Manny P. here…
Over the years, a common reason famous people have died in airline crashes is because of monetary access to travel like a bird. That said, early aviators such as Amelia Earhart may have been doomed by unrealistic goals. The Kennedy curse did not begin with the lone guns of Lee Harvey Oswald and Sirhan Sirhan; Joe Kennedy Jr. and Kathleen Kennedy spent their last moments of life on a winged craft way back in the 1940s. War was an obvious reason why Carole Lombard and Big Band leader Glenn Miller died tragically, when their air crafts disappeared or crashed. Bad weather contributed to the demise of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper in the 1950s; and Otis Redding and The Barkays in the 1960s. More recently, we have lost Jim Croce, John Denver, and composer James Horner.
Here are six cinematic legends who perished on planes, rarely referenced today:
~ Will Rogers – A folksy poet, who set the modern standard for rural comedy, in truth, was a savvy entertainer that became a nationwide cross-culture phenomenon during the the Silent Era of cinema. Inheriting the mantle from Mark Twain, this common man was a cowboy, vaudeville performer, humorist, newspaper columnist, social commentator, and stage and motion picture actor (making over 21 films in the Sound Era).
Rogers was an advocate for the aviation industry after noticing advancements in Europe, and befriending Charles Lindbergh, the most famous aviator of the era. In 1935, the famed pilot Wiley Post, became interested in surveying a mail-and-passenger air route from the West Coast to Russia. Rogers visited Wiley often at an airport in Southern California, and he asked Post to fly him through Alaska in search of new material for his newspaper column. On August 15th, they left Fairbanks, Alaska. They were a few miles from Point Barrow in bad weather, and landed in a lagoon to ask directions. On takeoff, the engine failed at low altitude, and the aircraft plunged into the lagoon, shearing off the right wing, and the plane ended up inverted in the shallow water. Both men died instantly.
~ Knute Rockne – The legendary football coach at Notre Dame, Rockne was a bona fide star in his field of endeavor. His story was immortalized in a production that starred Pat O’Brien as the iconic coach. The Warner Brothers film, Knute Rockne All American, co-starred Ronald Reagan in one of finest moments on screen, Gale Page, and Donald Crisp.
Rockne died in the crash of an airplane — TWA Flight 599 — in Kansas on March 31st, 1931, while en route to participate in the production of the film The Spirit of Notre Dame. The unexpected, dramatic death of Rockne startled the nation and triggered a national outpouring of grief, and comparable to the passing of presidents. The funeral itself was broadcast live on network radio across the United States and in Europe, as well as to parts of South America and Asia.
~ Leslie Howard – A major movie star, who facilitated the careers of Humphrey Bogart and Wendy Hiller, he was cast as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. He also starred in Pygmalion (written by George Bernard Shaw), Of Human Bondage, and The Petrified Forest.
Howard’s World War II activities included acting and filmmaking. He was active in anti-German propaganda, and was reputedly involved with British or Allied Intelligence. This may have led to his death on June 1st, 1943, when an airliner on which he was a passenger was shot down over the Bay of Biscay, sparking conspiracy theories regarding his death. One hypothesis… his plane was targeted because Adolf Hitler believed that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a passenger.
~ Mike Todd – The famed producer of Around the World in Eighty Days, Mike Todd was one the many husbands of Elizabeth Taylor. Their friends included husband-and-wife Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.
On March 22nd, 1958, Todd’s private plane Lucky Liz crashed near Grants, New Mexico. The plane suffered engine failure while being flown overloaded, in icing conditions at an altitude that was too high for only one engine working under the heavy load. The craft went out of control and crashed, killing all four on board. Five days before, Todd flew on the plane to Albuquerque to promote a showing of his film. Taylor had been too ill to accompany him on the trip.
~ Sonja Henie – Like Knute Rockne, Sonja Henie was a Norwegian sports superstar. She was a three-time Olympic champion in figure skating. Henie’s connections with Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking German officials made her the subject of controversy during the advent of World War II. Controversy appeared first when Henie greeted Hitler with a Nazi salute at an exhibition in Berlin, right before the 1936 Winter Olympics; and she was strongly denounced by the Norwegian press. After the occupation of Norway, German troops saw Hitler’s autographed photo prominently displayed on the piano in the Henie family home.
Hollywood studio chief Darryl Zanuck signed her to a long term contract at 20th Century Fox, which made her one of the highest-paid actresses of the time. She appeared with Glenn Miller (a victim of an airline mishap over the English Channel) in the insanely popular musical, Sun Valley Serenade. Henie was diagnosed with leukemia in the mid-1960s. She died of the disease in 1969 during a flight from Paris to Oslo.
~ Audie Murphy – The eventual actor was the most decorated soldier of World War II. He received every military combat award for valor available, as well as French and Belgian awards for heroism. After the war, Murphy enjoyed a 21-year acting career. He played himself in the 1955 autobiographical To Hell and Back, based on his 1949 memoirs, but most of his films were Westerns, including The Red Badge of Courage.
Suffering from what would today be termed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he slept with a loaded handgun under his pillow and looked for solace in addictive sleeping pills. In the last few years of his life, he was plagued by money problems, but he refused offers to appear in alcohol and cigarette commercials, because he did not want to set a bad example. Murphy died in a plane crash in Virginia in 1971 shortly before his 46th birthday, and was interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
An honorable mention is Paul Mantz, a stunt pilot who perished as he performed a stunt crash during the filming of The Flight of the Phoenix in 1965. The actual footage was used in the final print of the film, and the entire production was dedicated to the pilot.
Until next time> “never forget”