Whether it was a lackluster crowd or weak material, performers love trading stories about the night they absolutely died while doing their shtick. Here are 10 examples of performers that actually did die onstage. On the bright side, they did shuffle off the mortal coil while doing the thing they loved.
1. Lee Morgan
On February 19, 1972, Lee Morgan, one of the greatest trumpet players of the 20th century, was playing a run-of-the-mill Tuesday night gig at Slugs in New York City. Between sets he got into an argument with his wife Helen. She left the club, came back with a gun, and shot Morgan in the chest while he was onstage. He died almost immediately. He was 33 years old.
On February 21, 1673, the French playwright and actor was performing the lead role in his newly penned play The Imaginary Invalid when a coughing fit overwhelmed him. He was dragged offstage and died not long after. Ironically, the play was about a chronic hypochondriac.
3 and 4. Felix Motti and Joseph Keilberth
These two classical music conductors both collapsed and died (in 1911 and 1968 respectively) while conducting the same opera, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, at the same place, the National Theater in Munich. If I were a conductor, I’d stick to Beethoven.
5. Harry Einstein (AKA Parkyakarkus)
The comedian and father of Albert Brooks died in 1958 while performing in a roast of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz at the legendary Friars Club. He collapsed onto the shoulder of Milton Berle.
6. Alexander Woolcott
Woolcott was a commentator for The New Yorker and a member of the Algonquin Round Table. Taking part in a radio show with several others in 1943 to discuss the rise of Hitler, Woolcott suffered a massive heart attack. Announcers said nothing on the air about his demise and listeners later commented that Mr. Woolcott seemed much less talkative and opinionated than usual.
7. Jerome Rodale
A proponent of organic farming and a bit of a health-guru, Rodale claimed, “I’m going to live to be 100, unless I’m run down by some sugar-crazed taxi driver.” He didn’t. Live to be 100, that is. He died during the taping of an interview on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971. He was 72.
8. Dick Shawn
Shawn might be best known to you as the actor who played Lorenzo St. DuBois/Adolf Hitler in Mel Brooks’ film The Producers. He was a frequent guest throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s on The Ed Sullivan Show and Friars Club Roasts. During a 1987 performance at UC San Diego, he collapsed after performing a bit about surviving a nuclear attack. The audience thought it was part of the act. When someone came onstage and started giving Shawn CPR, they still thought it was part of the act. When the paramedics arrived, the audience finally left the theater.
9. Tiny Tim
Yes, that Tiny Tim. Yes, of course he had just performed “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” It was 1996 in Minneapolis. As he turned to leave the stage, a heart attack felled the ukulele icon.
10. “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott
A founding member of metal band Pantera, guitarist Darrell Abbott was shot and killed in 2004 while playing a gig with his new band Damageplan in Columbus, OH. The deranged (and possibly mentally ill) shooter then opened up on other members of the audience, killing three more and injuring seven.