September 11, 2003. It was all too fresh on our minds. The air was thick with solemnity and reflection. The nation had been rehabilitated from the events of that fateful day…and then the shocking news!

I was a senior in high school at the time. It was about 7:30 in the morning and I was just sitting down to breakfast. Good Morning America was on in the other room and I heard the startling announcement: John Ritter was dead.


Why this is such a vivid memory is due to several factors: The timing, for one, is enough to make it forever retentive. But then when you note how abrupt Ritter’s death was, it’s even more easily recalled. It was one of those “now you see him, now you don’t” moments. Here he was at the pinnacle of success with 8 Simple Rules and what started out as a healthy guy going to the doctor for a minor chest pain turned out to be an aortic dissection and an untimely death.

One of Ritter’s less well-known, though surprisingly good roles, was as L. Frank Baum in the made-for-tv movie The Dreamer of Oz.

But Ritter is just one example of an actor who left us too soon. Here are a few others:


James Dean’s life was cut short at the age of 24 after starring in only 3 films. Those 3 films have since developed a cult following, and nearly 60 years after his death he remains one of America’s most fascinating icons. And to the world, he will always have eternal youth and immortality.

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Michael Landon is best remembered for being a family man, both on and off screen. Landon, whose real name was Eugene Orowitz, excelled at sports in high school. His skill at the javelin earned him a scholarship to USC. An injury cut his athletic career short, however, and after deciding to pursue an acting career he decided to give himself a more “movie-sounding” name. That’s how “Michael Landon” was born. A somewhat fictionalized version of this story is told in Landon’s own Sam’s Son.

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Like James Dean, the life of River Phoenix was a short one. Prior to his death from a drug overdose in 1993, he starred in 13 films (14 if you count the unfinished Dark Blood, which he was working on before he died). Moviegoers in the late 80’s may remember him for two roles opposite Harrison Ford. He played the young version of Indiana Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He also portrayed Ford’s son in The Mosquito Coast.