S. Ngor (1940-1996)

The brutal reign of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s left an indelible mark on all the people of that country, even those who survived the atrocities. Haing S. Ngor lost most of his family during that period, including his pregnant wife. He managed to escape to Thailand and by 1980 was living in Los Angeles.

A gynaecologist by training, Ngor was invited to join the cast of The Killing Fields (1984), a harrowing revisiting of the Pol Pot era. Although he’d never acted before, he knew first hand the viciousness of the regime and his incredible performance won him Best Supporting Actor at the following Oscars. He continued to act, appearing in movies such as My Life (1993) and various television shows, using monies earned to establish a foundation to help rebuild his home country and aid Cambodian refugees.

On 25 February 1996, Ngor was shot dead outside his LA home. Some suggested it was a political murder – that Pol Pot who was still alive and living in the Cambodian jungle, had ordered it, but that theory has largely been dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Three members of a Chinatown street gang were charged with his murder, the motive given as robbery. Ngor had escaped a genocidal killer only to be murdered by punks.

 

Phil Hartman (1948-1998)

Emmy-award-winning comedian and actor Phil Hartman, known and loved for his appearances on Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons and in a range of movies including Three Amigos! (1986), Coneheads (1993) and Jingle All the Way (1996), seemed an unlikely murder victim. He was a personable man with a warm sense of humour, well liked by his colleagues in the entertainment business, and his career was going gangbusters.

Phil had been married three times. His third wife Brynn, the mother of his two children, had a major problem with drugs and alcohol and was prone to frequent aggressive and physically violent attacks. She was quick to anger and Phil, accustomed to her raging outbursts, usually left her to her own devices to settle down.

But she wasn’t settled on the night of 28 May 1998, when she came home from a big drinking session, went into the bedroom and fired a number of bullets into head of her sleeping husband. Leaving her kids at home, she drove to a friend’s house to tell him what she’d done, then returned home. As police arrived, she locked herself in the bedroom and calmly shot herself, leaving behind two additional victims in her traumatised children.

 

Bob Crane (1928-1978)

Bob Crane was famous for his long-running role as Colonel Hogan in the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971), in which PoWs in a German stalag ran a sophisticated espionage operation. It was hugely successful and made Crane one of the most well-known faces of American television. He was also a professional drummer and played the snare drum heard in show’s theme song. He later appeared in other television shows, some films and on stage, although he never enjoyed the same level of success as he had with Hogan’s Heroes.

On 29 June 1978, Crane’s body was found in his apartment. He’d been bludgeoned to death with a camera tripod and an electrical cord was wound tightly around his neck. A brutal death by any stretch. But whodunit?

Reports suggest that Crane had a pretty kinky sex life, videotaping many of his carnal liaisons, and for a time it was suspected that a jilted lover or angry husband might have committed the crime. Blood found at the site seemed to implicate Crane’s friend and whoring companion John Carpenter and fourteen years after Crane’s death, he was charged with murder, but later acquitted due to lack of evidence. To this day, nearly forty years later, Bob Crane’s murder remains unsolved.

Violent, senseless, tragic ends for these actors.

There’s something about murder in general that repels and enthralls us in equal measure, but Hollywood homicides definitely attract an added layer of drama and macabre fixation. Perhaps we’re ghouls or gossips. Or perhaps we feel some perverse comfort in the fact that is was them, not us. Or maybe we’re gripped because the celebrity victim has, unwittingly, played some kind of special part in our own lives. Whatever the reason, that fascination with celebrity in all its forms – including celebrity deaths – is likely to continue unabated.

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of a wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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