False Grim Reaper Rumors
Imagine hearing through the grapevine that you’ve passed away! It happens to famous people every once in a while, and while it can be hard on their friends and family, it’s pure entertainment for the rest of us. Here are a few examples of phony death rumors from world history.
Alexander the Great
ALEXANDER THE GREAT was still new at the king business in 335 B.C. when the citizens of Thebes heard a rumor that he had died. Accepting it as fact, they revolted against Macedonian rule. Bad move: within a fortnight Alexander and his army marched south and sacked the city. Alexander really did die in 323 B.C.E., under mysterious circumstances.
ABE VIGODA often looked dead on the 1970s sitcom Barney Miller, where he played the gloomy and rumpled Detective Sgt. Phil Fish. In 1982 People magazine accidentally referred to him as “the late Abe Vigoda,” and in the years that followed Vigoda’s presumed demise became such a pop culture joke that even the New York Times mentioned it in a story on his 80th birthday. Vigoda almost made the rumors come true in 1999: he was a passenger on an American Airlines flight that lost pressure at 31,000 feet. The plane made an emergency landing and everyone (including Vigoda) survived. The beloved old actor finally died in his sleep at his daughter’s home in New Jersey on January 26, 2016.
While living in Europe in 1897, American writer MARK TWAIN discovered that at least one U. S. newspaper had reported his death. Somehow information in a letter about one of Twain’s dying relatives got twisted around. The paper reported Twain dead, and eventually word reached the author across the Atlantic. Twain drily wrote to a friend, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” (He is also said to have told a reporter for the Evening Sun newspaper that “Reports of my death are grossly exaggerated.”) Twain died in 1910.
RICHARD DAWSON was a game show giant in the 1970s, first as a panelist on the goofy Match Game and then as host of TV’s Family Feud.
His career ground to a halt in the mid-1980s, and by the 1990s rumors were circulating that Dawson was dead. Possibly the rumor-mongers were thinking of Dawson’s successor as host of Family Feud, Ray Combs, who really did commit suicide in 1996.
Dawson himself lived until 2012, when he died of esophagael cancer at age 79.
Like Richard Dawson, SCOTT BAIO‘s career went from hot to not. A teen heartthrob in the 1970s for his role as Chachi in the popular TV series Happy Days, Baio hopped through four other TV series through the 1980s and into the ’90s, but as the years went by he was less frequently seen on the home screen. Maybe that’s why in 1997 a rumor spread that Baio had died. Baio reportedly resorted to leaving a cheery message on his answering machine announcing that he wasn’t dead.
Karen Ann Quinlan
After drinking and popping pills at a 1975 party, KAREN ANN QUINLAN collapsed and stopped breathing. She was placed on feeding tubes and an artificial respirator, but the brain damage was severe and she entered a permanent vegetative state. Doctors gave her no hope of recovery.Quinlan became the center of a public debate over whether her parents should have the right to remove the respirator and thus end her life. After a year of legal proceedings, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that her parents had that right, and the respirator was turned off. But Quinlan surprised everyone by continuing to breathe on her own, first for days and then for weeks and months. Sustained by the feeding tube, she lived until June of 1985, when she finally succumbed to pneumonia.
STEVE BURNS, the original human star of the children’s television program Blues Clues, was first reported dead in 1998. The rumor had no clear origin but spread quickly, thanks to the Internet. In 1999 Burns appeared on The Today Show and Rosie O’Donnell‘s talk show to quash the stories that he had died of a drug overdose. The rumor gained fresh legs in 2002, when Burns stepped down as host of Blues Clues to pursue other projects.
Britney Spears and JT
In June of 2001, Keith Kramer and Tony Twitch, two Texas disc jockeys on KGEL-FM, played a prank on the air and announced that BRITNEY SPEARS had been killed in a car wreck with her boyfriend, JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE. Listeners didn’t think the joke was so funny, and neither did the station managers, who fired the jocks.
Babe the Pig
Also in June 2001, The New York Post reported that Grunty, the English pig who co-starred with JAMES CROMWELL in the hit movie Babe (1995), was headed for the slaughterhouse, just like thousands of other farm animals in the wake of widespread foot-and-mouth disease. The story was wrong. In fact, there were several pigs used to play Babe, and they were from Australia, not England, and none of them answered to the delightful moniker “Grunty.” As it turns out, Grunty was a sometime U. K. television performer, and not even the same color as the pigs used in Babe.
Paul is Dead
The granddaddy of modern death rumors is the “Paul is Dead” phenomenon of the 1960s: the rumor that PAUL MCCARTNEY had died in a car accident, and that The Beatles had replaced him with a lookalike. Fans and energetic mystery buffs mined song lyrics and album covers (especially that of Abbey Road), looking for clues to the “proof” that Paul was dead. There was even a rumor that the rumor was really a hoax, created by The Beatles themselves. Everyone knew the lads were cheeky pranksters, after all, and it sure didn’t seem like Paul was really dead. If indeed the original story is true, you have to admit the “lookalike” has done a darn good job all these years.
Next Up: ACCIDENTAL KILLERS
Enough about the undead. Now let’s look at celebrities like First Lady Laura Bush and actor Matthew Broderick who actually killed someone else by mistake.