We didn’t have John Belushi for long, but when we did? It was epic. One of the first “Saturday Night Live” stars, Belushi gave us a master class in televised sketch work, rolling out impersonations of everyone from Truman Capote to Elizabeth Taylor. And when Belushi transitioned to the big screen with 1978’s “Animal House,” his role as the filthy frat boy Blutarsky became a cinema classic. It looked to his amazed fans that Belushi was just getting started, but in his private life the actor was also struggling with substance abuse. In March 1982, he overdosed at the age of 33.
The world still hasn’t come to terms with the loss of Andy Kaufman. Given that Kaufman was a sublime comedian and consummate prankster, there are those who still cling to the hope that the actor/performance artist faked his own death. But as far as we know, comedy lost a great in May 1984, when a 35-year-old Kaufman died of a rare form of cancer. Rather than stew on the “what ifs,” we’ll instead say to Kaufman, “tank you veddy much.”
Good luck finding a comedian today who doesn’t count Richard Pryor as an influence. Unflinchingly honest and as foul-mouthed as he was funny, Pryor’s uncanny observations and impeccable delivery turned the Illinois native, who had a notoriously tough childhood, into a legend. He took his talent from the comedy stage to the screen and back again during his career, and still performed even after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1986. Pryor died in December 2005, but his influence as a singularly gifted, uproarious storyteller lives on.
Knowing that we’d never get to see Chris Farley’s infectious smile again was very tough to swallow upon his death in 1997. It felt like we’d just gotten to know the uncontainable comedian, who got his start on “Saturday Night Live” in 1990. Farley’s career hurtled to the top of the comedy food chain, as he became an integral part of “SNL’s” cast and starred in movies of his own. Yet in his personal life, Farley was struggling with alcohol and substance abuse. The actor, seen here with filmmakers Tyron Montgomery (left) and Thomas Stellmach (right) at the 69th Academy Awards in March 1997, died that December from an overdose. He was 33.
It takes a special kind of creative to dream up the zany world of Pee-wee Herman, as comedic actor/writer Phil Hartman (right) did with Paul Reubens in the ’80s. Hartman served as Captain Carl before his memorable work on “Saturday Night Live.” From there, he built a career that included work on standouts like “The Simpsons” and “NewsRadio.” But tragedy in 1998 brought Hartman’s career to an abrupt end; the actor, seen here co-starring with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1996 movie “Jingle All The Way,” was shot to death by his wife, Brynn Hartman, who killed herself hours later.
The death of John Candy was like the death of childhood for many of his fans, who grew up watching him in classic comedies like 1987’s “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” Candy’s résumé reads like a list of pop culture’s favorite films: “Blues Brothers,” “Stripes,” “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” “Splash,” “Spaceballs” and “Home Alone,” all made between 1980 and 1990, not to mention his ensemble work on the Emmy-winning TV series, “SCTV,” or his starring role in 1993’s “Cool Runnings.” His comedy was gentler and more accessible than some of his raunchier brethren, but it was just as enthralling. A prolific actor, Candy, who struggled with his weight throughout his career, was at work on 1994’s “Wagons East” when he died in his sleep on the set. He was 43.
Bill Hicks was never afraid to deliver a controversial message — his gift was that he could make you belly laugh while doing so. Hicks’ time in the spotlight was brief, but he honed his craft since he was a kid, and grew to be known in the ’80s as a dark comedy giant and social critic, with frequent appearances on David Letterman’s late-night programs. But before Hicks could gain his footing with an even broader audience, he died of cancer in 1994. He was 32.
It didn’t matter if Mitch Hedberg was talking about koala bears or candy bars; when he stepped to the stage, he had your attention. The comedian once dubbed “the next Seinfeld” had reached cult status in the late ’90s and was approaching mainstream popularity when he died suddenly in March 2005 of a drug overdose at age 37.
Patrice O’Neal is another stand-up comedian whose staunch frankness is missed to this day. At turns brilliant and gleefully brash, O’Neal was a comics’ comic — the kind of sharp storyteller who could enrapture even those who did stand-up for a living. His views and comedy were controversial, to be certain, but they were also a welcome challenge. O’Neal, seen here in September 2011, died from complications of a stroke that November at age 41.
By the time “The Bernie Mac Show” made its way to Fox in 2001, the comedy’s tart-tongued star had been making audiences laugh for close to a decade, stretching all the way back to HBO’s “Def Comedy Jam.” But that sitcom gave Bernie Mac an even bigger platform for his distinctive delivery, snowballing an already successful career into stardom territory with movies like the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise, “Guess Who” and “Transformers.” Mac’s seemingly unstoppable rise was cut short in 2008 when the comedian died of complications from pneumonia at the age of 50.
Another original “Saturday Night Live” cast member, Gilda Radner, gave us the gift of characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna and her unforgettable spin on Barbara Walters, Baba Wawa. For anyone who thought comedy was a boy’s game, Radner was there to prove them wrong, hanging in league with co-stars like John Belushi. Radner was poised to shine on film, with movies like 1982’s “Hanky Panky,” but she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986, and passed away three years later at the age of 42.
Counterculture comedian, social satirist and expletive enthusiast, Lenny Bruce (seen here circa 1965), knew how to talk dirty and influence people. He kept his audience in rapt attention while speaking frankly — often in a stream of consciousness — about taboo subjects such as religion, politics and sex. But not everyone was amused. Bruce was arrested several times for obscenity in his act, ultimately leading to a conviction at trial following a 1964 charge. The good news is he was granted a full pardon. The bad news is that it came in 2003, 37 years after Bruce died of a drug overdose in his Hollywood house at the age of 40.
A rare glimpse of the comic out of his trademark duster and beret, shrieking Sam Kinison attends the Emmy Awards in 1991, a year before his untimely death at 38 from a head-on collision. Kinison — who admitted to struggling with drugs, alcohol and his weight — rose to mainstream fame in Rodney Dangerfield’s “Back to School” and appearances on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “SNL.” He also had his own HBO special, 1987’s “Breaking the Rules.”
If you tuned into “The Tonight Show” between 1988 and 2007, you have likely laughed at Richard Jeni’s stand-up. Before his death, he clocked the most appearances on the late-night institution, both in the Johnny Carson and Jay Leno years. Sadly, those accolades could not prevent the dark turn of events that led to Jeni’s death from an apparent self-inflicted shotgun wound. He was 49.
Freddie Prinze was a comic extraordinaire, titular star of “Chico and the Man” (with Jack Albertson, left) and father of “She’s All That” heartthrob Freddie Prinze, Jr. Reportedly depressed over the breakup of his marriage and addicted to Quaaludes, Prinze shot himself in the head in 1977. He was just 22 years old. Originally, Prinze’s death was ruled a suicide, but was later designated an accident in a civil case.