6 TV celebrities who were all falsely reported dead at some point
Gilligan, Beaver, Fish and Chachi were all the subject of death hoaxes.
Top image: far right, AP Photo
In April 1945, after the passing of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a rash of false death reports flooded the phone lines. The New York Times reported on April 14, "Newspapers, radio stations, government offices, banks and corner drugstores were deluged with thousands of telephone calls asking 'is it true?' that such and such a person had been killed." The celebrities reported dead included Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin, Al Jolson and Errol Flynn. Good thing social media was not around.
It can go beyond urban legend. Some classic pop culture stars have been the subject of erroneously published obituaries. Here are eight entertainers who were prematurely reported dead.
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1. Bob Denver
In early 1961, Bob Denver was reported dead more than 36 times in more than 30 states, according to a story that year in the Salt Lake Tribune. It became a common prank to call a newspaper and ask, "Is it true Bob Denver is dead?" The bizarre trend began to bother the Gilligan's Island star: "At first it was spooky," he says. "Then it seemed like a gag. When it kept up, it made me somewhat angry." In September 2012, Twitter again blew up with news of Denver's death — seven years after his passing.
Image: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
2. Jerry Mathers
In the late 1960s, after Mathers had finished his time in the National Guard, a rumor began to surface that he had been killed during the conflict in Vietnam. It's unclear how it started, but Mathers was far removed from the action taking place in Southeast Asia. During his time in the Army, he was only stationed within the United States.
Image: AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
3. Frank Gorshin
In 1957, Gorshin was visiting his hometown of Pittsburgh. His agent rang and asked him to zip back to California, as there was an open role in the upcoming Clark Gable film Run Silent, Run Deep. Afraid of flying, Gorshin hopped in his car and drove across the country, 39 hours straight. As he neared L.A., the actor dozed off at the wheel and crashed. A significant head injury knocked him out for four days. The Los Angeles papers wrote that he had died in the accident. The part went to Don Rickles. Thankfully, he was okay, and went on to play the Riddler.
Image: Gorshin in Batman
4. Abe Vigoda
Poor Abe Vigoda. No actor has been the subject of constant death rumors like the Barney Miller star. His death was first mistakenly reported in 1982 by People magazine. The self-deprecating actor took it with a laugh, subsequently posing inside a coffin for Variety. The false demise reports did not end there, as a local news broadcast in New Jersey claimed he was dead again in 1987. This would become a running gag across his guest appearances in his career, all the way up to the final episode of Late Night with Conan O'Brien, and it later became an internet meme. When Vigoda died in 2016, some did not even believe it.
Image: AP Photo/Jeff Robbins
5. Peter Boyle
In 1991, author Danny Peary published a book called Cult Movie Stars. In the entry for Peter Boyle, who was rightly included for his role in Young Frankenstein, his lifespan was listed as 1933–1990. Peary was not the first to write of Boyle's demise. In October 1990, the actor suffered a stroke and could not speak for months. This led to some declaring him deceased. The Everybody Loves Raymond star would live until 2006.
Image: AP Photo/Lucy Nicholson
6. Scott Baio
On December 18, 1997, the same day that Chris Farley died, an incorrect email led to news reports that the Happy Days and Joanie Loves Chachi actor had perished in a car crash. Baio told TV Guide in 1999, that the report started when someone in a morgue commented that a body "looked like Scott Baio." Baio's crying parents quickly called their son, to discover he was alive.
Image: Happy Days
Though he is not a television celebrity, per se, we would be remiss to not include the "Paul is Dead" legend, which has crossed the boundary from hoax to conspiracy theory. Books have been written about the urban legend, which began, oddly, in the student newspaper at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, with a piece titled "Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?" Quickly, conspiracy theorists searched for clues in the Beatles' music and album artwork. The rumor likely traces back to a car crash McCartney suffered in 1967.
Image: Apple Records / Universal Music
I had the privilege of meeting Jim Ely, his non-Disney name, in 2014 at his home in North Charleston, South Carolina, and for a few follow-up visits. He also got rides to visit mutual friends near Manning, where I live.
Jim shared many stories and shared his favorite videos, including videos when he gave a "Command Performance" in the UK. Jim told me about his lawsuit against Walt Disney, how he won his case, but lost the settlement to a crooked agent, and how Disney kept the rights to the name, Bobby Driscoll. He had written a book, which by legal agreement in the settlement between him and Walt, could not be published until after both of their deaths. Unfortunately, that manuscript got lost in the confusion after his death.
If you look into the death stories that were spun, Disney representatives sent a lawyer to find a body that had died, unidentified, then identified that body to be Driscoll.
Jim died last year. One of these years, I'm going to play the DVD he gave me of his favorite things.
For some reason, Sanford & Son's Demond Wilson was a perennial entry in those top ten lists.